Look Back to Look Forward: Questions to Review Your Year
Right now the Internet is full of predictions, invitations to new year’s resolutions, and promises about what 2017 could be with the right [insert latest product/diet/happy thought here].
But we’d be remiss if we looked ahead without looking back. And I don’t just mean looking back at what we ate, where we traveled, or what we watched (though those aren’t bad things to recall). I mean looking back with intention on the state of our heart—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in 2016, as a means of looking ahead to lasting transformation in 2017.
This kind of remembering with intention is actually an ancient spiritual practice. Throughout Scripture, the Israelites were called to continually recall what God had done for them and where they had fallen short in loving and obeying him, in order that their worship of and commitment to him as Lord and King would be deepened. Their practice wasn’t a detached review; during festivals and observances ordained by God they recounted specific events in their history with celebration or repentance. The regular times of looking back were meant to transform them and keep them on track and faithful to God moving forward.
That invitation and exhortation to look back still applies to all God's people. Our remembering can take many forms, but I've found one develeoped by sixteenth-century theologian Ignatius of Loyola to be particularly helpful in reviewing the past with an eye toward transformation: the examen, or examination of conscience.
Through a series of a few questions, we can meaningfully look back on our day—or week, or month, or year—and ask God to highlight for us what he wants to highlight to continue forming us into his image. The questions can be framed in a variety of ways, but here are a few adaptations of the examen that you might use to review 2016:
What gave me the most joy this year?
What gave me the least joy?
When did I most sense God?
When did I least sense God?
What am I most thankful for?
What am I least thankful for?
What is important to God about my year?
As we look back, listening for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, conviction, and affirmation, we start to know ourselves and God better and can move into the future with deeper attentiveness to his work in our life and deeper openness to being transformed by him.
And in the act of remembering, we reflect a God who always, always remembers his promises and his people, and is even now at work in our individual lives and in the global sphere, bringing his kingdom reign to earth in greater and greater measure, as he promised. Then Mary's song of praise that we reflect on during Advent—a song she sang upon becoming pregnant with God’s promised Messiah—can become ours as well, in our present and future days:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant. . . .
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation. . . .
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”