Simply by reference to its name, the New Year brings thoughts of refreshing, renewal, and starting over. We see the month and day with a value of “1.” We recognize something has been reset. We wonder if that might apply to us personally.
As Christians, we consider that this might also have spiritual implications.
We can express our thanks to Julius Caesar for our calendar year beginning January 1. And it was the Pope who endured the start of Martin Luther’s Protestant reformation who solidified the 12-month, 365-day system we observe today.
We have no biblical precedent for seeing the first of January as a sign of, or motive for, inner renewal. And yet, we do.
We look at the world with its New Year’s resolutions. We long to attach spiritual significance to them. Losing weight, starting a business, and improving a relationship can only get you so far.
… for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8 ESV)
We see spiritual growth as superior to life improvement. But even that is not enough for us sometimes. We long for God’s direct imprimatur upon our endeavor.
And so we invent a new movement. And we give it a new name.
‘God gave me a word’
I would be hard pressed to explain when or how this trend began. I certainly never heard it prior to about 15 years ago. But it seemed to pop up as mysteriously as a thundercloud in December.
More and more often, and always around New Year’s Day, friends and influencers on social media declare that God has “given them a word” for the new year. This is distinct from the claim of a word given in the context of corporate worship or discipleship, where the “word” may actually be as much as a paragraph.
No, this is an actual “word” word. A handful of characters arranged into phonemes, intended to communicate a singular though, truth, or promise. One single word, full stop.
Sometimes this word is given in answer to a specific request. “God, please give me a word for the new year.” And He answers. Other times, this word arrives unbeckoned. A treat slipped into the toe of a Christmas stocking.
And it astonishes me how this given word is always positive. If not explicitly brimming with positivity, the word will be at least easily interpreted as such.
‘Did God really say?’
I’ll just admit right here: God has never given me a “word.” I’ve never asked Him for one. Perhaps I don’t have enough faith. Or God has not chosen to bless me with such a verbal gift.
Maybe it’s because He knows how deeply and pointedly I have questioned the whole phenomenon. Perhaps He’s waiting until I get answers to the questions that resurface in my mind like ice patches on a pond every January 1.
Maybe it’s time to ask them out loud.
Are you comfortable with having no biblical precedent?
If you are a Christian who believes God gives you a “word” for the new year, are you okay with the fact that, if you yourself were a biblical character, you would be utterly alone in your experience?
The Bible is filled with folks who received words directly from God. And we’d better all be thankful they did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a Bible.
God spoke to prophets, teachers, priests, rabbis, fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots. He spoke to those with and without faith, to Jews and Gentiles, to God-fearers and sinners. He spoke through persons, clouds and pillars, thunderclaps, incarnations, and even an animal or two.
But in no passage of Scripture do we find God giving a single “word” of instruction, direction, or motivation to anyone.
God’s words to persons were always much longer chunks of text. Multiple thoughts strung together in sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters according to our modern reckoning. But no single words uttered at the beginnings of calendar years. Not once.
Does this change your perception of your personal experience?
Are you comfortable being outside apostolic authority?
When the resurrected Lord Jesus gathered His disciples to Himself in Galilee, He told them:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)
Jesus’ direct instruction to His disciples – His apostles – was that they should tell new believers to do everything He said they should do.
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He gave them a specific model to follow. He told them what to ask for, how to ask for it, and with what attitude it should be asked.
Jesus did not teach his apostles to ask God for a “word” each new year.
The apostles did not command the churches they planted and shepherded to ask God for a “word” each new year.
In none of the seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor recorded in the book of Revelation do we read the Lord Jesus declaring, “But I have this against you. You have not asked me for a ‘word’ for the new year.”
When you ask God for your “word,” have you resolved to do so outside of any authoritative, apostolic instruction?
Do you believe in ongoing, divine, personal, direct revelation?
As Protestant Christians, we believe the biblical canon is closed. No more books get pasted in between Revelation and the maps. That’s it. It’s done.
We reject the Apocrypha of the Roman Catholic Bible. We say “no” to the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrines and Teachings. We don’t count as authoritative the writings of Mary Baker Eddy or Ellen G. White.
The Koran? Still no.
The gnostic “gospels”? Don’t get me started.
The sufficiency of Scripture is a great big hook upon which we hang our Evangelical hats. We teach it, we declare it, we live by it. Many of our forefathers and foremothers died for it.
