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Brief Thoughts on Time

Photo by Sonja Langford on Unsplash

According to the eternal perspective of the gospel, much of what we spend our time on are complete trivialities. But when we become believers conforming to the image of Christ, we do not simply exchange these trivialities for extra free time. On the contrary: the gospel opens our eyes to many needs to which we were blind beforehand. Observing this reality, the great court preacher and devotional writer Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) once wrote:

[As Christians] we have a great work to do, many enemies to conquer, many evils to prevent, much danger to run through, many difficulties to be mastered, many necessities to serve, many children to provide for, many friends to support, many poor to relieve, and many diseases to cure; besides the needs of nature and of relation, our private and our public cares, and the duties of the world.

Taylor explains that, because of the all-encompassing nature of Christianity’s message, and the responsibilities implicit in it, Christians ought to organize their calendars with a lot of care. Knowing that the battle may be won or lost in the design of our days, he spent the first pages of his book The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living (1645) arguing for several important ideas:

1. Life gives us extremely little time for explicitly religious activities.

Consider how much of our lives is taken up by the needs of nature; how many years are wholly spent, before we come to any use of reason; how many years more before that reason is useful to us to any purposes; how imperfect our discourse is made by our evil education, false principles, ill company, bad examples, and want of experience.

2. But all eternity is encapsulated in those few moments.

Although it cannot be enjoined, that the greatest part of our time be spent in the direct actions of devotion and religion, yet it will become not only a duty but a great providence, to lay aside, for the services of God and the businesses of the Spirit, as much as we can; because God rewards our minutes with long and eternal happiness. . . . No man is a better merchant than he that lays out his time upon God and his money upon the poor.

3. We will be called to account for all our minutes.

For every hour of our life, we must give account to the great Judge of men and angels. And this is it which our blessed Savior told us, that we must account for every idle word; not meaning, that every word which is not designed for edification shall be reckoned a sin; but that the time which we spend in our idle talking and unprofitable discoursing, that time which might and ought to have been employed to spiritual and useful purposes—-that is to be accounted for.

4. The fact that your life is busy can be entirely misleading.

Idleness is the burial of a living man; an idle person being so useless to any purposes of God and man that he is like one that is dead; he lives only to spend his time and eat the fruits of the earth like [a] vermin. [And yet] a man may be very idly busy, and take great pains to so little purpose, that, in his labors and expense of time, he shall serve no end but of folly and vanity. There are some people who are busy; but it is, as Domitian was, in catching flies.

If the book from which these quotes were taken was all Taylor ever composed, one might conclude he was simply after something like a hyper-spiritualized, semi-legalistic version of the Four-Hour Work Week. But he followed up on his book on holy living with what was truly his greater work, a book called The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying. In the first chapter of that work, Taylor says:

All the succession of time . . . and every contingency to every man and to every creature, doth preach our funeral sermon, and calls us to look and see how the old sexton, Time, throws up the earth, and digs a grave, where we must lay our sins or our sorrows, and sow our bodies, till they rise again in a fair or an intolerable eternity.

We aren’t saved by long hours in prayer, or by years of helping others, or by stewarding our time well in general. We’re saved by grace through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. But in the lives of those who seem to grasp that the best, time is usually treated with great care and passion. It is seen as a first opportunity to seek God’s face, and a last opportunity to preach his love to the perishing. Here’s hoping that Taylor’s vision will make us grateful for the hours we have left and renew our vigor to carefully count the cost of squandering them.

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