As 2010 approaches, take advantage of the "freshness" that accompanies the new year. Here's an idea:
Pick a word for the year...but be careful!
Seven years ago, I started the simple discipline of picking a one-word theme for the upcoming year. That is right—one word. Not a phrase, not a statement, just a single word. And to this point, it has been nothing short of life-changing.
If you are like me, you have done your fair share of goal-setting at the start of each New Year. As time goes by, you begin to feel guilty as you fall short in your ambitious plans. At one point, I was so frustrated with the whole process that I even tried boycotting the whole idea and avoided setting any goals at all. That didn't work either. It just made me feel guilty about being the slacker who didn't set any goals. In both cases, I always wound up feeling defeated.
Obviously, everyone wants to find the secret to succeeding in their resolutions. There are a tremendous number of new books and articles written each year about "better" and "easier" ways. I have even heard some great sermons regarding how to set goals for a prosperous New Year.
Despite all of the hype, I still love the fact that the New Year can be a great way to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. The phrase, "a new lease on life" certainly can apply. We are free to lose that 10 pounds, commit to daily devotions, pray more faithfully, spend more time with family, pay off the credit cards or even share Christ with our neighbors. The list can go on and on. But the reality is that those long lists of New Year's resolutions rarely became a reality.
For me, this one-word exercise, in its simplicity, has become a focal point throughout the year. It helps bring clarity into a very complex world. The discipline of picking a one-word theme has stretched me in all areas—spiritually, physically and emotionally. God has transformed me in many ways through this exercise, and I promise that through it God can bring truth and revelation into your life, as well.
In the movie City Slickers, there is a scene that reveals the value and magnitude of “one thing.” Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a vacationing businessman who, along with two friends, takes on the adventure of a cattle drive. In the middle of the drive, a rough-necked cowhand named Curly tells Mitch that the secret to life is just one thing. Curly emphasis the point by holding one finger up and says, “You need to stick to that one thing.” Mitch asks, “What is that one thing?” Curly responds back, “That is what you gotta figure out!”
Curly is not a Bible scholar, but he does recognize the power of the one thing. Even though the Bible does not have the phrase “one-word theme,” it is incredible how many verses include the phrase “one thing.” In Philippians 3:13-14, Paul writes, “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Paul uses the phrase “one thing” to bring focus and clarity to his calling. Altogether, the phrase “one thing” appears five times in the Bible—once in Philippians and four times in the Gospels. In Luke 10:42 Jesus says to Martha, “only one thing is needed.” Both Luke 18:22 and Mark 10:21 include His words to the rich man and expresses a lack of “one thing.” John 9:25 also includes the phrase as the blind man tells the Pharisees, “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” In the same way that Scripture uses these words, God desires for us to strip it all away and ask Him, “What is Your will for my one-word theme this year?”
I wish I could take credit for developing this simple discipline. However, I have to give credit where credit is due. Five years ago, my good friend Steve Fitzhugh and I were traveling to Ocean City, Maryland, to speak at a youth retreat. On this cold, December car drive, Steve asked me what my theme for the upcoming year would be. After taking several minutes to think about all that I wanted to accomplish, I responded with a long description of my hopes and ambitions for the New Year. He listened patiently as I shared an inspiring mini-sermon of all the changes that would take place in my personal, family and ministry life.
After my speech, Steve responded, “That’s great Dan, but take all that and boil it down into a one-word theme for the year.” After contemplating even longer than the first time, I responded with the theme “Live it Out.” This was better than the first time, but Steve challenged me again, saying, “Dan, that is still not one word.” As he pushed me, I grew aggravated with my own inability to sum it up into a single word. It was too hard to take all of my lofty goals, my massive game plan for the year and those dramatic life-changes and wrap them up so tightly. Finally I decided to flip the table by asking Steve what his one-word theme would be for the coming year. Without hesitation, he responded, “Harvest.” He explained how he wanted to see God work in such a dynamic way in and through him that there would be a great harvest produced from his personal life, his marriage, his family and his speaking ministry. As a former NFL player, Steve uses that platform to speak to and teach more than 100,000 youth every year. But he desired to see God do even greater things with his life! He wanted to see a “Harvest.” Wow! I was amazed that one word had so much power.
