Change Your Life with Just One Word

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So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom. — Psalm 90:12 NASB

I don’t have enough time to live my own life!

I reached this conclusion after trying to follow all the advice given on a morning news show one week in January. It seemed like a smart way to start my day. I figured I’d tune in, get the forecast, learn the headlines, and maybe hear a celebrity interview. I wasn’t expecting all the show segments telling me how to live my life better.

Most of these segments offered the promise of deliverance: “Financial Freedom Is Closer than You Think” or “Four Secrets to Better Communication.” Others, I decided, were designed to scare the socks off of me: “Six Health Risks Every Person Faces” or “Thieves You Cannot See — Avoiding Identity Theft.” Motivated by this combination of hope and fear, I compiled a to-do list of ways to improve my life and its management according to the experts. The more I listened, learned, and listed, the more behind schedule I felt.

The topics on my list ranged from health maintenance to home maintenance to car maintenance. I was informed I need to eat certain foods every day: four veggies, three fruits, two proteins (preferably chicken or fish), and I think a partridge in a pear tree. I also need to get enough fiber, calcium, Vitamin D, B, C, and Beta-something-or-other.

I need thirty minutes of cardio a day (but apparently with the right exercise product this can be done in ten), fifteen minutes of strength training, and ten minutes of stretching. Plus, some extended time for meditation so that my body and mind could align. I’m told a germ-resistant mat is needed for that. I need to bust my stress, nurture my creativity, and improve my posture.

I need to pay attention to my finances. Save and invest. Spend frugally — yet somehow also buy the cool gadgets they review on the show. Apparently extreme couponing is the way to afford it all, but it takes a lot of time to save 80 percent on your grocery bill. I need to check my credit report regularly. Shred important documents. Back up my computer. Meet with my financial planner. And read the information that comes with our kid’s (underfunded) college fund.

The list continues….

Suddenly I realized: I don’t have time to live my life!

Looking at the list of things I was supposed to do to live my life right, or well, or whatever all this was going to do for me, I felt defeated. The list that was going to improve my life left me overwhelmed. I’m sure you can relate; you’ve made lists too. Lists of things you want to start doing or stop doing — things you want to change about yourself. Lists of ways to improve your life and your character.

Maybe you’ve only listed them in your head. But I bet they come to mind each January. Nearly two-thirds of America’s population has made New Year’s resolutions. I am one of them. And you’ve probably found, like I’ve found, that each day keeps blurring into the next while we try to make some progress with our many good intentions. Yet very little actually changes. That ball keeps dropping in Times Square each New Year’s. And we keep dropping the ball on our resolutions to improve. Only 20 percent of resolution makers report achieving any significant.

When I open my Bible, I find more lists. Things a follower of Christ should do. Things a follower of Christ should resist doing. Traits a follower of Christ should display — all the truly important stuff that never makes it onto morning show segments.

When was I going to get to any of this? I decided to drop my list of ways to get the most out of my life. I realized I needed to find a new way to approach personal change.

Losing the List, Picking a Word – My One Word

My first journal entry in 2004 was a single word: FLOW. Not merely written on the page, but etched in bubble letters about three-quarters of an inch tall. The letters are heavily outlined, surrounded by a thin border, and colored in gray. It took me about ten minutes to draw and color the word FLOW. But it took three weeks to narrow all that was bubbling up in me down to that single word.

I’d been writing in a journal for years, but here was something I had never done before. Instead of blasting paragraphs on a page to capture my thoughts and insights, recording my steps and setbacks, I decided to meditate on just one word.

I wrote this word FLOW in response to something Jesus said. He said:

Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’. – John 7:38

That struck a nerve.

There were times when I felt the living water flowing with ease from my heart. But there were other times, more times, when it felt forced.

The idea of FLOW drew me forward. It didn’t have the trappings of regret or the pressure of sweeping promises to change like my resolutions did. It awakened something in me. Not a compulsive desire to change born out of being sick of the way I was, but a desire to live an authentic life that flowed from my relationship with Christ.

Could my life really flow from my heart? The question sent me on a search anchored by the four letters of this one word.

If what Jesus said was true — pause for the obvious answer to arise — then I’d need a way to pay attention to my heart on a daily basis.

I decided looking at and concentrating on this word FLOW would remind me to do that. In the months to come, I paid attention to FLOW and used it to gauge my heart and my life. I discovered I could tell the condition of my heart based on what was coming out of it into my life.

And slowly, over time with this word FLOW, I learned to reverse that process. Instead of looking at my life and actions to realize the state of my heart, I proactively addressed the condition of my heart. That changed my life.

In looking through the lens of a single chosen word, I found a new approach to personal change and spiritual formation — one that is doable, memorable, effective, and sticky. The results have been greater than I expected.

A Movement Rises

In January of 2007, I challenged my church, Port City Community Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, to ditch their New Year’s resolutions and each pick a word to focus on that year. I titled the series and the project “My One Word.” People quickly embraced it. Within a few years, My One Word embedded itself into the DNA of our church. It’s how we now approach personal change and spiritual growth.

