A light drizzle fell as I pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home. We were trying to squeeze in a family dinner between my work commitments, my daughters’ friend time, and my son’s soccer practice. As often happens, we were shy a few ingredients for the meal, so I made a hurried run to the grocery store after work, painfully aware of how close we were cutting the time. As I merged into traffic and flipped on my windshield wipers, I caught sight of an older man walking slowly down the slick sidewalk. A plastic grocery bag dangled at his wrist as he tried to wipe the mist from his glasses. His drooped shoulders were darkened with rain.
In the half-second after I passed him, I realized I knew him; he was a new member of my congregation. In the next half-second, I calculated that it would take me no more than four minutes to turn around, pick him up, and deliver him to his doorstep.
But I didn’t. I drove right past him.
Lord, have mercy.
The Failure of Formulas
Fast forward to a late summer day. My work was so chaotic that I felt as though I was trying to make a bed while four kids jumped on it. Loose corners flapped everywhere.
My wife, Sharon, was homeschooling all four of our children, and school was scheduled to start in less than a week. Meantime, we had offered to watch one friend’s children overnight, another friend was struggling and needed encouragement, our neighbors wanted to drop by with homemade ice cream, some out-of-towners called to say they’d be in our town for the weekend and wanted to spend time with us, and our sons were lobbying to invite some chums for a sleepover.
“When is it OK to say no?” Sharon asked me. “How do you know when God wants you to make yourself unavailable to people so you can get to some of the other things that are demanding your time and attention?”
I’ve often asked myself the same question, and I suspect you have too. It’s tempting to seek a formula: “Feeling the time crunch? Just use this handy-dandy Decision-Making Matrix. Key in your answers to these 10 questions, and out pops your daily schedule.”
Would that it were so easy. It is not that time-management methods are wrong, but they are not sufficient for us as Christ followers. Why? When Sharon and I decide how to spend a free evening together, we don’t pull out a decision-making tool. We have a conversation. It’s an intensely relational process: We speak, we listen, we interact, and we come to a place of agreement.
Similarly, the reason a follower of Christ can’t rely on technique to make time-related decisions is because the last word in our time use belongs to a Person. We make our decisions in conversation with our purposeful God, rather than against the plumb line of a time-management method. It is conformity to the will of the living God, not to some efficient ideal, that we seek.
For the citizen of God’s kingdom, an altogether new way of thinking about time is required. For starters, we need to ask two fundamental questions about time itself.
Is time mine?
The first question that must be asked is, To whom does my time belong? That question lay behind much of my wife’s consternation.
Typically, we view time as our own. When Jesus comes into the picture, that often begins to change. He turns us outward and begins to make us mindful of the needs of others. As we heed Jesus’ call to love our neighbors as ourselves, we start to shift from thinking of time as our own to seeing time as belonging to the person in our path.
Isn’t this, after all, what Jesus was saying when He told the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37)? The Levite and the priest saw their time as their own and, with windshield wipers flapping and clocks ticking, drove right past. But the Samaritan set aside his own claims on his time to tend to the needs of another. Jesus calls us to imitate the Samaritan.
I’m reminded, too, of the time a weary Jesus tried to duck away with His disciples for some much-needed replenishment. The crowds ran ahead and were waiting on the shoreline when He landed. Jesus’ response? “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk. 6:34). He treated the needy people around Him as though His time belonged to them.
Or did He? Luke tells of a time when crowds brought to Jesus their sick and demon-possessed. Jesus healed some of them—but not all. Though there was much more to be done,
at daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” —Lk. 4:42-43
A new picture emerges: Jesus viewed His time neither as His own nor as belonging to those who surrounded Him. He understood that His time belonged to the Father, and He spent His time doing those things to which the Father called Him. “I have come down from heaven,” He declares, “not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38).
Is my time mine to do with what I want? Is my time yours to do as your needs require? Or does my time—and my life—belong to God? Jesus put the matter plainly: “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:33). To which a loyal subject answers, in the words of Jeremiah: “I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23).
Asking to whom our time belongs leads us to the Bible’s solution to time scarcity: an act that I call time-yielding. We offer up our time to its rightful owner.
The Practice of Yielding
What might time-yielding look like for you and me? Here are two ways I’ve tried to respond to the truth that my time belongs to God.