So, Steve asked me again what my word would be. I said that I needed to really pray through it and that I would get back to him. Several weeks later, after much prayer and thought, I called Steve and told him my word for the year would be “Intimacy.” I desired to have greater intimacy with God. And that was the start of an incredible year in which the Lord taught me and showed me how I needed to have deeper level of intimacy in every area of my life. I can’t even begin to explain the full extent of how the Lord weaved intimacy into my life that year. The thread of intimacy was revealed to me in my devotional life, through sermons, in Scripture, during prayer times and in conversations. Every time I turned around, intimacy was there! God used that one word to impact me for an entire 365 days. Every day, He was weaving it into my life. It was a powerful year of dynamic growth.
When the year began, I only had a desire to increase my intimacy with the Lord. But He had different plans. Slowly He began to show me that He wanted me to have greater intimacy with my wife, my family and me friends. In every role I had (father, husband, friend, leader, athlete), God wanted to transform me and take me to a deeper level. But the most significant way intimacy was revealed to me was through people and life situations. That was very difficult, as intimacy is typically something I’d rather learn from God, not God’s people! When He started using friends and enemies to teach me about intimacy, I was reluctant to embrace it. But that apprehension didn’t matter. God still got my attention and showed me all the gaps and areas in which I needed to change, both through lessons from others and through lessons revealed specifically through His Word and His Spirit.
Since that year, I have learned more about myself and, more importantly, more about Jesus as a result of picking a one-word theme for the year. Developing this theme has now become a staple in my life, a non-negotiable. After experimenting with it the first year and not sharing the concept with anyone (I wanted to make sure that I practiced it and experienced it before I shared it with others), I now have passed it on to thousands of people. I am continually amazed how someone will call, e-mail or write me at the end of a year to let me know how this simple process had transformed his or her life in the past 12 months. Each year, I challenge my Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) staff to go through the exercise. In fact, just today, a former staff member e-mailed me to let me know about his new word: “disciplines.” He said he was excited and was already reading a great Christian classic on spiritual disciplines to get him prepared for the New Year.
Let me stop here for a moment. There is a reason why I say, “Pick one word for the year…but be careful.” The “careful” part is serious. You know the phrase, “Be careful what you pray for”? Like when you pray for patience and all you get is trails, problems and situations in which you need to practice patience? Well, the same goes for this. I guarantee you that as soon as you pick the word, the battle will begin. Do not approach this exercise half-heartedly. You will get hammered, I promise. Satan will come after you full-force. I’m not trying to sensationalize it, but you have to be aware of this before you dive in. This exercise is not for people who want to pick a nice, comfortable word that will have no significant impact on their lives. It truly is a discipline for those who want to press in and see God do great things in and through them. It is for those who want to live life to its fullest. No retreat. No regrets. It will also be a process of teaching, correcting and molding, as God will certainly bring you to a point of brokenness in relation to your word. But when you are soft in the Creator’s hands, He can form you into His vessel!
In beginning the process, half of the fun is choosing the word for the year. But I have learned that it is not necessarily me who chooses the word, but rather God who reveals it to me. God can, indeed, drop an anointed, specific word into your soul. I’ll admit that in my first year when I chose to pursue intimacy, it was 99% me picking the word and 1% God speaking. Even so, God still used it! But as I become more experienced as the process, I have learned to really listen and watch for God’s leading in selecting the word. Now, I truly can say that it is not about me, but about God. I don’t pick, He shows me. And once He shows me the word, I just have to be obedient and respond with, “Yes, Lord.”
