The pain of the past year, the hope of the New Year, and God’s boundless goodness.
The progression of the calendar can never deplete God’s boundless goodness to and for us.
If there is any year in which the ways of God seem more preposterous and puzzling than usual, 2020 would certainly take the cake. The labyrinthine torture of the last 360-odd days has felt like the midnight hour in the “dark night of the soul” on repeat. It some very real ways, it has felt as though we’re all living in a sadistic Groundhog Day time-loop, with all the grievous realities which make up our days seemingly turned up to eleven. Scandals. Cover-ups. Conspiracies. Pandemics. Oh, and murder hornets, too! Who would have thought that the last twelve months would be comprised of such pain and heartache and struggle and frustration? It’s easy to see why discouragement and disillusionment have reached a fever pitch.
I’ve been thinking, though, that for all the hardship of this past year, who’s to say that this next year will be any different? Perhaps you’re already aware of the false hope of the calendar. When the clock struck midnight, signaling the first seconds of 2021, did all your miseries vanish? Did your vexation dematerialize? I’d hasten to say that it didn’t. And I’m sorry if that makes me the Debbie Downer on the exuberance of your New Year’s party, but the hope of the New Year is severely misplaced if you believe that the progression of the calendar will suddenly quell your problems and alleviate your pain.
I can’t help but think about the apostle Peter’s words in his first epistle. Writing to a group of churches who were undergoing their own season of “grief in various trials” (1 Pt 1:6), Peter endeavors that they understand their turmoil in a very real sense — especially that they’d understand that this season might not go away anytime soon. “Don’t be surprised,” Peter says, “when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you.” (1 Pt 4:12; cf. Jas 1:2–4) Don’t be shocked or stunned or shaken when “various trials” emerge, the apostle says. It’s not as though suffering should be considered strange or uncommon. Rather, it is the apostle’s objective to show that “suffering” is the hallmark of Christian faith and service. It is the Christian’s privilege and joy to “share in the sufferings of Christ.” (1 Pt 4:13–16; cf. Acts 5:41)
The imagery evoked in 1 Peter 4 is actually a bookend to a larger discussion on Christian suffering begun in back in chapter one. (1 Pt 1:6–8; 4:12–13) In both instances, Peter suggests that the Christian experience of suffering is similar to that of a metallurgist proving the preciousness of a metal by placing it in the intensest of fires. It is through the ferocious heat of the flames that the alloy’s value is found. So it is with the Christian’s faith. The “fiery ordeal” with which these churches were afflicted was the furnace in which their faith was being tested and Christ’s glory revealed. (1 Pt 4:12–13) And so it is with you and I as well. Seasons of suffering are God’s means for examining our faith, proving its genuineness, its reality. “God casts us into the midst of the fire of opposition, suffering, and tribulation,” Martin Luther comments, “by which we are cleansed and proved until the end of our lives.”
This purification process is never not painful. Suffering is never an enjoyable experience. It is only in the hindsight of faith that we are able to make sense of life’s harrowing seasons. This is because, as Oxford don C. S. Lewis asserts, it is a work of the Spirit of God in which our entire selves are being remade. Lewis writes:
The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down . . . Hand over the whole natural self . . . I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own shall become yours.”
This process is much more gradual and painful than we tend to think — precisely because it’s not merely pruning, it’s replanting. It’s not just about making us better, it’s about remaking us to the uttermost. “Mere improvement,” Lewis continues, “is not redemption.”The good news of Jesus’s vicarious life, death, and resurrection isn’t the news by which we are “improved.” It is the incredible announcement that our old selves have been crucified with Christ so that, by faith, we might be raised with Christ to “walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4–6) “God became man to turn creatures into sons,” declares Lewis, “not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.”
This, I think, is the best way to keep the pain of the past year in perspective. Perhaps it was a divine moment of uprooting old weeds, things that ought to have been jettisoned long ago that have now been forcibly taken away. Perhaps it was a season in which the Spirit exposed all the things that had subsumed our belief in the goodness of God, through which his preeminent grace was crystallized as our true and only hope. Whatever the case, the best way we can approach the New Year isn’t out of a resolve we can muster in and of ourselves to live better. More than likely, we’re still the same sinner we were a year ago. And that’ll likely be true when 2022 is on the horizon, too. But even more true than that is the abounding grace and mercy of Christ which stays ever the same, regardless the passage of time. The progression of the calendar can never deplete God’s boundless goodness to and for us. Trust to hope, then, that the Spirit’s work will proceed undeterred, and throw yourself upon the mercy of Jesus. Happy New Year! Soli Deo Gloria.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude, edited by John N. Lenker (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1990), 46.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 196–97.