Last week, The New York Times released its “Year in Pictures.” The collection is the Times’ annual attempt to survey the noteworthy moments of the year, and 2016’s month-by-month arrangement of images is, as always, evocative.
A Zika-infected mother and baby smile nose-to-nose. Black cloth drapes Justice Scalia’s Supreme Court chair. Rubble mounts in Syria. Rubble in Brussels. Rubble in Iraq. Union Jack flags wave for Brexit. Beyoncé dances. Prince dances. A swirl of dancers at the New York City Ballet. The empty eyes and shrunken bodies of refugees from South Sudan and Syria. Memorials in Orlando. Memorials in Nice. Memorials in Berlin. Olympians leaping and diving for a place on the podium. President Obama. Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump again. Rising sea levels and disappearing lakes. Protestors everywhere. A tangle of triumphant Chicago Cubs. The bodies of fatally shot African-American men.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, the lead photo editor for the project, explained that he reviewed between 120,000 and 180,000 images (10,148 alone were of Donald Trump) before selecting the approximately 100 that illustrate both “news value” and “the compelling nature of the human experience.”
This project—like the many other year-end reviews published each December—is a valuable record of world events. We do well to remember injustices so that we might lament, and God’s kind providences so that we might give thanks. Headlines are not insignificant to Christians; even Jesus noted the tower in Siloam that killed 18 people when it fell (Luke 13:4).
But we must also remember that the really important events of 2016 are not so easily captured in vibrant pixels with stark captions. In fact, most of the year’s really important events cannot be photographed at all.
“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” Paul writes, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The most important conflicts of the past 12 months were not fought among the ruins of Syria or on the bench of the Supreme Court or at November’s ballot box. Instead, they were fought in the souls of God’s elect.
A few weeks ago, my church received a new member. This man, a Haitian immigrant, had set out one Sunday morning to attend a certain local congregation where the gospel is tragically absent. In God’s providence, he lost his way and instead found himself in the pews of our church. Over the next months he heard Christ faithfully preached and, eventually, by the work of the Spirit, received the good news with great joy. The one who was lost has been found. Yet there will be no Pulitzer-winning photos or Page 1 articles to document the news.
Even our surveys of church history often skip these stories. We list the councils, the synods, and the assemblies that produced the confessions and creeds. We highlight the theologians whose widely read writings stood against heresy or set a new direction for doctrine. A 2016 year-end review of the church would surely focus on news items like this summer’s Trinity debate or this fall’s decision by InterVarsity regarding gay marriage. And such events are indeed noteworthy.
But what’s the news that makes the biggest headlines in heaven? It’s “the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 8:4). It’s the believer who faithfully practices and teaches God’ commands (Matt. 5:19). It’s the person who acknowledges Christ before men (Matt. 10:32).
It’s “one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7).
A 19th-century tract written by Presbyterian minister William Plumer tells the story of a woman named Isabel Graham. Graham died in 1856 at the age of 29. Raised in a godly home, she spent her teenage years seeking the Lord, making public profession of faith at age 20. She married and gave birth to three children, one of them dying in infancy. She gave generously to gospel work, prayed persistently, and “never lost her relish for the Word of God.” In short, Graham was a faithful follower of Christ.
Commenting on Graham’s life, Plumer writes, “It is true there is nothing to give a thrilling interest to the brief memoirs of many a retiring child of God.” But, he says, “the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”
Last night my own children asked me, “Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?” I struggled to give a suitably impressive answer. Maybe you would, too. Most of us live our lives alongside people like Isabel Graham—men and women of ordinary faithfulness who know the Lord and serve him with joy but hardly strike us as famous.
But hear these words from 1 Corinthians:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. (1 Cor. 1:26–28)
We’ve come to the end of 2016. Over its months, we followed the stories—both mainstream and theological—that captured the attention of the world. But we should also remember that there were other, bigger headlines published in eternity: a child praying, a widow singing hymns, an ordinary pastor preaching the living Word.
As Plumer wrote in his tract, “Every year is adding new jewels to the crown of the Redeemer.” What news items could be more significant?