Many people try to approach the one-word theme as just another goal, but this is not a question of whether or not you will “win” at your one-word theme for the year. Your goal should be to live out the adventure God has for you and to learn from the lessons along the way. It is simply a matter of yoking with the Savior. You can’t look at it as a task item on your to do list. You must see it, rather, as a journey—a great journey of victories and defeats, all of which are brought to and laid at the feet of the Christ.
Another word of caution. Once you have used a word, you can’t repeat it the following year. I had a friend say to me that since he felt like he had failed during the year in learning everything there was to learn from his word, he was going to recycle the same word for the New Year. This shouldn’t be an option. In any year, there are 365 days for the Lord to work. Believe me, if it didn’t happen during that time, there is a good chance that either you missed how He was working or He is showing you that there needs to be greater maturity in your life before taking that word any deeper. I know that those are hard words, but they may be true!
It has been my experience that God quickly reveals His plans for the year regarding a one-word theme. That word (be it a discipline, fruit of the Spirit, character trait, attribute of God or even a person) will brand you for life! Be careful with your word. It will brand you for life! And once you’re finished, be sure to share your experience with others—your spouse, children, friends, staff and church members. You’ll be blessed as you watch them adopt and grow in their own one-word themes for the year.
Steps to developing a one-word theme:
1. Prepare your heart through prayer and fasting.
Spend much time in prayer and ask God to reveal the one word to you. Remember, it is not you who chooses the word, but God who reveals to you what He wants to teach you in the coming year. Spend extended time not only in prayer, but also fasting. Through fasting, God will increase and heighten your reliance upon Him for the word. He will speak specifically and clearly into your heart.
At a minimum, I recommend getting away for one full day and spending time before the Lord. That invested time will pay big dividends. God will speak when you consecrate yourself and intentionally put yourself into a posture to hear from Him.
2. Search the Scriptures.
While reading your Bible, ask the Lord to highlight or bring to your attention a verse or story. This provides great insight and will help you ground your word in the Word. Commit that verse or passage to memory.
3. Evaluate all of your roles.
Each of us plays many different roles in our lives (i.e. parent, spouse, leader, athlete, friend, volunteer, steward, etc.) As you pray and think through those roles, pay attention to what God shows you. This step will help you understand the lives you impact and those that impact you. What is it that God wants to take hold of in your life and use for His glory? What area of your life do you need to surrender? What character trait does God want to develop within you? Which fruit of the Spirit does He want you to live out? These are several primer questions that can get you going in the right direction.
4. Do not seek counsel from others.
While seeking advice from godly counsel regarding issues or problems is essential, I would highly recommend not asking for word ideas from friends, spouses or accountability partners. Everyone will give you an opinion, but you aren’t seeking their opinions. You’re not even seeking your own opinion. You’re seeking God’s opinion.
5. Ask God for the word.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Boldly ask God for the word. Just as Samuel said, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” you need to humble yourself and ask God to drop the word into your heart, mind and soul. Be open and willing. The word can be a fruit of the Spirit (kindness, faithfulness), attribute of God (holiness, mercy), discipline (prayer, memorization), person (spouse, child), biblical principle (harvest, stewardship), spiritual focus (devotion, intimacy), character trait (commitment, perseverance), values (integrity, teamwork) or characteristic of Christ (serving, humility). This is not meant to be list from which to choose, but rather a starting point to get you thinking and to help you as you begin to listen for the Lord’s prompting.
6. Share your word with a trusted person.
Once you have your word, it is important to share it with your husband or wife, best friend, accountability partner or pastor. Do not announce your word to everyone you know. One year, I didn’t share my word with anyone except for my wife and three accountability partners. Prayerfully consider with whom you need to share your word. Ask them to pray for you and to hold you accountable so that God can do His work in you.
7. Live out your word.
As you begin to live out your word on a daily basis, be sensitive to the Lord’s leading. Be open to learning more as He reveals Scripture, quotes and books for you to use. Keep a journal and write down the insights and lessons throughout the year. Evaluate your commitment on a regular basis, and make sure that you pray about what God wants you to learn.