Sins Against Time
February 3, 2021

Anxiety, writes Oliver O'Donovan (Finding and Seeking) is a “sin against time” (173-4).

Anxiety is a form of fear, situated “on the border between anticipation and purpose.” Anticipation may make us fearful or optimistic, but it doesn’t make us anxious. Anxiety arises when we face the future with the question, “What shall we do?” It arises when we haven’t yet resolved our purpose.

While we deliberate, we’re faced with “a sequence of alternative possible futures of oscillating emotional tone, now encouraging, now discouraging, now clear and now obscure, like light reflected off troubled water.” We no longer experience time as “the passage from future through present to past” as a gift of God’s goodness. It seems nothing but loss and decay; because we fear the passage of time, we try to hold it back (174).

Anxiety blunts our moral sense in various ways. It “can prompt a close-drawn, myopic imagination, looking no further than the end of its nose; it can also prompt a nervously far-seeking one, that scans the horizon and is crushed by responsibility for what it cannot yet see” (174).

Greed is one of the most immediate and obvious expressions of anxiety. Jesus makes this clear when he calls us to put away anxiety over what we will eat, drink, or wear. Anxiety thus becomes a “spiritual state,” but one that refuses to recognize our reality as spiritual beings. Instead, we come to see ourselves as creatures of purely material forces: “Worry about material goods is the surest proof that we are spiritual beings, for it is a fortress set up to exclude the demand that time makes on us as spirit, a fortress constructed of immediate objects of sense.”

Without confidence in God’s provision, we cannot see what is permanent about ourselves. We see only loss, and so we try to shore up the slippage of time. But time slips, it cannot but slip, and so trying to stop time from slipping is the surest way of losing time, making acting and living impossible (174).

Greed is a form of anxiety’s sin against time, and is evident not so much in consumption as in accumulation. We accumulate in order to possess. We can give the possessions we accumulate a purpose: “We may save up to found a business, to buy a home, to provide for retirement, to insure against illness.” But without such purposes, our accumulation is merely a futile effort to “master the future.” Accumulated wealth is a “talisman to help us ride time’s waves.” This defensive stance toward time, another effort to dam up the flow of time, is “the product of moral and imaginative exhaustion,” and, as such, is “addictive” (175).

Anxiety also produces impatience, another form of sin against time. Impatience “refuses to wait on God’s time for the opportunity.” It “likes to get in first and wrench the future out of its futurity” (175-6). On the flip side, anxiety can produce procrastination, as it “makes the tasks we have been given seem to burdensome to set our hands to.” This splits us in two, as we fail to follow through on the plans we’ve made and refuse to reap the fruit of our own undertakings (177).

The antidote to greed and impatience is self-denial, which means “putting aside material things at which we clutch in order to clear our sight-lines for the promise.” When we defer gratification, we become familiar with the tension that is inherent in living in time, living toward the future: “It teaches us to endure the frustration of the appetite to possess, the urge to be up and doing; it teaches us to accept that what we may feel as the shame of patience, the appearance of ineffective tarrying, all in order to be ready for the moment of action when it is given us” (177).

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