Pandemic. Revolution. Political polarization. And, oh the memes! With trace levels of dystopia, this year has been a cataclysm of catastrophe, chaos, conspiracy, and civil unrest. But aside from my unmet expectations, constant disappointments, and myriad frustrations, this year hasn’t been explicitly difficult or substantially challenging for me (some things were actually easier). However, there was this underlying uneasiness that persisted as a result of . . . well, change and abnormality.
Like an instrument panel spinning out of whack, many of the gauges I depended on for orientation proved unreliable. This entire year seemed so aberrant and unstable. I couldn’t tell up from down. I struggled with a constant, inner discontentedness. My heart was unsettled. My stomach was uneasy. My soul was unnerved. But life doesn’t slow down and wait for us to catch up. After trudging (okay, maybe flailing is more accurate) through the grief of this past year, I feel better prepared to move forward—even if circumstances don’t change—because of the lessons God has taught me. As in every trial, we must ask, “What is God trying to teach me?” Here are some of the lessons learned that I plan to take with me into this new year.
1. We Need Grace
I am a fallen and flawed individual (aren’t we all). And my proclivity to sin is only exacerbated by fear, anxiety, discontentment, and especially by isolation and boredom. Of course I knew this already, but now I know it in a fuller, experiential sense. In the tumult of our disappointment, we are tempted to grope in the darkness for rest, satisfaction, and pleasure in all the wrong places. Sin is what we do when we are not satisfied in Christ and we fall for the age-old lie that something else can fulfill us. But running after other gods for refuge only multiplies our sorrow (Psalm 16:4). I confess I was surprised by my sin this past year. I was shocked by the way my depravity reared its ugly head. I was humbled as I sought rest in things other than Christ—lesser things that will never satisfy—and crashed hard when I didn’t find it.
I am thankful that we are not given a one-time allotment of grace at conversion, but an ongoing measure for our pilgrimage because my need is greater than I had thought. I am thankful that he gives more grace (Jas. 4:6) and lavishes it upon me out of his infinite riches (Eph. 1:8). In multiplied trials and failures, he meets us with multiplied grace—grace that covers our sin and more grace that continues to transform our hearts. I’m thankful for the grace I’ve received from others and stand better prepared to offer grace to those struggling.
2. We Need Truth
So much information. So much conflicting information. How are we to sift through the ever widening spectrum of opinions—various ideologies, conspiracy theories, and identity politics; the cancel culture, fact-checking, historical revisions, and propaganda; the widespread ignorance and inconsistencies? The more I listen to talk radio, scroll through social media, and watch the news, I feel more and more like a pawn, a puppet, or a parrot. Like excessive earwax, the overabundance of information can plug our ears to the truth and throw us off balance. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, we are all grasping for a metanarrative—an overarching paradigm to make sense of this mystery we are immersed in, especially as it becomes more and more complicated. As Christians, we should not be consumed with conspiracy or propaganda; neither should we perpetuate them. Rather we need to focus on the revealed truth we are absolutely certain of and our mission which is undeniably clear (Matt. 28:18-20).
The Gospel is not less than the thrilling news that Jesus died for me. But it is more broad that. The Christian worldview is overarching and comprehensive. It doesn’t provide us with a mere human history, but a cosmic one with Christ at the center (Dan. 7:13-14). And this Christ-centered, God-entranced worldview is the unfiltered reality that every man and woman—whether they know it or not—is longing for. We need to stand on and proclaim this truth. Absolute truth brings clarity, confidence, and conviction in the midst of uncertain circumstances. It is the only reliable foundation to structure our lives on. People are in desperate need of the truth to counter the pervasive hopelessness and fear perpetuated by ideologies and conspiracies. With everyone flocking to opposite poles, this Gospel offends everyone equally. We need truth because it will set us free—free from ourselves, free from the confusion, free from the oppressive presentations of reality around us (Jn. 8:32).
