Well, here we are. We made it! We have reached the end of 2020. And I’m sure that most of us aren’t too sad about it. As I’ve thought about this past year, and what on earth I should say on this, the final blog post of 2020, I finally landed on honesty. I decided that for this post I am going to be honest about this year, how I feel about it, and the thoughts I have going into 2021. I hope that, through this honesty, I can give you at least a few encouraging thoughts as we step over the threshold into the new year that God has set out for us.
But first, I need to make a confession. Here it is: I’m tired of people saying that 2020 has been a hard year. Shocking, I know, but let me explain. Turn on the TV over this past holiday season and you would have bumped into newscasters and show hosts, one after the other, saying things like, “After such a hard year, we really needed _____,” or “We know that this has been a difficult year for the people of America so you deserve to get more stuff this Christmas” and so on. On every channel there is a serious, and I’m sure sometimes well meaning, man or woman lamenting over the past year. And it’s not necessarily the point blank statement that 2020 has been a hard year that bothers me. It’s the assumption that lies beneath it. The implication that the hardship of this year is unusual, unprecedented, and out of the norm of human life. That 2020 is harder than the years before it and if we can just get back to the comfort we experienced before the pandemic everything will be fine.
Not to say that 2020 hasn’t been hard, or that people haven’t been affected in horrible ways. I don’t want to be insensitive to any suffering that anyone has experienced over this last year, whether directly COVID related or something else. And I certainly don’t want to minimize the hardships that have riddled the past 360 days.
But here’s where I throw down my gauntlet: Life is always hard. Life is always full of weird and seemingly cataclysmic events that can shake countries, and at times, shake the world. 2020 is not unusual. In fact, a world wide pandemic is the most normal thing that could possibly happen in a sin cursed world. Just look back over what has happened in America over the last 100 years: 9/11, WWII, the Great Depression. If you open up the entire story of human history, you will see over and over again crumbling nations, massive wars, murders and assassinations, devastating plagues, and a world battered by the ferocious elements that make up our planet. Horrible, seemingly cataclysmic things are normal and it frustrates me when people act like they are not.
And yet, over the past decade, Americans have come to expect more and more a level of comfort and ease that in no way lines up with the rest of history. As my dad pointed out, we’ve become spoiled. We’ve grown to expect life to be easy, or at least, for hardship to be a temporary discomfort that yields to a life that is better than what we had before the trial. Long term suffering is a rarity in the eyes of many. We’ve come to expect comfort and material blessings and money. Like we deserve it. Like we are entitled to it. And as we’ve cemented ourselves in our materialistic bubbles, we’ve become lazy and complacent, to the point that, when something like COVID comes into the picture and pops our bubbles, we are rocked with shock and fear.
It’s not just the secular culture as a whole that has adopted this attitude. As I look at my own life, and the lives of others around me, I’ve realized that this thinking has affected Christians just as much as its affected nonbelievers. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of complacency. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own little kingdoms that we design for ourselves. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we can act like we are entitled to a good and comfortable life.
In reality, we don’t deserve anything. We aren’t entitled to any blessing or any good thing that happens in our lives. We are a people that has rebelled against God and evoked his just wrath. Everything we have, the clothes on our backs, the dollars in our bank accounts (even if they are significantly less then we would like them to be) are all there because of the grace and mercy of our God that he has showered on undeserving, wretched, filthy sinners.
Maybe so far this doesn’t seem so encouraging and I’m sounding like some cynical, depressed teenager, but I promise that even in the darkness of the world that I have just described, God has given us so much light.
In John 16:33 Jesus promises his disciples that they will encounter tribulation. Countless other verses in Scripture proclaim suffering to be a normal part of life. But these verses were never meant to be a discouragement to us. Instead, when we look at Scripture’s assurity that we will suffer, we should respond with hope. A lot of times, when we suffer, whether it be a personal trial or a worldwide event like COVID, it can be all too easy to fall into despair because we feel like the world is spinning out of control. When we fall into that trap, it makes what we face all the more terrifying. But, if suffering really is a normal part of life, then that means when it does come our way it’s not an indication that the world is spinning out of control. We don’t have to be paralyzed by fear in our difficulty. We don’t have to be afraid that God has abandoned us or get scared when we start experiencing things that we’ve never experienced before.
Instead, we can face suffering, we can face worldwide pandemics, with confidence and peace, because we know that the world isn’t spinning out of control. In fact, everything that is happening is because God has ordained it to take place and God’s plan is always good. Let me say that again. God’s plan is ALWAYS good. In fact, 2 Corinthians 4:17 assures us that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Just as upheaval and death and sickness and war are a constant throughout human history, and will be until the day Jesus returns, God’s faithfulness to and love for his people will always dog our steps. Our God is the one constant in a world that is always changing. He has never once abandoned his people. He has never once wasted one moment of suffering that he could have used to make us more like him. He has never once sacrificed his glory for our comfort. And he has never once hesitated in sacrificing our comfort for our joy. Because unlike the American culture, who looks to comfort and possessions for security, God knows that there is something much better for His people then full bank accounts. In fact, Paul says in Romans 8:18, “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Understanding that trials are a normal part of life doesn’t mean that when they come, we don’t feel the pain or that we don’t experience a level of fear. It does mean that we know that despite the pain and fear, God is working in us and one day He will deliver us from all trials into an eternal weight of glory.
When we say we hope 2021 will be better, we usually mean less suffering, easier going, smaller bills, healthier bodies. But, maybe we need to change our definition of better. It’s all too easy for us to act like toddlers. We want what we want and we get mad when we don’t get it. But maybe the solution isn’t holding tighter to what we desire. Maybe, instead, we need to change what we want. If God isn’t giving it to us, then maybe the thing we want isn’t as great as we think it is. Afterall, God knows more than we do. He knows what is really good for us.
If the only reason we look forward to 2021 with optimism is because we hope there will be less suffering, then we will be setting ourselves up for further heartache. Instead the ultimate reason we should look forward to 2021 is not because we hope COVID will go away (though that is a perfectly fine thing to hope for, I certainly would like that!), but because we know that 2021 belongs completely and wholly to God and he never makes mistakes. We cannot be certain COVID will go away. We cannot be certain of anything but this: God will work in 2021. Our ultimate hope needs to stem from that. Otherwise we will live 2021 and the years to come depressed, disappointed, and anxious. Health is not assured. Peace is not assured. The scholarship you applied for isn’t assured. But God is. Always. Forever.
Let us remember that as we flip the chapter that is 2020 and welcome the fresh, clean pages of 2021. Instead of scrambling to write down the story we would like for ourselves, let us eagerly await the words that God will fill in the pages.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.Psalm 115:1-3