You are always on the clock. There’s no avoiding it.
Every human, in every place on the planet, whatever the culture, is subject to the incessant passing of time. The sands are always falling. No matter how much we neglect it, suppress it, or stress about it, there is nothing we can do to stem the onslaught. Ignore the rush to your own peril. Or walk the path of wisdom in stewarding your short and few days as gifts from God.
Teach Us to Count the Days
The first thing to say about being intentional with our time is that Scripture commends it. Giving attention to better time-management isn’t a secular creation. The recent glut of business books on the topic is long preceded by the teaching of the Bible.
Not only does the apostle Paul give us the charter, “Look carefully then how you walk . . . making the best use of the time” (Ephesians 5:15–16), but even a millennium and a half earlier, the Prayer of Moses asked for God’s help “to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
The Scriptures have plenty to say about stewarding our money, and it doesn’t take much to see that the clock is even more precious than the dollar. As Don Whitney reasons, “If people threw away their money as thoughtlessly as they throw away their time, we would think them insane. Yet time is infinitely more precious than money because money can’t buy time” (Spiritual Disciplines, 137–138).
If the Lord Wills
But the Bible not only commends time-management; it also cautions it. Yes, neglect is a frequent danger, but the opposite pitfall is nearly epidemic in our day. Whether the root sin is anxiety, selfishness, or simple pride and arrogance, the answer to neglect isn’t a pendulum swing to our being consumed by our calendars. The god of time-management will fail us quickly in the place of Christ and his providence and prerogatives.
James takes the lead voice in chastising, or at least sanctifying, our scheduling.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13–16)
Here he echoes the counsel of Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” We can forecast, but we don’t truly know what the next hour will hold, much less the next week. As much as our time may seem like our own, every clock is ultimately God’s. He may carry us into old age and gray hairs (Isaiah 46:4), or he may say, without warning, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:20).
The hands of the clock are ever in the hands of God. It is arrogant to plan without planning for God.
Surely, too many are negligent with their time, but we live in a day in which time-management is in vogue. At least in the West, it seems we’re more aware of the clock, and how fleeting it is, than ever before. Your local bookstore now offers more new titles on productivity and time-management than philosophy and religion. “Productivity porn” has ensnared myriads in its web of ever-improving systems.
Today, they tell us to take charge of our daily routine before someone else does, that the biggest problem we face is “reactionary workflow,” and that we must vigilantly guard our sacred schedule from the invasions of others’ needs and priorities.
Perhaps more than ever, we need to hear from our loving Father the hard but happy reminder of 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 tailored to our planning: Your time is not your own. You were bought with a price. So glorify me in your schedule.
But then what? If our time is ultimately not our own, but his, how will faith direct the time we are stewarding on loan?
Faith Working Through Love
One key principle in making our time-management Christian is this: Let love for others be the driver of your disciplined, intentional planning. It is love for others that fulfills God’s law (Romans 13:8, 10). Sanctifying our time Godward will mean spending it on others in the manifold acts of love. Good works glorify God not by meeting his needs (he doesn’t have any, Acts 17:25), but through serving others. As Martin Luther so memorably said, it is not God who needs your good works, but your neighbor.
When we ask that God teach us to count our days, this is the lesson we learn time and again. One way to make it practical is to schedule the time both for proactive good in the calling God has given us and reactive good that responds to the urgent needs of others. Learning to let love inspire and drive our planning likely will mean fairly rigid blocks for our proactive labors, along with generous margin and planned flexibility to regularly meet the unplanned needs of others.
Perhaps there’s a whole theology of time-management just below the surface at the end of Paul’s short letter to his protégé Titus. “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works,” he writes, “so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14). Fruitfulness means meeting others’ needs with “good works” — expenditures of our time, energy, and money in the service of love — which will be both proactive and reactive. Without scheduling, we will falter at the proactive; without flexibility, we’ll be unavailable for the reactive.
For Those Who’ve Wasted It
But even when we aim intentionally to let love drive our schedules, none of us will execute perfectly, or even adequately. Sinners are chronic time-wasters and regularly fall prey to bouts of lovelessness. Even the most disciplined time-managers are vulnerable to substantive missteps every day.
So what do we do with regret over all the time we’ve squandered? God holds out this hope as we learn to love by managing our time: Redeem your wasted days, weeks, and years by letting them drive you to Jesus, and inspire you, by faith, to more carefully count the days still ahead.
When the gospel floods our soul, and our schedules, and we know deeply that “Christ Jesus has made me his own,” then, in all our imperfections and indiscretions — but alive in faith, powered by the Spirit, and driven by love — we’re able to “press on to make it my own” and “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead . . . press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12–14).
You may always be on the clock, but the mercies of Christ are new every morning. Even every hour.
Read the sequel to this article called Four Lessons in Fruitful Time-Management.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.