The Tomorrow Trap

By Kelvin Smith

“Wait till next year!” is the cry of hope of every beleaguered sports fan. Yet there’s a different meaning of the phrase that can be the enemy of a satisfying life. That is the danger of putting things off to an imagined perfect future when all one’s dreams will come true: the man who spends all of his time at the office to provide for the family, the woman who puts off seeing her father until one more project is done. It’s easy to be so tomorrow-oriented that you forget to live today, and all too often the dreamed-for tomorrow never comes—the children grow up distant from a father who’s spent little time with them, the father dies before the daughter’s projects are all done. The latter situation happened to Sue Shellenbarger, the author of an article on this subject, “The Tomorrow Trap,” The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 1999, p. W1, who ironically is the Journal’s regular columnist on work and family issues.

As Ms. Shellenbarger noted, there are some aspects of life where deferral of gratification and planning for the future are important. If you spend all your money as soon as you get it, down the road you’ll run into serious trouble. Surviving suffering is easier if you can see the light of the end of the tunnel, and have confidence that the suffering will be redeemed. But these attitudes aren’t equally valuable in all aspects of one’s life.

The Tomorrow Trap isn’t quite the same thing as procrastination, though many people may struggle with both problems. But procrastination typically means putting off unpleasant tasks; the Tomorrow Trap is a matter of putting off things you enjoy because you’re waiting for some future perfect (or at least better) time to do it.

This is something that a lot of us singles struggle with. Because so many activities in our society (including in churches) have a strong couples or families orientation, it’s easy not to participate “until” we get married — it may feel awkward to be alone at an event where it seems like everyone else is part of a couple or a group, or it feels less enjoyable if you don’t have someone to share it with. One of the advantages of being married, assuming you marry someone who either shares your interests or is at least willing to participate in things you’re interested in, is that you have an automatic partner.

But putting our lives on hold until marriage means that we miss out on many of the good things life has to offer. It means that we don’t make use of some of the real advantages of being single: greater flexibility to take time with people, opportunities to travel (at whatever level of comfort you’re happy with — I wouldn’t have been able to backpack through Europe, or drive through the U.S. without motel reservations, with a family), missions trips, additional schooling (for a formal degree or just to learn a new skill: as the saying goes, it’s never too late to learn to play the piano), or whatever else.

Sometimes we also shrink back from steps that seem to imply that our single state is permanent. The best example is probably buying a home. To buy a house or condo on your own is a big step, and suggests that you may be there (by yourself) for a while.

Yet the opposite choice has its own subtext: Continually renting can imply that you’re not willing to make a commitment to the community (the neighborhood, the city, the church, and other organizations), or living with your parents may suggest you’re not willing to take responsibility for your own life. There can be other, perfectly valid reasons for those choices (renting may be a wiser choice financially depending on the housing market or future moving plans; you may live with your parents for financial reasons or because they need assistance in daily living tasks), but if you see buying a home as something that only married people (or single people who’ve given up hope of marriage) do, you’ve fallen into the Tomorrow Trap.

The most pernicious way to fall into the Tomorrow Trap, however, is simply by inattention. When I lived in Paris, I met lifelong Parisians who had never visited the Louvre museum. It was always there, and so there was no impetus to say, “Today is the day I’m going to go.” I knew I’d be there for only a short time, and so was eager to cram in everything, but now that I live near New York City, I rarely go to the museums, theatres, and other attractions there—it seems to be mostly when guests come to visit. Otherwise, each day just slides into the next. How do we avoid the trap?

“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24 NIV) Rejoicing in each day includes taking advantage of the opportunities God gives us, though that doesn’t mean running frantically from one activity to the next. Time for silence and solitude is a part of the rhythm of a well-balanced life, and something that singles have more opportunity for than married couples, and especially parents. But unless God has given you a special calling to the cloister, silence and solitude are meant to equip us for time in community.

Rejoicing in each day includes direct worship of God, alone and together; it includes receiving and using the good gifts God gives us, both spiritual and natural; it includes using our time for advancing God’s kingdom, whether by assisting in ministry, reaching out to those who don’t know him, or spending time with fellow believers. It means letting our schedule be interrupted, for a friend who needs an hour to talk or a neighbor who needs the snow shovelled from their sidewalk. While we are mindful of the future (1 Corinthians 15:19 reminds us Christianity is above all a hope-based faith), we don’t let that prevent us from living in the present.

