So teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
—Psalm 90:12 (KJV)
It’s the time of year when I watch Groundhog Day. (Actually, it’s one of my favorite movies and I watch it several times a year, but I’m always reminded to see it again when February rolls around.)
If you haven’t seen Groundhog Day, well, you certainly ought to. It’s the story of an obnoxious TV weatherman named Phil Conner, played by Bill Murray.Phil is assigned to cover the appearance of “Paunxatawney Phil,” the groundhog whose shadow supposedly predicts a late spring. After the festivities, Phil (Conner) is stranded in town overnight by bad weather. When he wakes up, he discovers it is still February 2 and he is repeating the same day over, while the people around him are experiencing it for the first time.
When Phil learns that “tomorrow” will always be Groundhog Day, he surrenders to the pleasures of the flesh. He eats and drinks, drinks and drives, robs banks and seduces women. Finally, however he realizes that nothing he does satisfies him. He gives up trying to enjoy himself and commits suicide. But the next morning, he wakes up again and it’s still, always, Groundhog Day.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the teacher, Solomon writes these words:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
I think that must be how Phil Conners feels in Groundhog Day. But the movie is a romantic comedy, so Phil slowly gives up on not caring about anything. He begins to transform himself. He does good deeds for their own sake, changing strangers’ flat tires and feeding the homeless. Eventually, as a result of his efforts, Phil becomes a good person and wins the love of Rita, his producer, played by Andie McDowell. Only then is Phil finally freed from the endless cycle of Groundhog Days.
Our faith teaches that we are being sanctified, that the Holy Spirit is working in us to make us holy. But while we are forgiven and reborn in a moment when we first believe, sanctification is the work of a lifetime. We are works in progress, and often, it seems the more progress we make, the clearer we see how far we still are from being truly holy. Indeed, our sanctification will never be complete this side of eternity.
One of the many, many things that makes Groundhog Day so appealing is that Phil isn’t able to despair. Or, to be precise, he despairs over and over, until finally he despairs of despair itself. He gives up on giving up and, well, he gets on with his life.
Because our sanctification can progress so slowly, we can be tempted to give up in despair. Just when we think we are strong, we stumble and discover how weak we really are. Our temptation is to say, “well, I’m only human,” or to say we must already be as good as God wants us to be.
But God is sovereign. As long as we draw breath, we can be sure that God isn’t done with us. Often, when people say that they mean God has some particular type of service for them to perform, and that could well be the case. But what’s certain is that, if we wake up tomorrow morning, it means that God isn’t done making us holy.
In the movie, Phil came to realize that each successive Groundhog Day was a new opportunity to become a better person. The same is true for us. When we awaken — whether or not the date is February 2nd — the day is a gift from God and a chance to become more holy. So let’s be patient with God, as God is patient with us. Let’s not despair of being better people today than we were yesterday.