Special Note: The following article is updated and reviewed each year as the Lord teaches our family new and important principles for beginning a new year. I hope it will be an encouragement to you as it is to our own family.
Life moves fast. If we don’t take the time to chronicle the providences of God, we forget them. If we don’t take the time to say thank you to those who have invested in our lives, we actually cultivate a spirit of ingratitude in our own hearts. If we don’t stop and make sure that we have a spirit of forgiveness toward others, we grow bitter, we lose the capacity to move victoriously into the future, and our prayers are hindered.
Here is a little practice that I was taught and would like to share with you. Each year, during the last week of December, I would encourage you to do the following things.
I. Outline and Chronicle the Many Providences of God
Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. (Hab. 33:2)
First, using simple bullet points, outline the key events for every week of every month of the year. Take the time to do the research which will help jog your memory and allow you to make an accurate record. I find that reviewing bills, blogs, journals, newspaper headlines, letters, and even organizing my photographs chronologically are enormously helpful tools. Those individuals who were faithful to journal or keep a diary will have little problem reconstructing key events. Give yourself a good week to reconstruct your own outline of the year. Also, by making this a family project, you will not only build your list with greater speed and precision, but (in the hands of a loving patriarch) the very act of chronicling the providences of God in your life is a blessed tool for family discipleship.
Every family will have a different set of priorities directing what they should record. In addition to recording the key events and providences of the year chronologically, I try to take the time with my family to record some of the following information on separate bullet lists:
- Where did I/we travel?
- What were the titles and key texts of sermons I preached?
- What books/articles did I write?
- What significant household projects did we accomplish in 2007?
- What were the most important meetings of the year?
- What special friendships were made this year?
- Which children lost teeth, and how many?
- Who grew in physical stature, and how much did they grow?
- Who learned to read this year?
- What diet and physical exercise regimen did I maintain to honor “my temple”?
- What books did I read? Did we read as a family? Did my children read?
- What Scriptures did my family memorize?
- What loved ones died this year?
- What were the great personal/ministry/national tragedies and losses of the year?
- What were the great personal/ministry/national blessings of the year?
- What were my most significant failures/sins for the year 2007?
- What unresolved conflicts/issues am I bringing into 2008?
- What significant spiritual and practical victories did I experience?
- In what tangible ways did I communicate gratitude to those who have blessed me and invested in my life?
- What are the top ten themes of 2007 for my family?
II. Say ‘Thank You’ to Those Who Have Invested in Your Life
[I] cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers. (Eph. 1:16)
Whatever happened to the man who first opened to you the words of life from the Scripture? Where is the comrade, coach, or instructor who believed in you and helped you to accomplish a great goal? What about the Bible teacher whose careful handling of the Word opened up new vistas of understanding? Where is the friend who stood with you through thick and thin? Most importantly, what have you communicated to the mother who carried you in her womb, loved and nurtured you, or the father who labored to provide for and shepherd you?
When was the last time you responded to their investment in your life with gratitude, blessings, and even money? Jesus reminds us of those ungrateful recipients of blessing who simply went their way without demonstrating gratitude (Luke 17).
Before the year ends, make a list of two types of people: The first list are the names of people whose life, ministry, or personal investment in you have deeply touched you and changed your life. (In my case, the list includes parents, pastors, and even some teachers from the early years of my Christian walk that I did not meet until much later in my life, but whose books and tapes were crucial to my personal discipleship as a young Christian.) The second list should include those people who played the most significant role in your life in 2007.
Write a brief, meaningful letter to each of them. Be specific in your gratitude. Explain what they did for you and why it was important to you. Show them how they were God’s instrument of blessing in your own life. Pray over each letter, asking God to grant you rich insights on the character qualities of each individual and on the way those qualities changed your own life. Where appropriate, include a check or special token of appreciation that reflects your desire to show them, tangibly, that you recognize that you are in their debt. You cannot imagine the joy this will give to someone from your past who may think you have forgotten them. Give generously and without concern for getting a tax deduction. I strongly recommend sending money to your parents. Keep in mind that you will never be able to return their personal and financial investment in your life, except through your testimony of faithfulness, covenant keeping, and honor to the Lord.
Also, your children need to know the people who have blessed their parents. They need to see that Mom and Dad are grateful and generous. Share your letters with them. In our household, we ask our children to write to some of the people who have blessed Mommy and Daddy, because our children are the indirect recipients of these blessings on their parents.
This will take a day or two to complete. You may have twenty letters to write, but you will never regret saying “thank you.”
One last thought: One reason why Christians are often limited in vision, energy, and blessings is that, contrary to the Lord’s command, we are ungrateful, unforgiving, and bitter. Far too many who profess the name of Christ spend more time obsessing on those who have wronged them than rejoicing in those who have blessed them. Letters and tangible expressions of gratitude are not only pleasing to Christ, but an antidote to heart-sickness.
