rebelling against low expectations

Looking Back to Move Forward—Learning and Growing from 2020


New Year’s Eve 2019.

I remember it like it was yesterday. We didn’t have any plans, so my family and I stayed home to ring in the New Year. We binge watched a TV show while I ate too much chocolate and an embarrassing number of cream puffs until a shiny, brand new 2020 rolled onto the calendar.

Another year over. Another just begun.

A few days before, I’d written in my journal, “What will this next year hold? Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so afraid of a new year. 2019, while it’s been hard in ways, has spelled safety. All the things I fear in this year, I lay at Your feet. Jesus, let me grow closer to You in 2020.”

Looking back on that journal entry now, I can’t help but shake my head and think, You had no idea.

None of us did. No one anticipated the chaos and crazy that 2020 unfurled.

A pandemic. Months of lockdown. Riots. Civil unrest. A tumultuous election. Personal struggles. Heartache, fear, and anxiety.

Now we’re at the end of those 365 days. No matter how the events of 2020 personally affected you, we’ve all been changed by them in some way or another. But how? And has it been for good?

Before we dive into the New Year, let’s pause and look back. I know we’re all eager to shed 2020 and put it behind us. But before we do, let’s be careful to not miss out on the lessons, truths, and growth God worked through the trials of the past year.

Looking Back

I recently asked my friends on social media, “How has your relationship with God changed in 2020?” The answers poured in, raw and transparent. I heard from those who struggled through the year:

It’s been bittersweet, up and down.

It’s exposed what I actually had my faith resting in instead of Christ. Myself.

Gonna be honest, I’ve struggled this year. More than usual.

I heard from those who saw growth in the middle of the struggle:

God has been teaching me to be faithful . . . I haven’t succeeded, but I’m learning.

My relationship with Him has been stretched, in some very painful ways, but as result, it’s been strengthened.

I’ve failed a lot this year . . . yet somehow I learned that God could still use me.

In each response, I saw God’s grace. I saw broken people clinging to Christ through difficult circumstances and finding that His grace is sufficient. I saw my own struggles reflected in theirs.

This year has brought both difficulties and blessings I never imagined. I’ve walked through deep heartache and grief and experienced overwhelming joy. I’ve felt intense loneliness and found God’s presence in those moments. I’ve lost relationships close to me and been gifted unexpected blessings. I’ve been taught to trust in ways I never thought possible and discovered that God is as faithful as He claims to be. I’ve struggled, but I’ve grown.

Months ago, I prayed a bold prayer. “Jesus, don’t let me miss out on one single lesson you have for me in this struggle.”

Now, looking back on a year filled with ups and downs, my heart echoes that prayer.

Jesus, don’t let me miss out on one single lesson you had for me in this year.

What is Our Faith Made Of?

We all want life to be easy. Of course we do. We’re human. Trials and struggles aren’t fun.

But I’m learning more and more that while in and of themselves trials aren’t good, God can still use them for good. One of the ways He does that is by refining our walk with Him.

Struggles dig down deep. They strip away the fake Christian façade and reveal what our faith is really made of. So often, it can be easy to live out a superficial Christianity. Do this and don’t do that. Know the lingo. Volunteer at church. Rock the witness wear. You’re all set.

But like I say in my book Love Riot, “[This] illusion isn’t true. It doesn’t have depth, and it can’t last. Real Christianity is raw and gritty, full of deep struggles and sincere passion. A list of things we do, and a longer list of things we don’t, will never—can never—replace an authentic relationship with Christ. It only scratches the surface when what God really wants is our hearts—and what our hearts really need is God.”

If 2020 did anything, it stripped away the illusions.

Superficial Christianity isn’t enough to sustain you during fear and trials. After all, if your walk with God is the measure of your Christianese lingo, time at youth group, and Scripture verse T-shirt, what remains when you’re stuck at home, separated from community, and only your family is there to see your wrinkled, hasn’t-been-washed-all-week shirt? What remains when you’re faced with heartache you never expected or tragedies you never asked for? What will sustain you when the world erupts in chaos and the foundation of your old normal crumbles?

