The majority of people in Western societies complain about the pressure of time and the pace of life. About a third feel that they are too busy all the time, and another third too busy some of the time. This is particularly true of those in leadership positions, in business and the professions, self-employed people, single parents and working women, especially those belonging to an ethnic minority. This even affects children, most of all in middle-class families. On the whole Christians, especially leaders, feel pressured and harried. They are often unable to accomplish all the significant things they would like to do and just as often do not have time to do these thoroughly. Overall most people find it difficult to keep up with what is going on, to maintain peace in the midst of activity, even to take pleasure in the work they are doing.
As a result, we often feel frustration at having too much to do, guilt at not giving enough time to God or family and anxiety that we might not be successful in fulfilling all our goals. This sometimes leads to a high level of nervous tension, physical fatigue and emotional burnout. Learning how to handle schedules and priorities better through time-management strategies is helpful up to a point, but it is only a matter of time before the pressure of busyness and the pace of life reassert themselves. Indeed, part of the problem is our belief that busyness is a virtue. The reason for this is not difficult to find. Busyness reinforces our conviction that we are important, that we are achieving something and that we are really committed to the Lord’s work. But this is an error. Both busyness and laziness—the first for doing too much, the second through doing too little—prevent us from giving our full attention and energy to doing what God wants us to do, no more and no less. In fact, busyness has traditionally been viewed as one of the forms that sloth—one of “seven deadly sins”—takes.
Biblical Principles for Time Use
This traditional suspicion of busyness has its roots in the biblical approach to time. Too often this is overlooked, both in Christian time-management discussions and by the countercultural Christian movement.
First, we should look at time as a divine gift. Its daily, weekly, seasonal and annual rhythms all stem from God (Genesis 1:3-2:3; Leviticus 23; Psalm 74:16) and reflect God’s creative or historical activity. Time is not a human invention and is not under human control. Jesus condemns those who, like the rich fool, proudly think otherwise (Luke 12:16-20). Too often we act as if time were a commodity at our disposal rather than a daily present from God. Time is not a human resource for us to exploit but a precious offer to be handled carefully, wisely and appreciatively. Only God knows what the future contains, and frequently it is very different from what we plan (Proverbs 19:21).
The high value we place on busyness is actually a sign of how little we understand this. Though our desire may be to do God’s will rather than satisfy our own wants, our view of time is usually identical with that held by those around us: it is a commodity. Our language betrays us here: we talk about “spending,” “investing,” “buying” and “saving” time, words that are all drawn from the world of commerce. Instead of treasuring time as a gift from our Creator—a daily present to be opened with delight and treated as special—we treat it as a resource from which we should extract the maximum amount as fast as possible. This is similar to the way, until recently, we have tended to treat the environment, exploiting it for all it is worth and not worrying too much about the long-term consequences. Instead of seeing time as sufficient for whatever is important, we treat it as a scarce resource to be parceled out in small amounts, constantly regretting the fact that there is too little of it and that it passes too quickly. As a divine gift, time should be used playfully as well as energetically, big-heartedly and generously as well as carefully and thoughtfully, in people-oriented as well as task-oriented ways, with an eye to quality more than quantity and with a sense of wonder and adventure.
Second, according to the Bible our time is limited, in most cases to around seventy or eighty years (Psalm 90:10). It is mainly lower mortality rates for children and more successful means of treating adult diseases that have changed since earlier periods, not the life expectancy of a healthy person. Even so our days seem too short, full and stressful, and we need discernment in order to handle responsibly the time God gives us. Our temptation is always to mortgage our time in advance in the same way we do with our unearned income. Consider the way we cram appointments into the weeks and sometimes months ahead and fill up our calendars and annual planners so far ahead. Despite our repeated prayers for God’s guidance, we often behave like those referred to by the apostle James who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” (James 4:13). Yet as James told them, “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. . . . Instead, you ought to say, `If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:14-16).
