by Mike Phay
Ever since H. G. Wells popularized the notion in his 1895 novella The Time Machine, and Albert Einstein made the concept at least theoretically possible with his 1915 general theory of relativity, time travel has appealed to the imaginations of millions. For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, time travel isn’t just intriguing, it’s actually kind of cool. And with Dr. Who and Bill & Ted moving through space-time in phone booths, time travel can be kind of fun. But no time machine has been as sweet as Doc Brown’s stainless steel DeLorean that transported Michael J. Fox to the past and back in the 1985 smash hit Back to the Future. I was 9 years old at the time…and man! what I would have given for a real flux capacitor!
Thinking about time travel, I often ask people odd questions like, “If you had a time machine, would you prefer to go to the past, or to the future?” Responses to this kind of question actually reveal a lot about a person’s personality, fears, and hopes. It’s a great conversation-starter.
Why don’t you take a moment and think of your own response to this question? Would you choose to travel to the past or the future?
Not having done any kind of scientific poll, I find most people choosing the past over the future. I think there are two emotional responses for why this would overwhelmingly be the case: regret and nostalgia. First, we would want to go back to a certain time and fix something—prevent an assassination or a World War; talk our younger selves into or out of something that we did or didn’t do. This would be operating out of the regret mode. The second reason is nostalgia: we would want to meet some significant historical figure, witness an historic event, or simply return to a time when things were better, easier or happier. In both instances, there is a known quantity: the past has already happened, and this knowledge gives me some control as I travel there.
On the other hand, the future is unknown, which might be a motivating factor for some of us: we are curious souls and will always be drawn to an adventure. Perhaps we would want to allay curiosity (who am I going to marry?) or secure ourselves financially (who is going to win the next 10 Super Bowls?). But the unknown often produces a sense of anxiety or fear greater than our curiosity can overcome.
As we think about this question (past vs. future) in relation to our own regrets and anxieties, allow me to point out the obvious truth: none of us is heading to the past; all of us are heading to the future. In a very practical sense, that’s how time works. The choice has been removed. You’re traveling to the future whether you like it or not. Now the question is: how will you deal with it?
We find an instructive text in the New Testament:
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
The future fills us with fear not only because it is unknown, but because we have no control over it. In this passage, the writer (James, the brother of Jesus) forcefully confronts each of us with our arrogant attempts to control the future. Because that’s what we do with things that cause us to be anxious: we attempt to control them.
To plan things is normal human behavior. We would even call it adult behavior. As we grow and become more responsible, it behooves us to think of the future and make plans for the coming days. Good parents are expected to teach their children to plan well in order to be successful in life. There is wisdom in planning. So we need to recognize that James is not attacking the wise stewardship of our time and resources.
What James is calling out here is our prideful tendency to have confidence in the wrong things: in our own plans rather than in God’s plans. Again, it’s not planning itself that’s wrong. It’s planning that does not take into account the greater, more important plans of the omnipotent and sovereign God of the universe. It’s planning that attempts to remove control from God’s hands and put it squarely in our own.
The fact of the matter is that we have neither knowledge nor control in relation to the future, and this scares us to death. It causes us to recognize our limits, that we aren’t in control.
If I were an atheist this realization might be more than I could handle. It might drive me to insanity. It would at least drive me to build a life where I at least had the illusion of control over my future: a life of security, planning, comfort, and padded retirement accounts. Ironically, when I claim to be a follower of Jesus, yet place my trust in these things to allay my anxiety, I’m living as a practical atheist. It’s so much easier to live in the illusion of control than to completely depend on God.
In the 2015 Tom Hank’s movie Bridge of Spies, accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is on trial for espionage. Several times during the movie, Hanks’ character—James Donovan—is surprised by Abel’s calm behavior and asks him something along the lines of, “Aren’t you worried?” Each time, Abel answers him calmly and matter-of-factly: “Would it help?” Which is the right question, with the same answer every time: No, it wouldn’t help. Our anxiety and attempts at control, though understandable, will not help. They will not change the future.
God calls us to a humble confidence not in ourselves, but in Him. He is sovereign. He is in control. He knows the future. He has it planned out perfectly. He is not surprised or powerless over it. Even more than that, He loves us and we can rest easy in the fact that even those things that bring us anxiety are comfortably in His hands.