I heard those words spoken a number of years ago by someone who suffered daily from a crippling addiction, and had every reason to feel otherwise about what the present moment might bring him. Witnessing this man overcome his addiction daily as result of his attitude was a watershed moment in my own spiritual journey. Since then “the present moment is perfect” has become a personal motto of mine, a reminder that I want to live my life in an attitude of total acceptance of whatever is now.
Living in the present moment is a theme we find across the geography of human spirituality. Buddhism and other Far Eastern religions hold the now as sacred. Modern spiritual writers like Eckhart Tolle and his popular book The Power of Now claim that the path to enlightenment and happiness begins and ends with the present moment. “Just for today” is the quintessential refrain in 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The question is, what makes the present moment—fleeting and ephemeral as it is—so powerful? Living for today seems to work, but why? I would suggest the answer flows from the central tenet of Christianity: the Incarnation.
The boldest and most radical claim of the Christian faith is that the eternal and transcendent God, was born, lived and died as a ordinary human being. Yahweh, the God who is without beginning and end, who cannot be contained, allowed Himself to be contained in the four-dimensional framework of life in this world.
And where does life in this world actually take place except in the present moment? Much as we would like to turn back the hands of time or penetrate the mists of the future, our consciousness can only act within the boundaries of the now. Such is the reality of being created beings, unable (by own efforts at least) to transcend the space-time continuum.
In the Christian view, then, God (with all that the word ‘God’ implies) enters human life and is confined to the present moment. As a result, something remarkable happens. Eastern Orthodox theology refers to it as communicatio idiomatum—the exchange of properties. As God takes on human life in the present moment as a part of His identity in Christ, human life simultaneously acquires the potential to become divine.
The New Testament testifies to this startling implication of the Incarnation at the very outset of Jesus’s ministry. The essence of Jesus’ preaching is “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15 and Matt. 4:17), which is to say that salvation is to be found here and now, in human life as it is expressed in the person of Jesus Himself. Saint Paul reiterates this powerful message when he tells his Corinthian hearers that “now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor. 6:2)
There is a further implication. If the eternal God entered human life and made it a part of Himself in Christ, then human life is an inextricable part of God’s eternal nature. And if this same eternal God, who joined human nature to Himself at a particular moment in history, also created the world in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26), then it is no wonder that the sacredness of the present moment is inherent across cultures and religions, even those prior to the advent of Christianity. After all, it was He who joined Himself to the present moment, who also created the present moment in the first place!
The present moment is so powerful, then, because it is the very point where God meets us and makes it possible for us to become “partakers in divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4) No wonder that living “just for today” is such a source of enlightenment and peace, not just for Christians, but for any human being who chooses to live his or her life that way.
But what about all the suffering we see in the present moment? What about the evils and injustices and horrors of Gaza city, the Congo and Zimbabwe that are happening right now? How can those present moments be perfect? The short answer is paradoxical: those moments are both wrong and perfect. How so? The central prayer of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy of Saint Basil offers a revealing petition to God: “preserve the good in goodness and make the evil to be good by Your goodness.”
By joining human life and making it a part of who He is, God did not take away our pains, sorrows and sufferings. There still remains much that is wrong in the world. However, by His Incarnation, God did make it possible for us to offer up all that is broken in the world to Him, and in so doing, transform those things into a sacrifice of praise to Him. As the Psalmist says, “A sacrifice acceptable to God is broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17)
What makes the present moment perfect, then, is not the absence tragedy or evil; rather, perfection is the act of offering up each moment, whatever it may contain, to God. Only then can the good be preserved and the evil be “made good” by fulfilling the very purpose for which everything exists: to praise and give thanks to the One who created each moment, who filled it with Himself, and who made it possible for us to enter into the now and discover there the doorway to the divine peace and joy of His Kingdom.