The hazardous art of predicting the future

“And it happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a certain slave-girl having a spirit of divination met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortunetelling….” (Acts 16:16)

Some culture writers and half-serious columnists do it for fun, giving forecasts on life in the future.  Some, like meteorologists, work at it seriously to protect  lives. It helps to know the hurricane in the Caribbean may be headed our way or that the tornado season is upon us.

But then, there are those strange individuals who believe they are endowed with supernatural gifts of prophecy and fortune-telling.

If you have such a gift, I have a word for you.

Give it back.

Recently, I came across an article from Newsweek of January 1, 2000, reporting on a prediction from 98 years earlier.  In the 1902 Atlantic Monthly, economist John Bates Clark had written a piece called “Looking Back on the 20th Century.”  Mr. Clark had projected himself into  the year 2000 and concluded we would be seeing….

–strawberries the size of apples and oranges growing in Philadelphia.

–Moving sidewalks through pneumatic tubes in order to transport people

–No more slums

–War and poverty eliminated.

–A near “pot-hole free expressway of progress” for all of mankind

–Wealth evenly distributed

According to Mr. Clark, “Humanity has it made in the shade” by the start of the 21st century.

Well, he got the strawberries thing right. And airports have the moving sidewalks.  However, far from being free of war, the 20th century gave us two of the worst conflicts in the history of mankind resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of millions.  (He also missed entirely any mention of air travel, being one year short of the Wright Brothers’ invention.)

War and poverty are alive and well in the year 2014, to our sadness and shame.

Here’s a question for those who would like to turn this into a parlor game.  What did Mr. Clark miss? What did he overlook which made his predictions so much rosier than the reality?

What he missed is what counselors call “the elephant in the living room.”

He missed the sinful, selfish nature of man.

What the Bible calls sin.

Mankind has such capabilities and potential. However, he is always hampered by a dysfunctionality about himself: he is his own worst enemy.

Take wars, for instance.  During the late 1960s when the U.S. was deeply involved in war in Southeast Asia, at the funeral for one of our soldiers, I heard the preacher say, “We do not know where wars come from.”  I wondered if he had never read God’s word.

What is the source of the wars and the fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and war (James 4:1-2).

Make a list of mankind’s ills and in one way or the other, they all go back to the lusts and cravings of the human heart. It wants what it wants and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. If using others to get what it wants is required, the human heart will find a way.

We were talking about the business of foretelling the future.

God’s preachers must be careful not to get into the act.  We know no more about the future than anyone else.  We have not solved the prophecy riddle, sad to say, and a thousand certainties preached in past generations by prophetic know-it-alls have been proven false.  To our shame, that does not impede this generation of self-appointed experts on prophecy from announcing their findings.

I’m not saying we should not be teaching Ezekiel 38-39 or the books of Daniel or Revelation. Only that humility is called for when approaching these teachings that have perplexed the Lord’s people from the beginning.

A little historical perspective is in order.

If past generations were mistaken about the identity of the Antichrist (Hitler, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, the head of the European Common Market, Henry Kissinger, FDR, Guru Maharaj Ji, and Saddam Hussein have all received nominations!), it’s almost a lead-pipe certainty that you and I haven’t figured it out either.

In his final epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul said, “Reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:23).  And this: “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness…” (2:24).

Humility is always in order.  Gentleness in teaching will not elicit a chorus of ‘amens’ from the back pews and will not get you invited to deliver that oration at the next conference of pulpiteers.  Kindness in your manner probably will not drive your audience to their feet as they call out their approval of that rousing sermon.  But it will please your Father and it will instruct the Christlike.

What it will not do is tickle the fancies of the sensual and carnal.

But you can live with that.

What it will do is stand the test of time.

“Preach the Word.”

Never hesitate to say “I don’t know” when asked questions outside your understanding.


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