For years I stuffed the Sabbath as full as the other days of the week. As I studied the Bible, however, I became persuaded that “keep the Sabbath” was more than just a synonym for “get some rest.” Asking me to set apart a day each week was God’s way of laying claim to the whole of the week; giving Him that day was my way of acknowledging that claim. Reluctantly, out of conviction, I conceded, though I wondered how I could afford to stake out that much unproductive time in my schedule. Much to my delight, as our family began to keep the Sabbath, we have found ourselves with more time, not less. Don’t ask me how; it’s one of those manna things. Yet even if Sabbath-keeping were a hardship on us, it is our way of planting a “sold” sign right in the middle of our days.
I have also adopted the habit of beginning each day by yielding it back to its Maker. My first conscious thought, as I wake to the predawn light, is most often, “Lord, You have given me another day in which to enjoy and serve You. I offer it back to You; lead me in the way You would have me use it.” That act of yielding is repeated throughout the day: driving to work, between appointments, over lunch, returning home, entering into the evening—again and again offering my time back to the Lord. Interruptions used to drive me buggy, mucking up my picture of the way I thought my life should look. Now (for the most part) I have a different view: My time belongs to God; I’ve already given it back to Him repeatedly, so it is His to use (or disrupt) however He sees fit.
Is my time mine? No. My time—my life—belongs to God. That leads to the second question.
Is there time enough?
I love the quip that says, “God put me on earth to accomplish certain things. Right now I’m so far behind I think I’ll never die.”
Has God given us enough time? No, not if through our busyness we are trying to find significance or fill boredom or cover pain or gain acceptance or safeguard our futures (or those of our children). However, there is all the time in the world for us to do those things to which God calls us. Time to pray. Time to enjoy God. Time to sleep. Time to further the kingdom. Even time to turn around and pick up a man walking home in the rain.
The claim that God gives us enough time to do those things to which He calls us is consistent with Scripture. For example, Paul said in Acts 20:24,
I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
That sounds a lot like squeezing the infinite into the finite. But not many years later, with the task still far from finished, Paul was able to write:
The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.
—2 Tim. 4:6-7
The task remained, but Paul was true to his God-given calling within it. He did not need to do it all; he only needed to complete that part of the task that God had given him. How readily we fall into thinking: I have to do it all, and I have to do it all now. But not everything we think to do is something God is calling us to do, and not everything God is calling us to do is something we need to do now.
Paul reminds us that God has specific designs on our time: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). For the King’s subject, time-yielding leads to time-inviting. If I recognize that my time belongs to another, then I will set aside my insistence that time be spent my way, and I will invite the King to tell me what He intends for me to do with it. He has given me enough time for what He will give me to do. What becomes important is not that I manage time, but that I let God manage me.
The Practice of Inviting
How do we come to know which part of the “all” is ours to do? While discerning God’s will is more of an art that we practice than a science that we master, some basic questions help me invite God into my decisions about how to spend my time.
Is this opportunity consistent with God’s will as I have come to know it in Scripture? The world around us acclaims accumulation, advancement, power, self-reliance, and the admiration of others. God, on the other hand, speaks often in His Word Word of love, patience, community, other-centeredness, spiritual growth, faithfulness, and God-dependence. Just because I am offered a job with a higher salary and greater visibility doesn’t mean it is automatically God’s call to take it. The more we know the cadence of God’s voice in Scripture, the more we will recognize its countercultural tone when He speaks to us.
Is it consistent with my passions and gifts? God has given each of us unique burdens of the heart and unique need-meeting abilities. These often signal how God wishes to use us in service to the body and in mission to the world. While God sometimes calls us to serve in ways that fall outside of those areas, He generally works within our gifts and interests; these can be a helpful gauge.
What are my motives? We fallen folk are a sneaky lot. We can frame our rush in the grandest of kingdom terms, yet much of what we busy ourselves with is not God-serving but self-serving. When I want to add a new item to my to-do list, I must ask why: Will it make me feel better about myself? Will it make someone else think better of me? Am I afraid to disappoint someone? Or is this a genuine call from God to respond to some need of the kingdom?
How does this fit with what I already know I am called to? My life is not a blank slate; much of my time is already spoken for by virtue of God’s previous calls upon my life: spending time with Him in prayer and study, honoring my wife and children, supporting my family, attending weekly worship, using my gifts to support the body of Christ, spending time with friends, and reaching out to non-Christians. Other more mundane givens include eating and sleeping and (less consistently for me) exercise. What I need to discern in a given week is not whether to do these things, but how, when, and with whom. Any additional claims on my time must fit into my day without stealing from these other callings.
