In “The Screwtape Letters”, C.S. Lewis articulates a sin that I think so many people fall into. I call it the Idolatry of the Future. In Letter 15, Screwtape writes to Wormwood, and encourages him to prevent the Patient from focusing on Eternity (which means being concerned with God) and from focusing on the Present (the point at which time touches eternity). Rather, Wormwood should seek to focus to keep the Patient focused on the Future, because “biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the future inflames hope and fear.”
I’ve been re-reading “The Screwtape Letters” as of late, in preparation for a podcast that we’re recording. Reading it critically in anticipation for conversation has caused me to consider and think about things in a way that I wouldn’t if I were just reading for my own personal enjoyment. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this issue. The issue of the Future, of living in the future, and of Idolizing the Future. This manifests, I think, in two similar, but distinct, ways: “If Only” and “Just as Soon As”.
That’s the lie we tell ourselves. Most of the time, we don’t realize it’s a lie.
"If only" is an excuse we use to justify and excuse our lack of action or engagement with a problem or situation. It's what we use to push back the call of God on our life, or from going after a dream or a goal. It's what keeps us on the bench, sitting on the couch, restless and ambitious. "If only" feeds our fears and saps our faith and deprives us of the life that God wants us to have.
"If only I were married."
"If only I had more money."
"If only I had gone to college."
"If only I had a better job."
"If only my kids were better behaved."
"If only I were better looking.” (This isn’t something I personally can relate to, but I know some people who are surely afflicted by it.)
When we say “If only,” we elevate some currently not present condition in our lives as the key to happiness, satisfaction, and joy. It idolizes something that’s not real, and passes the blame of our unpleasant situation onto something else, something that’s outside of our control, and it binds us.
Just As Soon As
I used to say this all the time. “Just as soon as” … what? For me, it was finish college. Or get married. Or have kids. Or get out of debt. I used it as an excuse for my financial struggles, for my relationship struggles, for my lack of engagement in evangelism and teaching bible studies. I read a quote once - “An excuse is never hard to come up with when you’ve decided you can’t do something.”
The problem with Just As Soon As is that we get to beg off of whatever it is that we know that we ought to do now with a future promise and good intentions. But things never happen the way we think they will, and we'll never be in a perfect situation where we can do the things we should without obstacle or distraction. Just As Soon As is also a lie, and it prevents us from ever accomplishing anything, because Just As Soon As never comes true.
All sin is idolatry, because all of our life is worship. Everything we do is an act of worship, either to God or to the Self. We don’t live in a vacuum, so we don’t have neutral actions. By not living in the present, and fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives, instead we tell God that we can’t serve Him right now because we’re not equipped properly (as if His plan ever depended on our abilities). That’s idolatry. It’s sin.
Furthermore, when we say If Only or Just As Soon As, we are anticipating a perfect Future. We have, as Lewis says, persuaded ourselves that the Future is going to be agreeable. What happens, then, if the conditions we’ve established for doing the things we ought are never met? What happens if you don’t get the new job or the new car? What happens if you don’t have more money or get married? Are you never going to submit to God’s will? Are you going to perpetually live in rebellion and idolatry?
We can’t wait. We can’t delay. God doesn’t need us to be perfect - He needs us to be willing.