3. We Need Hope
So many things have let me down this year. We were robbed of many ordinary things we anticipated, considered guaranteed, and counted on—sports, concerts, youth camps, vacations, school, graduations, church-life, constitutional rights, and toilet paper. I’ve counseled many this year who feel empty, lost, and trapped in a corner, hopeless—not their normal selves. The thesis of Ecclesiastes is proving true: “All is vanity and striving after the wind” (Ecc. 1:14). This world is a fool’s paradise. It was never meant to satisfy us. If we place our hope in the things of this life, we will be left crawling in the ashes of bitter despair. There have been many false hopes offered to us this past year—false gospels, false views of justice, false offers of unity, false securities and comforts, false kingdoms, false saviors, false versions of the good life. These will eventually let us down and ultimately lead to our demise.
It is no tragedy to lose hope in things that cannot fulfill us. Rather, as more things that give false hope are stripped from us, we receive the gift of clarity. Like one of your senses sharpening from the loss of another, the only reliable hope is shining forth in unmistakable brightness becoming more real to us. We need a hope that will never let us down, never leave us ashamed or embarrassed (Rom. 5:5). We need a glorious hope that transcends this world and its circumstances. We were created for something more substantial than the fading dust of the earth. In a world full of crumbling false hope, may we cling ever so tightly to Christ and His kingdom (Ps. 63:8). We can rejoice in this hope now even before it is realized because it is as good as done (Rom. 8:30). It is a living hope—certain, secure, firmly fixed, deep, and robust (1 Pet. 1:3-5). It is our ballast in uncharted waters and unrelenting storms. Suffering reinforces our hope and keeps us steadfast in all our ways (Prov. 4:26).
4. We Need Growth
If trials are meant to conform us to Christ, then apparently God has more work to do in my life. A lot more! When God ordained this pandemic from eternity past, he did not only have in mind the world’s progressive history but your progressive sanctification. We are not in need of more comfort, pleasure, and ease. These actually stunt our growth rather than contribute to it. Although this year was a major disruption, maybe it was the rousing we needed. It was the great revealer. As increased heat brings dross to the surface, so this past year has brought to light many of our impurities (1 Pet. 1:6-9). When we identify them and repent, the result is another step toward a whole and abundant life (Jas. 1:4). Trials have revealed what we love and value—what we place our hope and trust in. They have exposed our sinful tendencies and our weaknesses.
As we cry out, “Why, God?” we are often tempted to believe that our suffering is arbitrary. But he is too good, too loving, and too wise to allow his children to undergo meaningless suffering (Rom. 8:28-29). He has purposely planned for our pain to accelerate the sanctification process. It leads to greater maturity. As we learn from the story of Job, the thing molded doesn’t have the right to question the molder, but we can be confident that we are being molded with skill and care in the hands of our Maker. We need to acknowledge that demanding an answer for our suffering is a symptom of a heart that desperately desires control. We must learn to trust God implicitly. We can greatly rejoice in the very midst of our suffering because—in his infinite goodness and wisdom—suffering provides eternal benefits (Rom. 5:1-5; Jas. 1:2-4).
5. We Need Fellowship
In a year where quarantine, social distancing, and isolation were normalized, we needed each other more than ever. Reports are coming out that those who frequented religious services were able to avoid the massive mental health decline of 2020. Albeit a simplistic understanding of church, the premise remains staggering. The beauty of fellowship is not simply in community, but in corporate, communal worship. On Sundays we are the church gathered—the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet. 2:5). Zoom, live-stream, prerecorded productions pumped into our homes—these will never satisfy. They will always leave us feeling disillusioned and short-changed. We are designed to worship together in person—assembled, embodied, and engaged. We are not fashioned for wireless connection, but deep, situated, corporate, incarnated connection (Heb. 10:23-25; Col. 3:16). We are not hard-wired for isolation.
