Future perfect vs. present imperfect (or two different kinds of real)

We live every day in the complex interplay and flux of two different realities, or kinds of reality.

The first is the obvious, everyday here-and-now reality of this physical world; the ‘present imperfect’. It is this current realm in which the strong lord it over the weak, the unfit are weeded out by natural selection, and the economy is driven by a greed which destroys the planet it feeds on. It is the reality of this universe which itself is ruled over by the inexorable law of entropy which will one day reduce everything in it to chaos, darkness and stillness. It’s a world in which things go wrong and there’s no guarantee they will go right; in which things fall apart and often do not get put together again; in which people get sick and do not always recover. A world in which justice is often not done, and the good may well not triumph. A world in which children are abused, die of preventable diseases or are brutalised by bloody conflict. It’s the ‘real’ world we live in.

But the second reality challenges all of this. It is the coming kingdom, the realm of God, the rule and reign of rightness and goodness and love; the ‘future perfect’. This is the reality in which justice is done, evil and entropy do not win and goodness has the final word. It’s the reality Christians are looking for and working towards. It has been growing like a tiny seed or a flickering flame ever since God first made a covenant with man, and consented to shepherd the fledgling nation of Israel, the community into which the kingdom-bringing Messiah would be born.

It’s worth noting that the two realms are not entirely unrelated or discontinuous. The perfect reality of the kingdom is in some complex way patterned on the present universe, or perhaps it’s the other way round (or both). We’re looking forward to a new heavens and new earth, not some completely different kind of reality. The new version will be perfect and complete where the old version is flawed and partial, and the new version will run according to laws of love and goodness rather than entropy and natural selection. But even in this present universe there is much love and goodness, much beauty and truth. And all that is good and true in this world will find a home in the world that is coming.

Ever since Christ’s incarnation, the Kingdom has been here on earth with us and among us, even within us. But it has still not come in all its fullness. We experience it only in part, often in tantalising glimpses. We live in the in-between time, what’s been called the ‘Now and Not Yet’ of the Kingdom. So we live in two realities at once, or in the interface between the two.

And as we do so, we face the unanswerable question – how much of the coming kingdom reality can we expect here and now, and how much do we just have to accept the present state of things and wait for the renewal of the world?

Future now?

In John 11, Martha faces a similar question at the tomb of her brother Lazarus. Jesus has arrived too late to prevent he brother from dying, but now the Lord’s here can she hope for a miracle, Lazarus returned from the dead? Jesus responds to her plea with typical ambiguity, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha says, yes, she’s well aware that Lazarus will ultimately rise again in the resurrection at the last day, at the end of the ages, when the kingdom comes. But what about now?

And then comes the game-changer. Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die”. Shortly after, he demonstrates his point by calling Lazarus forth from the grave. In this act, something of the future kingdom comes now.

So in this scene, we see in full-screen the tension and interaction between the present imperfect and the future perfect. Martha has faith in the one-day future realm of God in which all will be put to rights, but she doesn’t want to have to wait till the end of the age for it. And Jesus shows that he is the foundation and inaugurator of this realm, and so in him some of that future hope can be realised here and now. Jesus is the kingdom; the future is in him, and through him it can enter and change the present.

Your kingdom come

But of course we know that what happened with Lazarus is not what always happens, or indeed what usually happens. We know full well that the vast majority of the faithful die and stay dead, awaiting that future resurrection in Christ, whose date none know. So while we can and do experience elements and aspects of the kingdom here and now, we cannot expect every present ill of this imperfect world to be met with a miracle that puts it right straight away.

We’re instructed by Jesus to pray, ‘Your kingdom come’. Indeed, I’d suggest that the whole first half of the Lord’s prayer is about the ushering in of the coming kingdom where God’s name is fully hallowed and his will is perfectly done here on earth. It’s an acknowledgement that as yet the kingdom has not all come, and that here on earth God’s will is not always perfectly done. Not all that happens here and now is as it should be, by any means. So in prayer, we ask for some of the future reality of the world-made-new to break into our present broken reality; for some of the future redemption we are waiting for in God’s coming kingdom to be made real in our lives here and now.

Miracles then are not arbitrary or meaningless disruptions of the laws of nature so much as glimpses of the new laws of the perfect world that is coming. They are the breaking-in to this broken order of a new and redeemed heavenly order in which death is defeated, entropy undone and rightness restored. They are signs of what is coming, and has already come in part.

So as we pray, and as we live in the light of that prayer, we can and do see aspects of God’s kingdom coming around us, in us and through us. But the kingdom isn’t fully come just yet. And we often don’t know – at least I don’t know – in any specific instance whether this time we can expect the new laws of the coming kingdom to break through, or whether we just have to accept the present imperfect for now. Sometimes we get a miracle; other times we get grace and peace to accept things as they are for a season. Both are signs of the kingdom.

