My first grandchild was born last year. What a wonderful day it was when she finally arrived! She is delightful in the way that only babies can be. But even though she’s already here and I love her sweet baby self, I have great anticipation for the future, because truly knowing her, seeing her grow into all she is meant to be, is still yet to come.
She’s already here, and is so precious … but she is not yet who she will become.
In some Christian circles, there’s a familiar phrase: “the already and the not yet.” Sometimes this phrase is used in reference to Jesus’ coming (he has already come into the world but he has not yet established his kingdom here) or in reference to the timing of God’s kingdom in general (we are experiencing God’s kingdom already but it’s not yet fully realized or perfected on earth).
Pastors sometimes like to talk about the already and the not yet when discussing the fallen state of our world. Over the years, I’ve come to understand and take comfort in this phrase when the world overwhelms and I need to cling to God’s promises to pull me from the brink of worry or anxiety. When the world is reeling (see: 2020), when things seem chaotic or crushingly sad, when the brokenness seems too much to bear, I take comfort that while God’s promise has already been fulfilled in sending Jesus, his plan hasn’t been fully realized. The re-creation we all long for is not here yet and so we need to live in this “between state” for now.
The tension between the already and not yet
Sometimes pastors throw another word in here, as well: tension. As in, we are “living in the tension” between the already and the not yet. It’s the struggle to live with elements of Christ already in us, the Holy Spirit already in our lives, and in present communion with God … but none of this yet perfectly or in the way it’s truly meant to be, until the day Jesus returns or takes us home. That’s difficult. That’s tension.
I was curious about the literal meaning of the word tension, and it’s “the act of straining or stretching.” If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you can see how living between the already and the not yet would produce tension. We’re straining and stretching to live in this world because we were not made for it. The longing we have for God and his perfect kingdom comes from this tension in an imperfect world. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” And so we were.
Maybe the idea of “the already and the not yet” is new to you, or maybe you’ve been hearing it for years. I hope it comforts you as it does me, and helps explain why it’s so hard to live in this broken world and how we can do that with more peace in our lives and in our hearts. But there is still another aspect to “already and not yet” that took me a long time to recognize.
It’s me. And you. We are already and not yet.
I am already saved … and not yet finished.
I am already redeemed … and not yet restored.
I am already freed … and not yet rescued.
Maybe I should have recognized this personal connection long ago. Maybe I should have seen that all of God’s creation is not just living in the already and not yet, but is actually in that state—every piece of it, and that includes me.
What made me think of this? It might have been when I once more found myself repenting of a sin I had repented of 100 times before. Or maybe when I realized with regret that I had spoken to someone or thought in a way that was decidedly unchristian. Or when I felt my impatience rise to the surface or envy rearing its ugly head or countless other shortcomings that I can’t seem to fully extinguish no matter how hard I try.
I am already and not yet. I am unfinished.
Why is that? Didn’t God promise, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27) And also, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) So why do we continue to fall short?
Just as we live in the tension between the already and the not yet of this world, we also live with it in ourselves. We’re straining and stretching for completion and perfection but we’re not yet free from sin.
Somehow this is easier for me to accept in the world than it is in myself. I can look at the world and think, Jesus’ kingdom is coming, but it’s not here yet (John 18:36). I can wait for it. I can live with this tension and be patient. But when it comes to myself, I often feel great remorse and angst knowing that I’m still sinning (sometimes the very same sins) just as I did when I wasn’t even a Christian.
And so one of my favorite Bible verses is the one that keeps me grounded, the one that reminds me that I am already and not yet. That God has started something he just hasn’t finished yet: me.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
Thank you, Jesus, for not leaving me unfinished.