No matter how unpopular or inconvenient, we need to gather corporately and corporeally to worship God and encourage one another through prayer, singing, hearing God’s Word, confessing the truth, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, and witnessing baptisms. Here in California, we have been unable to meet indoors. One of my greatest comforts has been the consistency of gathering together as a church outside. This includes Sunday worship, youth group, adult discipleship classes, and shepherding groups. We’ve faced many inconveniences—the intense heat of summer, the winter’s cold, fierce wind, light rain, even rancid smoke from the fires. But gathering together for worship has been absolutely worth it—the most life-giving element of my year.
6. We Need Perseverance
Suffering is not meant to be solved; it is meant to be endured (Jas. 1:2-4). And therefore increased sufferings produce greater measures of perseverance. As the intense heat of this suffering increases, so will your tolerance for it. There is a cumulative nature to our trials (think Abraham). Each one prepares us for the next. Again, life is not going to slow down and wait for us to catch up. In the onslaught of anxiety and disappointment, we need to press on and resolve to live life to the fullest even in the midst of hardship. We do this for God’s glory, yes, but also for the sake of those around us—our spouse, our kids, our neighbors, our extended family, and the members of our church. Like Esther and Daniel, this is a time for confidence. In God’s meticulous sovereignty, it is no accident that we are here in such a time as this and we must purpose in our hearts to consecrate ourselves wholly to our God even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
No one wishes for this kind of suffering, but we must determine what we’ll do with it. We need a stubborn, undaunted fortitude that sees obstacles as opportunities. We need to suffer well and suffer long. Despite no end in sight, we must hold fast the confession of hope without wavering (Heb. 10:23). We must run the race with endurance on the the course God set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, our perfect example of perseverance (Heb. 12:1-2). There are blessings bestowed upon those who persevere under trial (Jas. 1:12). May we persevere however imperfectly for this little while knowing that God himself will perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish us to the very end (1 Pet. 5:9-10).
7. We Need Christ
If I have everything listed above without Christ, I have nothing. But in Christ I can truly have all of these things. In the disorienting storm when Christ seems distant and uncaring, we grasp in the darkness for something to stabilize our boat as it quickly fills up with water from the crashing waves. Like the disciples we think we are rugged, self-sufficient, and experienced enough. But honestly, I’ve never lived through anything quite like this past year. These are uncharted waters. And like the disciples, I find myself shaking my Savior and screaming, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” only to be left embarrassed by my lack of faith. He is with us and has promised to bring us safely all the way home (2 Tim. 18). In him we greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible (1 Pet. 1:8). In him we have a peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7). In him we have rest and comfort in the midst of a weary, exhausting season (Matt. 11:28). In him we have a sure and steadfast hope (Heb. 6:19). He is our greatest treasure. And this year has only reinforced this reality.
Christ’s Lordship is unmatched and unrivaled. His kingdom is unceasing and eternal. Nations rise and fall; his kingdom is forever. Rulers ascend and descend, are executed and defeated; Jesus sits on his throne for all eternity. Ideologies come and go; His Word stands forever. Don’t get bogged down in the details. Don’t live under the circumstances; live above them. Look up. Keep seeking the things above where Christ is (Col. 3:1). There we will find grace, truth, hope, growth, fellowship, and perseverance. These will sustain us. He will fully satisfy every longing of our hearts and bring fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. When we are most satisfied in him, we will not be tempted and allured by lesser things. True hope pushes out false hope. If you can entrust your eternity to him, you can certainly relinquish control of tomorrow and begin living fully today.
As we look at this past year in our rearview mirror and see the mask hanging from it as an ominous sign of another turbulent year, J. C. Ryle’s warning from Thoughts for Young Men comes to mind: “Believe me, you cannot stand still in your souls. Habits of good or evil are daily strengthening in your hearts. Every day you are either getting nearer to God, or further off. Every year that you continue unrepentant, the wall of division between you and heaven becomes higher and thicker, and the gulf to be crossed deeper and broader. Oh, dread the hardening effect of constant lingering in sin!”