First Things First – January 2021


By Bill McDonald
January 5, 2021

Happy New Year! The old one certainly was one for the record books, but I’m not going to hate on 2020. In many ways, it was a needed wakeup call. Some of us, to be sure, were shaken out of our evangelical, upper-middle class, Anglo-American comfort zones and reminded that there is no guarantee that today’s luxuries will survive for tomorrow’s pleasure. But I digress. Well, just one more thing. Have you ever considered that not one thing that happened in 2020 took God by surprise? In fact, if what we confess actually is true, then everything that happened in 2020 did so according to the most holy, wise and powerful providence of God. Think on it.

With every new year, there is the tendency to look back, to consider what was, to breathe a sigh of relief that we’re past it all, and to look ahead to what might be. The ancient Greeks embodied this idea in Janus, the deity who was both forward- and backward-looking at the same time. Janus, the overseer of transitions, of endings and beginnings. Hence, we begin the new year with the month January.

This month of transition would be a good time to consider some words from Paul’s two thousand-year-old letter to the Philippians –

Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Ph. 3:14-15).

When Paul says he forgets what lies behind, he doesn’t mean that he is sweeping his past under the rug or blotting it out of his memory as if it never existed. To the contrary, the Scriptures are full of admonitions to remember the LORD’s past works and his many demonstrations of mercy and provision. In the context of Paul’s letter, “what lies behind” consists of all that Paul has accomplished to this point. In his familiar footrace metaphor, it is the milestones he already has passed, which are now meaningless in his quest for the finish. All that matter now are the goals that lie ahead and ultimately the prize that awaits at the end. So, he forgets the past and reaches forward to the future.

In our own lives this is not easy to do, partly because we know what lies behind, but what lies ahead is yet to be revealed. It is uncertain, and with uncertainty comes speculation. We want to fill in the gaps with what is familiar and known. And given our sometimes-pessimistic outlook, we tend to reach back to the worst that we know of the past and project it onto the future. The result is fear and doubt.

This is where faith comes in, what the Scriptures call walking by faith and not by sight. And part of faith’s essence is moving forward into an unknowable future with the fears and failures of the past squarely in the rear-view mirror. Take the women and men of Hebrews 11, inductees into the so-called “Hall of Faith”. As we read their stories, we observe at least a couple of points.

First, their faith looked forward at an unknown future, not backward at the past that lay behind. They knew that faith is the sure hope that God will do what he has said he will do. Based on that sure hope they stepped out, they moved forward, and they acted.

Second, these people endured explicit hardships as they stepped out in faith. In each case they were called by God to do or endure something that caused them pain, sometimes death, in the very least uncertainty and trial. As they moved ahead, their past experiences of God’s blessing surely must have bolstered their confidence for the future. “If God did it in the past, surely he will do it again.” But past blessing was no guarantee of future comfort. In the end, God called them to move ahead on the basis of his promise alone, whatever the short-term outcome might prove.

So it is with us today. Like the saints from Hebrews 11 and like Paul in his Philippian letter, our sure hope is the word of God, and the goal to which we aspire is “the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The reality of a vital faith in the living Christ is what drives us forward today through the uncertain and unknowable circumstances of tomorrow. A friend of mine grew up on the mission field in a legacy missionary family. He told me once that amid everyday life, when someone would say, “We’ll get by somehow,” his mom would correct them, “Not just somehow, triumphantly.”

2020 came and went, and this new year will do the same. Who knows but whether a year from now, people will be wishing good riddance to 2021. How ever it turns out, our role on this earth is to restore the image of God to a fallen world by reflecting the character of Christ day in and day out. And our ultimate goal, God’s upward call, is resurrection and eternal fellowship with him.

So, I say again, Happy New Year! And may the LORD today and throughout 2021 grant each of us faith to reach forward to what lies ahead, whatever that might be.