J John is an internationally recognised Christian speaker and author. He has written over 50 books and spoken in 69 countries, teaching the Christian faith and addressing over 300,000 people in person each year. His series Just 10 (on the Ten Commandments) has now exceeded one million people in attendance.
If you listen to what people say at the end of December I expect that you will hear someone talk about ‘putting off the old year and putting on the new’. It’s a seasonal version of that deep-seated human desire: the wish to start all over again. Who of us has not at some time wished that we could have a new beginning? To have a second opportunity at a day, a year or even a life? Very few people can look at their past without some sense of regret, some awareness that they could have done more that was good and less that was bad. ‘Could do better’ is the verdict most of us have over our past. This promise of a new start is the appealing attraction of a New Year. Oprah Winfrey, whom we might have thought had little to regret, has said, ‘Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right.’ It is a toast that many people would echo.
Yet there are problems with the hope that the New Year offers. For one thing, what we are does not conveniently end at midnight on 31st December, as if the passing of the year somehow wiped the stains off the slate of human nature. Indeed, much of the unease we feel when we look at our past is due to the uncomfortable realisation that yesterday’s pattern is likely to be repeated tomorrow. 2013’s mistakes will most probably reappear in 2014. Far from being able to stride out bold and free into the landscape of the New Year, we find ourselves weighed down by bad habits and weaknesses. Like the unfortunate Bill Murray in the film Groundhog Day we find that we are condemned to endlessly relive our failures. The New Year becomes not so much a source of new hope, but a merciless cycle for a repeat performance. In fact, many people are so aware of the certainty of their moral failure that the only resolution they can consider is to avoid resolutions.
Can we hope for a new life, whether at a New Year, or at any time? It is significant how little hope or help there is on offer. Biology coldly tells us that we are inescapably programmed by our genes to be what we are. The wisdom offered by psychologists and sociologists tell us that it is our upbringing or our culture that locks us into who we are. Reincarnation holds out the possibility of a ‘better luck next time’! Elsewhere in the religious systems of the world we find only a faint hope that God (or the gods) may – if we are good or lucky – overlook our mistakes.
If we survey the world of belief and knowledge we find the promise of genuine change is only to be found with one person, Jesus Christ. He offers new life in the fullest possible way. He deals with the past as God for us, giving forgiveness and in doing so preventing past failures from contaminating our future. He gives us encouragement for the future by offering us the gift of the Holy Spirit as God with us. We can travel unburdened and with God’s presence into the future.
Interestingly, the origin of the wish to ’put off the old and put on the new’ probably comes from something the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus: ’You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness’ (Ephesians 4:22-24).
This New Year, why not resolve in those words of Paul ‘to put off the old and to put on the new self’? We can’t alter the past, but we can bring the past to the altar of God. So let’s bring our past to God and embrace the future with him into 2014 with anticipation and expectation for new beginnings and possibilities.