The confluence of Christmastime, the end of a calendar year and the beginning of a new one, tends to prompt a season of reflection.
Various media provide us with reviews of the significant events and people from the closing year. Predictions abound of what the new year will bring, and resolutions give expression to our personal commitments and desires to improve our lives.
These few days at the year’s end bring us close to a vantage point reflected in the Bible’s portrait of the covenant journey. There we see a three-way view of looking to:
- The past to learn from the pattern of God’s liberating and redemptive work
- The future to envision the new and creative ways that work might continue to unfold
- The present to see the ways our choices participate in shaping that future
All the while, God’s covenant promise, “I will be with you,” remains at the heart of faith’s thinking. This sounds a bit like our “year in review,” “what will 2014 be like?” and “the meaning of Christmas” all rolled into a few days around the winter solstice.
2013 has been a sobering year on many fronts.
Nearly 200 children have been killed by guns in the U.S. since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Economic distress has continued its slow erosion of the dreams of individuals and families crippled by the shackles of its inequality. Our governing system has been reduced to dysfunction by partisan politics. The list could go on.
We naturally hope that 2014 will be better, and there is no shortage of suggestions as to how that might happen.
I have found myself hoping that the new year might be one of discernment that is enacted in the spirit of 1 John 4:1, which says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test (discern) the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
“Testing a spirit” may be as simple as having a litmus test for an idea, belief or policy that causes one to accept or reject it solely on whether it fits a predetermined pattern.
For example, “If so-and-so is for it, I’m against it” or “If they said it on such-and-such network, it must be true.”
By contrast, “testing a spirit” through discernment implies examination and analysis in an effort to understand something at a deeper level than the surface.
It also implies a commitment to a truth deeper than one might understand at a given moment.
This sounds like an essential function of faith when faith is understood as a journey rather than as a set of established and authorized beliefs.
How do we “discern the spirits” that appeal for our attention and support? Evidently the early Christian community had that challenge as various understandings of life and faith developed among them.
The epistle of 1 John suggests a standard: If a spirit embraces what is disclosed about God in Jesus Christ, then you can trust it. What might this kind of discernment mean in concrete terms in our day? Are there some questions that might guide us?
I would offer the following questions as a way to “test the spirits” by using discernment:
- Does the spirit calling for our attention appeal to our fear or to our hope?
- Does it encourage us to build and strengthen our security systems to protect what we have, or to build and use bridges to broaden community?
- Does it encourage an exclusive or an inclusive understanding of the Gospel?
- Does it use what the Bible says to support ideas and beliefs we might already hold, or does it look to see what the Bible points to as a possibility for the human family?
- Does it categorize and dismiss the “other” because of observable differences and fail to embrace our common humanity?
- Does it encourage us to see the difference between God and our concepts of God and open us to live into the unfolding mystery of God?
- Does it encourage us to put into practice personally and collectively the teachings of Jesus about the character of the Kingdom of God?
There are many “spirits” calling for our minds and hearts.
Some are well funded and cleverly disguised campaigns to gain public support for private benefit, and some are packaged in pious wrapping.
Some are carefully framed to appeal to our fears and prejudices, while others pull our vision beyond the reflections of ourselves to what might be if we were to take seriously the call of covenant partnership.
Discernment will determine which spirit we trust. If we remember to “test the spirits” with its careful use, 2014 just might be a different kind of year.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).