For most of us, 2020 won’t go down as our favorite year.
But as we wrap up this year and plan and prep for the new one, how do we evaluate such a year? Do we get a handicap? Is it a win if our mental health only tanked a little, instead of complete and utter breakdown—think we’re a donkey, crawl around outside naked with nails like claws? (looking at you, King Nebuchadnezzar)
I’m sure for all of us there were bright spots. I know there were for me. The year wasn’t allllll a dumpster fire. But looking back over it as we bring the year to a close, how do we prayerfully evaluate? How do we judge ourselves and our year and obedience? How does the Lord judge us?
I know that’s a scary question for me. I spent a few months of tight lockdown, unable to leave my house except once every two weeks to hike to town and back for groceries. And even as lockdown lifted some, there were still plenty of socio-political tensions that kept us prudently inside, or at least cautious. I had some hard spots, some isolation. My mental health wasn’t the best (but yayyyy for counseling). Most of my work goals went un-met, and some were completely un-attempted. Being locked inside helped a lot of nasty sin to surface, and I made lots of mistakes. I watched friends from many different places go through really difficult times while I could do little to comfort and nothing to help them out of. It didn’t make for a great year for Caroline.
I also want to be gentle and recognize that I was very privileged. For some, this year was much harder or difficult in different ways. Many experienced grief and loss. Some were locked inside with abusive relationships. Many struggled under the crushing weight of cultural grief and injustice with what felt like no outlet and sometimes no hope. Some lost their jobs and struggled financially in ways they never have before.
And some had a great year! Some had stable jobs and were able to work from home. Some got to spend extra intentional time with their family in ways they never would have been able to during a normal year.
The point is, this year was wack. Whatever plans we thought we had were blown out of the water at least by the time April rolled around. And whether the outcome of the change was good or bad, there was no way we could have predicted it. So I ask again, how on EARTH do we evaluate such an unexpected year? How do we learn from it and do better, or do what we can to prepare ourselves for the next year?
I took some time away this week to rest and recharge, and evaluate my walk with the Lord in a lot of different areas (I highly recommend all of these things, if you can manage them).
As I thought about a year no one could have predicted, events we couldn’t plan for, and how on earth to measure my productivity and growth this year, I kept coming back to two parables: the parable of the talents (in Matthew 25 and Luke 19), and the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12).
These are simple stories. In the first, a master leaves thousands of dollars in gold (talents) with some of his servants—staggered amounts to each one “according to his ability.” He comes back suddenly and some have multiplied what he left them with, and now return to him more than they were given. But one man did nothing with his master’s entrusted money and returns only what he was left with. In the second story, a farmer has an unusually rich year of produce. Instead of thanking the Lord, he tears down his barns and builds bigger ones to hoard his plenty and provide for himself a protected, cushy life. In the end the Lord says he will take the man’s life soon, and notes that all his self-assured self-sufficiency amounts ultimately to nothing.
As I prayed and read through the parable of the talents, I was struck by how the Lord gives opportunities (talents) according to our abilities. Some years he gives little, and it’s not a slight; it’s wisdom and fatherly care. What do we do with that little? We invest it, work it, tend it, and return as much as the Spirit grows and our abilities allow. If God gave me only “one ‘talent’ coin” this year instead of a normal 5 and I expect I should still be giving him 5 more in return… I’m just flat wrong. My irrational expectation and standard stresses me out, and it means that deep in my heart I expect God to be a harsh and unfeeling, cruel judge like the man who hid his money in the ground expected of his master.
For me, this applies most directly to my work with the soap-making project. What do I consider failure and success? Are those reasonable expectations, or am I expecting something impossible of myself and in turn assuming God expects the same because he is “…a hard man, harvesting where [he] has not sown and gathering where [he] has not scattered seed”?
I’ll be honest. Far too often I’m so afraid of failure like this sniveling little man, so I’m afraid to even try: “I don’t know what I’m doing. So I’ll just drag out the research or planning or test runs so that when I finally do start I can do it perfectly.” Ouch. Maybe that’s what the man thought he was going to do with his gold. Maybe he was just waiting on a golden opportunity to invest, so he didn’t try anything and the master surprised him by coming back before he was ‘ready.’ Don’t wanna be that guy.
All that parable really asks of us is to be faithful with a little. Don’t compare your obedience (or giftings or opportunities) with someone else’s. God knows your abilities and crafts your opportunities for obedience and service specially for you. Being faithful this year may not look like last year. And it certainly won’t look like your brother or sister’s year either.
