It’s the new year, and you may have noticed that people have been suspiciously kind over social media the past day or two. I’ll admit, it is pretty nice that for a couple of days we can forego the fake news items, the hatred over which theological stand is better than the other, and the usual aggression over politics and government. All we got the past two or three days were long essays of how people were glad to make it to 2021 alive, bidding “Good riddance!” to 2020, and the hopes and assurances that we’re in for a better year.
It would be too insensitive of me to say that I am not hoping for better days to come. With the suffering, pain, difficulties, tears, and even death that we’ve all seen the past year, we are all hoping that this would end — I included.
But all the positively optimistic “After what we went through in 2020, 2021 is definitely going to be better — it has to better” statements I saw on my newsfeed has gotten me thinking about how Filipino Christians are processing the year that has passed, and if we really have gotten a better understanding of who God is. After being plunged into a pandemic year and a season of quarantine with barely any warning, has our knowledge of God’s sovereignty and character grown? Or has it stagnated?
We see all these statements about 2021 having to be a better year — and of course, we continually hope and pray that it is. But what if it isn’t? What if the quarantine extends to another year? What if we only see a marginal improvement in our way of living?
What if it doesn’t get better?
Evidence of a subtle idolatry
Just recently, I took part in iDISCIPLE Philippines’ annual year-end conference. I gave a message on suffering and persecution, and one of the ideas I talked about was how the apostle Paul — at the beginning of Romans 5 — was pointing to an alternative response for Christians when they suffer. I can’t go through everything I discussed there, but the gist of it is this — that Christian suffering isn’t pointless in the hands of a sovereign God.
What are we seeing now, though, in the way people — and even Christians — are thinking about the new year?
While there is clearly nothing wrong in hoping and praying for things to be better in 2021, I think there is a subtle skewing away from biblical perspectives if we think that our joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction as Christians are dependent on 2021 being a better year — COVID-free — and being back to normal.
If our joy as Christians depended on God giving us the good things, even on the oh-so-wonderful thought of the world finally being rid of the coronavirus, then isn’t this a very subtle idolatry that we need to give up?
We pray and hope that God, in his sovereignty, will stay his hand and have mercy on all of us. We pray and hope that God causes the pandemic to stop, just because of the widespread suffering that it is causing. We pray and hope for relief from the pain, frustration, and difficulties of having to stop meeting, working, and interacting face-to-face for fear of catching the virus.
But if in these things — these hopes and longings of a better year — we find our ultimate joy and satisfaction, then we have replaced with them what only God is supposed to be in our lives. And the only way we can check ourselves is if we ask the question “What if it doesn’t get better?”
Well, what if? Life will continue to be difficult, probably. Quarantine might still be in place. We will continue to find it difficult to make a living and earn money. But will your ultimate joy and satisfaction still be found in God, even if it doesn’t get better in 2021?
An Unbreakable Joy
Having been through a pandemic year, I believe God has set up a great opportunity for Christians to understand what God’s sovereignty is like. God being sovereign over everything means that God is in control and we are not. Now there are two possible reactions here for Christians, and our reactions to God’s sovereignty make it immediately clear which part of that definition we are focused on. How do you think the attitude and decisions of a Christian who is focused on “we are not in control” will differ from another who is focused on “God is in control”?
God has shown us in 2020 that his sovereignty will bring us through times when even Christians won’t understand the “Why?” and the “How?” of situations. But the Bible does not back down on saying that we should still trust God even when we don’t understand. Yes, we can lament the situations we are in. We can bring them to God in prayer and supplication. But again, the Bible will not back down on this — that it is God who is in control, and that his children should ultimately find comfort in his proven goodness and faithfulness, even when they don’t see it in the now. This translates to us modern Christians, that our ultimate joy should always be found in God, rather than in situations.
See in John 16:33 (ESV), Jesus says: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
He encourages his disciples, already facing the fact that their leader was about to be crucified, that they should find peace in him and his words. Tribulations should be expected (Woah, what now?), but how were they to respond to these tribulations? He exhorts them to “Take heart!”, with the reason being that Jesus was God, he was sovereign, he was and is in control, and his authority and power is above and beyond the world — even in those times where the disciples could not understand Jesus’s impending death, the confusion and pain it would cause, and the seeming loss of all hope.
This verse should continue to ring true with us — that God’s exhortation for believers is to take heart and find peace in him and his word, even if 2021 doesn’t get better. Our joy, satisfaction, and peace do not hinge on if this year is better than 2020, it totally hinges on God and who he is. And who he is, is faithful, sovereign, and good.
This is why the great writer C.S. Lewis wrote in his book The Four Loves:
“Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.”
If our joy hinges on 2021 being better, and it turns out that it is not (or that it could be worse), then we will spend the whole of 2021 in misery. If our joy is found in the fact that Christ is ours and we are his, then we can find joy and peace even if things turn south in 2021.
Let me end with the seminal poetry of Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman in their song Hello Hurricane:
Everything I have I count as loss
Everything I have is stripped away
Before I started building
I counted up these costs
There’s nothing left for you to take away
You’re not enough
You can’t silence my love
I’ve got doors and windows boarded up
All your dead end fury is not enough
You can’t silence my love
If we’ve given up as loss everything that the world says is of value and we’ve counted the cost of what we’re ok to lose, if all our joy and satisfaction is in Christ — and nobody can kill Christ or take him away or hide him so that we can’t experience him — what is there to fear if 2021 is not better than 2020?
*This article first appeared in the author’s blog on January 1, 2021 and has been republished here with the author’s permission.