Growing in Grace in a New Year

by Susannah Baker

The holidays are over, and the Christmas decorations are down.  The gifts are put away, closets are cleaned out, and all the debris from Christmas glitter, wrapping paper, and pine needles has been swept up and either stored for next year or placed into the dust bin, and a sense of quiet normalcy pervades the air at our house for the first time in weeks.

It’s the weary hush after the holidays, the pause of January as a new leaf is turned in the book of a new year, and we have a few quiet moments to think about what will be written on the pages of 2017.

Much of what will be written, you and I have little to no control over.  As much as I like to plan, strategize, dream, and pray, when it comes right down to it, my hand does not hold the pen writing the story for the new year.  But I know whose hand does.  And while I cannot control what He writes, I can control my response to His story.

I’ve been moved, challenged, and convicted by the words of Isaiah 5:1-4 the past few days.  Isaiah writes,

“Please let me sing about my Beloved,
my Loved One’s song about His vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
And He dug it all around,
removed its stones,
and planted it with the choicest vine.
And He built a tower in the middle of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
then He confidently expected it to produce good grapes,
but it produced only worthless ones.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge between Me and My vineyard:
What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?
Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes, did it produce worthless ones?”

I’ve been haunted by that question the Lord asks of His people through the prophet Isaiah: “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?  Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes, did it produce worthless ones?”

In his commentary on Isaiah, Alec Motyer writes, “All [God’s] caring work issued in hope: he looked for a crop.  But instead of grapes all it yielded was bad fruit.  Every care had been lavished, but yet the vine retained its natural wildness – as if grace had never touched it.

Turning 40 ushered me into a timely season of reflection.  Through the lens of God’s grace, I’ve been looking at some of the patterns of my present that have their roots in the past, patterns that sometimes extend back 40 years.  Patterns like seeing circles as closed rather than open and responding to people and situations in hurt and anger instead of patient trust and grace.  Patterns like walking in the well-worn ruts of my life of self-pity, perfectionism, and deep-seeded fear because it’s easy and it’s natural and sometimes it’s all I know instead of choosing to walk in new paths that beckon through the Spirit of Christ and His Word, paths of abiding peace and unconditional love.  And I’m telling you, with all that is in me, I don’t want to walk in these unholy habits anymore.  Turning 40 has shown me that life is short and swift, and while pain can be real and circumstances hard, God is always good, and His grace is always real.  But it’s up to me to choose the path I want to walk.  I can keep walking in the ruts; I can keep listening to the same old voices of pain and fear that say I don’t measure up or can’t keep up.  Or I can walk in grace.

Last week, Jason and I went with my parents, brothers, and their wives to see Rogue One, the new Star Wars movie.  (Growing up with two brothers, my hero quickly became Harrison Ford after watching Star Wars and Indiana Jones.  What can I say?  Decades later, we are still a Star Wars kind of family.)  In the very beginning of the movie, the heroine is rescued from enemy forces but is resisting those who have shown up to save her.  Instead of responding with thanks and cooperation, she responds with all out resistance and fear.  Finally, after she has knocked out every soldier sent to save her, the one left standing says, “Congratulations.  You are being rescued.  Please do not resist.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PToMWV0EN3U

I started cracking up since resistance is my natural response to grace when it invades my life as well.  And apparently, it was the response of the people of Isaiah’s day too.

Grace comes down from heaven, chooses us as His own special possession, clears out all the stones and obstacles from sin through the death of His One and Only Son sent to die on our behalf, plants the person of Christ through the Spirit of Christ in the middle of our hearts and souls to give us all the resources we need to live the abundant, grace-filled life, sets a tower in the middle of our lives to watch over us, protect us, defend us from our enemies and meet our every need, and then hews out a vat from the rock of our hearts in which to store the harvest and good works our lives will produce, and then stands back to wait and watch expectantly for a good crop to come.

But.  All this vineyard owner gets for His labor is a worthless crop.  Bad grapes.  Useless fruit.  “Every care had been lavished, but yet the vine retained its natural wildness – as if grace had never touched it.”

I can honestly look at so many ruts and places in my life that even after over 30 years of being in God’s vineyard and receiving His loving, attentive care, still look wild, overgrown, unfruitful, and as if grace has never touched me.

I know perfection is not something I can ever attain while still standing on this sin-cursed earth.  But I also know that if I love the One who made me and trust His care, the untamed spots in my life should start looking like they have been touched and tamed by grace.

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As I pause to look ahead at the pages at 2017, I know cannot control the events that happen, but I know that I can control the habitat of my heart.  I want to work on wacking at the weeds of its natural, sin-cursed wilderness and receive the planting of grace.

