Monday, July 02, 2012

Sooner or later?

42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? 43  Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 44 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful (Lk 12:42-46).

The Bible alternates between passages that suggest Jesus is coming sooner rather than later along with passages suggesting that Jesus is coming later rather than sooner. Commentators have different ways of smoothing over the apparent tension. You can try to explain this objectively, in terms of “fitting” the passages together in a multi-staged timeline. And there’s some merit in that.

But it’s also possible to understand the alternation in terms of God using psychology on his people. Take Jesus’ little parable about the steward.

If you know when Jesus is coming back, it’s easier to plan. If you can put a date on the calendar, then that potentially affects your outlook and your behavior.

Take the scenario of parents who go away on a two-day trip. They leave their home in the hands of their teenage kids. The kids promise to behave themselves while mom and dad are away. They won’t try anything while mom and dad are gone. “Trust us!” Their gullible parents, wanting to believe the best about their kids (unlike those other kids, of other parents), take their word for it.

Naturally the kids throw a big house party. Smoking, drinking, carousing, skinny-dipping.

The parents arrive home early, in the middle of the party. Their plans fell through. The bridge was washed out.

The parents are shocked, aghast. How could their kids lie to them? The kids are embarrassed. This is a cliché of many teen-themed movies and TV dramas.

If you have a date certain, it’s temping to procrastinate, then clean up your act at the last minute. You have plenty of time to sin, and plenty of time to repent. There’s no hurry or urgency. Or so you imagine.

But beyond that, I think there’s a related, but less cynical reason why God seems to be sending mixed signals. Uncertainly is a way in which God exercises our faith.

It’s easier to wait if you have a date certain. Even if it’s a long wait, it’s easier to wait if you know how much time you have to wait. Easier if you know when it will end. You can mark the days off the calendar. As the time approaches, you become increasingly eager. In the meantime you focus on other things.

But if you don’t know when you will meet the Lord, that requires a different psychological adjustment. On the one hand it’s encouraging to know that it could be sooner rather than later. That gives you something to hope for.

On the other hand, because it could be later, you can’t presume. You can’t nail it down. So that forces you to live by faith every day. Living with a degree of uncertainty takes more faith than having it all worked out in advance.

Is your destination just around the next bend in the road? Right over the very next hill? Or could it still be many miles down the road? You just have to walk as far as you can each day, get up the morning morning, and continue where you left off. Press ahead, adding some mileage every day.

Knowing that it will come to an end, that your patience will be rewarded, gives you enough encouragement to keep going. But not knowing when it will end keeps you living by faith, living by prayer, living by the promises, one day at a time. You have no alternative but to trust God every step of the way.

1 comment:

  1. encouraging post. :-)

    Steve, I've enjoyed your sermons at But These Things Are Written. I hope you'll post more there in the future. :)