What Year is It Anyway?

In her rich fantasy novel, Piranesi, author Susanna Clarke has the main character, whose name is also the book’s title, keep a journal for each year he has been living in the Beautiful and Kind House.

As described on the back cover, the rooms of the House “are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls lined with thousands upon thousands of statues.” It is a place of stunning beauty and deep intrigue.

As extraordinary as the House is, the passing of time there is quite ordinary. Time, in fact, becomes a major feature of the story, especially as the whole book is a series of revealing journal entries.

Fully aware of time’s passage, Piranesi records the number of each day and the number of each month whenever he makes an entry. His dating technique, however, is not what you would expect: he has stopped counting the years by numbers.

At almost every entry, Piranesi records the year as “the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” He observes time by its remarkable providences not by mere counting. It is a clever move by Clarke which lends helpful strategy to followers of Christ as we enter a new year ourselves.

If we applied Piranesi’s method, one wonders how much more restful and joyful the year ahead would be. What if we watched and waited for the providences of God to unfold far more than we brooded over our own accomplishments? What if we are blind to the albatross flying through the House because we are always hunched over our resolutions?

John Flavel (c. 1630-1691) liked to point to Asaph’s wisdom in Psalm 77:11-12 to drive home a similar point. “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.”

Asaph measured his years not by his own great works but by God’s. Flavel expounds and applies this wisdom in a lovely passage from his work, The Mystery of Providence: “Ah, sirs, let me tell you, there is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives, if you would but sit down and record from the beginning hitherto what God has been to you, and done for you; what signal manifestations and outbreakings of His mercy, faithfulness and love there have been in all the conditions you have passed through.”

If we take this seriously, we may end up with more names than one for the year we have just entered. Instead of it just being 2022, it very well could be the year God uses you to lead a neighbor to a saving knowledge of Christ; or, the year your son or daughter makes a public profession of faith; or, the year you meet the godly man or godly woman you eventually marry; or, the year you get stranded far from home but make lifelong friends; or, the year your pastor preaches a transformative sermon series either because he was ripened by the sun of God’s grace, or you were, or both; or, the year you leave behind for good one of those darling sins or a long-held doctrinal error; or, the year you unite in membership with a local confessionally Reformed church and don’t look back; or, the year you faithfully finish your earthly race and go home to the heavenly Father, to whom we all must go.   

In James 4:15 the apostle says: “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” In the context James is speaking of the plans we make for the future. He insists we reset our hearts to embrace the providential will of God more than we embrace our own plans and doings. What will God in his goodness and wisdom and grace and power do with us in the new year? Watching for this is far more to God’s glory and to the enjoyment of God than the quest to get done what I want to get done.

Of course, we must plan. Providence is no excuse to lounge around nor close our eyes and run blindly into the future, proud we are at least moving. Planning is good but it is not the greatest good. God’s providential will is always better, it is always right, it is always necessary, it is always best. Such cannot be said of our own plans. In fact, we should be more deeply pleased and at peace when God interrupts our plans than when we achieve them.

The great goodness and compassion of God liberates us to say with Matthew Henry: “Firmly believing that my times are in God’s hand, I here submit myself and all my affairs for the ensuing year, to the wise and gracious disposal of God’s divine providence.”

Anno Domini.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley