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The greatest New Year’s challenge: Letting go

Colorful, large heart-shaped leaves are a poignant invitation to "leave things behind," particularly as we attempt to conform our lives to Christ's invitation to be made new. (OSV News photo/Silvia Rita, Pixabay)

Undoubtedly, some will be glad to see the end of 2023 and others will mentally designate it for the “Best Year Ever” file. Most of us will find ourselves reviewing what has transpired over the past 12 months with an eye to the future. We’ll contemplate things left undone in the previous year and recommit ourselves to them. And we’ll recall those “well-enough” things we ought to have left alone but didn’t. Whether quietly or out loud, we’ll express our hopes for what the next year will bring. And many of us will try to take the bull by the horns by making resolutions about self-improvement and self-care and plans about what to take with us as we move forward.

What most of us won’t do is consider what we ought to leave behind.

If I’ve learned anything about following Christ, it’s that I must let him lead. Jesus won’t drag me along if I’m not willing to move, but he won’t let me pull him in the direction of my every whim either.

The world as God created it is full of marvelously shiny and genuinely good things and my natural inclination is to chase after them but — when I focus myself on getting and keeping what I want — I’m unlikely to receive what God wants for me.

Being attached to anything other than God himself will prevent me from living in the fullness and freedom of his grace.

Learning to leave things behind might be even more important than figuring out what we should take with us into the new year. For Christians, self-help programs, radical self-sufficiency, and independence are at odds with the call to community, surrender and trust. Of course, there are things in our hearts and lives that need to change, but bootstrapping and white-knuckling our way through the year until we (inevitably) hit the wall won’t help us to be made new. Relying on God’s grace, on the other hand, will.

Letting go is an art and a discipline that every follower of Christ is called to practice. But we often manage to avoid it by convincing ourselves that we aren’t perfectly certain of what to detach from.

What should we leave behind? First of all, our sins. Too many of us justify, rationalize and excuse behaviors we know we shouldn’t be indulging. Beyond that, we must let go of our affection for the “little peccadillos” that often masquerades as nostalgia for “good ole days” that were anything but good for us or for anyone else.

And then we should let go of everyone else’s sins: the ones we facilitated or encouraged, certainly, but especially the ones that hurt us. It’s hard to forgive, but it’s even harder to live the Christian life when we do not. Any who have struggled with unforgiveness know that it is both a poison and a prison, not for those we hold in contempt, but for ourselves.

It is also a barrier to grace. Once we abandon everything connected to sin, the work of sanctification can begin in earnest. But if holiness is our goal, it’s important for us to recognize that we cannot conform ourselves to the image of Christ. Only God can do that. Only God can make us godly. Only the Holy Spirit can make us grow in holiness.

So why isn’t the church full of saints? Because it’s hard to let go of what we’re attached to. And yet, attachments — even to spiritual goods and practices — can easily become idols. The only desire or bond that cannot devolve into idolatry is our attachment to God himself. When it comes to everything else and anything less, all bets are off.

Every one of us would do well to begin the new year by letting go and leaving behind not only all that is not of God, but all that simply is not God himself. If we do, 2024 will be a banner year for spiritual growth and for living more faithfully than ever before.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans.

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