Avoiding the Tomorrow Trap also means saying “No”. After all, we’re doing something else with the time that could be better spent in the “non-urgent but important” category of activities. It means not letting your job take over your life, not being a couch potato for six hours a day, not mindlessly spending hours surfing the web.

Instead, think of a friend you haven’t seen recently and invite them to lunch. Call a college friend on the other side of the country and catch up. Write a note of appreciation for a teacher who helped you on your way. Send flowers to your mother, not on her birthday, but just to brighten her day. Bake cookies, for yourself and someone else. Go to a concert or an art show (organize a group or enjoy it yourself). Read a “classic” book. Take a day for prayer and fasting. Make a special donation to a poverty relief organization. Start a singles group at your church. Reorganize your work responsibilities (or even find a new job) so you can work 40 rather than 80 hours a week (what good is the pay if you can never enjoy it?). Unplug the television for a week. Throw away the newspaper for a day. Turn off the computer.

In this way we can live a full and fulfilled life, enjoyed today and every day, honoring God and loving those around us, not regretting missed opportunities. It’s not too late to escape the Tomorrow Trap.

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Wanting it All

By Fern Horst

My five-year-old niece and I were having a heart-to-heart talk — one she had initiated about women having babies. When I asked her if she thought I should get married and have a baby she looked back at me with a why-would-you-do-that look. Her answer was clear: “No! You’re an auntie. You can’t do everything!”

On the way to adulthood we often lose sight of this five-year-old wisdom and we think that someday we can have it all. We grow up with certain hopes and dreams. My three-year-old niece, listening in on this conversation, clutched her doll closer to her and declared confidently that some day she wants to be a mommy. I watched her little face shine with anticipation and realized how young one starts to hope and dream. I prayed silently that the Lord would prepare her for her future, whatever that will be.

As we go through life, some of our dreams are wondrously fulfilled while others aren’t. Some are goals we can work towards and achieve, others we have little or no control over. The bottom line, though, is that we’ll never get all that we’ve ever wanted — at least not on this side of heaven.

My niece isn’t the only little girl who grows up hoping to someday replace her doll with a real live baby of her own. But for many little girls that life-long dream is never realized. But that’s just one of many dreams which may not be fulfilled in life. For many of us singles it may be the unrealized dream of marriage, or the broken dream resulting from divorce or the death of a spouse.

I recently read a brief conclusion of a scientific study which stated that those who are married do better in every measure of well being than those who are not married. As a single, I bristled a bit at this study’s conclusions; after all, if I’m following the Lord, won’t He guarantee my overall well being, married or single? When I shared this with a friend, he assured me that the study was likely true in various aspects. But he also pointed out something equally true: what we lack as singles is often the ticket to other opportunities which are of immense value in God’s Kingdom. As the Apostle Paul pointed out, the unmarried person is free to use this time and energy to be devoted to the Lord:

“He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” (I Corinthians 7:32-35)

We can’t have it all, and we may not have the “best” by certain standards or measures. So what should our response be? Oftentimes our tendency is to become despondent because life seems unfair, to sulk because the dream is not realized, and perhaps even to resent those who have had that dream realized. Though it is often a matter of perspective, it is true that we haven’t all been given the same opportunities in life. Perhaps others have ten talents and we have only five, as those in the parable that Jesus told (Matthew 25:14-30). But let’s not make the grave mistake of the person in this story who had just one talent and buried it because he was afraid his Master would not be pleased with the little that he had. In the end he faced the eternal wrath of his Master who called him unfaithful and cast him into utter darkness. It’s sobering to realize that God fully expects us to use what we have and to not throw away our opportunities because we’d rather have something different.

It sometimes seems like my life would be better if I had a husband and children — surely there is a very important role which a wife and mother plays in her family. Yet God has given me other opportunities than these. What will I do with them? When we stand before our Maker and He says to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord”, it will no longer matter to us that our faithfulness was labored in the trenches of singleness rather than the trenches of marriage. It won’t matter that we never had it all. Nothing of this earthly life will matter, except that we were faithful with what we had. “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).

Let’s make sure that He will.

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What! You have to be Married to have a Life?

