By Rick Lewis
Considering all three dimensions of time – past, present, future – there is benefit in engaging deeply with each dimension
- The past. We learn from past experience or, if we don’t, as the saying goes, we are destined to repeat it. In particular, reflecting on what God has done builds a firm foundation for faith, anchored in God’s Word, in historical fact and our own experience. In mentoring, we commonly engage in this through ‘telling our stories’ somewhere near the beginning of a mentoring partnership.
- The present. The benefits of being fully present in the moment are well known, not least of which is the fact that here and now is the place of agency; we cannot change the past nor can we control the future, but in the present moment we can choose to respond faithfully to God’s grace.
- The future. Very few things come into being fully developed. Life is full of unrealised, positive possibilities that may be grasped through purposeful, focussed action. Furthermore, setbacks do not have to be the end of the story. Amid a world of brokenness, God holds out hope of renewal and restoration yet to come.
It is this future aspect of time I want to address here. As mentors, in working to help others develop a more adequate grasp of their lives we may find our mentorees neglect to consider the future perspective at critical points, or their consideration of the future may be skewed in unhelpful ways. Why does consideration of future perspective sometimes fail? There are, of course, many possible reasons – laziness, poor judgement, wrong information. But I think the most common causes in our current circumstances are anxiety, worry and fear. These emotional responses flood the nervous system with adrenaline which closes up thinking processes, reducing flexibility, withdrawing generosity and shortening time horizons. With careful preparation, mentors might be able to help their clients overcome these limiting ways of thinking and develop a healthy future perspective.
Biblical encouragements and warnings
As a practitioner of Christian mentoring I find it significant that Christianity has a strong future orientation. The overarching metanarrative is that creation is broken but God is in the business of restoring all things, and this vision will be realised in the age to come, into which he invites us through faith in Jesus. Jesus gives us great encouragement to consider the future not only in the age to come but in the present age as well. For example, in Lk 14 he tells parables about setting goals for construction and combat. But in Mt 6:34 he also gives us a warning: when we think about the future we should avoid doing so with a mindset of worry. Rather we should have a mindset of seeking God’s rule and of faith and trust. Further, James warns us in Jas 4 not to think about the future with the kind of presumption that becomes arrogance. Rather, consideration of the future should stimulate our desire to seek God’s will.
Applicability to mentoring
Calling attention to and strengthening future perspective in mentoring is useful for both correcting a deficit and developing an asset – the deficit of problematic attitudes to the future and the asset of having an attitude towards the future that harnesses the transformative power of God-given hope.
Calling attention to possibly problematic attitudes to the future is relevant where
- A mentoree seems overly worried about things in the future
- A mentoree seems overly naïve or arrogant about the future
- A mentoree seems not to be paying attention to future consequences
Calling attention to the future to harness transformational power emphasises
- Hope of God’s intervention
- Spirit-inspired imagination of what might be possible
- Strengthening resolve to do difficult things with future rewards
- A grasp of the transcendental, age-to-come future that answers the big ‘why?’ questions
Future creation – working toward a preferred future
In order to take hold of positive future possibilities, a person must overcome explicit or implicit deterministic ways of thinking. Determinism insists that the future already exists; that it is locked in and unalterable, and that no decisions or actions on our part will make any difference to our fate or the fate of those around us. Without getting into the deep philosophical and theological debate around this, it’s fair to say that the Christian position is that today’s choices do make a difference to tomorrow’s outcomes and that we are called to join with God in his redemptive work.
A considerable body of research exists on what is called ‘time perspective theory’ with applications in psychology, adolescent development, education, sociology, cultural studies and more. Enhancing future time perspective has been shown to promote focus, prioritisation and goal-setting with beneficial effects on motivation and perseverance. Dozens of studies have proved the strategic value of clearly identifying a preferred future. A key insight for mentors is that future orientation is required to move from a problem focus to a solution focus.
Future discernment – identifying likely future outcomes
None of us has a crystal ball but we do live in a world where the laws of cause and effect (VUCA notwithstanding) allow for a measure of predictability, provided we think about it. With serious consideration of the future we may develop and benefit from ‘early hindsight’.
- Commonly neglected aspect of Christian ethics. Later, the critique may be, ‘What were they thinking?!’
- Avoiding the trap of unintended consequences.
- Action-consequence analysis is one of the three major approaches to ethics, along with principle-based (or Kantian) ethics and character-based (or Aristotelian) ethics.
- Values clarification and prioritising. Holding to one value may not seem worth it when we consider the likely negative impact on another value in the future.
Drawing attention to the future helps with:
- Delayed gratification, self-restraint, capacity to wait, patience
- Strengthening hope, expectancy dimension of faith
- Joy of anticipation
- Peace – coming to terms with as yet unresolved matters
In the first instance, mentors can begin to promote a healthy future perspective by crafting questions that stir up curiosity about the future. Here are some examples to start your thinking:
Questions for creating a preferred future
- What do you have in your life today that you would like to be part of your future?
- If you were free of distractions, where would you be in 5 years’ time?
- If you had a year to live, with full capacities for the first 11 months, what would you do?
- What hope is God stirring in your heart about your service for him?
Questions for discerning a likely future
- If present patterns continue, what will be the outcomes one year from now?
- How is person X likely to respond if you do as you intend?
- Is there any reason this will work out differently than it has in the past?
- Which of your assumptions about the future are most/least reliable?
Beyond questions like these, there are also certain exercises that may help a mentoree start to get in touch with the future.
Standing in the Future
Up-close, a significant challenge or aspiration can feel overwhelming and result in procrastination or not taking sufficient action. When you ‘stand’ or visualize yourself in the future however, a greater sense of possibility is generated that builds deeper certainty and commitment leading to sustainable action.
