First, we must admit that the world itself is flush with warnings about the future and our call to take immediate action in the present.
It would be one thing if the Covid 19 virus were just a blip on a line and ended this period of disruption once for all. Other viruses, however, will come. We have been warned and we will need to be ready. Likely now, having suffered so, we will try to take more seriously the previous warnings about future viruses and resolve to step up our preparedness.
But of course, even casual observers of our modern times carry many other deep concerns about the future of our life in the 21st century. Here are a few of the alarm bells we can hear ringing.
We are warned of the damage to a society whose families are so often racked with divorce, abuse and dysfunction, whose babies are often born out of wedlock and whose parents ill equipped for their critical task.
What will happen to the American economy if we continue to pile up more trillions of dollars of national and personal debt, if we continue to buy things we can’t afford and print money when the reserves run out? It is predicted that social security will go bankrupt by 2030; many people are living month to month and have no savings plan for their retirement. The situation in the third world is of course much more dire.
Depression and anxiety are epidemic among young people especially. Prescription drugs deal with symptoms only. Smoking marijuana can have benefits, but we are warned of what legalizing it will do to our society’s norms, what smoking it will do to the brains of the young.
What will happen to the world economy and to the common poor if more and more of the world’s businesses are bought and controlled by fewer and fewer companies and countries, taking away local ownership and prosperity, leaving the majority trapped in the deep ruts of poverty and dependence?
What will happen to the nations and their governments, including the USA, if rulers continue to seek their own welfare before their people’s, if their character cannot steward the power they are given, and they rule with an iron fist instead of a servant’s towel?
All over the world, those with power are prone to oppress, devalue, abuse and make life difficult for those who are different. The seething anger reveals deep trauma around the world; how long will their cries be unspoken or unheard?
What will happen to the seas, weather, storms, animals, air, temperature and more if we neglect making change in our care for the environment and our stewardship of the earth? Qualified scientists offer warnings of irreversible damage and danger and most nations and yet I find it hard to “hear” them, to take their warnings seriously, to make changes in my lifestyle.
We hear of the impact on our brains and our thinking from spending too much time on our phones and devices, and most of us can’t well heed the warnings-especially the young and most pliable.
And the list could go on and on…and though all the outcomes may not happen exactly as predicted, we must admit that the future’s lights are flashing “beware” in unprecedented ways.
Next, I want to explore the question that was raised at the beginning of this reflection: why is it human nature that we often don’t “hear” or heed warnings that are given to us for our best? As we explore these ten possible reasons, I hope you will consider how it might be that we could best pay attention to how we respond to God’s warnings and then the warnings we hear “outside” from our world.
Here are a number of possibilities as I have reflected on my own experience and ask others around me to do so as well. After reading each consider, “Do I see this reality in my experience of myself or in the experience of others I know? If so, how? And how might God want me to help me overcome this obstacle?
- I will first admit my biblical assumption: our natural responses to all things God intends and communicates has been marred by sin. We have in our nature both the image of God and a bias toward rebellion. So, for example, before the Fall, we “naturally” listened to God’s warning and took His commands seriously. Afterwards, seems we all have the tendency to resist submitting to authority, to not want to take seriously any input that would make us change our ways.
- Another reality of the fall is Adam’s failure to step in and protect his wife. The line of thinking goes something like: “Since I and my own are ok, I am not really worried about the suffering of others.” This is the sin of passivity, the sin of omission, of not doing what we ought to do. I know for me I need to add the nuance of “selective passivity.” I am not passive about certain priorities and patterns in my
The story of Jonah comes to mind: he was very concerned and wanted to take action about the worms eating the plant giving him shade, but seemingly distant, disconnected and passive about the welfare of Nineveh which was full of lost sheep. Selective passivity: this is one explanation for the slowness of our response to certain kind of warnings.
- In recent years, warnings about from so many different fields (see above) combine with app’s and emails to constantly push content at us. Overloaded with too many messages and then living with little margin and time to process, we become numb, jaded. We stop hearing, even the messages we need and want to hear.
- We have heard warnings that do not soon lead to the projected consequences. E.g., smoking may take years before lung cancer appears. Heart attacks come decades after the neglect of our physical health. Hurricane warnings do not always come true as storms subside or veer a different direction. Combine this reality with our distrust of news sources, marketing schemes and polarizing perspectives, now we have even more reason to excuse myself from taking warnings seriously. Warning become like the story of old, Peter crying “wolf” and the wolf does not come…at first.
- If the warning is addressing something we are addicted to, we are even more prone to dismiss it or simply to despair. Again, alcohol or drug addiction is the easy example to use here, but a person addicted to his/her work may be warned of by the consequences, yet the behavior often persists until there is divorce.
- Sometimes the warning feels so ominous that I can feel helpless-what could I do, or even what would we all do together, that could really make a lasting difference. It’s too late to do anything in response. Climate change might be a good example here. So…I do nothing.
- I hear warnings often through media of some kind which means I am alone usually-and I am more prone to self-deception or making excuses or feeling exempt (“others will be affected but not me”) when I am alone. Add to this the fact that the social problems of our day pose challenges that can only be addressed by people as teams and communities and groups. How different might I respond to a warning if I heard it in a community of people instead of just by myself?
- There is a pervasive and often unconscious human tendency to hear a challenging truth or a warning and conclude that we are exempt. The warning is for sure valid for others, but not for me and my group. It’s easier to dismiss a warning and feel exempt when I am not at the present currently feeling pain from the issue, or for that matter, of any kind. The belief is that somehow I will be protected from the consequences predicted. This is a way I can easily justify my behavior.
- Warnings call us to change our perspective and behavior. Change, even good and necessary changed, is experienced by most people as a loss. Change challenges our dogged determination to be and stay in control; we like predictability, we find comfort in our routines, habits become ruts, so we resist warnings and the changes they imply.
- Sometimes we hear a warning that grips our heart and mind, and then we get distracted. Real responsibilities resurface and demand our attention. Technology and social media provide endless amounts of temptations for our time and participation. Staying focused has perhaps never been harder.
What should warnings of the future help us to do?
Here are a few that come to mind. Which ones stand out for you right now?
What would you add?
- Be honest, cry out to God and lament the current and impending situation.
- If applicable, confess with others our collective part in the problem. Pray like Daniel, Nehemiah, Jesus: “forgive US our sins…”
- Be willing to die to our perceptions and patterns of living. Repent and let God change our behavior over time.
- Put your trust in God and his promise to be with us in all things. Don’t lean to your own understanding of how the problem can’t be solved, etc. His yoke is easy, and the battle is not yours to fight, though your participation is expected.
- Double down on our hope in God and his future. Martin Luther said there were only two days on his calendar: “this day” (i.e. today) and “that day” (i.e. the day of Christ’s return.) Hope of the future coming of Christ and the restoration of the world is crucial for motivation to lean into today’s issues.
- Practice both receiving and giving warnings to others. Perhaps every good message of the gospel or any significant truth should include as at least a foot note a warning about the future and also the consequences of hearing but not heeding them.
May God awaken us to the gift and temptations inherent in warnings of all kind.