What is your mind’s favourite time zone? When your brain switches off, do you tend to drift back to past days, remembering the good times – or maybe dwelling on past regrets? Is your typical mental state one of living ‘in the moment’, rooted in the things happening right now? Or do your thoughts float toward the future, considering exciting prospects or worrying possibilities? There are advantages and disadvantages in each time zone.
- The past. Obviously, it’s not helpful to get stuck in a cycle of regret or anger over things that have happened that you wish were different. No amount of fussing is going to change what has been. But the past also has much to offer us as leaders in mission. It’s where we find facts and evidence for what is true. We find accounts of God’s activity which demonstrate his character. There are stories of faithful people that provide encouragement. Thinking of past blessings stimulates gratitude, which is a great motivator. Reflecting on what God has done builds a firm foundation for faith, anchored in God’s Word, in historical fact and our own experience. We learn from the past or, if we don’t, as the saying goes, we are destined to repeat it.
- The present. Simply living for today can be a shallow approach to life, lacking perspective and the wisdom that comes from other time zones. Selfish and foolish people typically live in this time zone. And yet, it is only by being fully present in the current moment that we can truly and deeply connect with others and with God. The present is the place of agency; we cannot change the past nor can we control the future, but right here and now we can choose to respond faithfully to God’s grace. Now is when I worship and pray, love and serve, give and speak. Now is all I can impact directly. Now is when I appropriate God’s grace, based on the past and for the sake of the future.
- The future. Like me, you’ve probably had the frustrating experience of dealing with daydreamers who rarely reflect and often fail to take responsibility for what needs to be done today, their heads filled with fanciful notions. Possibly worse are the people who assess every idea on a worst-case scenario basis, constantly stuck worrying about imaginary catastrophes about to occur. But for leaders in mission, the future is where the action is! There’s transformational power in considering the future. It stirs hope of God’s intervention and a Spirit-inspired imagination of what might be possible. It strengthens resolve to do difficult things that have future rewards. A grasp of a transcendental future answers many of the big ‘why?’ questions.
I would argue that Christians are, essentially, future-oriented people. Not to the exclusion of the past and the present, but it’s our vision of the future that shapes us. We have grasped hold of the good news of the kingdom of God – that God has a big project going on to restore the whole of creation under his rule. The completion of this fully-funded, 100% guaranteed project comprehensively dominates the future. This is our hope, our inspiration.
Biblical Encouragements and Warnings
Jesus gives us great encouragement to consider the future, for example in Lk 14 with his parables about setting goals for construction and combat. If you’re a leader in Jesus’ mission it’s critical that you pay sufficient attention to future consequences. Jesus himself was a future-oriented person who, because he could see joy in the future, endured the cross for the sake of that future (Heb 12:2).
Jesus also gives us a warning about future thinking in Mt 6:34. When we consider the future we should avoid doing so with a mindset of worry. Rather we should have a mindset of seeking God’s rule. Further, James warns us in Jas 4:13-17 not to think about the future with naivety or with the kind of presumption that becomes arrogance. Rather, consideration of the future should stimulate our desire to seek God’s will.
Future Discernment and Future Creation
None of us has a crystal ball but we do live in a world where the laws of cause and effect allow for a measure of predictability, provided we think about it. With serious consideration of current realities outside our control, we can discern how things are likely to unfold and take wise action in preparation. In addition, we can consider the likely impact of actions we take today. Careful choices will help to create the kind of future we would prefer.
A future time perspective is essential for ethical behaviour, because it’s is crucial to consider the likely outcomes of our actions. Failure to think about the future leads to the all-too-common question, “What were they thinking!?” If we are to avoid the trap of unintended consequences we must get better at developing our future perspective.
Drawing our attention towards the future moves us from a problem-focus to a solution-focus. There is proven strategic value in clearly identifying a preferred future then moving to prioritisation and goal-setting. But there’s more to it than strategy and performance. Future time perspective produces positive personal formation, helping with motivation, perseverance, delayed gratification, self-restraint, and the capacity to wait and be patient. It strengthens the joy of anticipation, the faith involved in expectation, and the peace that comes through accepting that painful and puzzling matters will one day be resolved.
Questions for Discerning a Likely Future
- If present patterns continue, what will be the outcomes one year from now?
- How is person X likely to respond if you do as you intend?
- Is there any reason this will work out differently than it has in the past?
- Which of your assumptions about the future are most/least reliable?
Questions for Creating a Preferred Future
- What do you have in your life today that you would like to be part of your future?
- If you were free of distractions, where would you be in 5 years’ time?
- If you had a year to live, with full capacities for the first 11 months, what would you do?
- What hope is God stirring in your heart about your service for him?