Seeing 2020

I was at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver’s license. After what seemed like an eternity, my turn finally came, and I stepped up to the counter. The clerk scored my test, and satisfied, laid it aside. Then she asked me to remove my glasses. I did.

With the disinterested air of someone who had done this thousands of times before, she pointed over her shoulder to the eye chart that hung from the ceiling behind her. “Read the bottom line of the chart,” she said flatly.

I squinted. “What chart?” I asked.

She stared at me for a second. Then, “Okay. Put your glasses back on.”

Today marks the end of yet another calendar year, and tomorrow, the beginning of the new. By a happy coincidence, it’s the year 2020. I expect a slew of people and organizations to capitalize on the fact and talk about the importance of “20/20 vision.”

So, far be it from me to disappoint. But how we look forward to 2020 will depend on how we look back to 2019.

What kind of year has it been for you? Our own extended circle of friends and family has faced numerous difficulties, including difficulties that will carry over into the new year, like failing health and cancer treatments. The seminary where I’ve taught for over three decades continues to wrestle with its own formidable challenges, and people are anxious about the future. (For those of you who haven’t yet heard, we are no longer planning to leave Pasadena. There goes my much anticipated short commute!) No doubt the coming year will bring some tough, painful decisions.

What have you struggled with? What has strained your faith, or even pushed you to the limit?

In such situations, it’s understandable that we would bemoan the old year and hope for improved circumstances in the new. Maybe 2020 will be better? Maybe our situation will change, and things will go our way?

Maybe. But changed circumstances in themselves don’t make for better vision.

Researchers in the field of positive psychology devote themselves to the study of well-being, to figuring out why some people are happier than others. Their findings are often counter-intuitive. They argue, for example, that your long-term happiness, in general, depends very little on improved circumstances. Sure, you’ll be happier if your situation improves — but that uptick in positivity will only last for a while. Soon, the new and improved situation becomes the new normal. You won’t celebrate it; you’ll take it for granted.

Far more important, then, are the habits you cultivate. You can practice gratitude on a regular basis, noticing the big and little things for which you can give thanks. Or you can be more intentional about spending time with people who lift you up, and so on.

This is where the matter of vision comes in: even if you can’t always do something to change your circumstances, you can do something to change how you look at them, or even more broadly, how you look at life itself. 

I know. You may be struggling with extremely difficult circumstances, and it sounds trite for me to talk about vision, about how we look at life. And don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to tell anyone with a cancer diagnosis, for example, to just look on the bright side and stop praying for a medical miracle. 

Still, what I wish for you in 2020 — what I wish for all of us, always — is that we would be able to see all of life as being held in the hands of a good, gracious, and sovereign God. That may be particularly difficult to do in the midst of trying circumstances. But I believe this is the biblical vision, not only of the crucified Jesus, but of Moses, of Paul. 

A tall order? Sometimes. It takes practice to consistently and faithfully see the world that way.

But hey, we’ve got a whole year to work on it.

Have a blessed New Year.