Having just put the kids to bed at the end of a busy Christmas day, my mind turned to the next event on the Calendar — New Year’s Eve. Specifically, I got to thinking about the fact that a common refrain for the next week or so will be, “Happy New Year!” What do we actually mean when we say that to each other? (A better question may be why I would question what we mean by “Happy New Year,” but I’m not in the mood for introspection.)
Although some might treat it as sort of a magic incantation, I suppose most people mean the obvious — “I hope you have a happy time during this next year.” Seems pretty innocuous. Digging a little deeper, I think the wish goes something like, “I hope things happen during this coming year that will make you happy, and nothing happens to make you unhappy (or at least the good things sufficiently outweigh the bad such that you can characterize the entire year as ‘happy’).”
What does that say about our attitude toward all the things that could happen in the coming year? Clearly, things that happen are to be judged principally according to whether they make us happy. Things that make us happy are welcome; things that make us unhappy are to be avoided. I think it also betrays a belief in the randomness of things that happen to us. After all, very few are praying or otherwise appealing to a higher power when they wish someone a Happy New Year. On the contrary, it’s as though we are saying, “Boy, this coming year is fraught with uncertainty. It could bring health, prosperity and pleasant family relations or it could bring swine flu, bankruptcy and divorce. I hope more of the former than the latter comes your way. Best of luck with that!”
As a Christian, I reject both of those notions. I’m not a deist, so I don’t believe in randomness, luck or chance. Even the roll of the dice may appear random, but the outcome is determined by God. Prov. 16:33. Christians tend to be comfortable in giving God credit for all the great things that come our way, but very uncomfortable in seeing God’s hand behind bad things. I’ll let God speak for himself: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord , who does all these things.” Is. 45:7. Elsewhere, God asks the rhetorical question, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” Amos 3:6. Since there is no such thing as luck, it makes no sense for me to “wish” good fortune upon others.
I know that may sound cold, but I also reject the idea that events (whether pleasant or calamity) are to be judged principally according to whether they make us happy. My fleeting and fickle happiness would be an exceedingly poor basis to determine whether some event should occur. Thankfully, God has in mind my eternal joy rather than my temporary happiness, and that joy is often found in (and even created by) suffering of all kinds. Circumstances can rob me of happiness quite easily, but they can’t steal my joy because I know that even in the worst kinds of suffering and misery, God ultimately is working for my good. Rom. 8:28.
Do I still pray for God to bring into my life (and the lives of those I love) the kind of events that would bring happiness? Absolutely! I do it partially because I’m still averse to suffering — however sure I am that it’s ultimately good for me, I don’t like pain. I also pray for God to bring those kind of events into my life because I know he delights to answer his kids’ prayers. I’ll leave it to God’s wisdom and providence, though, to determine whether this coming year brings happiness or not. And I’ll fight to maintain my joy in him, regardless of what this next year brings.
Matt Chandler, pastor of a church near Dallas, has been a great witness of that kind of joy. I’ve never met Matt, but I’ve felt a certain kinship with him since I first came across his teaching last year. Among other things, he’s my age (35), he’s from California, I agree wholeheartedly with his theology. When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly after Thanksgiving and subsequently underwent brain surgery, I learned that we also have children of very similar ages (we both have kids ages seven, four, and about six months, but I also have a two-year-old thrown in there). As he prepares to undergo radiation and chemotherapy in January (read more about it here http://fm.thevillagechurch.net/blog/pastors/?p=459), it’s not hard for me to imagine myself in his shoes. I like to think that I would suffer as well as Matt has, but I have my doubts, so I’m praying that the joy of the Lord will continue to be Matt’s strength. For his sake, his family’s sake, and his church’s sake, I’m also praying that this coming year will bring physical healing and, yes, happiness.