2017 was horrible. 2018 will be amazing. Right?
That's the message that has flooded social media over the past few days. I remember social media being flooded with the same message around this time last year. Except in those days it was 2016 we were glad to see the back of, and it was 2017 that carried all our hopes. It was the same the year before too. 2015 was awful and it was 2016 that would see our dreams come true. We repeat the same pattern every year.
It's natural that as we look to the future we should do so with hope. We need hope. Without it, we wither up and die. It's the fuel our souls run on. And it's natural that as the years change we should like to draw a line underneath any messiness from the past twelve months and look for something new and fresh in the period to come. If you move in Christian circles, you will be used to seeing this sentiment backed up with familiar verses. "Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." (Isaiah 43:19). And of course Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."
God may have specifically told you that this is going to be a year when everything in your life turns out well - if he has then I don't want to detract from that - but if he hasn't, then the truth is that 2018 will probably just be as flawed and imperfect as every year that's gone before. There will be highs and lows. We'll sometimes laugh and sometimes cry. We'll enjoy the good times and we'll endure the bad. We'll try things and sometimes we'll succeed; other times we'll fail. Because this is what life is. And I think as Christians we need to acknowledge that.
We need to acknowledge the imperfections of life so that we adopt the right attitude in suffering. The truth is God will sometimes allow bad weather to come to us in 2018 so that we might learn things that we could never learn in good weather. Paul, for example, tells us that suffering produces endurance and character and faith, and that through it we are transformed into the image of Christ. Peter wrote to suffering Christians saying, "Dear friends, don't be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you." (1 Peter 4:12) Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that when God lets us suffer, he's treating us as his children. "As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children." (Hebrews 12:7) Paul reminds us that God uses suffering for our eventual good: "And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them." (Romans 8:28) Perhaps then, we shouldn't as much pray for better circumstances in 2018 as we should pray something much bolder and scarier - for God to make us better people - in the knowledge that may mean a year of lows as well as highs. After all, flowers need both rain and sunshine to grow.
We need to acknowledge the imperfections of life so that we might learn what real joy is. Paul wrote about the ups and downs in his own life and concluded, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:11-13) In 2018, the likelihood is that sometimes we will be "brought low" and sometimes we will "abound" too. Learning to be content in every circumstance is learning to have joy in God and God alone, so that the turmoil of life no longer worries or stresses us. It's a joy that comes only by faith.
We need to acknowledge the imperfections of life so that we don't become disillusioned with God. God hasn't promised us a perfect life but if we mistakenly believe that's what Christianity is all about, when things don't pan out that way, we're likely to become embittered. CS Lewis wrote, "If you think of this world as a place simply intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place for training and correction and it's not so bad." That's what life really is - a training camp for eternity. Therefore, when bad things happen, our first thought shouldn't be, "how do I get out of this?" as much as it should be, "God, what are you trying to teach me in this?" By asking the second question, we come to a place of humility and character development.
We need to acknowledge the imperfections of life so that we aren't deceived into bad theology. Prosperity preachers exclaim that God always wants us to have perfect health and lots of money and the closer you are to him, the more you will have of everything. That kind of theology can only lead to pride (in the ups) or despair (in the downs). We need to understand that if we have trials this year, it's not because God doesn't like you or is punishing you. He's just fathering you, and will work it all out for your good in the end.
Finally, we need to acknowledge the imperfections of life so that we aren't discouraged when we find imperfections in ourselves. It's good to set out with the best of intentions at the start of a new year, hoping that this is the one when we become brand new people, without flaws, fully transformed into the image of Christ, but the truth is that even in the process of sanctification, we're probably still going to stumble and fall many times in 2018. Lest that lead to self-condemnation, know that it's ok. You won't be truly perfect until the day Jesus returns, God knows that, and you're not beyond his forgiveness because you fall down. The only thing you need to do is repent, get up, and keep going.
As Jon Foreman once said, nothing will truly be perfect until the day that Jesus returns and "until the world caves in". Rather than hoping vainly that 2018 will be, and then going through the same routine next year, and the year after, we can instead use this year, and all following years, to be fathered by God; to grow; to learn joy and contentment in every circumstance; to train for eternity; to be released from worry and stress; to develop humility and sound theology; and we can learn what true hope really looks like in the midst of messiness. That's what I wish for us all in 2018.