The biblical injunction to number our days so that we use time responsibly is not identical with the kind of planning of time that we engage in. That planning, especially if “life planning” is involved, generally assumes two things over which we have no control: that our life is going to continue for a considerable time and that we have some control over the course it will take. Experience should teach us the error in assuming these. People’s lives are often cut short, and few people can predict accurately what they will be doing five or ten years ahead, and the Bible warns us against operating this way. In fact, becoming too busy or anxious is a way of ignoring the temporary nature of this life. This is not to say that all planning is wrong, but we should be more tentative about it and regard it as conditional, as did Paul in making his medium- and long-term plans (1 Cor. 16:5-9). While he had desires and preferences, there is a modesty and flexibility to his approach. We should also be aware that the Bible’s emphasis on recognizing the finite time at our disposal sits uneasily with our general tendency to ignore the passing of time, to work to keep ourselves youthful or to artificially extend the length of our lives. Instead we should preserve a sharp sense of our mortality and recognize that at any point God could remove us from the scene.
Third, according to the Bible, time can be measured but should be regarded as a quality as well as a quantity. We tend to use our watches and clocks to divide time into the smallest mathematical units and then plan our schedule around these. Often we will do this down to the minute—in sports down to the second. The Bible also speaks of watches, though like the watches on a ship these were several hours long. There is no Old Testament word for hours, only a Greek word later, and nothing corresponding to our minutes. Indeed, most time references in the Bible are fairly general. It is the event or experience someone is encountering that determines how long they will give to it, not a calculation of how much time is available for such things. This is the view of time expressed in Ecclesiastes, which says: “There is a time for everything, and everything on earth has its special season” (Eccles. 3:1 NCV). This statement is followed by a list of common events and experiences, such as birth and death, laughter and tears, mourning and dancing, embracing and withdrawing, searching and giving up, speaking and keeping silence, going to war and making peace. Each of these should be given its appropriate timing and length of time, whether or not strictly speaking we have time for it when it occurs.
This is not to say that we should never organize our activities according to precise time measurements. Sometimes this is appropriate or necessary, especially when we are dependent on broader social schedules, when we are traveling or when other people depend on our being somewhere at a precise time. But even then we should recognize that things may take longer than we had planned, either because of circumstances beyond our control or because there is a need for it. This is why as far as possible we should build a certain “elasticity” into our time. But it is also important to remember that the most important things we do each day, week and year can only rarely be scheduled specifically or may be straitjacketed if we do. This is especially true of time with spouses and children (see Family Values), conversations with friends, dealing with crises and suffering or getting our bearings from God for the future (see Vocational Guidance). Generally we approach such things by looking at how much time we have and working out what we can fit into it. Too often we allow what is important to be preempted by allegedly more pressing or immediate demands.
Fourth, a balance should be struck between different aspects of daily life. For example, there is a time to work and a time to rest (John 9:4), a time to travel and a time to stay in one place (Deut. 2:14), a time to meet with fellow believers and a time to share with those in need (Acts 20:7; James 2:15-17). Sleep in particular is a nightly gift from God that we should fully enjoy, learning to entrust to God things we have not had time to do. If we steal time at either end of the day from the sleep we need in order to get more done, we are rejecting this loving provision of God, seeking to justify ourselves by our work rather than by our faith in God’s ability to look after things and placing ourselves in the position of losing God’s blessing on our activities anyway (Psalm 127:1-2). This does not mean that at no time is it appropriate for us to labor strenuously and even work into the night (Acts 20:31), but this should not become a permanent state of affairs. In particular we are to enjoy the benefits of having a regular sabbath time when we are free from our usual responsibilities (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 23:12-13). We should do this even when life gets busiest (Exodus 34:21). Under the new covenant instituted by Christ we are no longer obliged to keep the Jewish sabbath as it is prescribed in the Old Testament (Romans 14:5-6; Col. 2:16-17), but Jesus’ movement between activity and withdrawal shows us the importance of regular rest from our labors.
Here is a prophetic word for all those who are too preoccupied with busyness and achievement. It is symptomatic that insomnia is the number-one medical problem today (see Dreaming; Sleeping). Though at times we may have to “burn the candle at both ends,” this should never become habitual and should always be compensated for by more time for sleeping or recreation afterward to make up what has been lost. As far as a weekly rest day is concerned, though we are not obliged to take one day a week as a sabbath, such is the general pace and regulation of life throughout the week that taking a weekly day of rest when possible becomes a virtual necessity. When, for whatever reason, this cannot be done, resting over a whole weekend every few weeks is an alternative. At such times we do not need to wear a watch or let the clock determine what we do. It is also good to celebrate special times in the year, whether traditional in the wider society, special to believers (for the Old Testament, compare Leviticus 23) or expressive of the life of our family, friendships or institution in which we work.
