How Do You Plan For the Future When the World Is Ending?
Welcome! I'm Harma-Mae Smit and this is my monthly newsletter diving into topics of faith. In unstable times, we often wonder how to plan for the future, so here's a little meditation on a tiger, a strawberry, and Martin Luther (don't worry, it all ties together)! Dive in below. You can subscribe for more newsletters by clicking this link.
How to Plan for the Future When the World is Ending
As I browsed the internet a few months back, I came across this little story that was supposed to help me navigate the frustrating unpredictabilities of this pandemic. The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, as a man was walking through a forest, he saw a tiger peering out at him from the underbrush. As the man turned to run, he heard the tiger spring after him to give chase.
Barely ahead of the tiger, running for his life, our hero came to the edge of a steep cliff. Clinging onto a strong vine, the man climbed over the cliff edge just as the tiger was about to pounce.
Hanging over the side of the cliff, with the hungry tiger pacing above him, the man looked down and was dismayed to see another tiger, stalking the ravine far below. Just then, a tiny mouse darted out from a crack in the cliff face above him and began to gnaw at the vine.
At that precise moment, the man noticed a patch of wild strawberries growing from a clump of earth near where he dangled. Reaching out, he plucked one. It was plump, and perfectly ripe; warmed by the sunshine.
He popped the strawberry into his mouth. It was perfectly delicious. The End.
Yes, I didn’t find that story all that comforting either. And don’t worry, the author who retold this story in his article is well aware of that: “Most of us don’t like this story.” We want the man to escape, or at least to know what happens to the man. But, says the author, just like the man’s situation is precarious and out of his control, so is ours. All we can do is savour the goodness found in each moment of the present.
While I agree with appreciating the present moment, this story still left me empty, instead of encouraged.
Contrast this with the famous (alleged) quote of Martin Luther:
"If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.”*
It’s similarly mind-boggling, but this quote doesn’t leave me so empty. And what’s the difference? I think the difference is hope.
Some have interpreted this Luther quote to be just as present-centered as the first story—in other words, just ignore the apocalypse about to occur, and focus on the task right in front of you in that specific moment. But I don’t see that in this quote.
Yes, when disaster looms and we don’t know what to do, we can fall back on our ordinary duties. If we are not being called to extraordinary heroics, we can continue in the tasks set before us—as so many women carried on at home while the men went off to war, in WWI and WWII, for example. But this quote goes deeper than that. Doing your ordinary duties can also be very present-centered, but planting an apple tree is long-term. That’s why it seems so ridiculous. Why would you plant a seed that will never sprout if you knew the world would end?
You do that if you believe there’s a continuation between the present and the future.
We don’t really believe in futility. We believe everything that happens matters. When we see someone promising die young before accomplishing anything, we mourn at what looks like a potential that was never realized, but we hold onto the belief that God turns even these things to good. God redeems history. The broken-off arcs of potential, that look so futile, will matter because God has triumphed over darkness and promised us that the brokenness of the world will not have victory over us.
Christians are sometimes criticized for living for the next world and not caring about this earth, but that’s the wrong way to think about it. The next world is the fulfillment of this one, fully restored and fully healed. This means we cannot do anything other than care about this world, because it’s the start of what is to come. We don’t fully know how it will come together in God’s plan, but we do believe everything will reach fulfillment, and not erasure.
And humans do seem to believe this because, despite the sands of time erasing most of what humans have built and achieved throughout history, we still act as if what we do and what we build matters. As humankind, we haven’t given up in despair—we act in the hope of a future, in hope of our doings somehow reaching fulfillment. We need this hope in order to live.
To me, this quote is simply a way of saying, if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still act as if my actions today mattered forever.
Now, I’m not saying the second quote is “the” right way to think about apocalypses. After all, it’s likely not even a Martin Luther quote, but rather one of those spurious quotes that get passed around the internet because they sound cool. It’s not wrong to value the present, to take joy in the raindrops on the rose petals, or the taste of a strawberry in a perilous situation. But there’s a difference between appreciating the present, or living only for the present. There’s something to be said for living in the expectation of a future.
To live in the expectation of a future is to live in hope, even in the blackest, bleakest times.
After all, the Bible calls us to live in the expectation of a future—it would not talk about what’s to come if we were not supposed to live in hope, with eyes looking onward. After the Fall, the first thing God did was give humans the hope of a future again. He gave them a promise. He knew the present was not enough, when they had memories of a past that was impossibly good.
And Adam and Eve responded—they had children. They knew better than we know how the fallen world is afflicted with futility in comparison with paradise. But they had hope enough to bring children into the world because they had been given a promise that futility would never be all there is.
Christianity’s message is an offer of hope and a future in the darkest situations.
People dislike The Tiger and the Strawberry because they cannot limit themselves to the present—people are enmeshed in a past-present-future flow. The present alone is not what we’re made for. The present alone is not enough, and to content ourselves with it is to cut ourselves off from the richness of life.
So go out and enjoy those small moments, taking your day minute-by-minute and slowing down enough to notice life’s details. But don’t feel the need to convince yourself that this is enough. We need hope to live on, even when there looks to be no hope at all.
*Many scholars cannot find any evidence that Martin Luther actually said this, so it’s definitely one of those alleged quotes.
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In case you missed it, I recently published a piece about fast fashion and Christianity at Ad Fontes Journal - you can check it out here: More than Ethics