Missionary Diary: Wishing you a 'Happy (?) New Year' from France

Kate and her husband, Daniel, and their three children live in Lille in the north of France, working with the French-run organisation Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (GBU), which seeks to evangelise, train, and disciple university students. 

Happy New Year! It’s a greeting that rolls off the tongue. We’ve heard it a thousand times. It was wished to many last year as well – words aching with the hope that 2021 would be better than the tumultuous 2020. But was the new year a happy one? Or was it, like the previous year and so many before it, riddled with disappointment, sadness, fear and anxiety?

Yet we wish it again – a blind faith or naïvety that although pure happiness has never been attained on earth, that this coming new year would be pure happiness. And so happiness is the ultimate goal for a new year again – I deserve it and I should work out how to get it. It’s easy to place fitness, food and family time right near the top of the list of resolutions for the new year. But what happens when these things don’t bring the happiness I desire? 

I chew over this question as I walk home from the school drop-off, Christmas lights sparkling over the dark streets as sunrise begins to break through the heavy clouds (sunrise is late at this time of year in the north of France). Is expecting a happy new year like expecting to be able to have a sunrise all day? There will be happiness, but not all the time. My mind wanders to several brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced a year that saw happiness slip from their grip again and again. What then did they grip onto?

Should happiness be king in my life?

I think of a friend who comes to church almost every week, leaning heavily on his wife as he attempts the slippery ramp into the building, smiling to see those around him. His newly diagnosed cancer and its treatment has been ripping his body apart from the inside out. Yet he smiles. His plans for 2021 didn’t come to pass. But he wasn’t hoping for a happy year; he was hoping for a joyful year because he has a deep conviction that he has eternal peace with God in Christ. He got what he hoped for – his deep joy is completely unshaken, even if happiness has ebbed and flowed. 

I think of a GBU student we know who finished high school in July 2021 (the academic year is different to Australia here). In his large high school, he was the only Christian and yet he ran a Bible study every week for anyone who would come – friends he’d invited or other students who were curious. It was a hard slog, but he did it for three years. He started uni in September 2021, hopeful that on the large university campus there would be a Christian who would want to help him run such a group again. It would make him so happy to have a friend his age who shared his Bible-based beliefs, yet he’s alone. Again. But he presses on, running a group to invite people to, because his joy in Christ is unshaken and it’s a joy so deep and powerful that he can’t help but share it with anyone who will listen. 

Yet not all Christians respond to disappointments with unshaken faith. I think of another GBU student who is going through a time of deep doubt. She had plans for a happy year, but many events have thwarted the eventuation of that happiness. Yet there’s the promise of happiness to be found in something that’s contrary to God’s way of living and she has a choice. She’s chosen to stop coming to church and Bible study, she’s distanced herself from Christian friends. At this stage, she’s choosing to give up joy in Christ for the pursuit of happiness.

It breaks my heart to see someone walking away from the faith. Yet it’s not a surprise. France, in particular, invites everyone to embrace their freedoms and shape their own happiest reality. It’s tempting. I like to put myself first and I like the encouragement to obey my own desires. Every human desires happiness, but should I walk through life allowing that desire for happiness to guide my every step? Should happiness be king in my life?

We can’t lasso and capture happiness any more than we can lasso and capture the sunrise.

The morning sun is a little higher now and once again hidden behind the heavy grey clouds. Frosty rain begins to tumble down, even though rain wasn’t forecast today. I think about how we can’t actually shape our own reality. I can’t stop the rain; I can’t even predict it. No matter how hard we exercise, fuss over our diet, read self-improvement books, save money, climb the career ladder, study harder … we can’t lasso and capture happiness any more than we can lasso and capture the sunrise. So should this fleeting nicety be allowed to be king?

I push open the door to my warm apartment, hang my wet jacket, grab a hot cuppa and feel the tingle of warmth rejuvenate my freezing hands. I flip to Hebrews for guidance through these thoughts, my mind goes to Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” What a great reminder. I need endurance more than happiness; it’s a race, not a holiday. I focus on Jesus, not myself, and I follow his example of endurance for joy and glory. 

And so my prayer for my family and for myself for 2022 is that we keep choosing the deep joy offered in Christ, to thank God for the happiness he gives us, but to not live and work in the pursuit of happiness, but to live and work for him in whom my joy is found. 

So I wish you all a “Joyful New Year in Christ”.