Here are two prominent spiritual skills:
- live now, in today, rather than tomorrow
- live in tomorrow rather than in gut reactions and unexamined decisions today.
The first is a familiar rule for anxiety. We live in the grace that God gives us for right now, and we trust our Heavenly Father to worry about tomorrow (Matt 6:32–34). This, certainly, takes a lifetime to master.
The other is just as important—and where we will focus. If we live for now, and now alone, our desires can deceive us and we will end up in bad places. Better to walk that path further into the future to see where it goes. The wisdom literature—Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes—identifies both of these skills, but it has a particular interest in living in the future, imagining what is just over the hill of our chosen path. Wise people have looked off into the future and adjusted their course accordingly. Foolish people simply do not consider the consequences of certain behaviors.
Wisdom does not promise an easy life, and it does not promise that our alertness to the future will ward off all unfavorable consequences to our decisions. But it is the best path because it ends in life. When the future is ignored, we find regrets, traffic tickets, possessions and money being more important than people, personal desires that are unwilling to be questioned, all addictions, all infidelity, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, anger that wins a battle but loses a relationship. And it only gets worse, because when we don’t keep an eye on the future the path typically ends in death.
And so we must take to heart the ways the book of Proverbs prepares us to imagine what is ahead.
Wisdom speaks clearly. The skill of living in the future is not that difficult if we listen. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street” (Prov 1:20). We don’t have to be uniquely gifted to hear it. But we should be sober-minded because folly is equally loud (Prov 9:13).
Wisdom is heard by those who know that there is a fool who lurks within. Wisdom knows that we need to be suspicious of ourselves. Why else would Proverbs always call for our attention, “Listen.” Wisdom is easy to hear, if we are willing, but it does not come naturally. We cannot be fully trusted. Our first instinct is not necessarily the right one. We can justify our own desires, no matter what they are. We prefer to think only of the moment. Our “pride and arrogance” (Prov 8:13) are wisdom’s nemesis.
Wisdom walks more than runs. Its pace is deliberate. A frenetic and impulsive lifestyle does not provide room for us to consider our ways, imagine what might be up ahead, or seek advice. The very nature of a proverb is that it invites reflection more than the accumulation of information.
With humility in hand, we imagine the future. The following questions help you do this.
What are you doing that you want to remain private? Forecast into the future and imagine your life when the private becomes public, because it will become public.
What have you learned from the funerals of the wise and funerals of the foolish? Similarly, what have you learned from those who are older than yourself (Eccl 11:9–12:8)? This group does not include those who tell you to dream big and then you will achieve your dreams. Such advice might be given at high school graduations by those who are perceived as successes, but they still have much to learn. Aim for an older crowd.
How has failure been a prized teacher? Consider failure in a relationship. Where did you go off course? Where did you follow wisdom, even if it didn’t make everything better? Hindsight is a great refiner of our imagination.
Have you recently ignored the advice of two people who have given you the same advice? The lonesome path is typically the dangerous one.
How is your future tied to Jesus Christ? The path of wisdom has Jesus before you, behind you, and with you. Is he present in your imagination?
The list of questions could go on. The basic idea is to slow down and be thoughtful. Our hurried lifestyle works against this critical life skill. The goal is to investigate a path before we commit to it. If your walk into the future leads to fear and worry, stay with those fears and worries and try to discern what they might be saying. You might find guilt, fallacies about God, or a weight that comes from knowing that your decisions matter. If these worries persist, then you can practice the skill of trusting your God for the future—that he will, indeed, make everything right—and asking him for the courage and discernment to live now. Both skills are gifts from God that equip us to live a discerning life today.