If I have any regrets related to the years in which my wife and I were raising our four children, the biggest would be that I was not paying attention. Melinda has asked me several times in the past couple of years if I remember one incident or another in the lives of our children when they were small. My answer has sometimes been, “No, not really.”
Of course, she was much more focused on their day-to-day upbringing than I was. I was a busy solo pastor of a smaller church, trying to care for and build a congregation in the midst of acquiring property and constructing buildings. The truth is, I do remember many things about my kids from those days. They were cute and funny and we had some amazing and sometimes hilarious times. But my memories are in the form of snapshots, not video, and it is difficult for me to reconstruct some of what went on more than twenty years ago.
I was always focused on the future–the next Sunday’s sermon, the upcoming business meeting, the next step in the building program, dealing with someone’s urgent concerns, etc. The actual “now” was almost always sacrificed on the altar of the near or distant future. I suspect that my situation as a pastor is not all that different from many people whose lives are goal-oriented.
Recently, I have been in a minor crisis about God’s will for my life. For the past several years I have made my living as a part time adult ministries pastor, part time missions executive and part time college instructor. Talk about fragmentation! In all of this multi-tasking, I have begun to seek God’s will for a more focused future. I have prayed, “Father, which direction should I pursue? Where should I be five years from now (if you permit me to remain on earth that long)? What is the best use of my training, talents and experience?” Through months of prayer, I have received the same types of answers most sincere believers receive: impressions and difficult-to-interpret circumstances. This has led me to ponder the bigger question of what it means to live by faith in a providential God.
In this quest for personal direction, it has dawned on me that my need for more specific guidance is heavily influenced by my American culture. We Americans and other Westerners have come to believe that we have a certain right to know what is happening to us so that we can make informed choices affecting the outcome of our lives. After all, if we are going to be pursuing life, liberty and happiness it is important that we have at our disposal as much information as possible about what may lie ahead.
But as I have thought about it, there is really nothing in scripture which supports this assumption. On the one hand, in several places Proverbs teaches the wisdom of at least tentative planning. Yet on the other, James 4:13-16 plainly says that we are not to be presumptuous about either the ultimate wisdom of our plans or our ability to carry them out,“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
Scripture teaches that, though the making of goals is wise, goals should be made with enough flexibility so that God may direct us in ways we do not have the wisdom to plan for. Practically, this means that thinking about the future should never overshadow living in the present. The truth is, we do not know enough about God’s specific purposes for our lives to do that much advance planning. But we do know enough about God’s will to live full and abundant lives. Some things the Bible teaches very plainly and simply: we must honor God with the “now” each of us is given. We must love and bless people around us. We must fully enjoy God’s good gifts–family, friends, experiences, possessions. And any planning we may legitimately do for the future should be done with these very types of things in mind. In other words, we should get our neurotic fingers off the fast forward button and hit play.
Have you ever noticed that a difficult problem suddenly becomes easier when you can see what you are trying to accomplish and then how you can work backward from there?
Take your own life for example. The normal way to view life is starting from the past and present and attempt to plan into the future. You know: “This is where I have been in the past. I am here right now. I think I am headed in a certain direction in the future.” Perhaps a more productive way of setting a life-direction is to visualize what and where you want to be in the future and work back through the steps to what and where you are now.
A very sobering, but I think very helpful way of doing this, is to visualize your own funeral. Few of us have any accurate idea of how or when we will die, but for the purposes of the exercise, just assume you will live a reasonably long life. Let’s say that you are also able to achieve at least some of your life’s goals. Now seat yourself as an invisible guest at this gathering in your memory. What is being said about you? Who is in attendance? What are the mourners thinking and feeling?
Someone, perhaps a minister, is summarizing your life. Not only are the main facts of birthdate, education, career, marriage and family being shared, but what kind of person you were. Maybe there are tears. A final prayer is said. The people disperse to continue their own lives before your remains are laid to rest.
From the perspective of the grave, what meaning and achievement would your life have? Were you deeply loved and respected? Did your life make a difference for anyone beyond yourself? What will happen to you from this point on? Is there heaven? Judgment? Darkness?
It is difficult to picture all the details, but on the whole, seeing things from the perspective of the grave has a way of bringing the present into sharp focus. This perspective also brings up certain practical questions, such as: “Do I want to be deeply appreciated by those around me? If so, what am I doing now to make that possible? How can I show my love to family and my commitment to friends in ways which will assure them that I care?”
If you want to make a difference with your life, the perspective of the grave compels you to ponder who you are helping now. Are you contributing because it is required, because it helps you, because it looks good or because you really do care about helping people live better?
What about beyond the grave? The Bible is very clear when it teaches that eternity is decided in this present life. Again, if it is heaven you desire that is attained by some definite choices in the “here and now”. The primary choice is to desire God and to come to him through his son Jesus. Followup choices might include deciding what steps you should take to make knowing God a growing reality for the rest of your life.
Most of us live as though death is some distance away. We count on many years of doing our thing, whatever that may be. The approach of death sometimes comes as a shock and we find too late that we have been living pretty much for ourselves, touching no one around us very deeply or sacrificially. Then death becomes something to fear wehn we realize we must account to the God we have largely ignored.
The view from the grave brings our priorities into sharp focus. It shows the outcome of our plans and loyalties. It predicts the results of our relationships. The time to get this perspective is now. The time to chart the steps toward a meaningful life-purpose is now. The time to make our peace with God through Jesus and enter into relationship with him is now.