Looking Forwards and Backwards at the Turning of the Year
Writing as the New Year approaches, J John writes about the God who is unchanging, constant and eternal. J John says that no matter how troubled our past has been or how problematic our future may seem, we can trust in a God of eternity.
Janus was a minor god of Roman mythology whose responsibilities included ‘turning points’: doors, gates, beginnings and endings. Portrayed as having two faces – one looking forward, the other back – he gave his name to the first month of the year. January is an appropriate time for looking back at what has happened to us and forwards to what we foresee happening. Although taking stock of where we are on life's journey is sensible, few people today seem to seriously reflect on either their past or the future. In contemporary culture we concentrate on either the present (what we are doing now) or the immediate future (plans for this weekend or the holidays).
Why is this? I think there are different issues for the past and the future. When asked about their past, many people echo Edith Piaf's, ‘No, I don’t regret anything.’ But this is often said for public consumption; in private, they do have regrets. To visit the past may be to risk painful encounters with regret, guilt and sorrow, or to re-ignite some ancient hurt. The past may hold cherished moments of contentment but these are often just islands of pleasure in a vast sea of unhappiness.
Looking into the future the issues are very different. There is a widespread reluctance to look more than a few months ahead. Our constantly changing world is uncertain and focussing far into the distance may reveal only a cloud on the horizon. This may involve global concerns, such as ecological collapse and irreversible climate change or more personal concerns about the inevitability of old age and death.
So, in the modern West, where God has been airbrushed out of the culture, most people concentrate on ‘what's happening now’ rather than on ‘what was’ or ‘what might be’. Having a past we try to forget and a future we prefer not to think about can leave us imprisoned in the present; thankfully, if we are believers in Christ, our perspective on both past and present can be transformed. Two things about God are key: his eternally existent nature and his infinitely gracious character.
God’s eternally existent nature is revealed in the Bible, where we see an unchanging God: Lord of past, present and future and maker of all things, including time itself. In Exodus God reveals himself to Moses and commissions him to lead the people of Israel. Troubled, Moses asks God to reveal himself and tell him what to say to the Israelites. God’s answer is that his name is ‘I AM WHO I AM’ and Moses is to tell the Israelites that ‘I AM has sent me to you’ (Exodus 3:14). In this significant phrase ‘I AM’, believers see God proclaiming that he stands outside time, so that past, present and future are equally accessible to him – every moment of human history lies permanently open before God.
In the New Testament Jesus uses this language of ‘I AM’. Only knowing that Jesus Christ is eternal makes sense of the promise the risen Lord makes to his disciples: ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). All relationships are bounded by time; death eventually separates us from friends and loved ones. Only with God can we have a relationship with no expiry date.
God’s infinitely gracious character is also proclaimed in the Bible. Moses learns of God's character on Mount Sinai: ‘The LORD … the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin’ (Exodus 34:6-7). God’s graciousness to human beings overflows from almost every page of the New Testament; the word grace is used over 150 times and every letter written by Paul begins by appealing for God's grace to be with his readers.
God’s eternally existent nature and his infinitely gracious character allow us to look forward and backwards without regret or fear. If we have faith in Christ we can face the past, however painful it might have been. Looking forward, we can gaze at the farthest horizon knowing that God, who is outside time and yet cared for us so much that he died for us, will take us safely through whatever difficulties lie ahead.
However troubled our past, however problematic our future, both can be safely entrusted to the eternal God. At the turning of the year we can be those who – like Janus – can look both ways.