“Can you believe it is 2013? Did that event happen two years ago? No, Five? Hasn’t this week gone fast?” If you’ve muttered these questions to yourself or others, you have experienced the acceleration of time. Eons ago, as a sophomore in high school, I noticed this phenomenon. When I commented to my older brother-in-law how fast the summer was passing, he replied, “Just wait until you’re in college, time goes even faster.” I remember thinking ‘time doesn’t move faster. A minute is always sixty seconds and summer is three glorious months of no school.’ Yet, as I’ve aged, his words have proved true. Time rushes like the Niagara River pushing me to the Falls. My downhill bike ride home from the gym feels faster because gravity pulls.
Unlike gravity downhill, the speed of the earth’s rotation hasn’t changed; yet why do we universally experience time moving faster as we age? The prayer of Moses in Psalm 90:12 instructs: “[t]each us to number our days aright that we might gain a heart of wisdom.”1 At my current age, I’ve numbered approximately nineteen thousand days. At age 15, my days numbered fifty five hundred. One day of 19,000 days feels faster than one day of 5500 because each day is an increasingly smaller fraction of our total earthly life. In pie terms, each day cuts a smaller slice. This realization provokes anxious thoughts. How high will the denominator reach? If time moves so quickly, how will I get “it” all done?
My anxiety lessened when I turned to God and his word which teaches that recognition of the rapid pace of time imparts humility and wisdom. The humility teaches in what we should invest our lives: God and his lasting purposes. Wisdom guides how to prioritize time according to eternal ends. As we allow humility and wisdom to lead our expenditure of time, we’ll capture eternal moments in each day producing hope that our lives are purposeful and lastingly significant.
An eternally significant life can begin when we humbly recognize our life is brief. In Psalm 39:4-5, David prays, “Show me O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” David asked to comprehend the brevity of life and the swiftness of time. Much of scripture echoes this sentiment, for example, in Psalm 90:10, “The length of our days is seventy years-or eighty, if we have the strength….for they quickly pass and we fly away.” James 4:14 states…. “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Appreciating our mortality and the speed of life exposes the folly of a life wholly invested in temporary matters. Although painful, such humility impels us to consider living for God.
This process in my life began as a young attorney. Assigned to help write the brief for a case appealed to the highest court in our state, I poured a year or more of thought, energy, and ego into it. When a subsequent case, one in which I was not involved, settled the law a few months later, the impermanence of my work humbled me. My brief had not mattered in any lasting way. Although work can be satisfying, in itself work won’t produce enduring significance. Psalm 39:6-7 continues, “Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about but only in vain; But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” Any pursuit apart from God, including work, is temporary. After this realization dawned, nothing abruptly changed. Rather, a slow transformation began as I tried to put God first in ordinary life. And God continues to use the swiftness of time as a reminder to seek significance only and ultimately in Him.
Practical wisdom can also be gained from the pace of life. According to Psalm 90, “numbering our days” will give us a heart of wisdom. Most of us bear the overwhelming pressure of many tasks. “How can we get it all done?” The speed of time makes us conscious that we can’t get “it” “all” done. We choose how we spend our moments. When my first husband died at 25 years and 12 days, the distinction between the important and the insignificant was acutely clear. People who have confronted serious illness or death often express gratitude because the experience redirected them to what matters. But most of the time, since we’re not facing imminent death, the speed of our days and the loss of opportunity reminds us to organize time according to God’s values. For example, Christ says, “…but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Relating with Him is the “one thing,” and is better than performing tasks. Paul concludes, “[s]o we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). What is eternal is God (Psalm 90:2), His Word (Matt. 24:35), and people (Matt. 25:46). These eternal priorities guide our choices.
Even when we know God’s values, our busy lives make consistently choosing God’s priorities difficult. I was home-schooling our three older children with toddler-aged twins, editing a legal publication part time, and focused on all things soccer: playing, attending my daughters’ games and administering one team. During this season of life, I was sitting on our bedroom floor, the telephone cradled on my shoulder, conferring for hours with team parents about hotel reservations. My normally slow to anger husband burst through the door holding the freshly bathed twins who suddenly looked so grown. He demanded, “Do you want to kiss your kids goodnight?” The speed of life, sketched in the faces of my rapidly growing babies, exposed my expenditure of time did not mirror a life invested in God and his purposes. This revelation, though painful, caused an examination of my priorities.