What do others think? I’m not talking about seeking the approval of others, which Scripture routinely denounces (for example, Gal. 1:10). But we are exhorted to seek the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ (Prov. 12:15). Often what is fuzzy to me, even after considerable prayer, is clear to those who know me, love me, and are praying with me. One time I was certain that God was calling me away from a particular position. To a person, the friends whose counsel I sought disagreed—and they were right. Discernment is a community venture, not a solo enterprise.
On that late summer night when Sharon and I were overwhelmed with demands, we realized we needed to invite God to manage our time. First, we stopped and asked Him to grant us wisdom. Then we talked through each of the demands. As we did so, we began to discern God’s intentions for our time. Rather than invite our out-of-town friends over for a meal, we chose to eat at a restaurant. We asked our in-town friends to drop off their kids later than planned, which allowed us to eat ice cream with our neighbors. Explaining our full schedule to our sons, we deferred the sleepover and involved them instead in watching our friends’ children. Meanwhile, we called our struggling friend and set a time to meet later in the week. It was still a full load, and God showed us we had taken on too much (the it’s-all-up-to-me syndrome), but He saw us through.
The practice of time-inviting, of asking God to establish our schedules, flies in the face of today’s cultural norms. Look at the way we often structure our children’s lives: Anxious not to derail their futures, we jam their lives so full of sports, classes, and specialty camps that our children can hardly breathe, let alone reflect, replenish, or make room for God.
Sharon and I choose to believe that God, not our activities, will shape our children’s futures. When evaluating their activities, our starting point is to ask not “What can we fit in?” but “What would God have us do?” We consider a range of factors as we attempt to discern God’s purposes for our kids: their aptitudes and interests, their capacity, our sense of what is best for them, as well as the benefit of activity and the cost of boredom versus the cost of overactivity and the benefit of downtime. Then, with all that on the table, we put the decision before God and ask Him to lead us. Often this means a radical decision from the world’s perspective, such as our usual starting point of one outside-of-school activity per child at any given time.
My children’s schedules are not the only ones affected by the practice of time-inviting. In the past few years I have come to one of the more important realizations of my adult life: Saying yes to God in one area will require saying no to other opportunities. There are many things I am interested in and many things I am capable of doing. But rather than try to cram them all in (the world’s model of time management), I’ve become more patient and selective. Just because it needs to be done doesn’t mean I’m the one to do it, or that it has to happen right now.
So as opportunities arise, I no longer automatically say yes. I put them before the Lord and let Him have the last word. For example, a man recently asked if I would be willing to get together with him once a week to build a friendship. My heart wanted to say yes. But as I prayed, I realized that, because of previous commitments and existing friendships, it was the wrong time to take on a new relationship. Perhaps in the providence of God that potential friendship will become possible in the future. Perhaps not. I need to trust that God purposes to meet this man’s need in another way or with another person.
The time that has been given to me—is it mine? No. Is it enough? Not enough to do everything I want to do. But more than enough to complete those good works that God has prepared in advance for me to do. I choose to yield my time to its rightful owner and invite Him to lead me into the life He has already designed for me, a life that includes time to pick up someone caught in the rain.
Another Rainy Day
A couple of weeks after I drove past the man at the grocery store, my family was having dinner with friends. My son had to go to soccer practice, so he and I ducked out. As we drove, we passed two young men walking in the other direction. I turned to Brandon and grinned: “Wouldn’t it be fun to stop and talk to those guys?” It was a whisper from the Lord, though I didn’t know it yet.
Ten minutes later, on my way back to our friends’ house, a deluge broke from the skies. Wind and rain whipped across the road. As I struggled to see through the frantic sweeping of the windshield wipers, I caught sight of the two young men: One struggled to keep an umbrella overhead; the other simply hunched against the torrents; both were drenched.
I drove right past, knowing I was keeping our hosts waiting.
Then I remembered: God had put it in my heart earlier to speak to these two men. I slammed on the brakes and put the car in reverse.
“Hop in, guys! Where are you headed?” I called out.
They stood outside the car, shock and disbelief on their faces. “We’ll get your car soaking wet!” they protested.
“It’s just a car,” I said. “Hop in.” When I dropped them off 10 minutes later, after a rich discussion about faith, the look of shock still hung on their faces. “What time are your services on Sunday?” they asked.
This time, by God’s grace, I got it right.
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