Some of us live in the past by struggling to get over our sins. We’ve made honest Confessions but can’t let it go or doubt if God has forgiven us. We constantly think, “I shouldn’t have done that,” or ask, “Why did I do that?” Other times, we live in the past when we romanticize it: “Life was better when I was back home, when I was more beautiful, when we had more money, when we had so much fun, before that happened.” It’s like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite: “Yeah… Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would’ve been state champions.” Lastly, we live in the past when we can’t let go of past hurts. We usually don’t think about them, but when we see that one person at a family get-together, or something reminds us of what they did to us, we start thinking about it over and over again.
And then there’s living in the future. We daydream about getting that car, that renovation, that new phone, that vacation, that job. There are some girls who know exactly what their future house is going to look like when they get married, what’s above the fireplace, how their children’s rooms are going to be painted (and they’ve only been dating for three weeks). Some of us live in the future by worrying about it. We worry about what’s going to happen at that meeting, what’s going to be the result of the tests (“I don’t know what I’m going to do if I fail that exam”), what’s going to happen to my children.
Have you ever been so mad at someone that you plan how you’re going to talk to them when you see them again? You’re going to tell them this or that, what a jerk they are, and then what they say back, and then how you respond to them. And then, when you actually meet them, you’re just smile and say, “Good morning, how’s the family?”
All of us live in the past or future in one way or another. Jesus reminds us today that we shouldn’t live in the future (and this applies to the past too). When the apostles ask Him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:6-7). Commenting on this passage, Pope Emeritus Benedict says, “Speculation over history, looking ahead into the unknown future—these are not fitting attitudes for a disciple” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, 282). Why? Because God is in the present. Christianity is about living in the present.
If we’ve committed very serious sins, the first thing to do is to make an honest and complete Confession. Once we do, our sins are forgiven, and even if we still feel badly, we have to remind ourselves that we’re forgiven. Thinking about our mistakes doesn’t change anything because the mistakes are over; we can’t change the past. It’s not God’s will that we keep on replaying our mistakes over and over again.
Now if something’s unresolved, then we need healing. E.g. Some people suffer terribly because of being involved in an abortion. They replay the situation and the choices over and over again—they live in the past. And then they forget that they can do something about it right now. God is calling us to seek healing, which can only be done in the present—that’s where God is. In the same way, if we’ve hurt someone and can’t get it out of our mind, God gives us the present moment to apologize. Same thing with past hurts. If it keeps bothering us what someone did to us, bring it into the present so that we can deal with it in a healthy way. Talk to someone about it and find healing.
Have you ever seen the movie Midnight in Paris with Owen Wilson? It’s about romanticizing the past: Ah… if we could only go back to the good ol’ days… when Paris was Paris. But the lesson of the film is when the protagonist, Gil, says to his love interest, Adriana, who’s falling in love with the past, “If you stay here [in the past] and this becomes your present, sooner or later you’ll imagine another time was really the golden time… The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.” There is no perfect time, no perfect place. The grass is never greener in the past, because we had problems then too—we’ve just forgotten them.
God is here with us right now! He’s loving us, and offering us now happiness and everything we need. When we live in the past and future, we miss His present gifts; we forget how blessed we are.
God wants us to plan for the future and prepare for it (e.g. He Himself prepares us for the future when He tells us of His suffering and our persecution; He speaks many times about eternity, and another time, says, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Lk 14:28)). He wants us to live our lives in view of it… but not to live there. We should live preparing for heaven, and that will help us live better in the present. But daydreaming about that new phone or car constantly doesn’t help us to grow now. Hoping for a better future and dreaming about what can be is good and healthy; but not living there. When we live in the future, we forget that happiness is offered us now, and we forget that God is asking us to improve things right now: like doing a better job at the job we already have, like cleaning our house (not buying a new one), like loving the people already in our lives.
God asks us to prepare for the future and then leave the rest to Him. Prepare for the future, but don’t worry about it. “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?… Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Mt 6:27,34, NAB).
When the apostles asked Jesus about the future, He gave them two things instead: 1) He gives them His presence, reminding them that He’s always with them—we’ve just talked about this, that Jesus is in the present, that He’s with us now; 2) He gave them a mission, to be His witnesses, to evangelize (Acts 1:8), to join the Tuesday night faith study. Think about it: when we’re focused on our mission in life, we forget about the past and don’t worry about the future. We’re too busy with the task at hand. It’s when we forget our mission that we start to live in the past and future.
People who are clear about their purpose live life “passionately and enthusiastically. They very rarely complain, they don’t talk negatively about others, and you never hear them refer to happiness as some future event linked to retirement, marriage, a promotion, or some unexpected windfall of money” (Matthew Kelly, The Rhythm of Life, 9). E.g. When we’re focused on the reason of the Mass, that is, on worshipping God, listening to Him, transforming our hearts and minds, we won’t be distracted by what we’re going to do later today! Happiness is offered to us right now, not later on, but we have to focus on it. During Easter, I told you about Capt. Guy Gruters, a US fighter pilot who was shot down and spent seven years in a Communist prison camp. Life was hell there, and he always found himself thinking about the US, back home. He says:
“The trouble with prison camp is that it’s so bad that you don’t want anything to do with it, your mind rejects your present moment. It’s just terrible! It’s like if you have a child dying of cancer or something like that, a terrible tragedy happening in your life, it’s easy to try to think about how great it was before or how great it’s going to be in the future… your mind tries to run away from the present.
“And the Catholic Church, of course, teaches you don’t ever run from the present, you handle the trouble of the present, you trust God and His mercy for the past and you trust God and His providence for the future, but your job is to handle the situation that God gives you. Do the present moment.
“So my buddy that I was with, by the grace of God… we were talking about how terrible it was, that all we could do was think about how it was before we got shot down, or how wonderful it would be if we could just get out of there… And he said, ‘Guy, we got to stop thinking… Let’s make it where we only think about our families 15 minutes a day, and then the rest of the time we just do the best we can here.’ I said, ‘Great, let’s try it.’
“So we controlled our thoughts, we would not allow ourselves to think about the States or the families or anything else. This was our life and this was going to be the life for the rest of our lives. This is it, right here. We’re going to do what we can right here.
“So, that was an extremely difficult thing to do, but it turned around our despair. It turned around our despair, and it gave us physical things to do like tapping through the walls to establish contact with other prisoners” (Surviving with God in a Communist POW Camp, Track 7, 3:00).
Wow, that’s powerful, and it makes so much sense.
Living in the present is a gift from God—let’s ask for that gift today right now and when we receive Communion. We might also ask God to heal past hurts and give us confidence for the future.
Ultimately, you know a tree by its fruit. If thinking about the future makes you distracted from the present, then don’t go there. If thinking about the future makes you live the present better, then great! Same with the past: if thinking about past hurts and dreaming of a better time gets us locked up in the past, then that’s a problem. But if we meditate on the past so that we learn from our mistakes and give thanks to God, then that helps us love more in the present. God offers us happiness and healing right now because He loves us. God is in the present.