The New Year's Narrative

Greg Cooper

As I prepared to lead singing at church on New Year’s Eve 2017, I was already experiencing ‘that New Year’s Eve feeling’. The one that involves a mental narrative of questions: Did I even achieve anything this year? How will I improve on who I am next year? How will I focus on my goals more next year? And for the Christian – will I be any more godly next year?

Well, that’s not the whole truth. Because those questions actually started to take on an accusatory tone, as if coming from an external voice. Did you even achieve anything this year? And will you be any more godly next year? While these whispers of doubt appeared to come from within myself, as a Christian I recognize that their source is ultimately Satan, the great accuser.

That’s the negative.

But there’s also something beautifully positive, hopeful, and rightly aspirational about the beginning of a calendar year. As the busyness of Christmas subsides, you can almost hear society’s collective sigh, as we take an often-mandatory break from work, disappear to coastal retreats, and embrace simple, unhurried moments with loved ones. It’s one of my favourite times of the year. A secular Sabbath, if you will.

Best. Year. Ever?

Into that positive season, however, often creeps ‘over-positivity’. And it freaks me out. It’s that New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day narrative that appears every year on social media and TV broadcasts: “2018 will be the best year ever!”

Hmm. Really? How do you know? Since when were you in control? While no one would wish it on anyone, it could be a year of untold suffering. Or unmet expectations. Or deep, persistent sorrow. Or disappointment. Or joy that you thought would feel better than it actually does.

Of course, this over-positive narrative usually only lasts for 48 hours, then swiftly vanishes. Why? Because it’s unsustainable. To approach any new year with unqualified positivity is surely somehow an act of denial – denial of the reality that bad stuff happens. On 2 January (if not before), real life gets in the way of the lofty aspirations. Arguments happen. Finances are in trouble. Illness needs treatment. Relational pain from the previous year lingers. In short, sin remains.

So as I looked through the list of songs I was to lead on New Year’s Eve at church, I was excited to see that two songs had been paired together in the running order: How Great Thou Art and Nothing But the Blood. Pondering these lyrics was like a balm to my soul.

Anthems for the New Year

Consider these words from How Great Thou Art:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
— Stuart Wesley Keene Hine

These lyrics force my eyes to look upwards. Outside of myself. I look not to the 2018 I am supposedly going to plan or shape, but to the God who created 2018 (each minute, hour and day), and every year prior, and the universe in which years exist at all! The music and melody for this hymn feel like a national anthem to me – the kind you might sing at the Olympics in allegiance to your homeland. My heart is challenged to sing these words as a citizen of heaven in allegiance to my King.

Consider also these words from Nothing But The Blood:

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
— Robert Lowry

That sense of wrongdoing, of inadequacy, of fallenness will not disappear with the dawning of a new year. Nothing can take it away but the blood of Jesus. Not a new year, nor the best goals, planning, and aspirations. To paraphrase another hymn, my hope is built on no lesser thing than the blood of Jesus. If I believe that – and I do – then I need to speak like that, and not submit to the world’s New Year’s narrative.

What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus

Implied here is a realization that I’m not whole. That internal sense I have that I’m not quite who I could be, or who I was made to me, that’s a real feeling based on scriptural truth. So what do I do with that? Sure, I aspire to be more like the person God made me to be. And I pursue that daily, under his care. But I don’t try and do it on my own. I cast all of my cares on God, and I rely on Him – by His Spirit – to make me whole again. To perfect me. To re-shape me back into the person I was made to be. This world has knocked me out of shape, and I need repairing. The ultimate repairing will not be achieved on this earth, but in the new creation – so I submit myself patiently to his continuing refining of me.

If How Great Thou Art is the national anthem, where the church declares her allegiance to God, Nothing But the Blood feels like a personal anthem, where individual believers recommit to their core belief in the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

These songs – and the biblical promises on which they are based –  offer a positive counter-narrative to the secular New Year’s narrative I am sold every year. They offer words I can say to myself each day.

Real Hope

There’s nothing wrong with a positive New Year’s narrative. But it needs to be a narrative grounded in certain hope. The other narratives we hear cannot offer that – instead, they place undue emphasis on our own ability to achieve and attain. And we all know that even the best intentions don’t produce the best actions – and certainly not over the long haul.

When the difficulties of life show their face, what will I do with the over-positive narrative of 2018 being the best year yet? If I hold to it, I’ll be bitterly disappointed and grieved. I’ll be forced to deny reality. Perhaps better to have never held to it in the first place.

But I can still hold to a deeply positive narrative. It’s just one that exists outside myself and my own ability to control things.

Thankfully there is someone other than me at the centre of this narrative.

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.

 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.
— Isaiah 40:28-31 (NIV)