In January 2009, the nation’s most notable Christian radio station called my office. K-LOVE had heard about My One Word and invited me to come on the air to tell their listeners about the project.

I shared My One Word with half a million listeners that month. And I returned to the K-LOVE airways to talk about My One Word in 2010 and throughout 2011. A movement caught fire.

The movement didn’t become a movement because K-LOVE called me, but because God has called each of us. This is not a movement of me or my church, but a movement of God. And of His people wanting to be transformed into His image.

Focus Is Required

Our lives are fast-paced and demanding. Our attention is divided. The normal, natural pace of our lives will not likely lead us toward spiritual formation. We have so many things to focus on that spiritual formation tends to fall to the wayside, along with our good intentions to rotate our mattress or wax our cars.

Most of us feel overwhelmed at the idea of embarking on a grand plan for spiritual formation like reading through the Bible in a year or memorizing a verse every week. We’d like to, but it just hasn’t happened. Enter My One Word. It’s easy, doable, and surprisingly powerful, mainly because it supplies narrowed focus.

This study (and my book) will give you a simple but effective plan to effect personal change (spiritual formation) by allowing a single word to become the lens through which you examine your heart and life for an entire year.

Your single word will force clarity and concentrate your efforts. And as you focus on your word over an extended period of time, you position yourself for God to form your character at a deep, sustainable level.

We’re so busy with the surface-level things of life that we forget to number our days and tend to our hearts. We become so preoccupied with getting our lives to a manageable point or a better future that we miss both the moment right now and the reality of a coming eternity. Yet God calls us to use our days to develop a heart of wisdom. And that’s what this My One Word project is ultimately about.

In my book I’ll outline how to pick a word for the year and how to focus on it. I’ll discuss what you can do to drive it deep into your character and what you can do to apply it in your life. The goal is a transformed heart.

At the close of each chapter you’ll find directions and questions for personal reflection. Grab a journal and spend some time with the questions to help you get the most out of your year with your one word.

I invite you to join us this year on the My One Word journey. Change is possible. But focus is required. It’s time to get singleminded and single-worded about your resolution to change

Reflect

  • What are some things you would like to change about yourself?
  • What distracts you from focusing on the change or the spiritual formation you desire?
  • Think about your past attempts to change. Have you made resolutions or sweeping promises to change? How well did it work?
  • Often our desire to change is fueled by regret — does regret generally propel you forward or hold you back?

This My One Word project is designed to channel your attention and effort with laser-like focus over an extended period of time. This is key to lasting change, and it will forge your character at a deep, sustainable level. All you have to do is pick a word. But there’s more to that process than you might imagine. So grab a sheet of paper, your journal, or write on the pages here, and I’ll walk you through the process.

Watch the Video: Session 1 My One Word Small Group Bible Study

Pick Your One Word

What Kind of Person Do You Want to Become?

When considering changes we want to make, the tendency is to think in terms of specific behaviors. Typically, we give voice to our negative behaviors. I want to stop running late every day. I need to stop overeating. I want to stop looking at pornography online. I’m tired of being disorganized. I hate that I always say things I regret.

Then, to formulate a resolution, we usually phrase it as a positive behavior. I’m going to manage my time better. I’m going to eat healthier and lose weight. I’ll resist turning my computer on when I’m home alone. I’m going to organize my entire house room by room. I’m going to learn to bite my tongue.

This is regret-based decision making. Regret can be a powerful motivator. Extremely powerful at times, depending on the severity of the consequences we’ve faced. But it’s not always the best source of vision.

Vision, Not Regret

We want to move forward with vision, not regret. Without vision, the Bible says in Proverbs 29:18, we tend to throw off restraint. We become unfocused and undisciplined. Regret doesn’t stimulate forward-moving motion like vision does. And regret doesn’t sustain the formation of new character the way that vision can. So we’re going to craft a vision of the type of person we want to become this year.

Putting aside what you’ve done in the past, you’re going to try something different. Instead of focusing on regrets and specific behaviors, I want you to spend some time with the question, Who do I really want to be? Or rather, How do I really want to be?

Approach this patiently. An important part of the change process is allowing questions to remain questions for some period of time — so that truth can arise.

Spend a week or so reflecting on who you wish to become. We tend to define ourselves by what we do. I teach school. I’m a dentist. I own my own restaurant. I’m in college. I’m a surfer. I’m a soccer coach. I’m a single mom. We tend to define who we want to be the same way. I want to be the area’s top realtor. I want to be married. I want to be a marathoner. This tendency is precisely why we need to dive deeper.

Resist the pull to provide a surface-level answer to the penetrating question: Who do you want to become?

Consider the condition of your heart, your character, your soul. This requires a fierce commitment to being gut-honest with yourself. What you need is character formation, not to just stop doing this or start doing that.

Character formation and behavior modification isn’t quite the same thing. Don’t focus on the latter at the expense of the former. Our goal is not to live restrained but to effect true change.