By Genevieve A. Longley

Recently I was out with two married friends. One began to tell a cute story about a comment her son had made. The family had been playing a game called “The Game of Life®.” As she reached a certain square in the game, Cindy’s son informed her that she could no longer have children. I chimed in, “So, what happens if you aren’t married by that point in the game; you never get to have children?” “Oh,” says Cindy, “everyone starts the game married.” Before I could even remark on that my other friend quipped, “What! You have to be married to have a life?”

We all laughed but as I thought about it I realized that, unfortunately, that very attitude can all too often be directed towards, or even sometimes from, singles about singleness.

I remember a conversation with my mother when I was in my mid-twenties. I had just purchased an incredibly expensive living room suite. Prior to this I had purchased crystal stemware, sterling silverware and bone china. My mother remarked, “Honey, you’re not leaving anything for people to buy you when you get married.”

The attitude communicated by my mother- albeit unintentionally – was that life didn’t begin until marriage. The unspoken message was that before marriage one merely existed, living in a holding pattern until real life started. The reality for many is that they don’t marry, or at least not early. So, as Christian singles are we to put our lives on hold? Are we to be in a perpetual holding pattern? Will we drink from crystal or from toss-away Dixie Cups®? It’s our choice.

When I was eight years old I was called to the mission field. Towards that end I earned a bachelor’s degree in theology. After graduation I sat down to wait. Wait for what, you might ask? Why, marriage, of course! As the years rolled by, I established myself in my secular career, set up a home, and became active in my local church. I continued to pray and wait for my missionary husband to arrive on the scene.

In the meantime, the years were rolling by and the call on my life was languishing. Finally, one day, God was able to show me that He hadn’t called me at that point to marry a missionary but to be one.

As I began to prepare for the field there were many who encouraged me but there were also those who tried to discourage me. I recall one minister I had just met telling me “not to run ahead of God” but to pray for Him to send me a husband with whom I might go to the mission field. Little did he realize I had been living his well intended but shortsighted advice for the past decade!

Having decided to drink from the crystal cup of life, I have now been a full-time missionary for the past twelve years. Never have I found life so abundant and fulfilling.

Far from being a drawback, my single state has actually facilitated my missionary endeavors. One immediate and visible benefit to being single on the mission field was the rapidity with which I acquired Spanish. Rather than spending a few hours a day in a language school and the rest of the time speaking English at home with my family, I went directly to Argentina. Once there I rented a room with a non-English speaking widow and was immediately immersed in both the language and culture. With no prior knowledge of Spanish, within three months I was teaching and ministering in my new second language.

After my initial linguistic and cultural adaptation I moved further up into the Andes Mountains to a centrally located village. From there I traveled to remote mountain communities in a modern-day version of the circuit-riding preacher. I would “preach, teach, marry and bury,” as the saying goes. Most of the time I was on the road at least 25 days a month. The few days I was home would be spent studying and preparing new material as well as washing clothes on a scrub board in preparation for the next circuit. The only other person working in this manner in my area was a single Argentine minister- all the traveling just was not compatible with a married lifestyle.

In the ensuing years there have been many changes in my ministry but they have all had one thing in common – they would not be practicable were I married. I no longer live in the village. However, I continue to travel many weeks out of the month, I am on-call virtually 24/7, I am able to drop whatever I am doing at a moment’s notice to minister to someone, and have a freedom and flexibility with regards to ministry that would not be possible were I to have familial responsibilities. God knew what He was doing when He called me to the field as a single.

As I look at my life as a missionary I am put in mind of the scripture in 1 Corinthians 7:34, which speaks of the responsibilities of single versus married women. I enjoy friendships with many married missionary women and recognize the great and invaluable work they are doing. However, in many ways they are limited – ways in which I, as a single, am not. God truly has a tailor-made plan for each one of us, be we married or single.

Eighteen months ago I entered the biggest trial of my life – I was diagnosed with a virulent and life-threatening form of cancer. In Argentina I was told it was terminal and inoperable and sent home to the U.S. to die. God in His mercy and grace has seen fit to heal me and keep me here on this earth a while longer, for which I praise Him.

While lying bedridden for many months, I was brought back to the basics of life – Jesus Christ and Him crucified. All the peripheral things that had seemed so important just a few months before became as naught.

No one is guaranteed a tomorrow; we each live by the grace of God. Is ours a temporary Dixie Cup® of life or an elegant crystal goblet from which we can drink deeply? Will we as Christian singles buy into the thinking that says we must first be married before starting The Game of Life® or will we choose to say, “This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24)

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