The future, who can fathom it?
I was directly challenged at the end of a recent management course, to answer the question ‘What is your preferred future?‘ Interestingly, I was participating in a Christian course in moral transformation at the time, and strangely enough encountered this same question. In both instances, the question represented a challenge to imagine a better existence, in order to responsibly move toward it.
Now, if you are in less than desirable circumstances, preferring a better future is not a bad thing–for everyone needs hope. However, if I am a Christian and believe in a loving sovereign God who knows the beginning from the end, and who has ‘my best interest’ at heart, perhaps the better question the me to ask (God) is this: ‘What is God’s preferred future for me? ‘
It is a long proven fact, that it doesn’t matter how acculturated a person is to Christianity or individually devoted to Christ they may be, there remains a proclivity in human nature to invert the divine/human relationship–using God for one’s own ends. The lingering vestiges of sin’s influence never leaves that ‘old’ human heart, which is so accustomed to idolatry; it cannot help re-placing God within its human- oriented paradigm–pointing the glory ‘its way’ instead of God’s. Sadly, this heart desires ‘a god‘ that gives it the future it prefers!
So how should we rightly address this preferred future question?
In the second part of the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the prophet offers words of challenge, hope, and encouragement to an exiled people. From chapter 40 onwards, Isaiah is offering a new future for Judah (the southern kingdom, exiled in 586 BC); she has ‘paid for’ her sins under the Babylon yoke of slavery and should now look forward to returning home for a fresh start. In the closing chapters of the comfort narrative (Isa 40-66), God presents through the prophet, his preferred future. This future is not a mere human wish, but represents a divine foreshadowing of what ‘will’ actually transpire for God’s people.
Although God has been outlining his preferred future from Isaiah 40, the message becomes distinctly more upbeat from chapter 60 onwards: ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.’ Isa 60:1, and this, ‘ The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;’ Isa 61:1-2, a scripture later claimed by Jesus as fulfilled in his ministry, and finally this, ‘For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.’ Isa 65:17
But with all this hope and upbeat positivity comes a challenge, specifically aimed at those aspiring to a preferred future without careful consideration…
‘ Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol. These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations;’ Isa 66:1-3
God foresees his people coming back to Jerusalem, rebuilding the city and temple and unwittingly falling back into their old familiar ways; becoming fixated on grand building projects and enamored with religious pursuits, taking for granted God’s blessing and approval, and forgetting who they are actually worshipping and what led to their demise in the first place.
So, Isaiah sets before them this stern warning. He reminds them that the Lord does not ‘need’ a temple for them to worship him, for his power and majesty dwarf any manufactured habitation. Indeed, the heavens and earth, which represent the entire scope of the human imagination, are nothing more than pieces of furniture to God. No human building will impress him without the right moral posture. As such, he challenges them to not become enamored by the hope of this grand religious edifice, as if by building it they will actually please God.
Furthermore, he will also not be impressed by religious activities that don’t come from a place of humble submission. Isaiah’s language colorfully paints such activities as grossly offensive to God–killing a man, breaking a dog’s neck, offering pigs blood, blessing an idol! And, what is the primary offence? ‘These have chosen their own ways…’ Isa 66:3. That’s right, the most offensive thing one of God’s people can do is chose to engage with God, on their own terms!
So, what does God ‘really’ desire, in the process of his people laying hold of that blessed future? Well, its simple, its straight-forward, and its this : ‘But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.’ Isa 66:2
To those who aspire to lay hold of God’s preferred future, to be blessed within it, and find favor in God’s eyes, the Lord lays out the following conditions:
Firstly, humility. This is to have a right estimation of yourself before God. All too often, we approach life with a delusional sense of invincibility; in colloquial terms, as if we are ten feet high and bullet proof. Such an approach invariably catches up with us when life’s circumstances and our own moral inadequacy expose the lie we live under. But, with humility we can acknowledge our shortcomings, weaknesses, and moral fallibility; soberly aware that a fall could occur at any time, if we are not careful. Such a person looks to God ‘daily’ for empowerment. They realize that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted and that the future is not something they make for God, but something they discover with God!
Secondly, contrition. God desires in his people a contrite spirit. Regrettably, many Christians live out their lives with scant regard for their own moral condition–regularly partaking in the same sins as unbelievers–without conscience. But the moral posture of the person seeking to live under God’s preferred future must be honest and transparent about sin, in fact, the more mature they become the greater the transparency: ‘The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.’ 1 Tim 1:15 But contrition is more than feeling guilty, it is a recognition that only God’s grace can redeem you and that only he can clear your conscience. Moreover, the contrite person is rarely judgmental, tending to be as merciful to others, as God has been with them–their future is full of grace.
Finally, reverent submission to God’s word. This is not a mere doctrinal affirmation of the supremacy of God’s word, but a reverent practical submission its authority. In fact, the term reverent is far too soft. The Hebrew word used here means to shake or tremble in fear. After all, we are not standing before a pagan god made of stone, sitting in a temple; this is the living God who sits enthroned on the heavens. Viewing God’s word this way is ‘not’ like saying to yourself, ‘the Bible says…’, but its listening to God’s word as if God were standing next to you, speaking directly to you! The person who trembles at God’s word, does not glibly appeal to a few proof texts to justify an action, but draws deep from the well, allowing the truth of God’s word to soak into their soul. They approach the future, knowing clearly who directs the future, how he directs it, and why they should willingly live under that direction–their future is not a mystery.
There is a preferred future ‘out there’ for you. However, for the Christian who truly desires to walk with God, this is not a future to ‘make up’. Of course, we humans are not robots that God manipulates, we have all been given a free will that can lead us, either on the right or wrong path. But, God, knowing our fallibilities and biases toward self-destruction has not left us clueless; he really does have our best interest at heart–he guides us accordingly.
The most preferred future of all, is God’s future; and its not a great mystery. Of course there are details of that future peculiar to each Christian, but that too will be made clear as you follow God’s chosen method of approaching the future. And, what is that method? Humility, contrition, and trembling at his word. It’s simple and profound; only our pride will make it hard to embrace.
Why approach the future with crippling fear and uncertainty, when you can approach it with reverent fear and certainty? A solid hope will bolster the aspirations of all that trust in the Lord through his chosen means–time for a fresh look at them!