Sometimes it flies, sometimes it crawls, but it always passes. We mark it, waste it, bide it, and race against it. We all have the same amount of it to work with each week, yet none of us ever feel like we have enough of it. We all use it differently and what we do with it defines the shape of our lives. We speak of buying it, saving it, and beating it, but we really can't do any of these things. But we all must give account to God for how we use it.
I'm speaking, of course, of time.
Time is a stewardship from God. It is a necessary component of every event of our lives. Everything we do demands time. It is a precious commodity, one that we must not waste.
The Precious Gift of Time
The sacred scriptures teach that time is precious for a number of reasons. First, time is short. Even if we live a full life it is still true that it flies by. James writes, "What is your life? For you are a mist (or a vapor) that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14b). Time is a gift that reveals our human limitations. Like a flower that withers we are frail and doomed to disintegration. All our glory, wealth, talents, beauty, learning, and splendor are short-lived. As young people we think we have all time in world. We do not fear the passing of time. We feel invincible, as if somehow our lives will last forever. It is only during our adult years that we recognize how brief our time on this earth actually is.
Not only is time short; it is also fleeting. Many of us now have more years behind us than in front of us. The old soap opera tagline, "Like sands in an hourglass, so are the days of our lives," highlights how time passes quickly. Like sands that cannot be stopped, what's left is slipping away. As a young person, time feels like it is dragging. We are always looking ahead in order to experience "real" life. As a child, we long to be a pre-teen; as a pre-teen we long to be a teen; as a teen we long to turn twenty-one. The experience of time's brevity becomes more intense in our adult years. When we are child of ten, each year of our existence accounts for ten percent of our lives and thus seems ponderously long. As an adult of fifty, each year accounts for two percent of our lives and feels like it has passed by in a wink.
Time is precious, not only because it is brief and fleeting, but because the future remains ever uncertain. James writes, "you do not even know what tomorrow will bring" (James 4:14a). Here James builds upon the ancient Hebrew wisdom tradition: "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth" (Proverbs 27:1). The Bible is full of promises from God, but we possess no promise from God that we shall ever see another day. Right now is the only moment we truly possess. For this reason, James condemns boasting about time without regard for the Lord.
Finally, time is precious because once it passes it is gone forever. There are many things you lose that you can regain or replace in this life, but time is not one of them. People talk of saving time, buying time, and making up time, but in reality, these actions are not possible. Like the rock group Kansas sang in the hit song Dust in the Wind, "It slips away and all your money won't another minute buy." This is the reason time travel stories are so popular. In these stories, time is manipulated by humans instead of humans being manipulated by time.
Redeeming the Time
We can't buy, save, or beat time, but we can redeem the time, that is, we can make the most of it. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he offers wise counsel to this effect.
Paul teaches that we must be disciplined in our use of time: "Be careful how you walk" (Ephesians 5:15a). The Greek word translated "Be careful" means to "take heed, be alert, handle with care." Time is so easily lost that we must be disciplined in our handling of it. "Time appears to be so plentiful that losing much of it seems inconsequential... If people threw away their money as thoughtlessly as they throw away their time, we would think them insane."
Paul, like James, is building upon the ancient Hebrew wisdom tradition. To handle time with care is the way of wisdom. It is to walk "not as unwise people, but as wise." It is to "not be foolish" (Ephesians 5:15b, 17a). The wise use of time is a practical application of knowledge. It is the way of applying God's truth to our everyday lives. The Psalmist yearns to walk wisely when he requests, "So teach us to number our days, That we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12).
Paul encourages us to treat time as a stewardship from God: "making the most of your time - of every opportunity" (Eph 5:16a). Do you view your time in this world as a great opportunity? Do you watch for opportunities, making the most of them, ready to grasp them for all they are worth? This is especially important in a world full of obstacles to holy living, in a world where "the days are evil" (Eph 5:16b). We must not wait for a convenient opportunity for godliness, for it will never arise. It will never be convenient because the days are evil.
With all stewardship comes responsibility. We must give account for the gift of time that God has given us. The great saints of the past have recognized this truth. In his Resolutions Jonathan Edwards reminded himself to "Live each day as if at the end of that day you had to give an account to God of how you used your time." It is said that Martin Luther only had two days on his calendar: this day and that day, that is, the great Day of Judgment. He realized the preciousness of time - the great value of time - and our responsibility to make the best use of it. The puritan Matthew Henry put it succinctly: "Let the end of the your day remind you of the end of all your days." Some monks would keep a human skull on their desk. This was not a morbid act but a realistic act. They sought to keep in their consciousness the recognition of time's preciousness and their responsibility to make the most of it. Their slogan was momento mori, that is, "Remember, you must die!"
Christians must make every effort not to forget the simple truth that we are God's servants. Servants are accountable to their master for how they spend their time because their time is a stewardship entrusted to them by their master. Paul put it plainly: "You are not your own. You have been bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Paul calls us to steward our time by seeking to conform our lives to God's will: "understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 5:17b). This single-minded focus helps us to guide our use of time. The pursuit of Lord's will in all situations is the best use of our time. In order to do this, we need a clear understanding of God's purpose for our lives. In a previous chapter in Paul's letter he has stated God's purpose for us: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). We need to remember this purpose in order to live in a wise and godly fashion. Perhaps this parable will help: A couple traveling through the countryside was lost. They spotted an old man on the side of the road and asked, "Where are we at?" "Where are you going?" came his reply. "We don't know," they said. The old man replied, "Then it doesn't matter."
