A new year is at our doors, waking up a mixture of hopes and fears. For many, it’s a chance to turn a new leaf and explore a new territory that, from this side of the fence, looks promising and green. For others – especially those who have been suffering or have received unsettling news – it may look like an ominous void.
One thing I learned in the course of my long life is that hopes and fears are in constant need of bridling and resizing, to bring them in accord with reality and with the ultimate goal of our lives – a goal that the Shorter Westminster Catechism, a 17th-century summary of the Christian faith, defines as “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Resizing Our Resolutions
School children of my generation used dip-pens and ink. Spills had to be blotted, and mistakes removed with strong erasers that gnawed through the paper. I remember my frequent trips to the teacher’s desk to ask for a new sheet. There was both remorse and shame, but also a strong determination to do it right.
New Year’s resolutions remind me of those feelings. Most people are ready to admit they have not lived up to their expectations. But they are ready to try again, holding on to the hope that a clean slate will allow them to succeed. If they have a history of broken resolutions, they may lower the bar – or Google “broken resolutions” to find a large assortment of tips on how to claim at least a partial victory.
For Christians, there is – as in many other areas – a need for discernment. When it comes to practical resolutions such as losing weight, getting more exercise, or reading more books, the advice we find on Google might be helpful. But when it comes to keeping God’s law, we enter into a completely different dimension, where no number of “simple steps” can earn God’s favor or achieve victory over sin.
Practical advice might help us to establish a better schedule of Bible reading or prayer. Still, no steps can give us a genuine hunger for God’s word and for communion with him, not the correct motivation for reading or praying. Ultimately, “it is God who works in [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13), and everything we do in this life must be done for his glory, out of gratitude for what he has done for us in Christ, and not for our own self-improvement.
Our progress in our Christian life is also an area where we can’t lower the bar, which has been set by God. Lowering the bar was something Martin Luther’s confessors advised him to do when he agonized over every small sin he committed. But he just couldn’t do it, because he understood that God’s law demanded perfection – which no mortal man can achieve in this life. He finally found peace not in lowering God’s expectations but in understanding that Christ had met them for believing sinners.
Far from laying down “simple steps,” the Apostle Paul taught that sanctification (the slow process of conforming our lives to Christ’s) follows an uneven path that can often be disappointing, prompting his candid confession, “I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
This has been the confession of Augustine, Luther, and many others in the Christian tradition: in this life, we will always be both sinful in ourselves and justified in Christ. We may, at times, take two steps forward and three backward. But we will eventually make it to the finish line, not because of our own efforts, but because of Christ in us, “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
Resizing Our Fears
The Shorter Catechism is revolutionary in his statement that the chief end of man is not only to glorify God but to “enjoy him forever.” And it’s this enjoyment of God that can resize our fears.
I have said several times that the death of my son cured me of much of my anxiety. This seems paradoxical and counterintuitive. When he was alive, his illness filled me with great anxiety about the future, to the point that I was always expecting the worse as a way to prevent disappointments. And yet, everything about my son’s death was unexpected – the way it happened, the force with which it crushed me, and the seemingly illogical assurance of God’s love that lodged itself unpredictably and persistently in my soul.
I attribute this assurance entirely to God’s grace. If there is a logical explanation, it might be that God’s supernatural support of my quivering soul through such a shocking and jarring experience convinced me that he really is there to catch me when I fall.
Looking to what God has done in the past in order to find courage for the future is a common theme throughout Scriptures. As an old song said, “We have come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy Word, he never failed me yet.”
The Jews looked back to the exodus as a reminder that God had been and was still their deliverer. And we can look back to the greater event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and say, with Paul, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
In a beautiful, little-known hymn, “Sometimes a Light Arises,” the 18th-century poet William Cowper relates a similar experience. Cowper suffered from a mental illness that sometimes took frightening forms. Yet, he was grateful for the times of peace and joy the Lord granted him, no matter how brief and uncertain.
These peaceful times gave him a chance to reflect on “the theme of God’s salvation” – a theme so comforting that he could say, “Let the unknown morrow bring with it what it may.”
That’s a bold statement, that seems hard to make. But it springs from a seasoned knowledge of God as our Father in Christ, a joyous knowledge – which might be what the Westminster theologians had in mind when they added the enjoyment of God to their summary of the goal of our lives.
It is a knowledge that allows us to say, with Cowper, that “the unknown morrow,” as frightful as it may seem, can ultimately “bring with it nothing, but [God] will bear us through.”