We tend to romanticize the past and feel anxious for the future to arrive. In doing so, we dismiss the present as a prelude or temporary step before something guaranteed to be better.
In his novel, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis illustrates the folly of this way of thinking through the advice of a senior devil, Screwtape, mentoring a younger devil, whose job is the damnation of souls.
“Nearly all vices are rooted in the future,” Screwtape instructs. “Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.”
His point is that one of the most common and harmful things humans can do to ourselves is to forsake the present which God has gifted us, for the distraction of a fantasy future which may or may not come true. We chase what is not real, and ignore what we have.
Instead, God intends us to be creatures of the present, without worry for the future.
Your Time is Not Your Own
One of the chief reasons it is unwise to hasten toward the future is that the future is not guaranteed. Not only that, the time we have here on earth – however long that may be – does not belong to us and we are not masters of it. As with all that we have, materially speaking, our time is not our own but is a gift from God. This is especially true of the present moment, which is the only sure moment you have.
In our haste to find out the future, the beauty of the present moment – the only bit of time we really have – is lost. If we can change our understanding of the present as the only sure thing, and the future as an unearned blessing, gratitude becomes more natural. Is it possible for you to find meaning in today’s quiet cup of tea, a great conversation with a friend or a beautiful sunset? What a blessing it can be to not only find meaning in the little moments of the present but also actively acknowledge God for another day on this planet, with the opportunity to serve Him here and now.
An Assumption About the Future
When we’re straining toward the future in expectation, we do so on an important assumption: that the future will be better than the present. But what happens when it isn’t? Instead of gratitude for what is, we pile up disappointments and resentments about our lot in life. There is no surer way to resent God and create space between you and Him than to ruminate on what’s going wrong (per your own expectations). Plus, it blinds us to what could be good – even when different from our own plans – about the future.
The best way to combat anxiety about the future is to pray for the strength to handle it and to feel the assurance of God’s presence. In the words of St. Francis de Sales:
“Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations, and say continually: The Lord is my strength and shield; my heart has trusted in Him and I am helped. He is not only with me, but in me and I in Him.”
Learning to Rely Solely on God
A constant worry for what the future holds implies that we do not trust God’s plan for us. Therefore, eliminating worry about the future is an exercise in learning to fully rely on, and trust in, God. As He told us: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26)
Sometimes, it can be a tough thing to admit to ourselves, that we have doubts about God’s plans, and that’s all right. There are many active ways to orient oneself to discerning and accepting God’s will and of course the most powerful is to pray and speak with Him about it. Thomas Merton’s Prayer of Trust captures this beautifully and begins with the phrase, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going,” and ends with, “Therefore, I will trust you always.” What a wonderfully freeing sentiment: I have no idea what I’m doing today – and thank goodness I can place myself in the hands of the Lord!
You Are Meant for Eternity
The demon Screwtape brings up an important fact: “The humans live in time but [God] destines them for eternity.” The everyday heartbreaks and unknowable future stresses we face are a tiny piece of a much larger eternal plan designed by God. When we dwell on them, the worry separates us from this greater cosmic plan. And anyway, who is to say that the stress you endure in the present is not the perfect training for something larger God wants to give you even later? It is pointless to spend time in expectation of what could be a year from now when we don’t even have the capacity to understand what will be happening an eternity from now.
The day God has given you today is a gift. It may be brief, but it is real and not a prelude to some other thing God wants you to learn. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” He tells us (John 14:10), in the present moment, nor what comes in life’s future seasons. Treasure the present day for exactly what it is: a gift from God.