As I landed on the second parable, I said ‘ouch’ a few more times. In this story, a farmer has rich land, and it produces great crops one year. Jesus makes VERY clear in the context that this parable is about money. But I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to consider the themes of greed and generosity in other realms of our life too.
So, the farmer decides to tear down his barns since they won’t hold his produce. He builds bigger ones and kicks back so he can relax and enjoy how well he supported himself this year. But the Lord sharply rebukes him, “Do you think you can plan and hoard and sustain yourself? You’ve got another think coming! This very night your life will be demanded of you, and where will your fancy new barns get you then??” (Caroline paraphrase) And the parable ends with a rare ‘moral of the story’: “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
That one got me good. This hasn’t particularly been a year of financial flourishing in Caroline’s bank account. But do you know what the Lord has been generous to me in? Opportunities to obey him. To serve him. To be a light in the lives of people around me. Have I been rich toward the people around me? Or have I hoarded the blessings the Lord gave this year because I was afraid I couldn’t keep myself afloat mentally, spiritually, or emotionally? Immediately after this parable follows Jesus’ famous sermon about not worrying about what we’ll eat or drink, because the same God who cares enough to feed the birds and clothe the flowers in the fields cares even more about us and our well being. His blessings aren’t just for us. They’re undeserved gifts out of which we can be generous to others.
So how do these parables translate into year-end evaluation? How do they help when the normal ‘year in review’ checklist burned up in the dumpster fire on a train wreck of a sinking ship being attacked by pirates whilst being sucked in by a whirlpool that was the year 2020? For me this year hasn’t been an easy one. But my evaluations and measurements shouldn’t expect more output than simple obedience in whatever mundane or spectacular opportunities the Lord put before me.
A simple question I can ask to measure that is, “have I been rich toward God?” Was I too afraid of failure this year to try to be obedient in the opportunities the Lord gave? Did I hold back because of fear or a misunderstanding of God’s loving and reasonable expectations? Maybe some of the time, yes. But in the end, I did listen to the Spirit (and to those blessedly stubborn souls around me in the Body who gave me accountability) and did what I could to the best of my ability. I did take opportunities to grow closer to the Lord. I repented of sin and freshly committed my way to the Lord. I surrendered a few more desires and plans to the Lord than I had already. I learned to know my God better than I did the year before.
Every single time I read the Apostle Paul’s statements about having a clear conscience (there’s a startlingly high number of them), I am flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. Bumfuzzled. How on earth can ANY admittedly sinful person have a clear conscience when they look back over their lives? But maybe this is what he meant. Maybe he measures his success or failure in the Lord by these standards: a generous heart towards the Lord and stewardship of the opportunities He provides to the best of Paul’s abilities. It sounds so simple when you put it like that.
One last encouraging note before I stop typing and leave you to evaluate your year in peace. The Old Testament practice of building an altar or monument to God has lately been a really meaningful image to me. These monument builders wanted to honor God after he showed his power on their behalf, or in an effort to dedicate themselves to God after he made an extravagant covenant promise to them—always because they wanted to remember the goodness of God at a certain point in their lives and praise him for it.
One of the most famous stories of these monuments is told in Joshua 4 and 5. The Israelites have survived their wandering in the desert after the Exodus. They’ve crossed the Jordan river miraculously. They’re finally in the land God promised them for generations. Joshua sets up a monument to remind them and future generations of the Lord’s power. They camp there, circumcise all the adult men, and celebrate the Passover. The manna finally stopped, and they ate the produce of the new land. They marked the beginning of a new era with hope.
After all they had been through, all the suffering and doubt, and all the miraculous experiences of God’s provision and care, they want to remember. They want to remember God’s goodness in the hard times and his power in the frightening ones. The men go through the excruciatingly painful experience of circumcision, irrevocably marking their bodies to show that they commit themselves to the Lord—that they and their people belong to God.
2020 was at times a painful, frightening, overwhelming, exhausting ordeal. But we have come out on the other side marked for God. We now know he has shown his power and his love for us in unique and personal ways we want never to forget. I hope that as we look back to evaluate our year, even taking the excruciating pain, we can say together that 2020 was a monument year for us. We are marked for the Lord at the core of our being. And taking the good with the bad, we know now more than ever before that the Lord is with us, and he will draw near to us if we draw near to him.