The Past Tense in Our Present Time

cross-shadow-kerepesiAs an English teacher, I often instruct my students to discuss the characters and actions in whatever work we are studying by using the present tense. For instance, Hamlet contemplates death as he faces Yorick’s empty skull, Beowulf aspires toward a sense of eternal glory as he wrenches Grendel’s arm off, and Gatsby stretches ever farther for that ephemeral green light on Daisy’s dock. I remind them that the literary present tense preserves the immediacy and continuous action of the narrative upon each individual reading; these characters, in a sense, are always contemplating, aspiring, stretching every time we open the book.

By extension, we often consider ourselves to be winding our way through an eternal present; even now, I am typing, and you are reading. We seem to be quite smitten by the present tense. As American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day

We seem to believe that our present action is the fulcrum on which our entire life is balanced, and, in a way, this is true; our choices have consequences, and our actions have reactions.

Yet, perhaps even more true is the asphalt-solid reality of the past tense. What if we must look to the past for that fulcrum? What if our most important reality is behind us?

Throughout the New Testament, God calls us to live a life of calm assurance and steady footing based not on our present circumstances or the sheer potency of our daily choices but on the power of a work He has already accomplished. In II Corinthians, Paul discusses the transformative power of salvation, concluding:

All this is from God, who through Christ has reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation […] We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:18, 20-21).

Notice the verbs. Christ “has reconciled” (past tense) us to himself, and, on that basis, we must “be reconciled” (present tense) to God. What God has done allows us to be what we must be. He made (past) him to be sin, so that in him we might become (present) the righteousness of God.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul makes a similar case:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22).

The reconciliation necessary to make us worthy of welcome into God’s family has already happened. “Take heart,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He is the LORD, and He has done it. For all your anguish, your waiting, your grieving, your anxiety, your frustration, your tedious repetition, your feelings of insignificance, your worry, and your regret, God has assured you that He has made all things new. He has reconciled us to Him; He has fought the good fight; He has defeated death and all of his friends.

There is no more glorious truth than the triumphant whisper on our Savior’s lips: “It is finished.”

Therefore, be reconciled to Him. Align your heart to the truth that has already been accomplished. He has reconciled the world to himself, so be reconciled! Trust the King; He is good! Be done with your nail-biting, your heavy shoulders, your saddened eyes. Sin is unraveling, and the glory of the LORD is filling every pore of this universe. Everything sad is coming untrue.

Rejoice evermore.

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