Time in itself, as part of God’s good creation, is not evil
IN 1985 I was invited by the Basle church in Labuan to speak at a series of revival services. I arrived at the idyllic island after a fairly hectic week in Singapore, hoping to enjoy its slower, more relaxed pace of life. I remember the warm hospitality of my hosts, who had made arrangements for me to be housed in a pleasant room in a building adjacent to the church.
The 10-day programme was well organised, and, judging from the number of people who attended, well publicised. But the services were all in the evening. Nothing was planned for the day. My hosts, determined to ensure that I had adequate rest, made sure that I was not disturbed during the day. The only intervals to my otherwise eremitic and reclusive existence were the meal times.
The slower pace that I had so looked forward to enjoying soon became an unbearable vexation. The days seemed incredibly long, the quietness deafening, and the lack of activity simply unbearable. I found myself glancing often at both watch and clock. Frustration mounted with each glance. I usually carry a mini-library with me whenever I travel. In this instance, I brought three books, which I read in as many days. On that idyllic island of Labuan, I was struck by an uncomfortable revelation: that in this modern world of ours, time is a tyrant, and that I am its victim. “The clock”, G. Woodcock is known to have said, “represents an element of tyranny in the life of the modern man more potent than … any machine.”
Moderns tend to feel the oppression of time more than their forebears, not least because of the fact that ours has evolved into such a materialistic society. The relentlessness of our culture in its pursuit of wealth is graphically described by John Kenneth Galbraith in his now classic “The Affluent Society” (1958). Galbraith compared the mindless and frantic pursuit of material wealth with “the efforts of the squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own efforts”. In capitalism’s “squirrel cage”, time is the ruthless, merciless tyrant compelling the “work-and-spend” cycle to run its course at an ever increasing frenzy.
But it would be unfair to dump every form of cultural neurosis in the courtyard of the period we call modern. Shakespeare some centuries ago could write about that “envious and calumniating time … that bald sexton, Time”.
In more churchly text, Isaac Watts spoke of the irreversibility and the ephemeral nature of time when he wrote:
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away:
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.”
And still further back in the history of human civilisation a lone Preacher could say:
“All is vanity …
One generation passes away,
and another generation comes …
All things are full of weariness …
and there is nothing new under the sun.”
These negative statements must not lead us to conclude that time is evil. Time in itself, as part of God’s good creation, is not evil. But the times are. Christians sometimes tend to think of the absolute disjunction between time and eternity, as if time will in the end be destroyed by eternity. Jesus Christ did not come to destroy time. Rather in the fullness of time, He came to redeem it.
This brings us aptly into the New Year and the confluence of expectations and fears pertaining to it. The calendar is, to be sure, in some sense an artificial division of time. But it enables one to sense nature’s rhythm and to “periodise” one’s life, and by so doing, to order it. But the calendar also alerts us to the fleeting nature of time and the transience of human existence here on earth.
Our calendar tells only part of the story. There is another calendar which gives us a much bigger picture and portrays a deeper reality. The Christian orders his or her life according to this calendar, the Christian calendar, for it frames human existence within a deeper, more profound perspective. And this brings us right into the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.
It is not a curious coincidence that Advent is designated as the start of the Christian calendar. Advent signals the dawn of a new era, a new age in which our time is taken up into God’s eternity – God’s time – in the incarnation. Advent reminds us that time as we experience it – which is both fragmentary and fleeting – is the result of the Fall. Ours is a fallen world, and our time is fallen time.
‘When we understand what it means that our times are in God’s hands we will escape the tyranny of time and the prison of our own busyness. We see things in perspective.’
Know that our times are in God’s hands
In this essay I shall not be addressing the philosophical question, “What is time”? I am rather attending to the pastorally and existentially more pressing question, “What is time for?” In the incarnation, God has come into time – our time – in order to redeem it, so that it may take the form of His time. In so doing, God has brought meaning to time. This truth is presented with eloquence and brilliance in T.S. Eliot’s “The Rock”:
“Then came, at the predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call
history: transecting, bisecting the world of time, a
moment in time but not like a moment in time,
A moment in time but time was made through that moment:
for without the meaning there is no time, and
that moment of time gave the meaning.”
But what does this mean for us who live in a time between the Advent and the Parousia, between the first coming and the second? What does this mean for us in the here and now, in the period which awaits the complete transfiguration of time?
The incarnation gives us a glimpse of the eternal Kingdom that awaits consummation and the promised redemption. The Christian’s hope for the promised future radically changes – or at least it should – his perspective of the present. It brings new meaning to the words of the Psalmist: “But I trust in Thee, O Lord. My times are in thy hands.” (Psalm 31: 14-15a).
When we understand what it means that our times are in God’s hands we will escape the tyranny of time and the prison of our own busyness. We see things in perspective. In our daily experience of time, this perspective escapes us. We become compulsively busy and scurry about to make more money, to make that important business contact, or to write that book. In church we become compulsively busy by multiplying programmes. We behave as if we have full control of our lives.
But our times are not in our hands. They are in His. This is not a recipe for sloth or passivity. It is a caution against filling our time with restless activity. It reminds us that we should rather use our time to do the needful. For only by so doing can we redeem the time, and glorify God in what we do.
The incarnation reminds us that God is with us: He is Emmanuel. God is with us not only in space, but also in time. He is with us in times of work and relaxation, in times of sorrow and joy. And because He is with us – and we are in Him through Christ – we can live freely, knowing that He will give us time to do that which He wants us to do – which may not be what we hope and plan to do. He will give us time to complete the work that He has set out for us in our life-spans, whether long or short.
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church