Fifth, we should live in the awareness that there are special times when we are called upon to set aside everything else either to receive something from God or to do something for God. Discerning when, where and how this is happening involves knowing the difference between what is really important and what is only seemingly urgent (Luke 10:38-42), between the clear call of God that must be obeyed and the unexpected opportunity that need not be taken up (2 Cor. 2:12-13) and between our ordinary human plans and God’s extraordinary purposes (Proverbs 19:21). Sometimes we find ourselves in an emergency time when we have to sit loose to our usual routines (1 Cor. 7:29-30), knowing, however, that God will both provide for material (Matthew 6:25-34) and spiritual (Isaiah 55:10-11) needs. We should also live in the conviction that the day of the Lord’s coming is nearer than before (Romans 13:12) and will not be delayed forever (Rev. 22:12). Though no one knows exactly when this will take place (Mark 13:32) and sometimes it might seem like a long time coming, God does not calculate time as we do (2 Peter 3:8). In the meantime, though sometimes God seems to act slowly, at other times God will act quickly to save, protect or honor us. Our task is simply to be prepared (Matthew 24:36-51), resting in confidence that whatever happens, our whole life is in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15).
In general, then, we should follow Paul’s advice and seek to use time wisely and responsibly, availing ourselves of whatever opportunities come our way to do good in the midst of predominantly evil times. Our motto should be: “Do not be foolish but learn what the Lord wants you to do” (Ephes. 5:15-17 NCV). This requires constant discernment and giving priority to constructive rather than wasteful activities. Among our closest circle of Christians, we should all encourage one another regularly to do this (Hebrews 3:13). Using our time wisely and responsibly does not mean developing a busy lifestyle that fills every moment with activities or seizes every possibility that comes our way. This is a misunderstanding of what is said in Ephes. 5:16, which only in the mid-twentieth century was translated as “making the most of every opportunity.” In approaching time discerningly, we should reckon, as Paul did, with constant frustrations and delays in fulfilling our plans (Acts 13:49-51; 2 Cor. 1:23-2:1), for this is simply a fact of life and of God’s providence (1 Cor. 16:7).
The subtitle of a popular time-management seminar is How to Get Twenty-Eight Hours out of Every Twenty-Four! This gets it completely wrong: the whole point is that for what God wants us to do, twenty-four hours is quite enough. Otherwise we are complaining that God is stingy and does not know the realities of life. There are other problems with the time-management approach. It tends to treat our difficulties with time as primarily individual and technical. If we can find the right strategies for dealing with it and get our personal lives in order, everything will be all right. But the pressure of time and pace of life today are also huge social and cultural problems, affecting everyone and every part of life. They stem from our deep-seated individualism and belief that everything can be resolved by knowing the right techniques or having the latest technology (such as laptop computer appointment books). In fact, only if we work at the problem of time together and help each other with our temptations to busyness, only if we develop a less harried approach to time in our personal lives and in our congregations, will we make much headway. This means reducing our hyperactive, program-oriented and committee-ridden church life in favor of more organic ways of operating and more shared leadership patterns.
The overall problem of most Christian time-management approaches is that they operate too much within a secular understanding. This is why, like everyone else, they tend to speak of time as a commodity (albeit a divine one), as an infinite resource rather than one that is daily renewable and as (disproportionately) a quantity to be filled or portioned out rather than also as a process or dimension of significant activities. Unless our organizing and prioritizing of time are accompanied by a paradigm shift in our attitude to and use of it, we are not getting to the root of the problem. When a paradigm shift does take place, all our questions about what we should be doing start to look different, for we find ourselves questioning some of our fundamental assumptions about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. It is out of this that more creative and relevant, less busy and hectic, forms of lifestyle and ministry, even of congregational life, will begin to develop.