A Summary of “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time” by Jonathan Edwards
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately on the theme of procrastination and how hard it is not to waste the precious time we’ve been given. A friend of mine put me on to a very helpful essay by Jonathan Edwards, the latter day Puritan who lived during the 18th Century. The essay is absolute gold dust and well worth a read first-hand, but for many of us accomplished procrastinators, it’s simply too long! It’s also in somewhat antiquated English which doesn’t make it all that easy to read if you’re not used to the style. So I thought it would be helpful to write a little summary of the essay in simple English – I hope fans of Edwards won’t find this too offensive!
Though it’s of value to all people, whether religious or not, the essay is essentially a sermon on Proverbs 27:1:
“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”
Even if you’re not normally a fan of the Bible, I think there’s some real wisdom in here that bears a moment of consideration – so do keep reading.
Three quick words of explanation:
- The verse starts with basic principle: “Don’t boast about tomorrow” – don’t rely upon there being a tomorrow; don’t act as though you own the future, as though you’re sure it exists and that you have control over what you can do with it
- It ends with a reason: “You don’t know what it will bring” – anything could happen: you might die, you might get sick, the London Underground might be shut down by a snow storm, rendering your plans moot.
- Edwards offers a caveat: in saying “don’t rely upon there being a tomorrow”, he doesn’t mean “rely upon there not being a tomorrow” – if you knew that today was your last day on Earth for certain, you’d neglect lots of responsibilities that are really important to take seriously (like paying off your mortgage), and perhaps do some things that aren’t the highest priority (like choosing the hymns for your funeral)
What It Means to Follow the Principle
To put this into practice (“Don’t boast about tomorrow”) will involve two things:
- Don’t rely upon certain things happening tomorrow, and put things off until they do – “I’ll finish off this essay during that free slot tomorrow”, “I’ll wait until my student loan comes through and then do X Y Z…”, “I’ll survive until the Christmas holidays and then get my morning Bible reading back on track” – who knows if the situation will really be as you expect by that time, and if you’ll still be inclined to do those things when that time comes around
- Don’t rely upon having a tomorrow at all – life is a mist, and who knows if you’ll still be here?
Here are some examples of what it would look like to rely upon future time:
- You might be obsessed with ‘things’ as though your happiness depended upon them – if only I have that relationship, that gadget, that job, then I’d be fulfilled. Of course we’re to enjoy stuff where possible, but we must hold them lightly as fleeting gifts from a good God, who himself is the only lasting source of fulfilment and happiness. Those other things might be gone by tomorrow, and can never bring lasting joy.
- You might be proud of your circumstances, your possessions or your good looks – but you ain’t gonna be able to keep them!
- You might envy other people for how easy life seems for them or how much people admire and respect them – but their situation might be changed by tomorrow, so isn’t worth craving.
- You might merrily continue a way of life that you need to be rescued from – presumably because you imagine you can be rescued another time?
- You might fail to do something that must be done before you die – this is the classic “I’ll repent on my deathbed” fallacy
- You might do stuff today which is going to need undoing – perhaps you’re busy defrauding someone on the hope that you can make restitution later?
Why We Shouldn’t Rely on Future Time
The reason why it’s daft to rely on future time is simple: we have absolutely no grounds whatsoever for relying on that future time existing. God hasn’t promised that we’ll live to see tomorrow, and nor can we rely on it. As much as modern medicine may have lulled us into a false sense of security, people still get sick and die suddenly, even at a young age. Accidents happen. There’s simply no reason to presume that we’ll still be here tomorrow.
Edwards offers the following tests for whether we might be relying on tomorrow:
- Do you set your heart on ‘things’ more than you would if you knew this was your last day?
- Wouldn’t you stick your nose in other people’s business less if you knew that you were going to have to give an account of your own affairs tonight? Wouldn’t you be a little more concerned about how things are going in your own life?
- Wouldn’t you be less obsessed with rivalries between the various clans you support and oppose? What does it matter whether iOS is better than Android or Arsenal is better than Chelsea if there might be no tomorrow? Even the most fierce rivalries will be ended by death: dead men are entirely at peace as they lie side by side in the cemetary
- Do you ever do things, coming up with arguments to convince yourself that there’s nothing wrong with them, that you’d never dare to do if you knew you were facing judgement tonight?
- Do you do stuff on the assumption that you’ll repent afterwards?
- Do you fail to make the most of today as though it might be your very last opportunity?
- Do you base your security for eternity on less-than-certain foundations? Have you ever really looked into Jesus’ claims firsthand before deciding there’s no hell? If God were to ask you “Why should I let you into heaven?”, is the answer you’d give certainly going to be enough to get you in?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these things, it’s probably a sign that you’re relying upon there being a tomorrow.
How to Spend Every Day
So how should we live our lives? Well, the massive advantage of not being told exactly how long we’ve got left is that it enables us to live every day as though it could be our last – that we should be ready for the end to come. You could be dead by this time tomorrow – you’ve no reason at all to rely upon it being otherwise. As you’re about to open that Facebook tab or check your email one last time, remember that it might be the last thing that you ever do.
Here are two motivations to stop relying on future time:
- If you really lived as though today might be your last, imagine how much more peace and security you would feel (and genuinely possess), both about your life and your death. No more feelings of guilt about the things you haven’t done, no more danger of meeting God unprepared.
- How much unnecessary stress is caused by our procrastination, and how many souls are needlessly condemned to eternal judgement because people keep putting off the inevitable and relying upon future time. Consider the five foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable: when the bridegroom showed up they were surprised, and found unprepared, having no oil in their lamps. And while they were at the shops to buy more, the five who were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut against them, and they came afterwards crying in vain, “Lord, Lord, open to us.”