“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.” (Benjamin Franklin)
Do you agree with this quotation? I imagine that you do. If you are an American, in particular, you likely have been bombarded with the ideals of “time management” since you were little. I wonder if you ever have given these ideals a second thought.
What are the pros and cons of being sensitive to the notion of time? On one hand, time sensitivity makes us more productive. On the other hand, I imagine that time sensitivity increases stress and makes us miss much of the best that life has to offer.
Phil Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Study fame), a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has written about what he calls “time orientation.” Zimbardo believes that individuals focus relatively more on the past, present, or future, each of which predicts unique outcomes in life. For example, consistent with most American emphases on time management, Zimbardo finds that individuals who focus more on the future tend to achieve more and engage less frequently in various kinds of destructive behaviors (such as addictions). However, people who focus more on the present tend to enjoy themselves more, express greater creativity, and display more problems with addiction.
In a famous study called the “Good Samaritan study,” researchers at Princeton University examined how busyness might influence the likelihood that seminarians might help a bystander. Specifically, after the seminarians completed some initial questionnaires, they were told to go to another building on campus to give a speech (ironically, sometimes, on the parable of the good Samaritan). Some of the seminarians were told that they were late for the speech; others were told that they had a few minutes to spare. Then, on the way, the seminarians encountered a man slumped in an alleyway who appeared to need help. Seminarians who were most rushed were four times less likely to help the man than seminarians who were least rushed.
In another study relevant to this issue, researchers investigated the effects of an unbalanced lifestyle on individuals’ quality of life. Participants in this study were told to avoid anything non-instrumental or playful from the time they woke up until at least 9:00 p.m. After 48 hours, participants started reporting psychological symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and muscle tension. After two days, the study actually needed to be called off in order to protect the welfare of the participants.
Interestingly, the Bible seems to encourage less emphasis on a future time orientation, and perhaps more emphasis on a present time orientation, than most Americans might realize. Consider, for instance, that in the Creation accounts, God took seven days. After the first six, God paused and appreciated what had been accomplished, calling it “good.” The seventh day was devoted entirely to rest and re-creation. After all sorts of problems were shown by humans, God waited thousands of years until sending Jesus. Even Jesus took about 30 years or so before beginning His ministry. Furthermore, Jesus spent considerable time walking from village to village, visiting with people. He often withdrew into nature for private prayer. Despite many apparent expectations to the contrary, Jesus also seems to be taking His time to make His promised return.
All of this suggests to me that God takes the long view and is exceptionally patient. If God were to comment our many American Christians’ lifestyles, I imagine that He would say that many of us have become too focused on the future. In fact, our urge to “get things done” may block us from the “fruit of the Spirit” that God desires to come through us. The Biblical view seems to be to focus more on living lives of gratitude and love in the present moment. This reminds me of a quotation by Henri Nouwen that I love:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”
To the extent that we do focus on performing tasks in the future, the Bible seems to suggest some boundaries. For example, Jesus said that we should “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). Similarly, the Lord’s prayer focuses on receiving our “daily bread.” Thus, in some ways, the Christian life is to focus on the tasks of today, without too much concern being devoted to the future. Time management for Christians also seems to take place in the rhythm of a week’s time period, with the Sabbath as an anchoring point.
A final point to consider is that, for Christians, our time is not our own. At some point, our lives will end. As stated in Psalm 39:4-7:
“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 handbreath; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.”
Each day we are given is a gift, to be received with gratitude and used for good purposes. And, when we consider the end of our lives, we turn our hope to God and the eternal time we will possess to enjoy in heaven.