How You Can Begin 2021 with Courage and Understanding
This year-end article was written in mid-September. Due to the magazine’s production schedule, I simply don’t have the luxury of knowing if we’ve made strides toward loving each other well, who won the election, the state of the economy, or whether there is a coronavirus vaccine. As I type these words, my mother is suffering from COVID-19. She’s older, in poor health, and already fighting cancer, so I have no clue whether she will survive or go to be with the Lord. Remember the old saying, “hindsight is 20-20”? If you’re reading this article, you possess hindsight while I’m still plagued with uncertainty.
Fear can be a side effect of uncertainty. We fear what we don’t understand and that which makes us feel powerless. Whether a circumstance, person, group, idea, or animal, we fear whoever or whatever makes us feel “less than.” Contrary to popular opinion, fear isn’t always bad. If you’re hiking and see a rattlesnake, you shouldn’t pick it up and cuddle it! It’s not wise to hug a stranger—especially if he’s wearing a hockey mask and carrying a chainsaw! Fear can warn us, prompt us to investigate further, and protect us.
However, fear becomes toxic when it determines our relationships, dictates how we treat others, or directs our life. Unhealthy fear fosters the worst in us. In March 2020, the Christian Post quoted Tony Evans as saying, “Our anxiety, worry, and fear is outpacing the problem of the virus.” I would go a step further to add that our fear is outpacing the problems of 2020! Let’s face it, 2020 has provided many opportunities for fear: COVID-19 (with its attendant deaths, quarantines, mental health stressors, and loneliness), racism, economic disaster, hate, the worst of U.S. politics, ambiguity about church gatherings, violence, and so on.
Here’s a challenge as 2020 winds down: Don’t end 2020 and begin 2021 with fear. God can help you manage your fears before 2020 concludes. Here’s what I mean.
2020 Was Not Uncharted Territory
COVID-19, quarantines, and such were new ordeals for us 21st-century folk, but foundationally, 2020 was not uncharted territory. As novelist James Baldwin wrote in 1963, “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” His words added to those of King Solomon: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). History reminds us that many suffered pandemics, lived through quarantines, braved economic meltdowns, and detested political attitudes. And if they moved forward with God’s help, so can we.
Another reason 2020 wasn’t uncharted territory: God walked through 2020 before we were born. We humans live within the arena of time, but God inhabits eternity (Isaiah 57:15). As the great I Am, God is timeless. He was, is, and is to come (Psalm 93:2; Isaiah 44:6; Revelation 1:8; 22:13), so God has no problem existing and acting both inside and outside of time’s boundaries (2 Timothy 1:9). Nothing in 2020 surprised God, and not a single event in 2021 will frustrate him. God helped people in the past, and he can do the same for us today.
Understanding Kills Unhealthy Fear
Maya Angelou believed that history needn’t repeat itself. The poet wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Courage is the key word, because toxic fear is a tremendous enemy. If there are parts of your life you haven’t surrendered to God, fear can make you a prisoner of your past. Fear can leverage your previous decisions, actions, and scars to intimidate you from taking necessary steps toward growth.
In his book Teaching to Change Lives, Howard Hendricks wrote, “Experience does not necessarily make you better; in fact it tends to make you worse, unless it’s evaluated experience.” If unhealthy fear resides in the unrelinquished areas of our lives, then we need courage to “look in the mirror.” Confronting our 2020 experiences is more than challenging—it wounds us all over again. As C.S. Lewis lamented in The Problem of Pain, “It is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’” Perceiving our mistakes and weighing our troubles is gut-wrenching.
Yet, being courageous enough to process what happened yesterday can make tomorrow better. Though our hearts may shatter all over again, God will help us acknowledge and process our emotional wounds, missteps, and attitudes. Surrendering to God invites him to strengthen and teach us. After all, he was fully present for every mistake, loss, and tear.
How do we process 2020? Pray about what’s happened and how you responded. Invite others to speak into your life about who you were in 2020. Listen to them! Consider speaking with a Christian therapist. Answer questions such as these:
- What were my five best decisions this year? Why did I make those decisions?
- What were my five worst decisions this year? How did I arrive at those decisions?
- How did I treat people with whom I disagreed?
- When did I feel joyful during 2020? What made me joyful?
- What caused me the most pain this year?
- What were my low points? What transpired to put me in those low places?
- How did I grow closer with my family and friends?
- How did I not make good use of time with my loved ones?
- What five things did I complain about most frequently this year? Did complaining make my life better or worse?
- To whom do I need to apologize?
- Do I need to relinquish any shame or misappropriated guilt?
- Where is God currently working in my life?
Two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Earlier I said that we fear what we don’t understand or whatever makes us feel powerless. Take a moment and contemplate what you know today versus what worried you earlier in 2020.
By this time, you certainly have a better understanding of COVID-19. Perhaps you also now appreciate the need for more work and dialogue around race and identity. Maybe you’ve noticed society’s ideological false dichotomies and can better discern how to engage them. You may have gained a high regard for law enforcement officers with stellar integrity. More than anything, I hope we all now recognize how desperately people need Jesus. That’s one of my biggest lessons from 2020, and it will be a huge focus for me in 2021. I hope it is for you as well.