As we enter 2019, it feels to me as if the New Year is marked by a huge degree of uncertainty – perhaps more so than any previous year that I remember during my life. Very obviously we are facing national and political uncertainty. So many questions about the whole issue of Brexit: Will we leave the EU in the year ahead? Under what conditions? Will the process be delayed? Will we face economic problems and queues at borders? Will we have new leaders or a new government during this year?
But it isn’t simply political issues. We see huge moral uncertainty in our society at large. Issues of gender and sexuality are causing huge damage and confusion. People are losing their identities as men and women, husbands and wives. Children are being confused and damaged by these radical new ideologies. Families are breaking down and people no longer know what to believe – the obvious truths that everybody previously assumed can no longer be relied on. Our society is disintegrating around us.
And then there is international uncertainty. We see nations jockeying for power and influence; Russia seeking to destabilise Western nations, China seeking influence around the world. The most powerful nation in the world, the USA, in permanent political crisis. The world’s climate is changing – with more extreme weather conditions being experienced year on year. Terror attacks are on the increase around the world.
The Church of God looks unstable too – persecution of God’s people in so many places – in Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria. The rise of Islam. The decreasing influence of the church in the West. Shallow teaching leading to nominalism and false teaching – the rise of the prosperity gospel. True churches becoming smaller and demoralised. In our own church we face many uncertainties. It seems likely that we will lose some of our members in the year ahead – folk who for differing but good reasons may move to other spheres to serve God in different places. That would leave us with big gaps to fill in the life of the church. And for many of us there are health uncertainties – folk living with, being treated for, or facing major illnesses. None of us are getting younger and many of us are feeling the effects of our years. And we all face personal uncertainty – that’s always true. None of us know what lies ahead for us this year: whether illness, loss of employment, changed family circumstances, moves or even the end of our lives. Coupled with every other source of uncertainty that could leave us feeling very uncertain, very insecure and unsure, nervous and alarmed.
How should we respond in such circumstances and facing such huge uncertainties?
1) Don’t be surprised
The fact is that instability in the world and in the lives of individuals is normal. Think about history – read the Old Testament and you realise that the life of the nation of Israel was a perpetual series of wars and invasions, famines and disasters. Read English history and you see the same thing – powerful men vying for power, fighting battles, challenging other nations. History is not pretty. Think about the last century: two World Wars, the threat of nuclear destruction, countless other wars, genocides and millions of lives lost violently. Sadly, this is the normal state of the human race. Periods of peace and stability, although very welcome, are the exception not the rule. That was the great glory of Solomon’s reign – 40 years of peace. But only 40 years!
The Bible is very realistic about this. Jesus warned us to expect instability and trouble in the world: And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. Mt 24:6-7
And in the next verse he goes on to warns us as Christians to expect troubles: Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. Those warnings are echoed by the other New Testament writers: Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 1 Peter 4:12. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 1 John 3:13-14. The Old Testament is just as realistic – yes, the LORD makes us lie down in green pastures at times but at other times we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. That mustn’t surprise us.
2) A second response is to be grateful for the stability we do have
The fact is that most of us have grown up with no direct experience of war and with a degree of peace and stability unknown to many of our forefathers – so much so that we are in danger of thinking that to be normal. As believers we have experienced very little direct persecution in our lifetimes – far less than most believers in the past. Certainly far less than many of our fellow believers around the world. We are now increasingly aware of the terrible persecution facing our brothers and sisters in so much of the world – India, China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, the list goes on and on.
We need to be constantly thankful to God for peace, for living in a land with settled government, with low levels of corruption and violence compared with other parts of the world and most of history.
3) We also need to recognise the frailty of all human or man-made stability
Humans try and create institutions, treaties and organisations to try and manufacture peace. The United Nations, the EU, Greenpeace, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties, The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Good Friday Agreement, etc, etc. Some of these really have, at times, created a measure of peace and held back conflict. But they are all fallible and frail and cannot guarantee anything – in many other situations they have failed. In the end everything man does is limited: As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. Psalm 103:15-16
4) But by far our most important response is to recognise that we have a source of absolute certainty, stability and reliability: God Himself
Whatever changes here in this world, whatever we cannot be sure about in the year ahead, we can be sure of God himself. Let’s remind ourselves of a few of the great statements that the Bible makes about God’s unchanging character:
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end. Psalm 102:25-27
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. Malachi 3:6
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever. Hebrews 13:8
Because believers have known that God was the one true, unchanging reality they have always known him as a source of absolute stability and trustworthiness. The Faithful One, their Rock and Refuge, their Fortress and Tower:
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Ps 18:2
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. Ps 36:7
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Ps 46:1
The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe. Proverbs 18:10
We could multiply those verses a thousand times – if you are struggling with doubts and uncertainties try the exercise of going through the Bible and listing out all the times when God is described as a refuge, as faithful, as a fortress or rock or tower. List out the times believers are told not to fear. God knew that this would be a huge problem for his people through history and has loaded his Word with huge re-assurances, wonderful promises and absolute statements of certainty for our benefit.
In fact we are forbidden to be anxious but rather to take our worries and anxieties to God:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”. Matthew 6:31-34
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:6-7
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7
So as we go into another year let’s follow the example of all those believers who have gone before us, living in situations of even greater danger and instability than those we face – who have lived and suffered and struggled and died trusting not in themselves or in man but in our unchanging, ever faithful, ever loving God. In Paul’s words:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:31-39