Unreal Conditionals

"In the beginning was the word..." John 1:1

I'd like to start today's devotion with a few fun facts.

  • Did you know that Noah was the best financial manager in the bible? He was the only one floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.
  • Did you know that Abraham was the smartest man in the bible? He knew a Lot.
  • Did you know that Joseph was the first tennis player in the old testament? He served in Pharaoh's court.

Ok, so maybe they aren't facts, but hopefully one of them made you smile (or at least roll your eyes.) Most jokes, like these, rely on your understanding of language to get the joke. If you don't know the double meaning of "liquidation" "serve" "court" or "lot" they aren't funny.

I love teaching English. One of the most complicated points of English is the way we talk about time. In English, we have a past and a present tense—there is no future tense in English. When we talk about the future, we talk about it in terms of the present (when we say "my flight leaves at 7:00"..."leaves" is the present tense of "to leave") or sometimes in terms of the past (if we say "my flight will have left by 7:00..."left" is the past tense) but we have no way of talking about the future in terms of the future. The words just don't exist.

A lot of native speakers find this confusing, but my ESL students are more confused by how we speak about the past. There is a form in English called ''unreal conditionals'' that we use to talk about what our life would be like, if our past had been different. An example of this would be ("If I hadn't moved to Prague, I wouldn't have become an English teacher" or "If I had left 5 minutes earlier, I wouldn't have hit traffic.") We basically say things that imply, changing one moment in the past changes another moment, which ripples out to change everything.

And we don't just do this in our language; we do it in our thought processes. We often speculate about what we would do "if we could do it all again..." As I'm traveling around, I've heard a lot of stories from people around the world. I've met people who have lived through oppression. People who have lost love. People who have dealt with disapproval from friends and family. People who haven't the slightest idea how to go back to homes they left. People who have hurt people they still care about. It's naïve to think that we don't all have something we wish we could go back and fix. Or if we can't fix it, maybe we can at least get far enough away from it.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the past, saying, "Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing new things! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." (Isaiah 43:18-19)

The promise we have is that our God is always doing new things. There is always hope and always a future. But the reality is, regardless of what we can say in English, we can't run away from the past anymore than we can change it. Instead, we are called to look towards the future. We may not have words for what will definitely happen in the future, but we can live in the present and believe that good things that are happening every day-even if we don't perceive it.

As a final example of speaking about the future in terms of the present: I look forward to seeing everyone on Sunday!

Zach Herzog

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