You started last year with a tankful of gas — overflowing with energy, motivation, joy, and optimism. Twelve months on, you were empty, running on fumes, joyless, and dreading the new year. You wonder if you can even go another day, far less another year. Three questions are on your mind:
What went wrong?
How can I get refueled for this year?
How do I make this year different than last year?
You may have had no control over some of the life events that drained you dry last year. Your gas tank was punctured by holes not of your own making: the loss of health, of a loved one, of a job, of your marriage, of a friendship, or of a dream. For many of us, though, our emptiness is of our own making. Either we forgot to keep refueling with God’s word and grace, thinking we can live by our own wisdom and strength, or we put multiple holes in our own tanks through our own choices.
What Went Wrong?
What choices puncture the gas tanks of our souls? Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel many Christians whose gas tanks looked more like sieves. They had holed themselves repeatedly by their own lifestyle choices. These were not caused by life events they had no control over, but were the result of their own free decisions. The most common decisions that caused the most damage were sinful habits (especially pornography), excessive working hours, sleep deprivation, refusal of God’s gift of a weekly Sabbath, and technology addiction. Often they came as a package.
Whether you were drained by holes that resulted from events outside your control or by those you made yourself, the question is the same, How can I refuel, and regain the joy I lost? Before we try to refuel, we must at least attempt to repair the holes we made ourselves. There’s no point in putting premium joy-fuel into our tanks if it’s just going to run out unrepaired holes.
We can’t deny the laws of gravity or of our humanity. We cannot flourish if we continue in sinful habits, or if we fail to wisely steward our bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships for God’s glory. Start welding these self-inflicted gashes with repentance for sin, with reduced working hours, with increased sleep, with a weekly Sabbath, and with a digital detox.
How Can I Refuel?
Assuming that repair work has begun, let’s now focus on the joy-fuel that God has provided to reenergize us for the new year. “Wait, wait!” you protest, “What about the holes we didn’t make for ourselves, like mental illness, disease, bereavement, conflict, job loss, and so on?” You’re right. Some of these holes cannot be so easily repaired, and we must carry them with us into the new year. But if we put the right fuel into our tank, we will still have everything we need. We can be, as the apostle said, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
What kind of fuel do we need? Nehemiah explains, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). But where can I find that pump of God-centered, soul-strengthening joy? Let me point you to five gas pumps, the five doctrines of grace, as a solid, objective basis for the subjective joy we all crave. Through truths that never change, the subjective joy of communion with God can be experienced in more stable and steady ways.
I rejoice in confessing my total depravity, the corruption of every part of my being, my utter and total inability to do anything spiritually pleasing to God apart from God. How can that be joyful? If all I do is wallow in my sinful hopelessness, there is no joy whatsoever. However, skipping this confession drains away the joy of all the other doctrines. Grace isn’t grace if it’s earned, deserved, worked for, or contributed to. If I want to experience greater joy, I gladly say with Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
I find much more joy in denying any contribution to my salvation and attributing it all to God’s grace than in attempting to share the glory of my salvation between us. Total depravity is the foundation for total joy.
I rejoice in God’s unconditional election of me. One of the biggest sources of joyful wonder for me is the triple question Paul asks: “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Another deep source of joy is describing myself using Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:26–29: “Foolish, weak, low, despised, things that are not, but, but, but . . . chosen by God!” That is unconditional joy.
I rejoice in Christ’s definite atonement for me. I can find no joy in an atonement that was equally offered for those who are presently in hell. Such a general “atonement,” one that doesn’t always atone, terrifies me and could never provide me with even a moment of joy. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Knowing that Christ had me specifically and lovingly on his mind and in his heart when he was living, suffering, dying, and rising again, that is enough to give me immeasurable joy. Definite atonement means definite joy.
I rejoice in the irresistible work of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9; see also Acts 16:14).
To think that the Holy Spirit one day went on a divinely planned mission to conquer my heart, to win my soul, to invade my life — that is such an incredible joy to me. That he resolutely overcame all my opposition, broke down all my defenses, dashed all my resistance, and said, “I’m coming in, and I’m coming to stay!” What irresistible joy!
Perseverance of the Saints
I rejoice in the preserving work of God, without which I could not persevere in the faith, no, not even one day. I didn’t get in myself and I can’t stay in myself. God alone can and does do that. No matter how much you may have stumbled or fallen in the last twelve months, your God “is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24). That sovereign grace will preserve my joy through this next year, and forever after that.
What We Need This Year
Maybe there are some Christians who think they can find greater confidence and happiness believing in a limited depravity, in attributing salvation to their personal choice, in an atonement that doesn’t actually atone, in assisting the Holy Spirit’s saving work, and in a salvation that can actually end up with them being unsaved. Personally, I would find that totally depressing. They are, for me, the doctrines of gloom, not hope and joy.
When you give me the doctrines of grace, you give me the doctrines of joy — joy-fuel that will help make this year far better than the year before.