There can be no mistake: we live in the age of instantaneity. We have instant coffee, instant replay, instant polls and instant messaging – all designed to help us find instant gratification. There are countless products designed to speed us up and help us save those precious milliseconds. For example, you can read your email, browse the latest news headlines and check your stock portfolio on your palm pilot while sitting in a drive-through ordering breakfast and barking orders to your subordinates on your cell phone.
James Gleick explores our brave new world of “ever-growing urgency” in his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. His research on our 24/7 culture took him to air traffic control centers, medical waiting rooms, film production studios and the atomic clocks of the Directorate of Time. Gleick argues that the technology-driven Western world has produced a “multi-tasking, channel-flipping, fast-forwarding species.” Interestingly, the more affluent you are, the more likely you are to be anxious about time. Gleick notes that “sociologists in several countries have found that increasing wealth and increasing education bring a sense of tension about time. We believe that we possess too little of it; that is a myth we live by now.”1
In the 1960s, Time magazine reported that a subcommittee of the United States Senate was assembled to discuss the topic of time management. Essentially, the best experts in the field were concerned that with advances in technology the biggest problem by the end of the century would be what people would do with all their free time. It was actually suggested that workers would have to cut back on how many hours a week they worked, or how many weeks a year they worked, or else they would have to start retiring sooner. The truth is that the average work week is now 47 hours – up from 43 hours two decades ago. A recent Gallup Poll found that 44% of Americans consider themselves workaholics.
What makes “hurry sickness” so contagious is that there is a kernel of truth in all of this. Time is short. Life is brief. The Bible even says so. According to Moses, the years of our lives “quickly pass” (Psalm 90:10). As we grow older, we look back and wonder where the time has gone. Each of us is allotted a finite number of days, and the cry of our hearts is the same as Moses’; we pray that God will “establish the work of our hands” (v. 17).
By the time Moses wrote Psalm 90 he was evidently an old man and had come to realize how short his time on earth would be. The psalm begins with a meditation on the eternality of God: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (v. 2). Moses, then, contrasts the God who is from everlasting to everlasting with the transitory nature of humanity:
You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning – though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Because the children of Israel refused to believe God’s promises, choosing instead to believe the spies who said they could not conquer the land, Moses had seen his entire generation wander aimlessly in the desert. For nearly 40 years, the Israelites had roamed, with no specific destination in sight. An entire generation was sentenced to literally kill time by wandering in the wilderness. It has been estimated that an average of almost 90 people a day died during those years until only Moses, Joshua and Caleb remained to represent the generation that left Egypt.
Many of us experience this same dilemma, wandering in the wilderness of routine and overbooked schedules as the years fly by. Our stay on this planet is shorter than we are inclined to think. It does not require divine revelation to know that. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “The statistics on death are impressive. One out of one dies.” Our lives are like sand castles, destined for impermanence.
At first glance, this may seem like a pessimistic and morbid way of viewing human life, but upon further analysis, it turns out to be a realistic and hopeful approach. It is realistic because it is always better to know things as they are than to believe things as they seem. It is hopeful because it informs us that there is more to life than what we presently see. This perspective on time assures us that what we long for is more than a dream – this world is not all there is.
The key to this dilemma is found in the pivotal verse of the psalm: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Essentially, Moses says that, unless we come to understand life’s brevity and place proper value on the time we have (no matter how long or short it is) we will never gain a wise heart.
More than 300 years ago, François Fénelon, a 17th century cleric, understood how valuable time is. He wrote:
Time is precious, but we do not know yet how precious it really is. We will only know when we are no longer able to take advantage of it…. Liberal and generous in every way, God in the wise economy of his providence teaches us how we should be prudent about the proper use of time. He never gives us two moments at the same time. He never gives us a second moment without taking away the first. And he never grants us that second moment without holding the third one in his hand, leaving us completely uncertain as to whether we will have it.2
The great saints of old learned the wisdom of having only two days on their calendars: today and that day (the day they would be with the Lord). If we want a heart of wisdom, we will learn to live each day in light of that day. When we daily remind ourselves of the purpose for our sojourn here on earth, we will cultivate an eternal perspective on time; and it will influence our work and all our relationships.
God’s relationship to time is one of the great mysteries of the Bible. Peter tells us, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Peter seems to be recalling Moses’ words: “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4). A watch lasted three hours. Imagine: a thousand years going by like three hours! If a man’s life lasts roughly 70 years (cf. Psalm 90:10), and a thousand years is like three hours, then our entire life would be reduced to 12 minutes and 36 seconds! On this scale, our entire sojourn on this earth whizzes past in a blur. We’re born; we start school; we move away for college; we get a job; we get married; we have children of our own; we have grandkids; we retire; we die. And, yet, the Lord continues “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2).
