By Fr. Stephen Miller
Ephesians 5:16: "Redeem the time, because the days are evil.”
Time is Not on Our Side
As I sat down to write this article, I kept thinking about the Rolling Stones tune Time is on My Side. I actually looked up the lyrics because, for the life of me, I could not remember what the song was about. Although there is little substance to it, the song does provide a counterpoint for this essay; after all, time is not on our side. Each moment is precious and should be treated as sacred. Waiting around for more time, or for a different time, is one of the greatest oxymorons of all.
Just ask the “one from the crowd” who asked Jesus to tell his brother that it was time for their inheritance to be divided. The response by Jesus is found in Luke 12:
Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”
The parable that comes next reinforces the idea that time is not on our side, especially when we think we can seize time, usurping God’s authority by planning our futures apart from His grace:
Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” ’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:16-21)
Benjamin Franklin may have coined the phrase “time is money,” but time and mammon have always gone hand-in-hand. Therefore, it is important to consider the implications of how we use are time. What are we doing with our time? What can we do better with our time in an attempt accomplish more? We should be especially cognizant of our time as Christians, making sure that when we seek to use our time better, we are accomplishing more that is good.
We may - and should - have the best of intentions, always wanting to do good. This is laudable, so far as it goes, but there are a few things we should consider first, especially if we find ourselves in the place of the “certain rich man” from the parable.
Human “Smarts” vs. Godly Wisdom
There is a huge difference between earthly “smarts” and Godly wisdom. In fact, all Christians would likely agree that it smarts when we try to outthink or maneuver God. Just ask Jonah who attempted to escape from God, or David who decided to break the 7th Commandment. One received a front row seat to the science lesson of the digestive capabilities of a large fish and the other lost his son due to succumbing to adulterous desires.
A counterpoint to these unfortunate tales - perhaps the quintessential human example of waiting on God - is that of the Mother of our Lord:
“Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word...’” (Luke 1:38).
She has just been told that her time would be taken, not for the next few hours or days, but for nine months… and then for a lifetime. Everything changed for her in that moment. Gabriel tells her that God has something in store for her that would take up all of her time, effectively ruining any plans she had previously envisioned for herself as a betrothed bride-to-be. And yet, instead of asking for different timing - perhaps so she could bury a relative (ref. Matthew 8:18-22 and The Cost of Discipleship) or get married! - Mary humbly accepts God’s plan for her life.
Mary knew something, even as a young woman, that many of us overlook: time is not about an amount that one has acquired, but rather has its value in terms of quality.
Quantity vs. Quality
“My time is important.” What an interesting statement for someone to make. I have heard this countless times in my relatively brief time in the ministry. My response, while usually put more delicately, is that one’s time is only important if one is doing something of value with it. Value is not relative: it is objectively working on one’s sanctification, growing closer to God and then using the gifts one has been given to help and assist those with whom one interacts.
The truth is that everyone’s time is important, and if you are an individual who declares this mantra often, you are probably succumbing to the tyranny of the quantitative rather than the qualitative.
If we have a few days that are used to the glory of God, this is worth more than a lifetime of hedonism.
God’s time that He grants us is important, as is the time we set apart to be with Him. There is nothing more important for the believer than to spend time in worship, fellowship, prayer, and further study both on a corporate level and on an individual one.
Firstfruits vs. Afterthought
I’m sure we have all heard a sermon preached on the value of spending time with the Lord, making the important decision to take time to pray and read the Word of God. However, when we do give back our time to God, is it the firstfruits - the most important time - or the ten minutes at the end of our day because we remembered right before bed time?
When I suggest the daily exercise of doing Morning and Evening Prayer, the look that greets me is usually one of shock that I would ask them to do such heavy spiritual lifting. However, this could be considered one of the more selfish uses of one’s time. Spending time with God enriches and enlivens us, giving us what we need to then be selfless in our actions. Every day, before running into the parts of life that weigh one down, one gets to spend time with one’s Heavenly Father, basking in His love and fellowship. And then, after all of the heartaches and hardships of the day pass, one gets to return to the Father - asking for peace, seeking release of anxiety, and turning to the only source of true relief. What could be better?