It is always in our best interest to be in connection with our vision. Vision is not simply a memory, but a living and specific awareness of your intention. It is a conscious integration of mind and heart and the best starting point for a complex ambition that requires learning and collaboration. It allows you to utilize all of your talents and capabilities, both explicit and implicit, and opens your awareness to emergent and unexpected resources and support.
When you practice the exercise below, be sure to see your vision as fully compete, if anything were possible and be sure to put yourself in the picture.
Be in a reflective, relaxed and open state with pad and pen nearby.
It is now the year 2024 (or three years from the present)
You (and your team) have completed or made significant and tangible progress in realizing your vision or meeting your challenge. You are thrilled. You (and your team) have been asked to describe or tell the story of just how you achieved your goals. See your vision as fully complete, as if anything were possible, and put yourself in the picture.
Answer as many of the following questions as possible or that make sense:
- What were the milestones that were met throughout these three years?
- What obstacles were overcome and unanticipated problems were resolved?
- What enabled you to be successful?
- What were the specific factors that were crucial to your success (tangible and intangible)?
- What did you need to learn along the way about yourself, working with others and how to influence the larger system?
- Who did you look to for support?
- What enabled you to accomplish this (as a team)?
- How did you know you were on track/off track?
- How often did you monitor your progress?
- How does it feel to be successful?
- Are you surprised that you made it? If not, why/ why not?
- What advice would you give to someone considering taking on a similar challenge?
- How are you going to celebrate?
The Miracle Question
This is a solution-focussed therapy technique used to help people imagine a tangible future they can work towards. The exercise asks people to imagine, however fantastical it may be in their particular circumstances, that their life has already dramatically changed for the better. So instead of focusing exclusively on how insoluble their problem is, and how difficult life is because of it, it switches attention to what will happen after the problem is dealt with – focusing on the desired future rather than the undesired present. It jumps right over the mechanics of how, exactly, the problem will be solved into the mechanics of how will they live when it is solved. It’s a neat and rather fun way of bypassing rigid constraints, black and white thinking, and unshakeable beliefs that “things can’t possibly change!”
The ideal is for people to feel the answer to the miracle question – to experience it and not just to think about it. This helps to make the imagined future more real to them, and not just a theoretical construct. So rather than getting someone to answer straight away, get them to ‘go inside’ for a few moments and really ‘see and feel’ the miracle. Ask them to imagine the answer rather than tell you in words. The miracle question can be worded slightly differently depending on the particular context. Here is one example:
Imagine this: tonight, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and the problem that prompted you to talk to me today is solved! But because this happens while you are sleeping, you have no way of knowing that there was an overnight miracle that solved the problem. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what might be the small changes that will make you say to yourself, ‘Wow, something must have happened—the problem is gone!’? How does it feel to be in this new place?
When you’ve given them some time to carry out this process, you can ask your mentoree to tell you in detail what they have noticed and imagined. The response provides the image of a future possibility:
- Clarifying deep desires
- Identifying points of motivation
- Stimulating hope
No exercise is appropriate in every circumstance. If a mentoree is grieving the passing of a loved one or struggling with an adverse medical diagnosis, this exercise is NOT the one to use.
Letter from My Future Self
You are probably aware of the oft-used exercise of having a person write a letter to their future selves. It’s a fun exercise that helps a person capture what they believe is essential and valuable not just for the moment but for the long-term. And you might have thought about what you would say to your younger self if you travel back in time and give them the benefit of your experience. You’d sure have a valuable perspective to share if this were possible! This exercise has you imagining yourself 10 years from now (or 20 if you’re really bold) writing back to your present self. It’s designed to help you extract yourself from the details of your present day-to-day life, to get up above that to discern what is truly lasting and what is temporary; what is valuable and what is cheap; what is real and what is illusion.
Allow yourself plenty of time for this exercise. You might even wish to have a few stabs at it until you’re satisfied.
You’re 10 (or 20) years older now and you’re writing to yourself in 2021.
Write a paragraph for each of the following prompts:
- Open with a greeting, acknowledging what is going on for your younger self. Express how you feel about that and give some affirmation.
- What is life for you now as your older self?
- What was important in making it that way?
- Who are you grateful to?
- What has surprised you along the way?
- Give yourself some advice; what to give more attention, what to let go of, a bit of wisdom
- From your future perspective, suggest a positive next step to take in 2021
- End with a blessing.
When we take action, there are consequences; and when we don’t take action, there are consequences. Either way, things happen. These may be good or bad for us, and good or bad for other people. While we often focus on ourselves, the effects on others can be significant.
We often pay closer attention to consequences that happen in the short term, where there is clear cause and effect between actions and what happens as a result. Consequences may also happen further out into the future, and perhaps with less clear causal relationship. An important point about this matrix is that it highlights considerations that we often do not realize we are making. Often, all we think about is ‘What will happen if I do?’, ‘What will happen in the short term?’ and ‘What will I gain from this?’ By making this unconscious process conscious, we can make and influence better decisions.
Work through each of the questions allowing time to move freely between them.
|If I do…||If I don’t…|
|Consequence||What will happen?||What will happen if I do?||What will happen if I don’t?|
|What won’t happen?||What won’t happen if I do?||What won’t happen if I don’t?|
When considering consequences in each quadrant, this sub-matrix may prompt insight.
|For…||Me||How will I benefit?||How might I be harmed?|
|Others||How will others benefit?||How might others be harmed?|
 Created by Robert Hanig, sourced from: https://www.academyforchange.org/2020/05/27/standing-in-the-future/
 Created by Steve De Shazer
 Created by David Straker, sourced from: http://changingminds.org/explanations/decision/what_happen.htm