The next day, in response to God’s conviction, I compiled a written list in order of importance, of the non-negotiable identities God had given me and the roles I had undertaken. First and foremost, I was a child of God…when had I last spent time in my Father’s presence? I was a wife and mom of five….Had my husband and I had some moments alone? I was a sister in Christ… but I had quit attending my small bible study group, settling for the autonomy of attending a large meeting. Rather than living as a sister in God’s family, I had become a visitor. At the bottom of the long list, the least important role of soccer administrator stole the most hours. Gradually, I completed my commitment as soccer administrator and rejoined the small group. I began to daily try to trust the promise of Jesus to “…seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt.6:33).
In conjunction with the inventory of time through the list of roles, God prompted the question, ‘How are you uniquely burdened, gifted, and situated at this life juncture?’ Since God had clearly called me to home-school, a role only I could fulfill, such calling limited other expenditures of time, such as administering the soccer team.
Since the needs of the world are many and we are but dust, our particular design and current situation in conjunction with God’s word provides a practical grid to discern wise investments of time. While we wrestle with how to spend the resource of time given to us, ongoing hope and motivation to pursue God’s priorities is gained through understanding that eternally significant moments can be exchanged in each day.
Eternity in Our Days
Although life is brief, the use of time can be eternally significant. John 17:3 explains that eternal life is bound up in a relationship with God. “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This knowing or having a relationship with God and Christ begins in a moment in this life when we communicate to God a response to Jesus Christ’s offer of forgiveness. Jesus, in John 3:15 said, “everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” On a day, in a moment of true belief, human beings change their final destiny and commence their eternal life of knowing God and Jesus in earthly time.
Thereafter, the potential to exchange moments in time for eternal ones became evident through reflecting on God’s perspective of time as described in 2 Peter 3:8. Peter responded to his audience’s contention that Jesus will never come back since it’s been a long time from their perspective. Quoting from Psalm 90:4 “…a thousand years are like a day,” Peter explains a thousand years, a long time to us, is not long to God. Peter’s adding the phrase: “to God, a day can be like a thousand years,” aroused speculation in my mind such as, ‘When or how could a day be like a thousand years?’ and ‘Oh what I could get done in a day that long!’
But seriously considering the meaning of a “day like a thousand years” brought to mind when days in earthly history touched eternity. On a day in Bethlehem, an eternal Savior was born into the world. “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…” (Gal.4:4). On the day of Passover, on a hill outside Jerusalem, everlasting salvation was purchased for all of humanity. “And it was the third hour when they crucified Him” (Mark 15:25). God accomplished the eternal in earthly time. Can we, as his children, also gain eternity in our days? C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, seems to suggest a similar idea. In this excerpt, the elder demon (referring to God as the enemy), instructs a younger demon how to use time to create in humans the mental states of “tortured fear or stupid confidence.”
The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present-either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.2 (Emphasis added.)
This idea that moments or days in our lives can be redeemed for eternal impact provides much hope. Though our lives are rushing toward physical death, our ordinary days are eternally brushed every time we pray to the endless God, listen to His everlasting word, or love and serve eternal humans for whom Jesus died. Grasping eternity daily in a “life that is but a breath” is far superior to the lie I want to believe that we are achieving more when we check off tasks rather than sit in the presence of our Father. When we ask God like the psalmist in Psalm 90:17 “…establish the work of our hands for us”, we know that in the asking and the serving, we encounter eternity. While such work is often unimportant in the world’s eyes, if it involves God, his word and eternal people, expressed in His unique design of you and me, it’s meaningful to God. For individuals who began their relationship with Christ in midlife, or others, like me, who can behold a mountain of wasted time, great motivation resides not in the quantity of time remaining but in the possibility of seizing eternity in the everyday. Each day is a microcosm of life. As we spend our days, so tallies our life. To paint eternity on the canvas of our lives that is limited and measured, we need to ask God for wisdom to express His unchanging priorities in his unique design of our lives.
Understanding the brevity of life and the endless value of expending time on God and his priorities, doesn’t guarantee we’ll never detour. But God, because he is gracious, will prod us using the acceleration of time to expose wrong priorities and paths. As the daily list beckons, life piles high with books unread and the temptation to forego God and His people intensifies, welcome the tension a rapid life generates because it is God answering the prayer of Moses and the prayer of David and the prayer of our hearts to live for what lasts. If we’re rewriting the same undone tasks onto next week’s calendar, but fashioning time with the Eternal One and His purposes, we are catching eternity in a fleeting life. My chores will be there tomorrow, my neighbor may not. I may not- my denominator of days may have peaked. Whenever someone asks, “Hasn’t this week gone fast?” seize eternity by turning to God. Thank Him for the reminder. Ask him what eternal people you can serve today and get busy with what is lasting. Remember too, like the downhill bike ride in my neighborhood, our racing lives ultimately lead us home.
2.C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York, HarperCollins, 1942,2001 edition), 75.