Given all this, why do you need God to give you a “word” each new year? Does it add value to the riches in the storehouse of God’s biblical treasures? Is it like a dietary supplement in case you didn’t get enough riboflavin? Is it the flu shot that inoculates you against next year’s spiritual viral mutation?
And how do you know it really came from God? What is the spiritual frequency to which you attuned your receptors to capture it? Was it deposited into an internal account like an unexpected refund? Did you open an inner mailbox and find it there like an unsolicited credit card offer?
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)
If God did indeed give you a New Year’s “word,” He did so through His Son. The last time Jesus spoke to anyone in Scripture it was to the apostle John. And his words were authoritative and binding to the churches to whom they were addressed.
That’s pretty weighty stuff, no? Does your “word” bear equal gravity? Would you put it on your shelf or nightstand next to your copy of the Bible?
Those are a lot of questions, I admit. But I’m not quite done.
Let’s say you’ve answered every question I’ve asked so far. You still believe you can and should ask God for a “word” for the new year. And that He will.
I have a few more questions for you.
What if you don’t like the ‘word’ He gives you?
Earlier I noted these God-given “words” are always so positive, so full of fulfillment and potential, so empowering and satisfying.
“The word God gave me for this year is ‘success.'”
“God’s word for me this year is ‘victory.'”
“I asked God to give me a word for the year, and He said, ‘Fruitful.'”
I have never once seen anyone say, or at least admit:
“The word God gave me for this year is ‘wait.'”
“God’s word for me this year is ‘pain.'”
“I asked God to give me a word for the year, and He said, ‘Loss.'”
What if you ask God to give you a “word” for the year, and His word for you is, “No”?
How will you respond if God replies with the word, “Suffering”?
To whom and to what will you turn if your God-given word for the new year is “Affliction”?
Cancer? Divorce? Joblessness? Depression? Bankruptcy? Childlessness? Miscarriage? Foreclosure? Loneliness?
How about, “Labors, imprisonments, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, danger, robberry, abandonment, persecution, betrayal, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, and exposure”? (2 Cor. 11)
If the “word” God gives you doesn’t meet with your approval, isn’t compatible with what you hope for the new year, can you let it sit unclaimed? Give it back? Ask for another? Exchange it like an ill-fitting Christmas hoodie?
But keep on seeking after a “word.” I think I can show you a better way.
God gave you a Word
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 ESV)”
When God gave the world a word, it wasn’t a single utterance. It wasn’t one or two syllables deposited into the recesses of a single mind. It was a baby deposited into the womb of a Jewish teenager.
It wasn’t “a” word. It was “The Word.” The highest and fullest of the utterances of God, preceded by a definite article.
God’s Word was words, to be sure. But He is also a Person.
That Person became flesh and dwelt among us, pitched His tent in our messy camp. He set up shop in our cesspool of sin, in the mire of our distress and dismay.
God’s Word walked and talked with us. He ate and drank with us. He laughed and cried with us.
And then He died for us.
And when that Word dug Himself out of the grave we laid Him in, He reminded us of everything He had said before. And He promised to always be with us, never forsake us, and return one day to claim us.
The apostle Peter saw this Word with His human cover peeled back like a scroll, exposed in all His glory on a mountain top, sharing a few words with a couple of old friends.
And what was his conclusion? To what did the once Christ-denying fisherman, now gospel-preaching radical point after seeing the incarnate Word ablaze in fearsome splendor?
“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts …” (2 Peter 1:19 ESV)
Peter pointed not to the inner memory of a mountain-top experience. He pointed to the Word delivered once and for all, to all the saints. Not just for him, or for a select elite, or to one blessed with a personalized ration with a 12-month shelf life.
Peter pointed to the Word on fire, the Word in the manger, the Word in the synagogue and the Temple, the Word in the homes and and the wedding and on the streets and at the table.
The Word with the crown of thorns and the robe dipped in blood and the shreds of flesh and the nails in His hands and feet.
The Word on the cross. The Word in the grave. And out of the grave. At the lakeside. In the air. Seated at the Father’s right hand.
The Word in black ink on a white page, sitting on your end table.
The Word in ones and zeroes on a fleck of silicon, sitting in your pocket.
He’s your Word for the new year.
And He’s mine, too.