2014: What Won't Change

The coming of a new year offers an opportunity for consideration and prediction.  Newspapers and websites are full of reflections on the previous year – in politics, sports, and entertainment.  Some commentators move beyond the public and include personal reminiscences on various milestones, births, deaths, and diseases.  The nominally Christian media joins in as well, highlighting the “best sermons ever” from 2013 (a real headline) and the hottest articles from the online press.

Then there are the predictions.  On this New Year’s morning, there are predictions about the first pick in the NBA draft (176 days away), guesses about which movies will cause the biggest splash, and thoughts about which countries will cause the most geopolitical trouble in the days ahead.  Making these kinds of predictions is a fool’s errand, of course, and the most clear-eyed prognosticators seem to know this.  They can read last year’s failed predictions too.

What is even more striking is to see how conventional wisdom – either employed in reflection or in prediction – changes wildly over the course of a year.  One time allies are now fierce enemies; last year’s losers are this year’s unbeatable winners; unquestioned social boundaries have become passe biases.  And that’s just in twelve months.  If we look back one hundred years (to the beginning of WWI, as it happens), the changes appear even more pronounced.  Monumental events that none predicted have come to pass and have shaped our thinking – both for better and for worse.  Human nature may stay the same, but conventional human wisdom hardly does. 

And it is not only conventional wisdom that changes.  Individual aspirations seem to shift just as swiftly.  One need only look at New Year’s resolutions for proof.  There are always new priorities and promises.  And the predictable failure to fulfill them underscores the instability of our individual human desires. 

We are fickle creatures, prone to wander, waver, and err.  Basing a life, or even a year of life, on human words, plans and ideas, or on the conventional wisdom of the day, is like building a house on sand.   This should come as no surprise.  The Bible makes it clear that man’s general disposition is false by nature and opposed to God: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”[1]  And, notwithstanding this depravity and folly, even the best human plans can change.  James reminded the earliest Christians of this, when he wrote, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and the vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.”[2]

Even if people could be relied upon for a time, and even if their plans were not so often interrupted in the overruling providence of God, the scriptures still warn us against trusting in men in any ultimate sense: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”[3]  The depravity of man, his lack of knowledge about the future, and his basic mortality as a creature make him wholly unreliable.  Human beings lie; plans change; people die.  Instability surrounds us.

So what will not change in this coming year?  First and foremost, the character of God will not change.  He is the “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”[4]  Deuteronomy reminds us that he is, “The Rock… A God of faithfulness.”[5]  This immutability of God’s nature and character is a source of great security: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”[6]  Amidst all of the uncertainties of the coming year, God’s character can be relied upon utterly.

We also know that the counsel of God will not change.  In fact, God’s enduring word is explicitly contrasted with the unreliability of human utterances.  “The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.  The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”[7]  Samuel the prophet makes this contrast equally clear: “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret; for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”[8]  The Psalmist writes, “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.  Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast.”[9]  And in perhaps the most famous contrast between the frailty of man and the surety of God’s word, Peter writes these words, quoting loosely from the prophet Isaiah: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.  The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”[10]  Just as God’s character does not change, so too his word stands forever.  God’s view of history, his analysis of humanity, his instructions and teaching, his words about the future – none of these ever shift.

In this new year, there are good reasons to be skeptical of human promises and prognostications.  No one knows what challenges await us this year; none can predict what conventional wisdom will emerge, what promises will be proposed, what resolutions will be made.  Who knows what new fads will come and go – especially within the churches that call themselves evangelical.  Sometimes we can begin to imagine that these faddish and changing ideas should govern our lives as Christians.  But in fact, we can serve, teach, pray, and work with confidence – not because we know the future or the fads, but because we serve the one who is unchanging in his character and counsel.  This year, as in every year, we do well to remember these truths about God’s immutability, and also the warning for the Church that flows forth from their apprehension.  As Hebrews puts it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Do not be led astray by diverse and strange teachings.”[11]

[1] Romans 3:13

[2] James 4:13-16

[3] Psalm 146:3-4

[4] James 1:17

[5] Deuteronomy 32:4

[6] Malachi 3:6

[7] Psalm 33:10-11

[8] I Samuel 15:29

[9] Psalm 119:89-90

[10] I Peter 1:24-25 [quoting from Isaiah 40:7b-8]

[11] Hebrew 13:8-9a


Jonathan Master