There is both POWER and DANGER that is the subjunctive voice in grammar. The subjunctive is used to look into the past and talk about what COULD HAVE happened. We use it in the future to talk about what MIGHT happen. It is a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities.
The PAST is regret and life lessons learned the hard way.
The FUTURE is HOPE and endless POSSIBILITY.
Rather than me tell you more about it, you might want to watch this amazing TED talk that describes it wonderfully (and interestingly)
I think about the use of the subjunctive in the arena of faith, I think about both the DANGER and HOPE that the subjunctive can provide for us. Let’s look at both lenses:
The subjunctive in one’s faith is that stick we beat ourselves over the head with over and over and over. Its the rear view mirror of life where we replay mistake after mistake. It’s the: “I should have done such and such INSTEAD of so and so” <SUBEXT: I’m an idiot. I’m a failure.>
It’s an, “If only I had…”
It’s regret…would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.
It’s crippling, debilitating.
It’s why Paul says, “I forget what lies behind…”
The only benefit of the past subjunctive is when we actually learn something helpful from the past. The life lessons. The wisdom we gain. The reminder to not enter those dark corners again.
Sadly, this is not what we usually do…we keep a detailed inventory of those mistakes and we do not let ourselves forget them. And we revisit them regularly, much to our demise.
This is also where in youth ministry we have tried to turn the screws of discipleship into the hearts of teens. We revisit the problem of their adolescent mistakes and offer the handy solution of Christ. It can be an easy transaction if we allow it to be. If twisted hard enough, we can get dozens of altar call responses as well.
However, when the subjunctive is used for the future, it can fill us with a panoply of possibilities. It is filled with HOPE. This is the “What ifs?”
Its what is POSSIBLE.
It’s what MIGHT happen?
In our faith we can use the subjunctive to dream and to soar greater than we could imagine. It is the business section of Barnes & Noble’s that contains book after book after book of how to succeed. How to build the next big thing.
In youth ministry we can use the subjunctive to offer students endless possibilities of what their future can look like. We can help direct their gaze from the mistakes of their past to the redemption and reconciliation of the future. If we are not careful though, we can present hoop after hoop that we call students to jump through if we do not contextualize it adequately.
BONUS LENS: THE PRESENT WITHOUT THE SUBJUNCTIVE
However, the really interesting thing about this TED talk was that the speaker’s parents came from a culture whose language had NO subjunctive. They were not weighed down with the question of “what if?” that the subjunctive presents. They only knew the present and what IS. As I contemplate that, I think about how potentially freeing that is. To live in the present–fully. You would not have to ever second guess yourself by asking, “What if?” You only lived in what IS?
Our students live in a culture where they have to jump through countless hoops on a daily basis in order to receive affirmation and acceptance from friends, teachers, coaches, youth ministers, and parents. Over and over and over they are bombarded with subjunctive messages of you should be like this. What if you were like this? Over and over…its an endless array of message after message presenting a subjunctive future that isn’t filled with hope, but filled with expectation. The hopeful “What if” easily gets distorted into a “Why aren’t you this?”
Perhaps youth ministry could learn something about doing away with some of our use of the subjunctive. What if we allowed our students to simply experience the Risen Christ NOW?* Not how we think they should experience Jesus.
Could we simply share with students a message of “You. Are. Worthy. Period.”?
No strings attached.
No hoops to jump through.
*(I understand the irony of using the subjunctive here to dream of a new possibility)