As I sat down to make resolutions for 2016, I remembered this sobering quote by John Goldingay from the book, I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship. He reminds me that I’m seeking a “better country,” beyond 2016 and this life.
Here it is and it’s not for the squeamish:
Americans like to believe in legacies; I expect to be forgotten, in fulfillment of Ecclesiastes’ warning. I know that individual students gain from classes I teach and from books that I write… but in general my work makes no significant contribution to the life of the church or to the purposes of God in the world. As far as I can see the church in the United States will continue to decline. Our situation is a little like Judah’s in the late seventh century. The nearest I can get to an explanation of why I continue as a professor is that I have to do as Jeremiah did in that situation. I don’t imply that I think of myself as a kind of Jeremiah or that I am important in the way that Jeremiah was, but I appreciate the inspiration to faithfulness that he provides. I appreciate his example as someone who continued to teach and write, even though he suspected in the short term that it was pointless. John Goldingay
I think it’s a good practice to approach the coming year with optimism, remembering that all I need I have in Jesus because of what He has done in the Gospel. Christians should “aim high” and remember:
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:9–10 ESV)
Yet, those incredible and unimaginable blessings God has for us are found in Jesus and experienced throughout a life that is often not so wonderful and only realized fully in the age to come. So, we need a bit of John Goldingay’s realism to ground us in the place we find ourselves now, today, within the Story of God.
2015 was a very good year for my family and me. Personally? This was the year I was blessed to taste, in some measure, the fruit from years of blood, sweat, and tears. What an unexpected grace-gift from a Father, Who has the option to show or hide the ways we’ve touched the lives of others and they have touched ours. It’s up to Him to decide how to best glorify Himself and if that means we never really know if our life matters or not, well…
In the film, It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey is given that gift at the final moment of despair as he decides suicide is the answer. That film is a wonderful gift to all of us, but it’s particularly suited to those who have labored in love for years without seeing many good results or even purpose behind a life lived out, under the sun. The prophet Jeremiah comes to mind and it is comforting to know that others remember Jeremiah, even though his outlook wasn’t that rosy, his ministry was not what many would consider positive, and it’s doubtful he ever saw the ways in which God was working all things together for his good in his lifetime. Not everyone is so fortunate as George Bailey or me, so I am filled with gratitude to the Lord today.
What about you? I want to encourage you to aim high in your new year resolution(s). You may be feeling like John Goldingay: you see very little purpose in your day-to-day day routine but your heart’s desire is to be faithful. Or, like Jeremiah, everything around you may be crumbling and it seems as if the Lord has given you the task of pointing that out to others: they think you’re a downer. Or, heaven forbid, you are in George Bailey’s shoes and wonder if you’re worth more dead than alive — you may think those around you would be better off if you’d never been born.
If that is where you are at the close of 2015, I want to remind you of these words from the prophet Jeremiah, himself — a verse I hear Christians reactively reciting whenever someone in their circle is trying to decide between one good option and a better one — this opportunity or that one. That would be a misapplication of this ancient promise to God’s people in a time of severe distress when they had only one choice before them: live in exile in Babylon. This is God’s word to the troubled, the desperate, the one whose entire universe has just collapsed, with no options available:
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. (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV)