It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery… You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Galatians 5:1, 13
The start of a new year prompts thoughts about new beginnings: new diets to keep, new regimes of exercise to follow, new patterns of study to adopt, new determination to show more appreciation to colleagues, new undertaking to spend quality time with the children, new commitment to work on the house…
Human beings have habitually marked what has been seen as a ‘new year’. And the resolve at such times to ‘do better’ goes back at least to ancient Babylon. Something about the turn of the calendar carries with it a pervasive and powerful desire for a fresh start, a clean slate.
Indeed, many wise Christians down the centuries have encouraged the discipline of renewed reflection and fresh resolve at this time of the year. And we should celebrate genuine change where it occurs. But church history and practical experience warn us of the dangers of trying to secure ‘salvation’ through keeping a set of ‘rules’ or following a certain ‘code’, with the risk of looking down on others who don’t quite make the grade, or despairing with ourselves that we can’t manage it either.
To such people comes the message of freedom. It’s a message the Galatians needed to hear. And in a first-century Roman context, it would have conjured up images of being freed from slavery. Christ has set us free! For the start of a new year, then, comes a reminder that the heart of the Christian faith is not mere potential for self-improvement, but freedom, won by Christ – that we are free from the pressure of having to do things to gain favour with God, free from trying to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others, free to submit to the rule of Christ.
Like Eustace – the boy-turned-dragon – in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we will give up in frustration if we try, by ourselves, to remove our ‘dragonish’ scales. Only as we submit to the sharp claws of Aslan will we discover what it is like to be set free from our old skin, to be made clean, and then dressed in new clothes.
May this be the year not when we discover our own capacity for self-improvement, but when we discover afresh Christ – and the freedom he brings.