III. Forgive Those Who Have Wronged You
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
In the course of a year, it is possible to build up many offenses and personal grievances at others. Left unaddressed, these grievances fester and grow. They turn the heart black and the body weak. They foster a spirit of vengeance and misguided self-righteousness. The short of it is this: Unforgiveness leads to bitterness. Bitterness curdles the mind and the spirit.
Fresh starts and new years should begin with forgiveness for others. Having a genuine spirit of forgiveness towards those who have wronged us is a mark of biblical Christianity. It is an evidence that we have been redeemed, and that we are praying lawfully: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Successful Christians are men and women who are free from bitterness. They have learned the principle modeled by our Lord Jesus Christ who, while suffering death at the hands of people he had never wronged, was able to say “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).
I have a dear preacher friend with a sterling reputation who was once grievously slandered. When asked about the wicked actions of the slanderers, he replied something to this effect:
Oh you don’t understand — I am far, far worse than my detractors realize. They may have gotten a lot of the specific facts wrong, but I am just thankful they don’t know how bad my heart truly is. God have mercy on me a sinner.
This man had victory over bitterness.
My father is another man who always appeared to have victory over bitterness. In fact, from my earliest days to the present, I have watched lesser men “twist the truths [he’s] spoken to make a trap for fools.” [i]
Early in my life when I was still in government schools, I would listen to my own teachers criticize before my class the work my father was doing for the President to dismantle a government agency which was at war with the family. I read untruthful articles and saw derogatory comics on the pages of the Washington Post picturing him as a caveman for his “prehistoric” views. When my father was a leader in the Republican Party in Massachusetts, a gangster repeatedly threatened the life of his family. I remember being a boy and having my father shield me from homosexual picketers and protesters that would follow him and our family around at public locations.
Most painful and difficult for many to forgive is betrayal and dishonor. But that is a mistake. Betrayal and dishonor probably exist in the lives of most men. And why should any Christian be denied in their lives what past generations of Christians — and our Lord and Savior Himself — patiently endured? To our shame, most of us have been on both sides of that coin. From a son’s perspective, however, it is highly instructive to watch a father act honorably in the midst of such conflict. It has been a great blessing in my own life to observe my father nobly respond even in the face of barbs from former allies and friends, once loved and nurtured by him.
Eternally optimistic, Dad would always say: “Never be bitter. Life is too short. Thank God for your blessings. Press on!”
Bitterness comes from being unwilling to forgive. Bitter people are small people. They are unsuccessful people. They are people who cannot move forward. They are people who believe that the personal wrongs against them are so great that they — the offended — are entitled to do to their offenders what they pray the Lord Jesus Christ will never do to them: refuse to forgive.
Here is my recommendation: Think through every grief, minor and major, caused by others to you in the year 2007. Now add to the list any other personal offenses that continue to linger from past years. Write these down as bullets on a sheet of paper.
The first thing you will likely realize is just how many offenses are polluting your thought life and, probably, your spirit. This is a sign of latent bitterness. Bitterness will kill you. It renders you completely ineffective.
Now prayerfully walk through the list — bullet, by bullet. With each offense, remind yourself that the most despicable action taken against you by another utterly (and infinitely) pales in comparison to the least of your offenses against the Lord Jesus Christ.
And yet He has forgiven you.
Before 2008 begins, adopt a spirit of forgiveness towards your insensitive friends as well as your hateful enemies. Forgive your imperfect father for whatever it is you need to forgive him for (and pray to the Lord that your own children someday forgive you for your failures). Quit devoting untold precious hours to commiseration, mental replay of the wrongs done, and thoughts about just how badly you were wronged. Stop blaming everybody but you for your problems. Look to yourself. Once you start chronicling your own sinful attitudes and crimes against God and man, you simply won’t have time to worry about the wrongs done to you. You will stop being bitter, and you will start being thankful.
Wipe the slate clean. “Press on.” Forgive.
As 2007 comes to a close, take time to remember and to say “thank you.” Take time to examine yourself for bitterness. Forgive others.
It is appropriate that we do so on the birth of a new year. Remember that God gave man the stars on Day Four in part so that he could order and structure his days based on a clock/calendar system of days, seasons, and years (Genesis 1). He tells us to “remember” acts and to “number” our days. In Scripture, the formal act of remembering providences of God in our life is linked to hope, honor, and generational success (e.g., Psalms 44, 78, etc.). By February 2008, the year 2007 will be a distant memory. Strike now while the iron is hot. The opportunity to remember and to say “thank you” may never come again. And can you afford even one more day in which your prayers are hindered — because you were holding on to offenses and refusing to forgive?
President, The Vision Forum, Inc.
[i] From Rudyard Kipling’s “If”