The mystic Thomas Merton has provided a good summary of what it means to conform our lives to God's will:
God's will for us is not only that we should be the persons He means us to be, but that we should share in His work of creation and help Him to make us into the persons He means us to be. Always, and in all things, God's will for me is that I should shape my own destiny, work out my own salvation, forge my own eternal happiness, in the way He has planned it for me. And since no man is an island, since we all depend on one another, I cannot work out God's will in my own life unless I also consciously help other people to work out His will in theirs. His will, then, is our sanctification, our transformation in Christ, our deeper and fuller integration with other people. And this integration results not in the absorption and disappearance of our own personality, but in its affirmation and its perfection....This view of life as a growth in God, as a transformation in Christ, and as a supernatural self-realization in the mystical body of Christ is the only one that really helps us to recognize and interpret the will of God correctly...and show us the way to realize ourselves in Him by losing ourselves in charity.
Eternity in the Moment
To seek God's will flies in the face of our obsession with time management techniques. Seeking God's will may involve "wasting" time with God in worship, prayer, fellowship, and service. Likewise, it may involve "wasting" time in developing and nurturing relationships with others. And, of course, this is not really a "waste" of time, but it certainly cannot be meticulously scheduled.
A biblical view of time is not merely about time management techniques. If you seek help in this regard, there are great sources available, but the sacred scriptures take us further. As Dorothy Bass notes, "our predicament is more complex, our yearning deeper, and the shape of time in our lives of greater importance than such techniques can address." Christians do not believe that "time is money," but rather that "time is the place where we meet with God and perform God's will."
When we focus on time management techniques we often forget the reason behind them. We tend to feel guilty because there is never enough time. Our Protestant work ethic - which admittedly has its benefits - sometimes gets in the way of redeeming the time. "Grace can seem in short supply indeed once we begin to think that whoever 'uses time well' is right with God and that whoever 'wastes' time is committing sin." We sometimes assume that time is to be "used" and thus, when we "waste" time, we feel guilty. Dorothy Bass offers wise counsel in this:
for so many of us, time continues to be a source not only of pressure but also of guilt and judgment. We forget how to luxuriate in time that is not filled with tasks. We delude ourselves into believing that if we can just get everything done, if we can only tie up all the loose ends, if we can even once get ahead of the crush, we will prove our worth and establish ourselves in safety...
All of these experiences leave us feeling not only exhausted but also inadequate. We are perpetually behind, as things we have not had time to do pile up on our desks and kitchen counters, our dressers and workbenches. With never enough time, we see ourselves as incompetent underachievers.
In light of this, Bass invites us to reflect in this way: "How might our experience of time change if we could learn to receive time as a gift of God? How might this open us to live more fully?"
The truth that we must never forget is that "it is within time itself that God meets us." Bass writes, "to know time as gift is to recognize time as the setting within which we also receive God's others gifts." All that really exists is the present. When do we pause long enough to enter its reality, to receive its gifts? We must remember that it is this present moment that is God's present to us.
Indeed, it is in time that we encounter the eternal. Each moment has eternal significance. We walk in "divine instants where eternity whispers." Our eternal reward will be directly related to our earthly use of time.
Remember the old game show "Beat the Clock!" Contestants would be given a task that had to be completed within a certain allotment of time. If they succeeded, they "beat the clock."
This was a fun game show, but ultimately, no one beats the clock. We can only learn to use it to our advantage: "To redeem the time for the days are evil."
Now is the perfect time to reflect on the past decade. How have you redeemed the time? How have you wasted time? What steps can you take to seize the present moment? And remember, because time is brief, fleeting, and uncertain, some of us won't be here one decade from now.
Now is the time. We must not let regrets about the past or fears about the future drain the joy of the moment. We must be awake and alert to the here and now:
Many people have lost touch with the present moment because they prefer to live in the past. They are forever mulling over yesterday-either regretting it, analyzing it or glorifying it with nostalgia. Sentimentality, regret and guilt are the prices we pay when the false self lives yesterday today.
Other people are always jumping ahead to the future: anxious about next weekend, planning next month, wondering about next year. With antacids in their pockets and ulcers in their stomachs, they race towards tomorrow! Anxiety and worry are the prices we pay when the false self lives tomorrow today...
Convinced that the real action is "someplace else," we rarely experience just this particular moment, pregnant with its own annunciations. We are not where we really are. And so, like the man at the symphony, we can't enjoy the music that surrounds us.
In Thorton Wilder's play Our Town Emily dies in childbirth and is given the opportunity to relive one day of her life.
Against the advice of those already buried in the cemetery, she chooses to go back to her twelfth birthday. She sees the hustle and bustle, the baking of the birthday cake, the wrapping of presents, and family members living in the same house but hardly noticing one another. Finally, in desperation, she cries out, "Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me... Just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another."
Disillusioned by her experience, Emily returns to the cemetery with a new perspective of time. She bids farewell to ticking clocks, sunflowers, food and coffee, new ironed dresses, hot baths, sleeping and waking and then cries out, "Oh earth, you're just too wonderful for anyone to realize you!" Then she asks the Stage Manager: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?" The Stage Manager soberly responds, "No-- Saints and poets maybe--they do some."
My prayer for you is that you would be one of the saints or poets that realizes this. Don't wait until it is too late. You don't want to look back on your life and see precious moments wasted.
The clock is ticking. Make each tick count.
Lord, in this new year
open my heart and fill me daily with your transforming Spirit,
that each new day
I may become more of the new creature
that you call me to be in Christ.
 Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 131.
 Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island.
 Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), xiii.
 Bass, Receiving the Day, 6.
 Bass, Receiving the Day, 3, 58.
 Bass, Receiving the Day, 3.
 Bass, Receiving the Day, 10.
 Bass, Receiving the Day, 11.
 Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun: Discovering the Lord's Prayer with Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton (Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1993), 68-69.
 Donald McCullough, The Consolations of Imperfection: Learning to Appreciate Life's Limitations (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2004), 174-175.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010