We are called to help others, witnessing for Jesus Christ and sharing His love with the world around us, but we must also spend time partaking of the only Source - God Himself - that prepares us to face a hostile world set on dividing us from Christ.
People look overwhelmed when I suggest taking time each day to pray the Daily Office; yet, Morning and Evening Prayer each take roughly 20 minutes to implement. What is not commonly understood is that these are the abridged versions of the Daily Offices. Monastic communities continue to dedicate nine different times of prayer throughout the day, the first being at 2 AM in the morning, the last being at 7 PM. Imagine having four times of prayer - Vigil, Matins, Lauds, and Prime - all between midnight and 6 AM!
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, recognizing the near impossibility such a system of prayer would involve for non-monastics, adapted the Daily Office to be possible and more practical for Christians in most walks of life.
Redeeming the Time
There are certain questions that we need to ask ourselves. Am I being overly pragmatic in my approach to time, sacrificing when I can because it makes logical sense in my schedule? Or am I willing and able to be more attentive to the idea of seeking heavenly wisdom with the use of the time God grants me? That co-opted phrase from my teenage years is actually relevant: what would Jesus do?
What would God Incarnate do with His time? Would He be in prayer daily? Would He be leaving the distractions of the world for a time to focus on His relationship with His Heavenly Father? Would He make time to do something worthwhile, substantial, and edifying each and every day?
If we have read the Gospels - even briefly - we know that Jesus spent much time communing with His Heavenly Father. If God Incarnate wanted - and needed - this quality time with God the Father, how much more do we need to make the time to do the same?
Ironically, it is when we least feel we have the time to give to prayer that we most need to dedicate ourselves to prayer and make time to commune with our Heavenly Father.
John Chrysostom made an interesting point in AD 407 about St. Paul’s comment that “the days are evil” (ref. Ephesians 5:16). He said:
When Paul says “the days are evil,” he does not mean that they are created evil or that they are by their very nature evil. Rather he says this of the troubling events that occur in time. We are in the habit of saying, “I have had a terrible day.” But that does not imply that the day of itself is intrinsically terrible. Rather it refers to what has occurred in the day. Some of the things that occur in it are good, as they are enabled by God. Some are bad, because they are brought about by evil willing. Therefore it is we humans who are the authors of the evils that occur in time. Only on this basis are the times called evil.
Time is money — at least in the sense that both can be the root of evil if cherished selfishly rather than used wisely. As St. Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 6:10, coveting something can lead to erring from the faith and being pierced with many sorrows. What we put first - our firstfruits - dictates how we love and how we live. Making the most of every opportunity — fully redeeming our time — when faced with distractions and with evil that seeks to corrupt is what we are called to do as faithful followers of Christ.
The Good News about Bad Times
John 16 is fascinating to study through the lens of time. There are several references throughout the chapter to events in time, remembering things in time, waiting for a while, and a time coming when things will change. And then Jesus says:
Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:32-33)
Just as Jesus Christ went through a time when his disciples scattered and left Him alone, we will no doubt feel and experience times that seem similar to us. However, we are not alone; God is with us, and we can “be of good cheer” because God Incarnate has “overcome the world.”
There is Always Time for God
A common moment in counseling that still evokes a wry smile is the old line: “I will get to church soon, but I’m too busy this week.” The smile is not a result of mirth or humour but of irony - the irony of seeking godly counsel from an ordained minister without realizing - though I likely just said it - that one’s time is best spent in worship, discipleship, and fellowship.
Moses reminds us to ask the LORD to “...teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). The time that God gives us here on earth is valuable — if we use it wisely.
After all, regrets are the currency of those who have wasted time on themselves instead of seeking purpose for their lives from their Lord.
A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven
I didn’t feel right about writing an article about time without including Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes 3, but the more I read, the more I realized that, if you have the time, you should read the entire book. When we rely on ourselves, “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8). However, when we rely on God, we have redeemed the time.
So let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13,14)
Redeem the time that has been given by the Lord. Make use of the time in the best manner possible, and “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Fr. Stephen Miller is Curate at St. Matthew's in Weaverville, NC.