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It is never just "now."

Here we stand at the start of a new year: changed by the events of the previous year in ways we may never fully understand, and ready for the events in the coming year we cannot fully foresee.

But "now" is elusive. "This moment" is fleeting.

A year from now, we will most likely look back at January of this year and think, where has the time gone? We'll chuckle at a few of this year's memories, shudder at the tragedies, shake our heads at the surprises, and--hopefully--bend the knee in gratitude for the seconds, minutes, and hours God has granted.

Our "now" is next year's "past" and last year's "future."

Nailing Down Now

Oliver O'Donovan tries to nail down the meaning of "now" and throws up his philosophical hands:

"What the present cannot be is a period of time, with dimensions and extension. As soon as we sandwich it in between past and future, it disappears into nothingness. . . . We find ourselves like salmon leaping in the stream, the present being our point of purchase on our upstream journey, disposing of the past and appropriating the future."

When you think of time in this way, it makes all of our talk about "this present time" or the news of "the moment" or our love affair with what is "new" and "current" and "trending" and "contemporary" seem silly, doesn't it?

"It's now or never," we say. But what if it's never now?

How to Live Now?

Time is a gift. A day of life is a day of grace, of undeserved breath. What should we do with it?

In words of Francis Schaeffer, Christians should always be asking, "How should we then live?" That's a way of asking the ever-important question: "How will we be faithful in our choices?"

Here's one attempt at an answer: we are more likely to be faithful when we focus less on "the now" and more on how the past and future should influence our choices.

In other words, the past and the future must have an effect on how we discover the right course of action in the present. What was and what will be shapes our understanding of what is and what to do.

Two Traps

There are two traps set for the Christian who wants to be faithful in the present.

The first trap is to try to hightail it back into the past because we're afraid of our present assignment. We grow nostalgic for a hazy memory of better days. We imagine we can live in the past as a way of avoiding the tough decisions of the present.

The problem is that nostalgia will hinder mission. Fear keeps us from looking forward, and we hide our faithlessness behind the façade of "unchanging" dedication.

The second trap is to get on the bandwagon of "progress," to join the way of the future. We chide our ancestors for their shortsightedness and celebrate our "courage" in walking forward into more enlightened days. We imagine we can live in the hazy fog of the future as a way of avoiding the judgment of our ancestors or having to deal with their collective wisdom.

The problem is that progress in the biblical sense often gets hijacked by "progress" as defined by the culture. And our dismissal of the past cuts us off from our roots, leaving us without a firm foundation for present choices.

Understanding Now 

To avoid the traps, we must hold together both the past and the future as a way of understanding the present. That's where the Bible comes in.

Scripture informs our choices in the present by grounding us in the story of what has taken place in the past and in the promise of what will happen in the future.

The Bible shows us what the future is and marks us out as a people belonging to God's new creation. But the Bible also shows Christians what the past is and marks us out as a people who belong to Israel's crucified and risen Messiah.

Think of the story of the world as if it were a book. Let's say that we are somewhere in chapter five. Concentrate only on the present word you are reading and you'll miss the sentence that gives it meaning. Concentrate only on the sentence and you'll miss the chapter in which the sentence comes. Concentrate only on the chapter and you'll miss the earlier parts of the book leading up to this chapter, as well as the end of the story, which God has already revealed.

We won't be able to read our parts right and play our roles well until we understand the story of the world. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

"I can only answer the question, 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question, 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'"

Now, Then and Later

So, for the Christian, Now is never naked. It is always clothed by past events and future promises.

We are to live with an eye to what God has done in the past and what he has promised for the future. So, here's to considering ourselves, this year, as making choices in the "past and future present."

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3 thoughts on “The Past and Future Present”

  1. Kate says:

    I trust you will stay with this as your guide in the year ahead. I stopped reading your site after the election. The shaming of particular Christians was overwhelmingly sad and offensive. I seem to be the only one who finds it just short of heresy that our preachers and theologians apply scripture based on race, and a particular form of suffering. The Bible seems to call some to biblical commands on suffering, how to treat enemies, when and how often to forgive, but others we are called to understand why they are bitter, angry, hold grudges, and reverse racism.
    At least be consistent. Do you know anything of the racism of Latin and South Americans among themselves? Should someone be writing about that as well, and I have no doubt they are just the tip of a very deep iceberg. It’s called a desperately wicked, dark heart. You can’t legislate it. You can’t force the heart to not act sinfully, and even if you did for a generation, the next would rise up and be even worse.
    So please, please, begin there. We are ALL sinners…black, white, Hispanic, Asian. We have to come together there. That has to begin our teaching and conversation. Not, “well I sin, but at least I’m not racist”. And, since when are we given permission to assume, if you are a certain color, than I can refer to you and relate to you as holding an attitude, sin?
    Please, please, teach ALL of us how the Bible shows us suffering. The purpose, our attitude and actions in suffering. God’s purposes, sovereignty in allowing and bringing suffering in our lives.
    You as teachers and preachers have failed us and the church by being the first to neglect applying the word of God equally to a body that is not, male, female, Jew, Greek, black, white, Hispanic…
    God have mercy, for one day we will suffer and be persecuted as Christians, those in Christ. Have you prepared us to stand together in persecution as one body, in equal, desperate need of forgiveness and reconciliation with the eternal God?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      FWIW, I never shamed anyone last year regarding their vote in Election 2016. In fact, this is what I wrote:

      1. Kate says:

        Sorry, Trevin. I should have specified that my comments were directed towards Gospel Coalition. That is where I read your article today. I believe I have been blessed and taught well every time I have read your blog. One of my favorites.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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