A friend of mine posted this status on Facebook a little while ago:
I thought it was clever because it reveals a simple truth: the way we mark time is fairly arbitrary – but we crave it nonetheless.
New Years gets a lot of hype. We plan our parties. We don our sparkly getups. At 11:59 we count down: 10, 9, 8… We pop our Champagne bottles: 7, 6, 5, 4… Maybe we share a new year’s smooch with someone… 3, 2, 1… and then the clock strikes midnight. 11:59 turns to 12. 2017 turns to 2018. Our calendars switch over. Time has a birthday: another minute, another year.
Then what? The countdown, the anticipation that accrues over days, is over. And the build-up is for something pretty inconsequential when we think about it: time goes on. We knew it would. Yet all the glitz and glam (and $$ spent) must indicate something in this holiday that we deem worth celebrating. What does the celebration of a new year say about what we crave?
I think it shows that we want the opportunity to hit refresh.
It’s no secret that 2017 has been a rollercoaster of a year; the abundance of memes like this is exhibit A:
I sense a palpable and collective angst to get started with a new year. Everyone is eager to bid good riddance to the year past in hopes that the coming year will be a fresh start, a clean slate. Unfortunately, that’s not how time works. In 2018, our lives will go on with the same problems and the same successes, the same goals and frustrations, the same dogged fears and the same simmering hopes.
As arbitrary as the switch from 2017 to 2018 is, we need it. We crave the opportunity to start the clock again. Why else do we galvanize around this opportunity to reform bad habits? We know that we can make resolutions and goals at any point of our choosing throughout the year. But through some collective understanding, we designate New Year as our time of reform. Perhaps we crave a clean slate and the marker of a new year provides just the opportunity we need to establish a new beginning.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that most of these well-intentioned declarations of reform are doomed for derailment. According to Business Insider, 80% of new year’s resolutions will fail by the 2nd week of February. Not a terribly inspiring record.
We crave the opportunity for new beginnings. Yet at the very same time know that we will fail in them. In this sense, New Year’s resolutions are a microcosm of the story of renewal that Christ offers us. The annual abandonment of well-intentioned resolutions mimics the grace we find in Christ’s relentless forgiveness.
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, our screw-ups, our brokenness, all our bad habits, are forgotten, wiped away. This forgiveness, this atonement for our sins, is a once and for all act. Yet we inevitably go on sinning.
In the same way that we make our noble new year’s resolutions and break them after six short weeks, we turn away from our sins and subsequently turn back to them – whether it takes a year, a week or an hour.
Repentance isn’t a one-time deal. It’s a posture we must return to perpetually.
The reform that we are so drawn to in new year’s resolutions mirrors what the Church calls repentance. And I get it, repentance is a burdensome word. It feels heavy to write. But at its core, it’s simply a spiritual course correction: turning our back on what is evil and facing instead at what is good.
Whereas Christ’s atonement is a once and for all deal, our repentance must be continual.
Martin Luther, the monumental church reformer, famously said in his 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
Much like we make new year’s resolutions, knowing in the back of our mind that they’re unlikely to last, we repent knowing that we will inevitably sin again. That doesn’t mean it didn’t work the first time we tried it. Rather, we were meant to repent regularly.
I often feel confronted with an unrealistic notion within the church that we have to experience a single definitive moment of breaking from sin and immediately start getting it right thereafter. Of course, the gospel, if properly absorbed, will transform us more and more into Christ’s image. But we still require the clean slate, after clean slate that Jesus offers us. Repentance isn’t a one-time deal. It’s a posture we must return to perpetually.
Whether you call it reform or repentance, New Year’s reveals our desire for new beginnings. Sure, the celebration of the start of 2018 fulfills our desire for a clean slate in the short term. But it’s still a phony grace. True grace – the grace found in the empty cross – fulfills this desire on a much more magnificent, much more eternal scale.
In Christ, we are given unending new beginnings because of this grace. His death and resurrection have the final word over our brokenness.
So whether you make a new year’s resolution or not, and whether you keep it or not, remember that we have a very real new beginning in Christ. Through his grace, we have as many clean slates, as many refresh buttons, as our sin requires. The phrase ‘new year, new me’ takes on a glorious double meaning when we remember that he is the one who makes all things new.