Living in the Present: the Greatest Act of Faith

Monday, February 13, 2017

Photo by Vladimir Agafonkin

Worrying about the future is my special skill. Can I add that to my resume?

In all seriousness, though, I do spend an exorbitant amount of time worrying. And I have never found anything overtly sinful in it. If anything, I suppose I’ve always seen my worrying as a chance to grow closer to God in faith, because aren’t I asking, when I gaze toward the future with uncertainty, “What is Your plan for me?” Aren’t I actively seeking God’s will?

I always thought so. But then C.S. Lewis changed my mind.

If you’ve never read The Screwtape Letters, let me catch you up: a senior demon instructs a junior demon on the multiple ways of corrupting a human soul (referred to as the “patient”). The opposite of a guardian angel, whose task it is to lead us from temptation and guard us against misfortune, the demon writing these letters – Screwtape – is concerned with drawing the patient toward evil at every available opportunity.

“It is far better to make [people] live in the Future,” he counsels in letter fifteen. “Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear.”

Biological necessity. We think about the future because we know we have to plan for it to some degree. We have to factor in time during the week to go to the grocery store, to exercise, to plan for that work presentation, for example – all things we have to prepare for in order to keep moving along the trajectory we’ve established for ourselves. To stay alive and support ourselves and our families.

But I know that I, at least, frequently overstep the boundaries of practicality and fall into full hysteria where the future is concerned – hysteria that typically manifests itself with agonized cries of, “What am I going to do with my life??” Because for any number of things we actually have control over, there’s a lot more left up to chance, isn’t there?

So yeah, I’ve definitely felt an inflammation of fear in thinking about the future. And the “hope” side of that quote is a topic for another post. So I’m going to keep the focus on fear for a while. The point I want to make here is that there’s a fine line between necessary planning and unnecessary worrying. Necessary planning is productive, while unnecessary worry is fruitless. And according to Screwtape, the devil would rather that we “be filled with anxiety… about this war than… be living in the present.”

Because – listen to this! – “…the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

Whoa. Did you hear that? The sound of C.S. Lewis just casually blowing my mind?

The Present is where we directly meet God, His infinite grace, and His blessings for this moment. It is so, so sacred. And so, as we think about the future, perhaps it’s best (though contradictory) to ground ourselves in the Present.

I went on a senior retreat in my final semester at USD, in which we all shared mostly the same fears about life after college – namely, where do we go when the path forward is no longer so clearly illuminated? But… what we realized (and what I frequently need to keep reminding myself of) is that we don’t have to walk the whole path right now. Just walk the distance the lamp illuminates. Do the next right thing, and when you walk that far, the lamp will have lit up a little bit more of the path.

Screwtape writes, “In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time – for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”

The future we worry about may never arrive – and it is therefore the most completely temporal part of time for exactly that reason. To live in the Present – as much as is reasonably possible, anyway – is the greatest act of faith. It is an expression of gratitude for what God has blessed us with in this moment, and it is an expression of confidence in His ability to continue to provide.