A dual focus on the present and the eternal
In The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon counsels his protege about how to tempt his human. Each letter teases with C.S. Lewis’ sarcasm and wisdom as he offers profound lessons about following Jesus. In one of the letters, Screwtape writes Wormwood about how to keep his human distracted:
Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. . . . It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passion point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, that in making them think about it, we can make them think of unrealities. 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. . . . Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future.
I’m beginning week six of my sabbatical. I’ve been a reading machine during these days. As I reflect on my down time so far, I believe it took me more than three weeks to STOP. To stop thinking about:
ideas for ministry
My brain is always spinning. On the StrengthsFinder, one of my strengths is “Intellection.” It’s a blessing and a curse. I accumulate information. I study, I research. I ask why. All the time. Nonstop.
It was no surprise to me that my first three + weeks were spent telling my brain to “stop.” I grew increasingly frustrated that I could not simply look right in front of me and not think about “next.” Then the fourth week came, and things were “better.” I began visiting with some friends by scheduling some coffee moments (and even a shotgun shoot) with the caveat of “no church talk.”
Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood hits me.
“It is far better to make them live in the Future… the Future inflames hope and fear… we can make them think of unrealities.”
I remember setting the book down and writing simply, “Focus on two things: 1) The Eternal 2) The Present.” Here’s why a dual focus is deeply faithful:
What to Focus On
The Eternal is only what ultimately matters. None of my stuff will make it to heaven with me. My accomplishments (including my three-peat fantasy football trophy), my writings, my ambitions… none of it will be loaded into the heavenly U-Haul. People, on the other hand, are eternal. What matters is where they will spend eternity. What decides that is how they choose to respond in faith to Jesus – receiving Him joyfully in full-hearted gratitude and trust OR rejecting Him as inconsequential or unworthy of their submission. Screwtape’s warning to Wormwood reminded me to focus on the eternal – on God and His wonder and worthiness and to seek to lead others to know His love.
The Present is where I really live. Am I presently grateful? Am I presently aware of how I encourage others? Am I self aware today? I can’t change yesterday, and only rarely can I influence the “future,” but I can, by God’s grace, impact this singular moment. Right now, I’ve chosen to sit in front of my Macbook and peck out these words, for me and you, to impact my present and your present. (Strangely, you will read this AFTER my “present” has become “past” but as you read these words, this is YOUR “present.” If you feel like this is a Back to the Future moment, I do too.) The main question is what will you do in these moments to re-focus?
Peter encouraged this eternal and now perspective as he wrapped up his second letter:
“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” (2 Peter 3:18)
So I’m focusing on the present. In the past few days, I’ve literally thanked the Lord for what is in my hand or within my immediate view – whether a cup of coffee, a shotgun or a river. I’ve had to do this to wrench my mind off its lust for what’s “next” or things my heart longs for. It helps to shift into current gratitude when past failures (or successes) seek to rob me of present joy.
I’m also focusing on the eternal. It helps to reflect on the reality of heaven and the wonderfully absurd and abundant promises of God about eternity. No more tears or pain? Endless joy and exuberant praise? I’m all about that! And I want to bring as many to see the love of Jesus as I can. Only their faith in Jesus will allow them to experience that reality.
“For the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”
If you’ve not heard of The Screwtape Letters before, Andrew Prideaux has written a great (and recent) review here.