How to See the Future

Let’s begin with an exercise. Imagine your work five years from now. What will you be doing? What will your workspace look like? Who will your colleagues be? What will you be trying to accomplish together? 

By asking you these questions, I’ve invited you to engage in what scientists call episodic future thinking (EFT). It’s “the capacity to imagine or simulate events that might occur in one’s personal future,” researchers explain in Current Opinions in Behavioral Sciences.  Most of us engage in EFT more often than we realize. When you imagine meeting your friend for brunch next Saturday, for example, or when you visualize yourself making a presentation to key stakeholders. 

Through fMRI scans, researchers have been able to study which parts of the brain are active during EFT. They discovered that thinking about the future stimulates areas of the brain in which we store memories. Based on that evidence, they’ve theorized that, when we think about the future, our brains actually re-member pieces of our past to imagine new situations. Pretty cool, huh?

EFT is actually quite useful. Researchers have demonstrated that it can help us make decisions, set intentions, and formulate plans. But more than that, I think it can also help us follow God more faithfully. Let me explain.

A Future-Oriented People

God’s people are future-oriented people. That’s because we live in light of God’s promises about the future. For the characters in the Bible, those promises were often revealed in covenants or through the prophets. 

Take Abraham for example. He moved his entire family to a new land because God promised to bless him and make him a blessing (Gen 12:1–4). He believed that God would give him and Sarah a child, even though he was old, or “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12). Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because he “embraced the promises” (Heb 11:17). He believed that, even if he sacrificed Isaac, God would fulfill the promise to make Abraham’s descendants. 

We don’t know precisely what went through Abraham’s mind when God made all of these promises about the future. But my guess is that a little EFT was involved. It’s hard to think that Abraham didn’t envision himself the proud patriarch of a huge family when God told him that his descendants would be “as countless as the stars in the sky” (Heb 11:12; cf. Gen 15:5). 

The author of Hebrews tells us that God’s people were so future-oriented that they were focused on the coming kingdom of God. 

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. (Heb 11:13–16)


What they believed about their personal futures with God shaped their everyday faithfulness. 

God also spoke through the prophets to motivate people to live righteously and full of hope. Think of the words Isaiah spoke to God’s people exiled in Babylon: 

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
   and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
   Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (Isa 58:12)


Did they imagine some of their number returning to Jerusalem? Could they envision standing side by side with their neighbors, laying the foundation for a new temple, reconstructing the city gates, or rebuilding the city wall (Neh 3)? The future-oriented imagery in the prophets invited God’s people to imagine a new reality for themselves — one shaped by shalom.

A Shalom-Shaped Future

What is shalom? Neal Plantinga Jr. defines it this way: 

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom….In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.


The way things ought to be. 

How often do we let this vision of shalom seep into our thoughts? Do we allow it to frame our vision for our lives? For our work? Do the signposts of the kingdom factor into our five-year plans, quarterly goals, or what we dream about doing on the weekend?

The Benefits of Imagining a Shalom-Shaped Future

In a research study, I explored the role imagining a shalom-shaped future could play in our spiritual formation. Drawing from a variety of disciplines — psychology, neuroscience, organizational development, adult learning, and theology — I developed a five-step process that invited people to do some shalom-shaped EFT. Those who engaged in the process told me that it helped them clarify their sense of calling and live more intentionally as agents of God’s redemption. 

I’ve experimented a bit more with this idea of imagining a shalom-shaped future in my work at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. At a workshop for theological educators, I passed out paper and markers and invited them to sketch the shalom-shaped future they imagined for their work. The exercise unlocked a level of playfulness many of them hadn’t experienced in their work in a while. 

We’ve also embedded the process I developed into a six-week cohort called Go the Distance. Here, participants attend to God’s Spirit while imagining a shalom-shaped future and then planning hopeful ways to step into it. It’s been beautiful to see how the image of a shalom-shaped future has kindled new life within people in the throes of weariness and burnout. 

Imagining Your Shalom-Shaped Future

Imagining a shalom-shaped future doesn’t come naturally to many of us. That’s because we live in an era in which our hope muscles have atrophied. It can be challenging to live by faith, to trust in God’s promises, when we’ve seen so much brokenness in and around us. So we have to practice. We have to exercise our imaginations in healthy ways. 

But before we exercise our imaginations, we need to fuel them. Remember, EFT relies on what’s already in our brains — our memories — to help us imagine a future. Jane McGonigal, who works for the Institute for the Future, puts it this way:

Whatever you see in your future will always come from information your brain has already perceived and processed. Ideally, as you get better at imagining the unimaginable, you’ll incorporate not just obvious ideas and events but also surprising things that could be important in your future.


The primary fuel we need for our imaginations is the Bible. That’s where we discover what shalom looks like. That’s where we see the values of the kingdom on display. To borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson, we need to “eat this book.” Worship can also play a vital role in shaping our imaginations. 

When we’re ready to exercise our imaginations and imagine a shalom-shaped future, it can be helpful to begin with a prompt. Here’s one I use in my workshops and in our cohort to get started. You might want a blank sheet of paper and some markers to sketch or note what you envision.

Imagine that you awaken one morning, five years in the future. God has extended shalom in, through, and around you in your work. What do you notice? 

At the beginning of this article, I invited you to imagine yourself five years from now. What changed when you thought about your future through the lens of shalom?

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