‘The real me?’

There’s another area in which I think the two kinds of reality are significant, and that’s the reality of ourselves, our personalities and characters. ‘Authenticity’ is a buzzword in our society; many of us are looking for ‘the real us/me’, and we’re enjoined by popular wisdom to ‘be ourselves’ and ‘be true to ourselves’. I actually think this can be a very good thing if understood rightly; I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of ‘knowing yourself’ and of being ‘real’ and honest in our faith, theology and worship, as opposed to merely pretending or putting on a performance. But used in the wrong way the quest for authenticity can just be an excuse for selfishness, for doing whatever you feel like, for acting without regard to others in the name of self-actualisation.

The trouble is that when we talk about the ‘real me’, or ‘being myself’, there are again these two kinds of reality in interplay and tension. There’s the me as I am here and now, flawed and imperfect, subject to greed and rage, pride and lust and selfishness. And there’s my reality in Christ, the potential me that God always intended, the future perfect me in complete union with Christ, the me in whom Jesus’ likeness is fully formed.

There’s a complex relationship between these two personal realities. It’s not quite as simple as one just being good and the other completely bad; although the potential me in Christ will indeed be fully good, the present me is not entirely to be rejected. Rather the reality I’m growing into is a redeemed, renewed version of the current me, with its flaws corrected or overcome and its strengths perfected. There is again a continuity between the two realities – just as there is in the wider case of the present universe and the coming kingdom.

So at the moment, being ‘real’ or ‘myself’ is not a simple matter. The ‘real me’ is not just about my present inclinations, tastes and abilities. But it does include or is based on the overall shape of my existing personality. If I’m seeking authenticity rather than pretence, I need to be aware of those things which are foundational to my present personality; but I also need to be wary of those things which are dear to me but which militate against who I’m becoming in Christ.

No part of me is truly ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ if it can’t find a place in my ultimate identity in the kingdom of God, the renewed me I’m slowly being transformed into. So I can never just excuse wrong attitudes or bad behaviour by saying that ‘I’m being true to myself’. On a deeper level that kind of thing is untrue to what’s most important about myself, my true humanity as exemplified by Christ.

And in the here-and-now meantime, again there’s a balance between accepting our current flawed and imperfect state, and yet praying and working towards the transformed us hidden in Christ. We get frustrated by the present lack of progress as we stumble through the same mistakes and sins time and again. But now and again we get those glimpses of grace, signs that we’re on the road to redemption. The kingdom is here in part, and it’s coming in full.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Eschatology/end-times, Future, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Future perfect vs. present imperfect (or two different kinds of real)

  1. Theothedog says:

    I think this is one of your best (and, in terms of its implications) most important blogs. I like especially what you say about the self and about miracles; but I’d be inclined to go perhaps further still on the matter of the importance of a belief in a ‘future perfect’ for people’s morals and behaviour in the ‘future imperfect’. It’s a simplistic analysis, of course, but it really does seem to me that a thoroughgoing Christian morality is extremely difficult to achieve in a society in which, ‘de facto’, a majority of people have no thought-through, day-to-day belief in an afterlife (a fact which, alone, makes 21st-century Western society not far from unique in world history, I assume). Surely if I live in a one-off, tangible world which is far from perfect, but in which it’s possible and morally OK to pursue happiness, then it’s only logical for me to be in a hurry, to think exclusively in the short term, to ‘suck the orange dry’ while I still can, to place my personal and material wants (however unthinkingly) at the top of my agenda? I know that I couldn’t maintain any kind of Christian discipline if I didn’t believe that, in the end, God would sort things out (not just for me but for everyone), right or make up for some of the grossest wrongs of this world, or lead humanity into a ‘future perfect’. It’s when I think that the present should be perfect FOR ME that I really get into trouble.

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    • Thank you Theo! It was (is) an important blog post for me, as I do struggle hugely with the present gap between the two realities or kinds of reality.

      And yes, I agree with your analysis – without the hope of the kingdom in which wrongs are in some way righted, morality in the present certainly becomes far less desirable and far more difficult. I admire those who have no faith but who nonetheless work for future justice, particularly if they have no offspring for whom they desire a better planet. (Though at the same time I recognise that their efforts are in many cases deeply flawed, and often at least partly compromised by huge problems in other parts of their lives.)

      I also agree that imagining that the present should be perfect for me is highly problematic – which is where I part company with health-and-wealth theology. It’s not that I think God particularly wants us to be miserable, and I’m not against seeking happiness within reasonable limits and appropriate contexts. But I don’t believe that God just wants to bless us with nice things all the time or to let us off the hook when we need to make substantial changes in our lives (as I certainly need to on a fairly regular basis).

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