Time and priorities

Michael Schluter, September 2005

We have all got used to the idea that money is our scarcest resource. So at both a personal and a professional level, much time and effort goes into working out how best to allocate it, budget it, spend it, tax it and invest it. Various academic disciplines have developed to ensure its efficient use, including accounting and economics.

However, it is now gradually dawning on people that there is a resource which is even more scarce than money: time. As Jesus pointed out, none of us can add even a single year to the length of our lives. It is an absolutely fixed resource, even though we can’t measure how much of it each of us has left. But it is curious that even though we speak of allocating time, budgeting it, spending it and investing it, there is no academic discipline studying its use. Perhaps if there was we should call it ‘chronomics’ (from the Greek chronos meaning time).

Cash-rich, time-poor

Why are we all so short of time today? Why is it such an issue for our generation? There are several factors. The internet and cheap phone calls make it possible to keep in touch with many more people than ever before; it is said that today we contact as many people in a week as a medieval person met in a lifetime. Our wealth requires time to manage; those who do not have a car do not have to get insurance for one, nor arrange to have it repaired or serviced. New entertainment possibilities, whether this is watching the cricket or listening to an iPod, were not part of life 50 years ago. We have so many more opportunities to travel, watch sport or films, explore ideas or places, than ever before.

So many of us find ourselves cash-rich (if ‘cash’ is taken to include our mortgaged homes and leased cars) but time-poor. Does the Bible say anything to help us think ‘chronomically’? The main reason we might expect significant biblical interest in this subject is because the issue of time is fundamentally about relationships, and Christianity is a ‘relational’ religion. Time is the currency of relationships – that is, time use measures in a very crude sense, and with some exceptions due to distance, how much value we place on different relationships.

Time and relational priorities

We first need to go back to the old Sabbath commandment. The idea of one day off in seven is not due to natural phenomena – like the day, the week, the year – but due to revelation in the early Jewish Scriptures (Genesis 2:1–3). It is about rhythm in life and work–life balance.

Above all, it is about relational priorities. In the Ten Commandments God requires of us that we give absolutely first priority in our time allocation to our relationship with him. Not only that, but he requires that any children of employees we have are not required to work on this shared day off. Clearly in the New Testament, the shared day off does not need to be a Sunday, but I would argue that the principle of a shared day off, and the need for family and household enforcement, still stands.

What are we meant to do with this shared day off? Paul implies that Christians met regularly on the first day of the week, i.e. Sundays (1 Corinthians 16:1–2). The account in Deuteronomy of the ‘ten words’ suggests that family life is meant to receive attention and that low-income workers are to have a day off each week. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt; their experience should cause them to protect those on low incomes from suffering under a seven-day pattern (Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Indeed, even today it is mainly those on low incomes who serve us at weekends. Harold Macmillan, the former Conservative Prime Minister, was right to call the Sabbath the first and greatest employee act in history. And Sunday is also meant as a day of rest, a day for the relationship, so to speak, we have with ourselves (Mark 2:27–28; Matthew 22:39).

The Example of Jesus

In his own life and work Jesus teaches us important lessons about the use of our time. For example, probably the most significant decision Jesus made was who would be his twelve disciples; this would be the group he would eat with, teach, and live alongside for three years of public ministry. Before making this huge ‘time expenditure’ decision, he spent a whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12).

We can draw two lessons from this. We need to be ‘intentional’ about who we spend our time with, and not let it all be just a matter of chance. And we need to pray before we make this absolutely vital decision. After all, in relational terms no decision is more important than this. But always, it is God who must have first pick of our time – not just with one day a week completely dedicated to what he wants us to do (and not do), but on every other day of the week as well.

For further reading see the two Cambridge Papers by Paul Mills on the theology of time: (1) and (2).


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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2005

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