Facing, Not Fearing, the Future

Facing, Not Fearing, the Future

People fear the past in different ways. In Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge Michael Henchard has a shameful past. Early in his life, while drunk, he auctioned off his young wife and his baby daughter to a sailor for five guineas. Later, filled with shame, he swore off drinking, moved away, and eventually became the mayor of his new home, Casterbridge. As the narrative unfolds his past catches up with him. For people with guilty secrets the past is a wounded bear that seems to be gaining on them.

For other people the past is threatening in a different way. Some Viet Nam veterans won't talk about the past. The war is a powerful memory that they work hard at forgetting with only limited success. Some adults don't want to think about their childhood; it was too painful. For people with painful memories the past is a black hole, and they are afraid of being sucked back into it.

I am just old enough to remember the nuclear bomb scare in the 1950s, when some people were building bomb shelters in their backyards. They were trying to fix it so that they would live through a nuclear attack and the subsequent nuclear winter. Today there is quite a stir about Y2K. People are warned to make sure they have food and other supplies for a week or two or even longer. Bottled water, canned tuna, potatoes, and generators are being stockpiled. Some mattresses are slowly becoming lumpier with cash taken out of banks. Some people are afraid of what the future holds, so they try to make it so they would survive if something bad happens.

Fear is a powerful emotion. Like every emotion, it has a good and proper function, but not every occurrence is appropriate. If someone is afraid of heights, we think he should overcome it. But if someone is afraid of bungee jumping, we may think him sensible. If a child is afraid of the dark, we try to quell her fear. But if a child is not afraid of stray dogs, we may warn her about dogs so that she learns to be afraid and is protected from a potential danger.

Within limits the emotion of fear can be trained. To do so properly requires discerning which contexts really warrant fear and which do not. This is not an easy thing to do. One general rule is that the degree of fear that is warranted in a person is directly proportional to the danger to the person. If there is no actual danger, then one should not have any fear. If there is a real and serious danger, then one should be very afraid. While this is often a helpful rule of thumb, it doesn't help us much with the current alarm over Y2K. The problem is that we simply don't know how much danger Y2K poses.

In Scripture we are told specifically about events in the past. We are repeatedly told to remember the past. But we are not encouraged to recall everything about the past. We are not told to remember our sins, our good deeds, or our cleverness at avoiding trouble. Rather we are told to remember how God has shown Himself through all the joys and sorrows of our lives to be a faithful Provider and Savior. We remember the past so we keep in mind that our lives now and in the future are not secured by our own efforts, but by God. And because we know that He cares for us, there are real limits on how much we should fear the future, no matter how threatening it may appear. The proper confidence is well expressed in the words of the gospel song, "I don't know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future."

This brings us to the question of how to deal with Y2K. Is stocking up on tuna because of Y2K showing a lack of faith?

I don't think so. One of the ways the Lord cares for us is to give us the ability to make reasonable preparations. Maybe computer systems will fail. Maybe supplies will run low. Maybe there is some real danger. I don't know if there is real danger or not. I do know this, that if you think that the future is dangerous because of Y2K, then you should prepare for it calmly. In what spirit you go about your preparations does matter. It is a temptation to fear the future excessively and to make inappropriate precautions. To fear the future excessively or inappropriately is to worry, to be anxious. And Jesus said that we should not worry or be anxious. Jesus says we should not worry about whether we will have food to eat or water to drink. People without Christ run after all these things. Our Father in heaven knows that we need them. What's most important for us today is not to panic and so prepare for some future disaster, but to seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness. Let's not be anxious about tomorrow; each day has enough trouble of its own.