For me, I know that grace begins with a purposeful, consistent habit of an open Bible, a journal, and a pen.  Grace begins with God-reliance instead of self-reliance.  Grace begins with meditation on God’s Word and specific commands and promises, taking time and effort to really think and process through what they mean and how they apply to my daily life.  Grace is reading a command, and keeping it.  Grace is knowing a promise, and resting in it.  Grace is seeing an example, and following it (Motyer, Isaiah by the Day).  Grace is trusting God to transform us into the people we have always wanted to be, into the people that are available for us to be, as we stop resisting rescue and give in to His grace.

So this is the year I want to work on becoming the woman I’ve always wanted to be.  Not through accomplishments, but through appropriating grace.

For me personally, I know some of the holy habits I need to cultivate in my life for the weeds to be cleared and the good fruit to come.  I know that when I humbly and consistently walk in these habits, change occurs.  Sometimes change comes an inch at a time, but it is still change.  And that is the road I want to walk.

Some of my habits include:

  • Consistent time in God’s Word in the mornings
  • Consistent time of prayer, appropriating what I have read in the Word and sowing it into my life and the lives of those I love
  • Consistent times of reconnecting with God in His Word and prayer before I go to sleep at night
  • Consistently turning from walking in the rut of rejection, self-pity, or fear through the habit of thankfulness.  I am learning when I am tempted to see the circle or situation as closed, to turn it into a times of thanksgiving – to be thankful for my friends, thankful for my children, thankful that in that specific situation I know God will bring good because that’s what He always does (Romans 8:28).  I have a specific journal I placed on my desk, designated for these “thankful” moments instead of self-pitying moments.
  • Accountability through meeting with a counselor to walk out of some of the ruts of my life
  • Accountability through taking time and room to have others pray over me and for me on a regular basis as I learn to walk out of these ruts onto new paths of grace

These are the habits the Lord has placed on my heart.  What about your’s?

Can I suggest something?  Take a day.  Take a day with your Bible, a pen, a journal, and some walking shoes to do some weed-wacking with the Lord.  Weeds don’t come out of our hearts on their own, and ruts don’t just naturally fill in.  In fact, left unattended, they only grow deeper with time.  So take some time.  And ask the Lord what unholy habits He wants to fill in with His grace.  Don’t slit your wrists with introspective self-pity or despair, but allow the Lord in His kindness to lead you to repentance, showing you exactly where He wants to work.

And trust me.  He will.  He will show you.  He always does.

In the time you have allotted to be with Him, if it is a few hours or a whole day, start by reading slowly over Isaiah 5:1-4, and then:

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  • Go through the action verbs one by one in verse 2, thanking God specifically for the amazing work of grace He has done in your life from the time of your conversion until now.
  • Then ask Him: what areas of my life have retained their natural wildness and resisted rescue instead of being changed and tamed by grace?
  • To answer the above question, ask Him to bring consistent habits to mind, ruts in the road of your life you most consistently walk in, especially when hard things happen.  Or even when the daily grind of the mundane happens.  How do you most naturally respond?  In what paths do you most consistently walk?  In resistant wildness or in grace?
  • And then ask Him what holy habits He wants you to cultivate in your heart this new year.  Ask Him for three habits.  Just three.  Not ten.  And then write them down on a piece of paper.  Writing things down solidifies them in our hearts, and we are far more likely to do those things then if we just think about them.
  • And then, go on a walk or a run.  Do some big body movements.  I’ve learned in my occupational therapy with Mia Grace this year that when we walk or run or swing or jump or MOVE, those movements help to calm and organize our bodies and our thoughts follow.  So move, and meditate and pray, and watch how God puts the pieces of your time with Him together in surprising and beautiful ways.
  • And then, when you get home, place your piece of paper with your habits in a place where you will see it often and be reminded of what you have written down.  My habits are on my desk so that I will see them every morning.  And the goal isn’t so much that I focus on the weeds in my life or the ruts.  The goal is that I focus on the Lord and cultivating intimacy and trust with Him in the every day places of my life.  And as I do that, as I learn to abide in the One who came to walk with me, my life will begin to bear the fruit of grace.  And yours will too.

Let us know what habits you find most helpful.  Let us know how God is helping you walk out of the ruts in your life.  And let us walk together in this new year, with holy habits of hearts, cultivating grace, reminding one another to resist only the enemy and open up to the One who came to give us grace.

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Connect with me on Facebook this week for more help on cultivating grace and holy habits of the heart.