These are questions we all faced this year. In different ways and some more than others, but we all came face to face with the reality of our own lack of control.

Trials have a way of taking our measure. It’s in those moments we realize what our faith is made of. Will we believe God’s promises even when we don’t see them? Will we trust in God’s goodness even when everything is not good? Will our faith last and weather those storms or will the flimsy façade we called faith be stripped away?

The truth is that none of us are able to conjure up enough faith to carry us through the hardships of life. Unshakeable faith in God isn’t faith that never struggles or doubts or asks “why?” but faith that always runs back to the source. Real Christianity and a real relationship with God isn’t one that is always put together and always feels strong, but one that never, no matter what, gives up or stops seeking.

Sometimes we need the struggle. When the going gets tough and the rubber hits the road, will we give up or will we run back to God with the imperfect fragments of our faith and ask for His strength in return? Will we humbly repent of our pride and superficial Christianity and ask for grace to love Him more? Will we acknowledge our weakness and inability to control and cast it all at His feet?

Throughout my struggles and fears this year, I’ve found myself in that position of absolute weakness time and time again. It chafes against my desire to have it all together and be a picture-perfect Christian, but as hard as it is, I’ve realized that it’s good. Because it’s there, in that place of weakness, sobbing on the floor, crying out to God, that He has answered the prayer I prayed at the beginning of the year: “Let me grow closer to You in 2020.”

Look Back to Move Forward

So what about you?

How have you grown closer to God in 2020?

Maybe you look back and all your weary heart sees is a struggle. No moments of victory or times of breakthrough. If so, let me encourage you: that’s okay. Growth doesn’t happen overnight—or even over the course of a year. Just don’t give up. Keep struggling. Keep seeking God in all your moments of weakness, fear, and doubt.

Or maybe you look back and you can clearly pinpoint areas of growth. Maybe you’ve grown more consistent in Scripture reading or developed new habits in prayer or Bible study. Or maybe, like me, you’re learning to trust and rely on God’s promises. 

I encourage you to use the trials, lessons, and struggles of 2020 as stepping stones in your growth. Elisabeth Elliot wrote that “It’s not the experiences of our lives that change us. It is our response to those experiences.” This is especially true of suffering and pain. How we respond to the trials of 2020 will change us. Don’t forget the things you’ve learned or push aside the struggle. Sometimes our stepping stones toward a closer walk with God are moments of victory or breakthrough, but other times they’re small habits and daily moments of faithfulness that add up as time goes by.

Take time before moving into 2021 to look back and recount God’s faithfulness through the past year. Write down your struggles and the moments of hurt and share how God was faithful through them. Make note of the places of weakness that were revealed or the areas of growth that came out of the year. Take time to look back and grieve the losses you experienced this year. We don’t take enough time to mourn in our society, to sit with our raw and tangled emotions and cry over the hurts our hearts feel. Grieve 2020 if you need to grieve and know that it’s okay to be authentic about your feelings. Confess your fears for the next year and recommit to seeking God through any trials the year will bring.

And before the year is over and a brand new 2021 rolls onto the calendar, turn your hearts with me toward our Savior and whisper these words: Jesus, let me grow closer to you this year.

Come back tomorrow for 5 practical ways to grow closer to Jesus in 2021!

Editor’s Note: Hey, Rebelutionary! Want to grow closer to God in 2021? We’re kicking off the New Year with this three part series from our lead editor Sara Barratt about looking back, growing stronger, and casting vision for 2021. This series is inspired by content from Sara’s new book Love Riot: A Teenage Call to Live With Relentless Abandon for Christ. Brett Harris named Love Riot as his pick for Christian Teen Book of the Year for 2020. Pick up a copy of Love Riot to start off the New Year with a focus on drawing closer to Jesus. Find out more and purchase your copy here.

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By Sara Starkey
rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →