Time is egalitarian. On each new day we are all allocated the same amount of this precious gift from God. We receive our 24 hours. And we are all responsible every day for how we use this gift in his service.
Of course, from a lifetime perspective we are allotted different amounts in this world since God ordains our days and gives each of us our own special portion of time. But the same truth applies. We are given our allocation of this ‘talent’ and are accountable to God for our use of it.
We are taught to use our time wisely (Psalm 90; Colossians 4:5). This is difficult when we live in a foolish society, for we inhabit a culture which makes bad use of time. I don’t mean that people do bad things in their allotted time, though that is of course true. I mean that the use of time itself is foolishly managed.
The typical approach in our society is to attempt to cram as much in as possible — thereby guaranteeing stress. It is no coincidence therefore that we have a so-called epidemic of ‘mental health problems’.
When we look around us we see people in a hurry: workers dashing off to work, then rushing home after a day spent chasing their tails; children clock-watching as they try to finish their homework; parents juggling those competing pressures of work and family; both parents trying to build their careers and schedule ‘family time’ somewhere.
If anyone asks you if you have had a busy day the mandatory answer is ‘yes’, isn’t it? I’ve tried saying ‘no’ and been amused at the perplexed responses! For the idea is to pack as much in to each day as you can.
You schedule back-to-back meetings and do your emails ‘on the fly’. Then retirement must continue this frantic activity, with new skills to be learnt and new adventures to be planned. With so much compressed into our time it is no surprise that tempers flare, with drivers beeping horns and shouting at offending drivers (as if they could be heard!), husbands shouting at wives, parents berating children.
Whilst there are other causes of stress outside of our control, such foolish use of time is a major, probably the major, cause. It leads to low and changeable moods, to those feelings of depression and anxiety, to episodes of panic and, sometimes, despair.
A few years ago I remember my surprise at the timelines in the book of Acts. Following Jesus’s ascension you want the apostles to get on with it and you accept the wait until Pentecost so the Holy Spirit can empower the disciples. Now things will happen. And they do, but slowly.
After a couple of years everyone is still in Jerusalem, with Saul’s persecution they are driven out to Judea and Samaria but after about six years haven’t progressed further. It is another decade before Paul and Barnabas begin their first missionary journey. How slow! Wouldn’t we, as evangelists, want to get on with it?
But this ‘slowness’ is how God operates, isn’t it? Peter tells us so (2 Peter 3:9). In Genesis we find Abraham waiting and waiting for Isaac. He runs out of patience (why is God taking so long to keep his promise?) and tries to hurry things up using Hagar. But he has to wait until he is an old man for the son of the promise to be born.
In Exodus Moses is in a hurry to get the deliverance from Egypt going. So God makes him wait for 80 years! As the old saying goes: ‘God took 40 years to make Moses great in Egypt, then 40 years to humble him in the wilderness and finally for 40 years showed what God can do with a great man whom he has humbled’. Such slowness continues throughout the Bible.
We need to learn that we don’t assess our use of time by how much we can pack into it but by how we make use of it. This is difficult in a society marked by activism, where achievement is measured by how many skills and courses and activities you can pack on your CV. It is about slowing down and making quality use of our time.
Yet even the phrase ‘quality use of time’ has been hijacked. People schedule ‘quality time’ with their kids or spouse in their weekly timetable. So it becomes another time slot into which lots is to be packed.
We need true quality time: time to enjoy with our spouse and our family and our friends with nothing scheduled. Because it is being with them that counts. And time for God. Time to pray without checking the watch, time to read and reflect on a portion of Scripture without checking the phone.
God is not only slow but he teaches us to slow down by deliberately setting time aside. Each day is marked out by its God-given rhythm of day and night. And with night-time comes sleep. God gives us no choice but to stop and rest!
Each week has its God-ordained day of rest. This is a rich blessing in our hurried lives. In good conscience every week we have a day clear of all regular work, a day when we can leave our emails and forget about work. A day we can spend enjoying time with God, in congregational worship and in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a peculiar observation that even though God himself took a day’s rest after his working week so many Christians don’t think they need to do so. But it is for our good.
It is also an act of faith. Do you trust that God knows best? As you study for exams do you trust him with the outcome so you leave all your books for the whole Lord’s Day? As you pursue your career do you trust him with its progress so you don’t attend that course or do that overtime next Sunday? Do you believe that he knows best and will work out the best future for you without you needing to flog yourself by working when God wants you to rest?
On top of these daily and weekly rests with which God blesses us, we have those annual patterns. We have the seasons of springtime and harvest and with them our yearly pattern of holidays. God gave Israel their annual feasts and festivals, didn’t he? He gave them these so that at this higher level they could have extended breaks from the daily grind of life in a fallen world.
These do not apply directly to Christians as unlike the Lord’s Day they are not part of the Ten Commandments and creation order. But we are wise to learn from this pattern and ensure that we plan longer breaks. To take time away with family and friends several times a year. To have times when we can refresh each other and enjoy guilt-free extended periods of rest and refreshment.
Accepting God’s times and imitating his patience by slowing down are great stress relievers and are the means he has given us to enable us to enjoy our service of him.
Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.