Identify Characteristics

Do you want to get along better with your peers, your family, your boss, or your employees? What kind of person would get along with them? What characteristics would that person display? Do you want to be more disciplined about how you live your life physically, spiritually, or financially? What kind of person would live a disciplined life? Describe that person. What drives them? I think you get the idea. Don’t just think about behaviors; think character and characteristics. In a notebook or on a piece of paper, make a list of the characteristics of the person you want to become. In other words, describe the traits and motives of a person like that. Don’t be intimidated into thinking, I’ll never be that way. Just try to determine the kind of character required for you to live like you wish to live.

Reduce and Define

As you slowly gain a vision of the kind of person you want to become, you’ll keep adding words and phrases to your list that capture the characteristics of that person. You might list nouns, adjectives, adverbs, or verbs — “being” words or “doing” words. Interestingly, we’ve found females tend to gravitate toward “being” words while males tend to pick “doing” words.

There is no wrong way to do this. Your list will be highly personal and unique. It may even contain words that only make sense to you. My list usually includes words I like and words I don’t feel excited about. I try not to self-edit the list as I come up with it. Deleting words off the list later is easy, plus it doesn’t cost a dime to write them down. So fill a page if you need to. Once you feel you’ve completed the listing process, pray, look over your list, and begin marking off all but ten or so of the words.

Remove the ones that resonate the least with you. Don’t worry about whether you “really need to work on that.” If it doesn’t resonate strongly with you right now, cross it out. Get your list down to ten words or less.

Once you have your short list, write a brief description of what those words mean to you. Look them up in the dictionary. Note their definitions. Look at their synonyms. And look them up in the Bible.

In this stage of the process you may find a related word you like better than the ones on your list — that’s fine, write it down. You may also decide there’s a word or two on there, after researching them, that you definitely don’t want to choose. That’s fine too — mark them off.

Pray

Ask God to guide you and give you clarity of thought and mind as you spend a few days thinking over your short list. Weigh each word and the implication it might have on your life. See if one of them manages to rise to the top. Ask God to bring one to the forefront.

Pick Your Word

Now go ahead and pick your word from the list. Don’t panic. This exercise is not about changing everything that needs to be changed but focusing and purposing to do something about one thing. Seminary professor Howard Hendricks has said, “The secret to concentration is elimination.” In order to concentrate on one thing, we’re going to push others to the back burner for now. This is what we must to do to focus. Change is possible, but focus is required.

You might worry about picking the exact “right” word. Or picking the word “God intends” for you. Don’t stress. If you went through the process outlined above, all of the words on your list are right for you. Your word, whatever it is, will have farther-reaching effects than you can imagine now. While I didn’t want you to choose the first word that came to mind at the start of this process, I also don’t want you paralyzed by the idea you’ll somehow pick the wrong word. At this point you’ve thought, reflected, journaled, researched, and prayed. Now take a step of faith — pick one word. And choose a verse to go with it.

My one word is: ____________

My verse is: _______________

It is better to do something about one thing than nothing about everything. That is what this elimination process is about — that’s what this whole project is about. I am going to help you do something about this one thing this year. And I fully believe you’ll be amazed at what you discover by engaging with your one word in the months ahead.

Below you’ll see the top ten most-often-picked words in the My One Word movement according to our website (myoneword.org), where nearly five thousand people have posted their words. And in the chapters of my book (which I hope you will pick up) you’ll learn how and why I chose some of my own one words.

The Top Ten Most-Often-Picked Words:

  1. Trust
  2. Patience
  3. Love
  4. Discipline
  5. Focus
  6. Faith
  7. Surrender
  8. Peace
  9. Listen
  10. Joy

Reflect

  • What kind of person do you want to become this year?
  • What drives your desire to be this kind of person?
  • Describe the characteristics of this kind of person. Make a list of words based on this description.
  • Reduce your list to ten words or less and research those words. Use the dictionary and your Bible, perhaps a thesaurus.
  • Choose one word from your list to be your one word for this year.
  • Also choose a Bible verse that speaks to you about your chosen word and memorize it. This will provide a foundation of truth you can continually return to and will fuel your hope to change.
  • What initial expectations do you have regarding the impact of your word?

* * *

Your Turn

What will your one word be for 2018? Remember the aim is for you to use your one word to get into a focused posture and remain there while you depend on Christ. Change is possible. Focus is required. And should you fall off your one-word wagon at some point, you climb back on. Not with renewed willpower so much as renewed commitment to depend on him. Come join the conversation on our blog! If you’ve decided what your one word is, we would love to hear about it!

 

Mike Ashcraft

Mike Ashcraft is cofounder and senior pastor of Port City Community Church - a large nondenominational church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He’s been married to his high-school sweetheart, Julie, for 20 years.

Rachel Olsen

Rachel Olsen is the author of It’s No Secret: Revealing Divine Truths Every Woman Should Know, and a national speaker working with Proverbs 31 Ministries. Rachel and her husband, Rick, are both on faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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