Belated Happy New Year to you all! But of course, as everyone’s been pointing out, for most of us it isn’t all that happy a new year at the moment.
It hasn’t even felt particularly new, with 2021 so far just seeming like an unwelcome extension of 2020 – even a return to the worst parts of last year.
Reasons to be depressed
So on the face of it there don’t seem many reasons to be hugely hopeful. Covid isn’t going away, and many of us have already lost friends and loved ones to it. Meanwhile most of us are back in full lockdown with no signs of life getting back to anything like normal for months – and the effects on mental health, education, the economy, and all health that isn’t Covid-related look pretty dire.
To add to that we have all the mounting concerns about climate change, mass extinctions, deforestation and extreme weather. All while we’re living in this increasingly divided and polarised world where tolerance and mutual respect seem to have been replaced by factions shouting angrily at each other on Twitter. We have the rise of far-right groups, extremist and totalitarian governments and anti-liberal sentiment. We have the erosion of truth and trust with so many getting their news from propaganda and echo chambers rather than objective sources.
And even with Trump finally out of power, his supporters haven’t gone away. And I’m not even going to talk about bloody Brexit.
Plus there are still all the usual reasons to be depressed in January, in the northern hemisphere anyway – cold, dark, post-Christmas, new year’s resolutions broken, etc.
Reasons to be hopeful
But this isn’t the full picture by any means. There are many good news stories. With mass vaccinations the tide is gradually starting to turn against Covid. We do still have a chance to reverse the worst of man-made climate change. For all the extremists, the angry shouters and haters, there are far, far greater numbers of reasonable folk who just aren’t as audible. And, hey, Donald Trump is out of the White House. It’s not all bad.
I deliberately didn’t title this post ‘reasons to be happy’ though – for a start, happiness is an emotion and you can’t choose to feel something. You can look for the good, count your blessings and put a brave face on things, but you can’t force yourself or anyone else to feel happy. There are things we can do to make happiness more likely, but they don’t always work.
Still, if we can’t guarantee being happy, we can perhaps at least be hopeful.
Even just on a practical, non-spiritual level, there are plenty of reasons to have hope. There is always a good chance of better to come – and the worse things are, the more likely it is (statistically speaking) that they have to get better at some point. And there is truth in the cliches – it often is darkest before the dawn, and spring generally does follow winter; most clouds do have some kind of silver lining, and most ill winds blow somebody some good; that which doesn’t kill us often does make us stronger. Not always, but enough for hope to be more than just wishful fantasy.
The world we live in does seem to be largely set up for recovery and self-repair. Deserts burst into bloom after years of drought. Bodies mostly do heal. People endure and survive incredible hardships and losses, and come out the other side (in small ways that’s been my own experience). Nations recover from war and famine and economic crashes. The world has survived ice ages and mass extinctions and pandemics and asteroids and supervolcanoes. Life always somehow finds a way to bounce back, to push up through the cracks.
Patterns of redemption
And as someone who does believe in God (even if I’m not too sure on all the details), I can’t help but see a meaningful pattern in all this. I think the world and its creatures – us – are set up to heal and recover because that somehow reflects God’s desires or intentions. Which means that God expects stuff to go wrong sometimes (even terribly wrong), and also that he’s made provision for that; that even the worst catastrophes aren’t ‘the end of the world’.
Most of the time at least, I believe in a God who’s primarily in the business of redemption; of restoration, renewal, reconciliation and even sometimes resurrection. A God of hope, in other words; of second chances and new beginnings – whether or not this New Year is currently delivering much on that front.
I also believe in a God who seems to do his best work in situations that are bleakest and most hopeless. I don’t know why God so often seems to wait for things to get about as bad as they possibly can before acting, but time and again that’s what I’ve seen.
Your kingdom come
An agnostic friend recently asked ‘Where is God in this?’, meaning (I think) ‘how can you believe in a good God when everything is this rubbish?’. It’s a fair question. It’s hard to look at a world in such chaos and see a benign sovereign power running the show.
And if I believed that God was entirely sovereign, directly responsible for how everything is and for all that’s happening, I’d probably feel less hopeful than I do. Of course, some find it reassuring to believe that God is utterly in control. But I find it too impossibly unpalatable to believe in a God who actively chooses to inflict all this chaos and suffering on his creatures, however sinful they might be. (And I am aware that humanity is fairly spectacularly awful at times, including me.)
But as I understand it, God’s will isn’t perfectly done here and his kingdom isn’t fully realised, not yet – or why would Jesus tell us to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’? How things are now is not yet how God wants them to be. But, in all this mess, he is still present and active; not preventing or wiping out all the bad (which after all might wipe us out too), but rather working to bring the most good out of it in the long run; slowly growing the new life of his kingdom up out of the cracks in the concrete.
For me, faith isn’t a magic ticket to everything being lovely now. It’s about glimpsing a bigger picture, a greater story, and locating yourself within that. It’s about holding on (and being held) while things aren’t yet all well, in the hope and trust that one day they will be – and that we can even play a small part in bringing that about.
So even if it’s not really a happy new year, perhaps it can still be a hopeful one. I hope so.