The indicative grammatical mood states the way things are. It asserts a thought that wants to be understood as true. The subjunctive, on the other hand, expresses a wish that something would be or would have been other than what was hoped for or expected. It may voice the desire for something to improve, that the bad we experience perishes or disappears and the good we imagine possible might become reality. Sometimes the subjunctive can be a prayer, a faithful placing of our concerns, fears, and hopes in His hands, or a request for future needs. “Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways,” is the daily prayer of the faithful. Often, however, the subjunctive articulates discontent or regret. The subjunctive, “If only it could be the way it was before,” may breed aggression or despair. “If I only had...,” or “It would have been so much better if...,” or “The next time I had better...,” sometimes reflects dissatisfaction with ourselves and perhaps with the God who, we think with a touch of blame in our thinking, permitted us to make a bad decision or commit a troublesome action. Discontent can lead to action to gain what we are missing. Discontent can provide a downward spiral staircase into more discontent and into depression and despair.

The subjunctive can express our speculation regarding matters God does not want us to find out, which lie outside the realm of our dominion. It can express the presumptive attempt to provide others with more information than God has revealed. It may try to solve theodical problems, perhaps in an attempt to save God’s honor, perhaps in an effort to be the helper who comes to the rescue of the distressed.

In the midst of the oil crisis of 1973, a Canadian theologian, John Douglas Hall, observed in his Lighten Our Darkness, that North Americans seem congenitally unable to cope with challenges to their optimistic confidence that in every day and every way things (and we) are getting better. We fight downturns and turndowns with the subjunctive, with conditional thoughts which try to dictate to God what we want. But our wishes and our conditions do not fashion reality. God may use our hopes and dreams for positive purposes, and He created us with the imagination to pursue such hopes and dreams. But when they do not come to the realization we had wished for and anticipated, God does not want us to turn to our subjunctive expressions of what might have been or what still might come. He wants us to turn to Him.

God does not want us to turn to our subjunctive expressions of what might have been or what still might come. He wants us to turn to Him.

“I wish I had done that differently,” or “If only that had turned out better,” can voice pious regret and repentance. Such expressions can also be little more than self-accusation, or a complaint lodged against persons or circumstances we blame for our misery, whether they or we were in fact responsible for what happened. “If I can perform well under these circumstances,” or “Should that person do the right thing,” can be an assertion of hope or the preparation of an excuse to help deal with disappointment.

We create false gods with our subjunctives. “If only it would turn out so,” may be a prayer but it may also attempt to take command of the future and shape it according to our demands. There is a difference between reasonable planning and the forecasting of disappointment by relying on our imaginations about what tomorrow should bring. Such dreaming desires to depend on our own fantasies rather than on the God who accompanies us into the expected and planned as well as the unexpected which disrupts our planning. In both times of stability and good order, as well as times in which everything seems to be quaking and shaking, God ensures our well-being as His children, and we can rest easy by listening to His indicative assurance of our relationship with Him as our Father and God.

Thus, subjunctives often serve as a retreat from having to cope with reality. The dream of what might have been or what could possibly become reality diverts us from the sober assessment and the joyful appreciation of what God is giving us in this hour and this place. The escape from that reality takes us into the realm of our own imaginations, which only intensifies our being turned-in-upon-ourselves, where it gets lonelier and lonelier. Only in reality is community possible.

True human community rests ultimately on being in communion and conversation with our Creator. God created our humanity outfitted with historical movement. This means change is written into our very being. Our lives unfold and make the progress of the pilgrim within history. We may see abounding change and decay all around us, but when we gaze at God, He remains the faithful Lord of our lives. From Him alone come stability and order, whether the changes we experience involve either progress or decay. The Holy Spirit enables us to recognize that growth and decline, maturing and diminishing, belong to the nature of God’s world and His human creatures as we observe it from the biblical narrative. We cannot wish the past into the present, although the present is shaped and marked by the past in ways we cannot erase. Only God, as Lord of history, can erase some things from our past, and He does erase our sins as He writes our names into the Book of Life. But today is the day He gives us on this day to live. Not only will the past not return, but it is not God’s will that it returns. It is His will that we move with Him and with all confidence in Him into the future and let Him deal with our past.

Only God, as Lord of history, can erase some things from our past, and He does erase our sins as He writes our names into the Book of Life.

Living in the indicative acknowledges God’s realities and His revelation as the best we can do in piercing the ambiguities and anomalies which confront us from time to time. God’s indicatives speak of what He has done for us in the past, what He is doing now in our present, and what He promises for our experience of His presence and power in the future. In the indicative, He declares what He has done and continues to do as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His indicatives also express His plan for the good human life, which He may utter in imperative form.

Christ’s story is told in the indicative, as is its significance for us as the promise which fulfills itself in our very apprehension of the forgiveness, life, and salvation He gives. His Gospel erases our need for “should have’s,” “would have’s,” and “if only’s.” For His promises are a special form of the indicative. It states the reality of things not seen, the present assurance of hopes for the future. His indicatives state the facts of our new existence in Christ. Although they do require trust to be taken as indicatives, we can rest assured: He is worth trusting.

God’s indicative establishes our identity as God’s new creatures in Christ, remade into those who walk the refreshed way of life that follows in His footsteps (Romans 6:4) and projects His image into His world (Colossians 3:10). Robert Benne has postulated, “But the indicative - you are affirmed, loved, forgiven - precedes the imperative: Therefore, go and do the will of your Father who is in Heaven.”[1] Christ creates the new situation in which we are living in His indicative, fully confident He has our past, present, and future in His hands. Confidence in Him fulfills all we might possibly dream of in the subjunctive.