Imagine a line of string that stretches across the room. Now take that line of string and extend it through the walls and outside the building where you are sitting. Carry that line out as far as you can see, in both directions, and allow it to disappear beyond the horizon. If you could take an airplane and fly along that line of string in either direction, it would continue to stretch out in front of you. The string would not simply wrap itself around the world, but it would reach beyond our atmosphere, extending out into space, beyond our solar system, beyond our universe. The line is never-ending.
Now, take a pen and make a scratch on this line of string – just one mark. That lone scratch is your earthly life in the scope of eternity.3
From a strictly naturalistic perspective, this idea seems hopeless. We’re here today and gone tomorrow. Our lives barely register as a blip on the eternal radar screen. Nothing so short can be truly meaningful, can it? Certainly nothing so brief can sustain our deepest hopes and desires, which is why it is so essential for us to place our hope in something that will endure rather than in the fleeting pleasures of this passing world.
Peter indicates that the opposite is also true of God’s perspective on time. He tells us, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). From that perspective, God has only waited two days since the day Jesus was born. God, literally, has all the time in the world. He’s not in a hurry, nor is he taking his time. He is God, and he will do what he will do when he wills to do it.
Taking this idea to its logical extension, an infinitesimal moment is like eternity and eternity is like an infinitesimal moment. This is how God is able to communicate with all of his children and hear the prayers we pray simultaneously. It is part of his ability to be omnipresent. God, being everywhere at once, views all things as part of an eternal here and now. And, in each moment, he has all the “time” he needs to provide for each of us the care he has promised. For him, there is no beginning and no end, no before and no after, save in the way he chooses to communicate with us.
One of the many lessons we can learn from this concept is that God, in his sovereignty, has given you enough time to accomplish his purposes for your life. His plan has been unfolding since the beginning of what we call time. His call is for you to discover his plan for your life and act upon it. Henry David Thoreau was correct; we cannot “kill time without injuring eternity.”
The words found in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 are familiar to people of all religious persuasions. People may not be aware of the original source, however, or the profound sense of urgency the original writer intended to convey. This well-known passage was popularized years ago in a song written by Bob Dylan: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under…heaven” (v. 1, KJV). The writer of Ecclesiastes goes on to list things that have their season:
…a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
Here we see how precious time is as a resource. However painful it may be, it is beneficial to come to grips with the truth that we simply do not have sufficient time while on this planet to accomplish all that our hearts desire to do and that we know we are capable of doing. So, how do we make the most of our time here and now? The key is to cultivate a genuine heavenly-mindedness. C.S. Lewis notes:
If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.4
People fixated on this world rarely speak and act with courage and conviction. They will never accomplish truly great things in this life, because their lives lack the stability, substance and weight of a person for whom the future holds greater promise than the past and present. As Fénelon said, “Time is given to us to prepare for eternity.”5 We might say that the opposite is also true – eternity is given to us to prepare us for time. We will fail to live out our time wisely if we fail to live it out in light of eternity.
The opportunities and circumstances of this earth can never satisfy our deepest longings, because God has “set eternity in [our] hearts” (v. 11). When we long for more than this world has to offer, we are really longing for eternity. In our present state, time is like a torrential river that carries our lives away. But in our eternal state, it will be more like a still and bottomless pool for our never-ending enjoyment. A.W. Tozer put it so well in his devotional classic The Knowledge of the Holy:
The days of the years of our lives are few, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. Life is a short and fevered rehearsal for a concert we cannot stay to give. Just when we appear to have attained some proficiency we are forced to lay our instruments down. There is simply not time enough to think, to become, to perform what the constitution of our nature indicates we are capable of.6
There is so much disappointment and dissatisfaction in our present world. But heaven will be beautiful, creative activity and endless adventure without pain or fear or frustration. Here, trapped as we are by space and time, we experience sorrow when loved ones die. We treasure the precious moments we have together and savor them, if for no other reason than because they are rare and, all too often, must be cut short as we are called away to attend to other business. But in the next world, we will have continuous, unbroken fellowship with God and with one another. The twinge of longing we feel when we don’t want a particular moment to end is actually our hearts yearning for eternity, longing for that which God has prepared for us in the world to come. It is a longing to be in the very presence of God himself. Tozer continues:
How completely satisfying to turn from our limitations to a God who has none. Eternal years lie in His heart. For Him time does not pass, it remains; and those who are in Christ share with Him all the riches of limitless time and endless years.7
Because time is such a precious resource, the Bible cautions us to manage it well. For example, the Apostle Paul makes a critical point in his letter to the Ephesians. He taught the young Christians there to “live a life worthy of the calling [they had] received” (Ephesians 4:1); to be “imitators of God” (5:1); to “live as children of light” (v. 8); and “be very careful…how you live – not as unwise but as wise” (v. 15). He then drove home his primary point, exhorting the Ephesian Christians to “redeem the time” because of the evil of the day (v. 16). If you wish to avoid being foolish and desire to understand the Lord’s will, you will redeem (buy, get or win back) the time (v. 17).
