Partly because we’ve had some time away from our usual schedules, and partly because we just threw away an old calendar and got a new one, in the New Year we often find ourselves thinking about our lives in “big picture” terms. Throughout the year we easily get caught up in the detail of our day-to-day busyness, and it is possible to lose a broader perspective in the midst of the demands in front of us. The New Year is a time to zoom out and think in terms of years rather than days or weeks.
But although it’s a healthy thing to do, for many of us this “zoom out” perspective can be a scary or a depressing experience. If we haven’t achieved what we wanted with our lives, or if there are bad memories from the past, or the future seems uncertain, we may not enjoy being compelled to reflect on the past and anticipate the future in this way. If we have managed to find some level of security in the present, it is more comfortable to focus only on the present.
But as Christians we don’t have to be afraid of time. The Christian understanding of time contains some special elements which remove the need for fear about either the past or the future. How, as Christians, do we view time differently? What is it about the Christian message that changes the way we look at our past and our future? I want to suggest three things.
First, the Christian message frees us from bondage to the past. Without Christian doctrine underpinning our thinking, it is easy to be caught in a sense of inevitability about the trajectory of our lives. We still have the same bad habits, and the same fears and insecurities, that we had before. We are a product of external forces that made us who we are and we don’t seem able to escape them. The future can start to look identical to the past, in a dismal cycle of determinism. Nothing ever changes, and nothing ever will change.
Christian doctrine does not allow us to think deterministically like this. Christians believe that God can transform people’s lives, supernaturally interrupting the trap of the cause-effect cycle and the feeling of being inevitably a product of our childhood. Our past does not have control over us. By the power of God we can be set free from the dominion of the past, and choose to shape the future in a different way.
Second, the Christian message frees us from regret about the past. Sometimes we can look back on our lives and feel like we wasted them, or made terrible choices that we are now living in the consequences of. If only we’d been more disciplined, or taken this opportunity, or done X or Y when we had the chance. It’s too late to start all over again. Nothing can give us back those years that we lost, whether we see it as our fault or not. There is an inevitability, an unchangeability about the past, that can lead to despair.
But God can even redeem those moments of the past we most regret in ways we may not be able to imagine. The way we view the past, the meaning we give to it, depends entirely on our present perspective. All those years which we think we wasted may turn out to have been preparing us for a special purpose which we could not have achieved without them. The future may reveal to us ways in which God in the past was faithful, that we can’t presently see.
Thirdly, the Christian message is one of overwhelming hope about the future. Hope transforms circumstances. Hope enables us to endure pain and hardship, if we know beyond all doubt that it will not last. Although hope is about the future, its effects are on the present. It makes all the difference in the world, when we don’t enjoy our present situation, to know how long it will last and what the future will bring. There is no ambiguity in Christian doctrine on this point: only repeated confirmation that the end to which we are being propelled is a good one, better than we can imagine. Putting our trust in this doctrine about the future can transform the way we live in and experience the present.
So when we think about our lives in big picture, let’s remember the God who is the Lord of time, of the past and the present and the future, and view our lives in light of his grace.
This post was first published at Many Horizons on Jan 6, 2014.