Recently, while driving back home at the end of a beach holiday, our eight-year-old sighed deeply in the back seat and said, “I can’t wait until I’m retired”. My husband and I burst out laughing and asked him why he was in such a desperate hurry to get to retirement. “I just want to be able to move to the beach and go swimming every day”, he told us. It seems ridiculous to us to wish away a good 60-year chunk of your life, but how often is our thinking similar to that of our eight-year-old? Do you ever find yourself longing to get to the next stage of your life? I can’t wait until I’ve finished this degree, I can’t wait until I get that job, I can’t wait for the kids to be out of nappies, I can’t wait until we’ve paid off this mortgage. We can feel contentment is out of reach now, but everything will be so much better when we get to the next chapter.
Often, my sin tends more in the opposite direction. At times I feel myself almost overwhelmed by sadness at the passing of time. I find this particularly in relation to our kids. Our youngest child has just turned three and is in that beautiful stage of language development where every phrase seems to come out with some funny and endearing twist. I try to write some of them down to somehow capture this moment in time, but I know from our other children that soon enough I’ll forget the way she speaks now. As each year passes, the girl she currently is will replace in my memory the girl she once was. I also know the time is fast approaching when she will join her siblings at school, and I will no longer have little people around the house with me. I’ve so loved this stage of life and I can see I will have to fight the sin of bitterness from encroaching on the natural sadness that this season is done.
How we think about the future and the past can slip into a sort of covetousness that robs us of gratitude and contentment in the present. We also see this when we flip these same feelings into the negative. I can dwell so much on past mistakes and sins that they consume my present. Or I can spend all my time now anxiously dreading the future and fearing what lies ahead. So how is the Christian to live in the presentin a way that brings glory to God?
Firstly, we will need to think properly about the past. If you have reason to dwell on the mistakes and sins of the past, the Apostle Paul probably had more. Before his conversion he zealously persecuted the church. In Acts 8 he watched approvingly as Stephen was stoned to death. Yet Paul can write in Philippians 3:13-14: “But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus”. He is freed in the present to look forward to his heavenly future. We face no condemnation for the sins of the past when we are in Christ.
Your temptation, like mine, might be to slip into discontent with your present lot compared to the past. I sometimes hear myself in the Israelite’s grumbling in Exodus 16:3: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted.” Like the Israelites, I need to be reminded of what I have been saved from. They had, by God’s grace, been rescued from slavery to be delivered into a bountiful promised land. We have, by God’s grace, been freed from slavery to sin and the punishment of death to be delivered into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. There will be good things in our lives that we will lose—whether the small things such as the passing of a special time of life, or much bigger sorrows such as the loss of someone we love. Sometimes it feels like the present is more to be endured than enjoyed, but as we lift our eyes to the future that is ours, we can persevere today with gratitude for what has been won in Christ.
In the same way we need to recognise we may be coveting a future this side of heaven that can cause us to fall into ingratitude and discontent now. So, whether we long for a past that was better or hunger for an improvement in our lot now, the gospel teaches us this: to live with thankfulness and contentment in the present as we wait for that final day.
When anxiety over the future starts to consume my present, I love to return to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34. He knows our temptation to run after the security we seek in this world, firming things up for ourselves as if we were in control of it all. I need to be reminded that each day has enough trouble of its own. It forces me to acknowledge again that any control I think I have is an illusion. It is my Heavenly Father upon whom I depend for my daily bread. He orders my priorities: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. What a comfort for the present that our future, both here and now and into eternity, is secure in him.
I’m in a book club with a good friend who cannot stand reading a book without knowing the ending. She always flips to the back to discover how it ends. More often than not, she has read the Wikipedia plot summary before even picking the book up. She says it helps her enjoy the book more because she can relax a bit knowing how it all resolves. Being a Christian is a little like my friend and her book-spoiling habit. We know how this wraps up. It is the Lord who is King; he has the victory, He will return and take us to be with him. And that gives us hope for our future. It puts the past in its right place, and it equips us to live in the present with his kingdom as our first priority.