What might the scriptures mean when they use the phrase that God’s course is “one eternal round” (see Alma 37:12; D&C 35:1; D&C 3:2: Alma 7:20; 1 Nephi 10:19)? And, does God know what I will do in the future, and if He does, how am I still free to choose? I have some ideas about those questions, and to explain those ideas I will examine three metaphors about time—the arrow, the ice cream truck, and God in Best Buy. I have spoken about this previously, but I’d like to bring it all together in one place. [link for previously: https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/06/01/the-permutation-machine-versus-the-ice-cream-truck/]
The most common way to think about time is how time is measured on a clock or calendar. This sort of time only moves in one direction, and that direction is forward. It is as if time were an arrow, an arrow that goes from here to the future. We have the present, the past just happened or has happened, and the future has yet to happen. We know the future because we do not yet have any memories of it. Also, entropy works in one direction. Christ came in the middle of time, and his miraculous Atonement (somehow) erases the effects of sins before and after his expiatory sacrifice. We choose now, and though we can repent we cannot actually go back and change what was done.
The Ice Cream Truck
Another way to think about time is that it is cyclical and repeating. For agrarian peoples this makes sense, since plants and animals are born, live, reproduce, and die in constant cycles. Agrarian people would have no trouble understanding that God’s course is “one eternal round,” or a constant repetition of these cycles. But instead of that agrarian comparison, I like the idea of the ice cream truck. For this, [insert note: this is reproduced from my article in By Common Consent] we’ll imagine a white truck slapped with colorful stickers on its sides moving slowly through a neighborhood followed by a vapor trail of happy kids waving nickels. The truck stops at regular intervals and dispenses rocket pops, ice cream sandwiches, and fudgcicles. But inevitably some luckless child is late or another one’s mom is using this experience to teach a lesson about saving one’s allowance or the value of keeping one’s bedroom clean. Still, the great thing about the ice cream truck is that it will be back tomorrow or the next day, hopefully when one has the necessary change or a clean closet (or at least has things convincingly stuffed under the bed).
So what if we think about time, choice, the path of one’s life, and eternal consequences with the notion of the ice cream truck? Unlike the metaphor of time as an arrow, the ice cream truck will come back. Getting ice cream from the truck is not a unique, one-time experience. Missing the truck now does not mean it is gone forever. And if you make a poor choice this time—getting a boring vanilla ice cream sandwich instead of opting for the very-worthy-of-extra-expense strawberry, chocolate, vanilla one—does not mean you are stuck with that choice forever. Financial folly, domestic disorder, and parental punishment do not turn momentary weakness into permanent prohibition.
The real value of the ice cream truck way of looking at time, choice, life, and eternity is that we can think of God as wanting us to acquire certain qualities or traits. Those traits are the ice cream. God sends many experiences and people into our lives to give us a chance to develop the faith or patience or resilience we need to be like Him. Sometimes we are ready and waiting, eagerly holding our money in a tight little fist. Sometimes we are not ready, but the truck will come again tomorrow and the next day, and many, many more times. And it seems like it will keep coming long after this life has ended. In fact, it seems to me that the only way that the truck will stop coming is if we willingly, willfully, and very permanently move ourselves to somewhere where it does not go.
God in Best Buy
Here is a third way to think about time, and a way that might help us see how God could know the future and at the same time leave us free to choose now and in the future. Imagine God in Best Buy, looking at one television. On that television is one moment of your life. At that moment, you are pleading with God to help you deal with a particular problem. Now imagine that that moment on TV is actually live television, and, for God, that moment is happening live forever. God sees that moment, a moment that to God is always constantly happening, and God responds to it with love and compassion. Right next to that television in this massive Best Buy is another television with the next moment of your life. God can respond to that television when He wants; that moment is also on live TV to God whenever He wants to address it. On either side of those televisions are two more. Now imagine that the televisions go on forever; those 4 become 8, then 16 and so on until there is one television for every moment of your life. God watches and fully experiences (sees, responds to) each moment when He wants and with His perfect love and knowledge. Each moment is live to God; no moment gets past Him.
What we find with this analogy is that God has time because God is outside of time’s limitations. Every moment is live to God. No moment slips away, and God never has to choose between moments. God can respond to all of us at every moment, and, I believe, He does. In our most painful struggles or most joyous experiences, God can be there, present with us, sitting in that moment for an hour, a week, a year or more. And we are free at each moment to listen to God, to pray, to ask, to plead, to ignore, to curse, to be proud and hard-hearted or be humble, soft, vulnerable, faithful, and open. God’s omniscience does not damage or invalidate or erase our choices. Since God can shuttle forward and backwards between televisions, between moments of our lives, our Heavenly Parents can respond to us at every moment and thereby guarantee that we have the greatest opportunities for the most growth and most blessings possible.
The upside to this analogy is that it shows how God can know the future, and already be in the experiences we have not yet had without taking from us our ability to choose and act for ourselves. This approach to time fixes a problem that we find in the time-as-an-arrow approach.
Having three approaches to time can help us get a better grasp on it. The goal is not to say which analogy is right, rather the goal is to use each analogy in the context where is it most useful and suited. If we see time as an arrow, what is highlighted is the importance of making thoughtful, correct choices now, since such choices affect the future. But, in the much larger scheme of things, God, whose course is one eternal round, provides us many, many opportunities to acquire the divine qualities He wants us to acquire. And finally, our Heavenly Parents, like the image of God in Best Buy, can spend an eternity with us in our most painful or our most joyful moments, extending Their love and compassion toward us so that we have the greatest possibility to receive all of the blessings They have for us.