“I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6)
“Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5)
At this time of year, inspired by the calendric New Year it’s natural to think about ideas of newness and of change. For a brief window (already starting to close) we stand on the first clean page of a fresh year, when the future seems wide open, full of hopes and possibilities. It’s a new beginning, a chance to start over. We set goals and aspirations about the new things we’d like to do or see or achieve, and about the old things we want to change.
We may of course not achieve many of these goals, but at some level we want to change things and for a moment at least it feels possible.
It strikes me that Christianity has a lot to say about newness and change, as well as about oldness and staying the same. In fact, both constancy and renewal are at the very heart of our faith.
Of course, there are many different kinds of change. Some happen by themselves.
Living things change naturally without much assistance. They grow, develop, evolve, mature, move, moult, sometimes mutate. Wounds heal. All these changes happen organically, and largely without our active input (though some may benefit from our nurture). Nature remakes itself anew every spring; there is new birth and new budding. Change and renewal are built into the cycles of life; yet those very cycles mean that change is woven into a framework of repetition and continuity.
Non-living (or ex-living) things also change naturally. They succumb to entropy’s forces of decay, dissolution, decomposition, drifting apart. Again, these changes take place without our input, though we can sometimes restore the dying to life or (as in my effect on pot plants) change the living into the dead.
Obviously if you want to tell whether something is alive or dead, you can see which kind of change it’s undergoing. A similar test can be applied metaphorically to other aspects of life – our faith for example. Is it growing or stagnating, developing or decaying?
A changing faith?
The only trouble is, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. What appears to be vigorous living growth can sometimes be more like a tumour, particularly when it’s growth in legalistic or literalistic religious zeal. And what looks like faith’s death and decay can sometimes be a necessary shedding of old, dead skin in order to make room for the new. Sometimes there has to be loss, pruning, even death for there to be new life and growth.
We often feel that faith and belief shouldn’t change. You learn correct doctrine and practice, and then you stand firm on these unchanging truths, right? To many, any change in faith or belief – for example, revising your views on hell, or homosexuality – is a sign of backsliding or apostasy. I believe on the contrary that it can be a sign of maturity, of good growth. Indeed, without such change I’d suggest our faith may well be stagnating or even dead.
Newton’s law of inertia states that a moving object will continue moving in the same direction at the same speed unless another force is applied to it. This too applies metaphorically to our spiritual lives and religious practices. There may be the appearance of movement, of action, but we may actually just be repeating the same old cycles endlessly – going through the perpetual motions without any actual development or growth. We’re running on inertia. There’s nothing inherently wrong with routine or ‘business as usual’, but it can become stultifying and soul-sapping. Sometimes we need to actively apply a force (like a kick up the backside) in order to allow life-bringing change.
Which brings us to the kinds of changes that we can actively bring about ourselves. We can create, we can build, we can learn, we can engage in training to bring about growth and development. A lot of our New Year’s resolutions centre on this kind of change, which can never be a one-off quick fix, but has to be a long-term training programme of incremental changes. Applied to the spiritual life, I guess this is what’s called discipleship.
New or renewed?
The other type of active change we focus on in our January resolutions is replacement – getting rid of something old and exchanging it for something new.
At this time of year, lots of people are thinking about moving on to new jobs, new locations, maybe new churches, even new relationships – i.e. leaving old ones and seeking out different ones. This may well be right and necessary in some cases, particularly if the old situations were abusive or oppressive. However, if you’re only moving on to escape the difficulties in the current situation, you’re likely to be disappointed. Often you merely take the old problems with you, because in many cases at least part of the problem was in you.
There’s the saying ‘Meet the old boss, same as the new boss’. Sometimes apparent change means things stay fundamentally the same. We exchange what we have for a new version, but nothing has really changed. The old underlying order stays the same; only the superficial details change.
Similarly, if we’re endlessly chasing the new and the latest, we can kid ourselves that we’re progressing and changing, but fundamentally we’re settling for shallow, superficial and un-meaningful change; changes that don’t change us.
Conversely, we can sometimes keep all the same things and the same situations, and yet within that everything can be fundamentally different. This is renewal… we don’t necessarily need new things in order for things to be made new. We don’t always need to change our immediate circumstances or situations or relationships in order for there to be deeper-level change within our lives, even within those specific areas of our lives.
So we may sometimes be able to stay in the same job, location or relationship but find that situation transformed – renewed. Such transformation generally comes from changes within ourselves and our attitude towards our situation, rather than from counter-productive attempts to change others or to change reality.
We can change to stay the same, or stay the same to change.
It’s these two alternative visions of change that are the ‘two kinds of new’ of the title. We can reject the old completely in favour of the new; or we can keep the old but seek to renew, redeem or restore it, transforming or transfiguring it into something new.
Sometimes we just get fed up with our lives, and want everything to be different; want ourselves to be different. Nonetheless the truest and most lasting change comes by gradual inward renewal, a slow and patient restoring of who we really are, not by any changes imposed from without. Change comes by Christ’s incarnated presence in us, by the forming of his image in us. The new us that we’re destined to be will be different to who we are now in all sorts of ways – free from the things which mar the divine image in us. But there will be a fundamental continuity; we will always be us.
Always the same, endlessly new?
I’ve said before that restoration, renewal, redemption are simultaneously a moving forward and a going back. God is redeeming us, training and developing us, bringing us to maturity, forming Christ’s likeness in us; he is also restoring us back to the original perfect image we had at the start of all things.
Paradoxically, Christianity is simultaneously deeply conservative and radically progressive; indeed the two apparently opposite directions of movement are two sides of the same coin. We move forward to regain what’s been lost and restore what’s been spoilt.
Paradoxically again, God himself is unchanging, yet endlessly new and perennially fresh. Even when he does the same thing twice (or a million times), he always does it slightly differently. His ideas, his creativity, his infinite variety never runs out. His character and nature never change; his love and goodness and faithfulness never fail or run out. Yet despite this – indeed because of this – his mercies are new every morning. Every day, indeed every moment, is a chance to start again.
God also brings new meanings to old truths, and fresh insight from old scriptures. The Spirit of God is always hovering over the face of the waters to bring form and life; and he hovers too over our reading of the scriptures to interpret them to us anew. The reason we have a changeless 2000-year old book is not so that we can learn its for-all-time set-in-stone meaning, but so that we can let the ever-new God re-read it to us. As he does so, he brings new colour to the old pictures; brings out new harmonies and resonances in the old score.
May the ageless, age-old, and ever-new God hover creatively over your life and faith this year. Vive la change!