Advice for the ambitious: Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
It may or may not be good advice. My favorite misapplication comes in meme form:
But the cliche carries an important truth: It pays to prepare for your own future. Human beings are routinely bad at thinking ahead. Take retirement savings: most of us save too little, too late. Our financial procrastination is rooted in how far away the future seems, including our future selves. We haven’t met our future selves, so it’s hard to care deeply about them and take action to provide for them. Bridge that gap, and it makes a difference: a study has shown that people’s planned savings for retirement doubles after they see computer-aged pictures of themselves.
Seeing wrinkles on your skin that aren’t there yet changes how you prepare to feed that aging body. Being able to imagine ourselves at a far-off horizon increases our present motivation to make sacrifices for it. It’s an important psychological insight, and although it’s validated by contemporary research, it’s not new. In the Bible, our future life is often presented as a motive for our present behavior. When Paul writes to the community of early believers in Thessalonica, he encourages them that death doesn’t have the final word: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 NRSV). Paul says that we will live with Jesus, even after we die. We will obtain salvation—deliverance from every disaster and permanent well-being—when he returns.
Paul connects this hope to the present: “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love” (5:6,8). He’s stacking the metaphors right on top of each other: We belong to the day, not the night, so let’s live like people of light. Let’s stay spiritually sober, not drunk and disoriented by the allure of sin. Let’s prepare like soldiers, putting on faith and love like our armor. But each of these metaphors is grounded in a single vision: The stunning reality of our future in Christ. It’s because of what awaits us that we get ready now. The rays of light we glimpse from that far-off horizon inspire us to stay disciplined and alert.
This is a key principle for motivating our own spiritual practices. The Christian life is a life of discipline, but not discipline driven by bald moral rectitude. A sense of duty can be beneficial and good, but God offers us so much more. He invites us to envision the beauty of our future life in lush detail. Passage after passage of Scripture helps us peek into eternity with vivid images of restoration and contentment, whether it’s Ezekiel’s promise that “everything will live where the river goes” (47:9), Isaiah’s prophecy that “sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (51:11), or David’s simple confidence that “I shall dwell in the house of the Lᴏʀᴅ my whole life long” (23:6). These passages are saying, “Imagine God’s future world, and your future self in it.”
The biblical promise is not just that our experience in that future world will be good; it’s that we will be good people in that world. It’s somewhat misleading to say that we are invited to imagine our future selves in moral terms, since speaking of being moral conveys dutiful rule-following. The language the Scriptural writers employ pushes us in a different direction altogether, aiming at our longing to be a certain kind of human being, a basically good and lovely person (which a self-righteous rule-follower really just can’t be, for all their efforts). In the same chapter of Paul’s letter, he writes, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (5:23-24). That sequence of “spirit and soul and body” gives us a sense of the whole-life well-being that is in store for us. And that well-being goes hand-in-hand with being sanctified: as we leave the dirt and detritus of sin behind us, we step into the deepest kind of wellness there is.
When you think about our future self, don’t stop with the wrinkly retiree. Push the timeline further, and contemplate what it must be like to enjoy life without the distractions of sin. Imagine that. To go about your business and your conversations with no other concern but to love, because you are so settled and confident that all will be well and that God will attend to your true needs like the generous Father that he is. That sounds like heaven to me.
Let that image of your future self in Christ propel your spiritual work now. When you don’t feel like praying, pray anyway; it’s helping you become the most beautiful person. When you’re tempted to keep a repeated sin secret, go find someone you can talk to. Confession draws you closer to that deep wellness you will enjoy forever. By God’s grace, our discipline today pays dividends into a life that will fulfill our fiercest longings and surpass even our most breathtaking dreams.