Waiting for things to get back to normal
Those were the words the doctor said to us as we took our first child back for her month checkup. I asked him what was wrong with her, because I anticipated having a baby in the house to be harder than it was. All we had heard about was babies with colic, or sleep problems, or having trouble feeding. Our first born slept through the night the first night at hospital, didn’t cry that much, and was a delight to be around. It was still a lot of work of course. But honestly I anticipated it being harder than this. So he told me that perhaps we just had a good baby.
I remember leaving the hospital thinking “I must just be really good at this.” I assumed I was simply crushing this first time father thing, and that’s why the baby was so good. Then after our second child was born I found out that wasn’t the truth. This time I anticipated things differently than the first time around. I thought they would be like they were before, but this child cried, talked, wouldn’t sleep, and was generally as noisy as she could be. For the record, she still is over a decade later. I anticipated that things would go just like they did the first time around. But this time, and the third child after that, was completely different. That’s when I began to learn that just because we anticipate something doesn’t mean that our future will match our reality.
I was pleasantly surprised the first time that my expectation didn’t match the reality that came to be. Then when I thought I knew just what to expect, something completely different happened. Over the past year everyone has lived in the constant tension between anticipation and reality. Everytime we think we know what to expect, it all changes again.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it. “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” In the crazy world that we live in the idea of a return to normal is a rest for our weary souls. Of course it’s hard to know when normal will return, or even if it ever will. But for now most of the world lives in some sort of anticipation of things going back to the way they were. We think that our future will in some way match our past. But the truth is the future will probably look like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
Christians should know how to live with anticipation, but often we are some of the worst at it. For people who claim to live for another day, another time, and another world, we spend most of our lives figuring out how to be comfortable where we are now. Of course there is nothing wrong with living in the moment, but much of the Christian life is centered around that idea of anticipation. God promised a son to Eve that would crush the head of the serpent. Then with her first son she thought her wait was over, naming him Cain and saying “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the Lord.”
The wait was not over for Eve of course, but only just beginning for all of mankind. The season of advent celebrates the waiting for the coming of the Messiah the first time, and the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday can help us learn to trust the promises of God. Then after His resurrection Christ promised his disciples “you will be my witnesses,” meaning in part they had to wait for that moment Christ promised. The book of Revelation also gives us an anticipation of the promises of Christ, but the words of John sum up the feelings of many Christians about waiting: “Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.” We trust, believe, and live for the coming of Christ. But we wish Jesus would hurry up about it.
It’s natural that we desire for things to return to normal after a global pandemic, but sometimes that longing is only a means to an end. We anticipate a return to a time when we knew what would happen, when we felt in control, and when we had the answers. Every leader I know is tired of saying “I don’t know” and would just like to be able to feel sure and confident of something. In this way our anticipation is more about ourselves and our own feelings and less about the current state of the world. Of course we want suffering to end and all that. But most often what we really mean is that we want our suffering to end.
In the same way we often anticipate the return of Christ as a means to an end. Of course we want to live eternally in heaven, but we would really like to be rid of the difficulties and problems of this world. Our anticipation for the return of Christ is more about the ending of our problems than it is the presence of Christ.
On some level this is understandable. We only see through a glass rather dimly right now, so it’s hard for us to imagine what living in the presence of Christ will really look like. But we can easily envision a world where we don’t have to struggle with cancer, war, pandemics, conflict, bills, heartache, and all the other problems of this world. When we say we long for the return of Christ, we need to make sure our hearts are set on seeing Christ and not just on ending suffering.
It’s hard to separate out those things of course. The return of Christ is the end of suffering, and the Christian knows the only way to end suffering is for Christ to return. It can be a fine line in our hearts and minds, but we need to always be turning our hearts back to the person of Christ and not just the blessings of Christ.
As we live in a world right now that anticipates the end of Covid and a return to normal, Christians should be the ones who demonstrate how to live with anticipation of the future while at the same time being grounded in the present. Throughout the centuries the church has done just this, as they established orphanages, hospitals, cared for the unwanted, and made the world a better place. But all of that work in the present was born out of their hope for the future. This is the way of the Christian life, from Adam and Eve to Mary and the Apostles to us today. We work so hard to make the world better today because we believe that Christ will make it all new tomorrow. Our attempts to “improve” this world is not about making our lives better but our way of joining in the work that He will fully and finally complete someday.
In this way our anticipation of the future should shape the way we live in the present. What we want to see tomorrow dictates the decisions we make today. This makes sense for most any future we want to see. My anticipation of a future where I’m skinny means that I watch what I eat in the present. The future should shape the present, but too often it’s the other way around. The decisions we make in the moment end up shaping our future. I eat what I want because I’m hungry now and I never get to that skinny future self. Instead of working to shape the future we only hope for something better tomorrow and often end up settling for making the most out of today.
The Christian is not living in anticipation of merely a hoped-for future though. We have more than hope, we have faith that God will do what He promised too. Faith is more than anticipation of the future. Anticipation is waiting for an expected future, based on facts from the past and applying that to the future. Faith is being certain of the future even when you can't see how it’s possible. We can be certain that Christ will return, that His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth. The certainty of the future means that it shapes our present. We make choices and live the way we do because we are sure of His return. Since I am sure of Christ’s return to take all believers home with Him and condemn others to eternity without Him, it shapes the conversations I have, the way I spend my money, and the way I raise my children.
The more confidence we have in the promises of God for the future the more we will be willing to trust God in the difficulties of the present. Since we are sure that to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord, we can face whatever hardships come our way today. The old hymn says that “because He lives, I can face tomorrow, because He lives, all fear is gone, because I know He holds the future.” This doesn’t mean we don’t do everything we can to make today as good as it can be. It means that we know even if today isn’t good, tomorrow will be, because He holds the future.
As we live in a world who can’t wait for the return to the way things used to be, Christians should be models of how to live with an uncertain future. Our hope is not in the next election, the next test result, or the rise of the stock market. Our hope is in Christ and nothing less. The world anticipates returning to times we felt in control, but the Christian is certain that God is in control already. Because we are certain about our future in Christ we can live with confidence in the present.
It’s impossible to know if things will ever be “normal” again. Right now even small decisions are hard to make because of masks, contract tracing, shut downs, and so much more. I anticipate a day when we can make a plan to do something and then go and do it. We are all living in a time of anticipation of an expected future.
But no matter how bright you think the future looks, you still have to live in the darkness of today. Thankfully as Christians we have the Word of God that is a light unto our feet and a light for our paths. It’s natural to anticipate where the next step might take us, and we even try to get a glimpse ahead of what the whole path looks like. We have to learn to live with the fact that while we can't see the full path of our future, we can be certain of it’s ending.
The past year has taught us that while we can’t always anticipate where our next step might take us, we can be certain of where the end of the road is. For the Christian, the road always ends up at the throne of Jesus, no matter what it looks like along the way.