Each day is like a microcosm of life. You wake up in the morning, and your tasks are before you. You have plans at the beginning of the day that you hope to accomplish, but you don’t know how well they’ll be fulfilled. And by the end of the day, things have rarely turned out precisely as you planned them. You might meet all your deadlines and attend all your scheduled meetings, but there will be things that happen during the course of your day which are beyond your control.
We often begin our day filled with energy. Perhaps we need some caffeinated help; but we reach a point where we have optimal vigor to accomplish things. And over the course of our day we grow a little bit weary until our energy diminishes as the day turns into night. You may get a second wind, but, eventually, you become so tired that you must go to bed. It’s much like birth and growth and decay and death. No one stays awake forever. And no one lives forever, either. Sooner or later, we all must sleep.
The word sleep is a euphemism in the Bible for death. When our day is done, we all sleep; but as inescapable as that is, there is one more inevitability: morning follows sleep. Thus, Paul tells these Ephesian Christians: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (5:11). The Son of God comes as the bright morning star, and another life begins.
God definitely cares about how well a person manages time. Perhaps this next idea warrants a more complete treatment, but it must be said that because leaders direct others’ use of time as well as their own, they double their responsibility for wise use of time. The first principle of time management is recognizing the value of time and redeeming it – buying it up and using it carefully as the priceless resource which it represents.
No one can question King David’s place in history. He certainly proved his ability to accomplish more in his lifetime than most men dream of. He was born in the backwoods town of Bethlehem, but before he died, he led the nation of Israel in an unprecedented time of national growth, accumulating for himself a level of wealth and fame we would have difficulty imagining. His name is mentioned in the Bible nearly 900 times – more than anyone other than Jesus himself. To this day, countless birth certificates bear his name.
We might wonder how David was able to accomplish so much in his lifetime. His secret is revealed to us in Psalm 39:4-5, “Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” David, like Moses, was impressed with life’s brevity and the consequent importance of using time wisely. That, of course, is often easier said than done.
God moves with purpose in directing the flow of human history towards his ultimate goal. Likewise, he expects his followers to live with intentionality, properly stewarding the time allotted to them. Living with a proper perspective on time allows us to accomplish as much as we can with what we have during the time God gives us (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).
Eternity simply cannot tolerate laziness and complacency. We cannot be content to merely survive when there are so many opportunities to serve God and other people. Life is far too short, and our accountability to an almighty God far too serious, not to make the most of our days. Though there may be several acceptable activities and vocations, our responsibility is to discover the best stewardship of life.
Peter Drucker suggests three activities that might help busy leaders in dealing with time:
Effective executives…do not start with their task. They start with their time…. They start by finding where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally, they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing time units.
Drucker refers to the second step as time management. After listing the activities to which we devote our time (step one), he suggests that we ask three questions about each of these activities to help us minimize the amount of time we waste:
“What would happen if this were not done at all?” And if the answer is, “Nothing would happen,” then obviously the conclusion is to stop doing it.
Which of the activities on my time log could be done by someone else just as well, if not better?
What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?8
Drucker closes his chapter on time with this thought: “Know Thyself,” the old prescription for wisdom, is almost impossibly difficult for mortal men. But everyone can follow the injunction “Know Thy Time” if they want to, and be well on the road toward contribution and effectiveness.
This is not to suggest that every waking moment must be filled with intense, productive activity. Certainly, there must be time for rest, relaxation and play. We need only reflect on the Sabbath principle, the pattern of creation and the rhythm of life to realize that we need time for mental and physical refreshment. Yet with a well-developed sense of purpose, shaped by God’s Word, all our activities and decisions are brought into alignment with God’s purposes so that we can achieve maximum effectiveness with the time and resources God has given us.
The responsibilities and pressures of this world clamor for our attention and tend to squeeze our inner lives and starve our souls. When this happens, we lose sight of the things that matter most and begin to focus on the things that are passing away. Our value system becomes confused when we invest more of our thought and concern in things that are doomed to disappear than in that which will endure forever.
As we make decisions about how we will make the most of our time on earth, we reflect the character of God. That is our ultimate responsibility. What matters most in the long run is not how long we live, but how we live. A day of reckoning is coming, and purposeful achievement is a mark of the reign and rule of God coming to fruition in our lives.
1 James Gleick, Faster (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 10.
2 François Fénelon, Meditations on the Heart of God, trans. Robert J. Edmonson (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 1997), pp. 71-72.
3 Adapted from an illustration given by Wayne Cordeiro at the Leadership Summit in Chicago, Illinois, August 1999.
4 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier Books, 1960), p. 118.
5 Fénelon, Meditations on the Heart of God, p. 72.
6 A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper, 1961), p. 86.
8 Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995), pp. 25-51.