Time, Curse or Gift?

New Year’s Day makes one reflective, at least about the past year, perhaps about life, perhaps, more broadly, about time itself.

Many view time as a curse. Some see it as a curse because of missed chances.  As one day or year moves on to the next, all we can see are the missed opportunities of the previous year, missed opportunities that will never come again. If only we’d stuck with that job or stayed in school, if only we’d had the courage to talk to that guy or that girl, if only we’d accepted that scholarship, our lives would be completely different. Our lives would be happy. We wouldn’t have all the frustrations we have now.  Everything would be different.  Now there’s no way to change it.  We look back regretfully at the waste we’ve made of our lives, and know that time has passed us by.  Time just keeps marching on, and doesn’t seem to care whether we keep up with it or not.  Before we know it, we’re 50 and can’t quite figure out what we’ve accomplished.

For others, time is a curse because the best times always seem to be behind us.  The high point of our lives seems to be in the inaccessible past.  The aimless days of summer when we were without responsibility or care; the glory days of being in high school, starring on the football team, winning an important game with a touchdown run; college; the early days of living on our own, or the early days of marriage.  We know that life will never be as fresh and new as it was then.  We know that we’ll never be in a position to do something heroic like we were when we played high school sports.  We know that we will never be as cool or famous as we were in high school.  For many people, these are the best times of life, and we know that we can never recover those golden moments.

For others, time is a curse because there’s never enough of it.  We’ve got dreams but can’t quite find the time to complete them.  Deadlines keep rushing toward us like defensive ends, and we need to get the pass in the air before we get crushed.  If only we could step out of time for a bit, if only we could find a portal that would take us into another dimension so we could get everything done.  But time doesn’t work like that.  Time frustrates our dreams and plans.

For others, time is a curse because of the uncertainty it brings. Living in time means living in uncertainty about what the next year, or the next minute, will bring. We don’t have the slightest idea of how things will go. You could step off the curb today, get hit by a car, and live the rest of your life disabled. You could receive a notice in the mail this week that informs you that you have inherited a distant and forgotten relative’s fortune, leaving you with enough to live comfortably for the rest of your life. You don’t know if the next day or the next year will bring surprising successes or surprising failures. You don’t even know if it will bring surprises at all – next year at this time, you may be exactly where you are now.  We crave certainty and stability and we want to have some control of life, but time keeps us guessing and uncertain.

There is some truth in all of these. We miss opportunities. We can never recover past years. Time moves along, and we can’t control what’s coming around the bend. But the notion that these experiences make time a curse is wrong. Time is not a curse. Time is not a problem or frustrating restraint. Time is not an obstacle. Time is a gift, a good gift, of God.

That’s the point that Solomon emphasizes in Ecclesiastes 3.  One moment, it’s time to plant; but soon it will be time to harvest. And part of Solomon’s point is that these times are not under our control. We can’t determine the time of birth, or even the time of death. God, however, is in control, and makes everything “fitting” or “beautiful” in its time (v. 11). The accent in the passage is on what God does in the various times that He brings (vv. 10, 11, 14). God sends along times for silence, and then times for speech, times to mourn and then times to dance.  We are called to be wise in responding appropriately to His works.

How is time good? Time enables the creation to reflect the life and glory of the Trinity. God transcends time, but the movement and “dance” of the Triune life is the uncreated ground of time. God doesn’t change in any of His attributes or purposes; God doesn’t develop and grow and become more Godlike over time. But the Father, Son and Spirit do live in an eternal dynamic movement. The life of the Trinity is not static and motionless.  If creation were static and motionless, then it could not reveal the Triune glory. Father, Son, and Spirit are an eternal polyphony, an eternal fugue.  Time is necessary if God is going to transpose that uncreated music into the life of the creation. Creation is a revelation of God’s glory in a new “key,” in a new “register,” different from the uncreated register of the Triune life. Revealing Triune glory takes time; to reveal God, the creation must be able to keep time.

Time and change are necessary for us to achieve what God intends for humanity. God created Adam sinless, but yet immature. He was naked, like a baby, and was to mature into fuller and fuller God-likeness. Adam was created good, but He was not created with the kind of full perfection that he was destined to achieve. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15, Adam was created “soulish,” but where there is a soulish man there is also going to be a spiritual man. Adam was going to grow and mature from soulish to spiritual, from glory to glory, from perishable to imperishable, from weak to strong. Adam was created good, true, beautiful: but he was going to become better, truer, more beautiful.  He was going to mature to full Godlikeness, to become more and more the image and likeness of God. That maturation is what the Bible is all about, and that too takes time.

If you didn’t exist in time, whatever abilities or habits you had when you were born would be your habits and abilities forever. You couldn’t get better at anything, you couldn’t change bad habits. You’d be determined by your origins, determined by the unchangeable past. If the past never became past, if it never passed, you’d have no hope for sanctification, no hope for reconciliation or righting wrongs, no hope for forgiveness, no opportunity for a new future.

Time and change are also good for the church. Christians sometimes think that the church should be an institution oriented toward the past.  Maintaining the confessional tradition is all-important. Making sure that we don’t abandon the liturgy of the prayer book is key. The church is called, we think, to maintain herself exactly as she has been from age to age. This is true in many respects.  Scripture does command us to remember the past.  Scripture demands respect and honor to our parents, and the fact that our parents are dead is no reason not to honor them. Scripture commands us not to move the ancient boundary-stone. It’s not as if we are free to abandon belief in miracles, or in the Trinity, because it’s been so long since the gospels were written or the Nicene creed formulated.

But this is only one part of the equation. The church is to maintain continuity with the past, but the church is fundamentally oriented toward the future. The church is fundamentally a people who is living the life of the future now. The church is a people worshiping a God who does new things, whose mercies are new every morning, who promises to bring in a new heaven and a new earth. The church has always understood this. At one time, there were no Benedictine monks or monasteries. Before Benedict, these didn’t exist, of course. With the collapse of the Roman empire, Benedict set up monasteries throughout Europe that helped to transform Europe. In response to heretics during the high middle ages, Dominic formed the order of the Dominicans as an order of preachers. In response to the growing problems of the cities, Francis organized Franciscans to minister there. All through the history of the church, the church has taken new forms, adopted new strategies of mission, sought out new ways to advance the kingdom.

Time is good because it forces us to live by faith and hope. Refusing time is refusing to live by faith. Wishing we could stop time, or could infallibly predict what was coming next, is refusing to live in hope. God is the one who determines the times, and He is the one who does everything fitting in its time (Ecclesiastes 3).  The word “fitting” has aesthetic connotations; to be fitting or appropriate is to be beautiful. When something is fitting, it harmonizes with its surroundings. And that’s what God does with all times. Birth and death are not in our control, but God brings birth and death at just the fitting time, so that the whole is beautiful. Keeping and throwing away are not under our control, but God orchestrates it all so that everything is fitting in its time.

We cannot live well if we need to control time ourselves, because we cannot control time.  We can’t live well if we perceive time as a curse.  We can live well only through faith, only by trusting in the God who created time, all time, and pronounced it good.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.