After hearing the dark history of the Ring and the return of the evil lord Sauron, Frodo remarks, “I wish it need not have happened in my time” (The Fellowship of the Ring, 51).
“So do I,” replies Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We may hear an echo here of Tolkien’s own experience of the first world war. I wish it need not have happened in my time. Not long later, the WWII generation would resonate with the same. And in some sense, each generation, no matter how peaceful and prosperous, can be prone to lament the difficulties of the present. The messes of the past, now resolved, can be far easier to stomach. Gandalf’s words speak into every generation.
We are given, as the wizard says, particular times and places and circumstances by our birth and localities. So proclaimed the apostle Paul in Athens: “The God who made the world and everything in it . . . determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling” (Acts 17:24–26). We are given the present, and not given times past or future. The only challenges we can face, the only problems we can confront, the only difficulties we can overcome are the ones that meet us here and now.
From Frodo to Bilbro
In our own day, we have faced growing secularism, radical Islam, mass shootings, seemingly intractable racialization, and a global pandemic.
And in it all, another challenge is an increasing information crisis that prompts many to wish with Frodo that it didn’t happen in our time. Not only have recent years taught us at new depth how unreliable online sources can be, but constant information tempts us to not really live where God has us. We’re often far more aware of national and global events than the local ones that meet us closer to home. From day to day, we can too easily miss the real-life opportunities to do others good in the name of Christ. We can shut our doors, and our ears, to our neighbors in favor of hearing endless cycles of other peoples’ news.
“The only challenges we can face and overcome are the ones that meet us here and now.”
Paul discovered in Athens that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). The trouble wasn’t that they were men of their times, but that they spent their time “in nothing except” novelties. They were prisoners of their daily conversations. How much has the pitfall of ancient Athens now become ours, and worse? Less and less do we gather in public to talk face to face. Now we’re not only prisoners of the present, but also the digital.
Professor Jeffrey Bilbro, inquiring into our modern obsession with the news in his 2021 book Reading the Times, observes that in our flood of information, we often are “caught up in distant dramas” about which we have no ability to do anything meaningful. He advises that we all might do well to write this warning on the bottom of our devices: “Objects on screen are more distant than they appear.”
Understanding the Times
To this growing information challenge in our day, add that we are prone to react in extremes. Captured by the unprecedented information and content options, some happily immerse themselves in the times, without bearings beneath or beyond them. Others, aware of the train wreck our new media can be, happily ignore the times as much as they can. In both directions, we find something admirable, and shortsighted.
To begin with, God’s word speaks with hope, and encouragement, about those who know their times. In David’s day, men of Issachar, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” were commended as a great asset to their king and nation (1 Chronicles 12:32). “The wise heart will know the proper time and the just way,” says the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 8:5). Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to test him, asking for a sign: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). Their ignorance was chosen, and culpable. They should have known. “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). And Jesus mourned that Jerusalem “did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:44).
Even as we struggle to know which battles to choose in our own generation, we know our times — as the church has for two millennia — as the last days (Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:1–2; James 5:3). The end of all things (1 Peter 4:7), and the coming of the Lord, is near (James 5:8; Philippians 4:5). God means for our “times of difficulty” (2 Timothy 3:1) and the emergence of scoffers (2 Peter 3:3) to remind us of this, not lead us to despair. Even Satan knows the time in this sense: “that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12). So we too, in Christ, should “know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11).
Not for You to Know Times
Yet just as it is not for us to decide our times, so too, as Jesus says, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We may indeed, in Christ, modestly understand our times, yet in general, under the sun, says the Preacher, “man does not know his time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).
On the one hand, we know the times enough to keep us alert (Romans 13:11); on the other hand, we “keep awake” and stay “on guard” because “you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). Our understanding of the times is never full, and given all the complexities and intricacies under the sovereign hand of God, neither is it very extensive. Though that need not be paralyzing.
In Esther 4, Mordecai approaches Queen Esther to expose Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, and asks her to risk leveraging her proximity to the king to secure help. He says to his niece, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Surely, before she knew how things would unfold, Esther would have resonated with Frodo. “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” But that was not for her to decide. What she did have was the time and position given her. Perhaps God had put her there, as Mordecai suggested, for such a time as this. Not a certainty but an opportunity.
Who knows? Perhaps you too have been put by God precisely where you are, with what position you have, for such a time as this. God knows. And one way or the other, to whatever modest or significant degree, he would have us be Christians not of our times, but for our times. Not of the world but in the world — and even better: not of the world but sent into the world on God’s terms, for God’s calling and purposes.
For Such a Time as This
What will we do with the times we have, messy, confusing, and frustrating as they are? To begin with, we will not ignore our twin calling as Christians, to love God and neighbor, the first commandment and the second, as Jesus called them (Matthew 22:37–39). To love the one beyond our times, and love the ones bound in them. And in particular, those near us, our real-life neighbors, not the “distant dramas” that beckon us constantly through our screens.
“We will not be fruitful men for our times unless we draw power and perspective from other times.”
We also will intentionally spend time in other times — in the Scriptures first and foremost, the very words of God himself, and also in reputable history, and old books, especially by and about those who followed Christ before us. Total immersion in the present, like the Athenians, will sink our effectiveness. We cannot bring down love from on high if we let ourselves be buried in the here and now. We need bearings, secure and stable, from outside our times to be of good use to our times. We will not be fruitful men for our times in the long haul unless we draw power and perspective from other times.
We hobbits might very much wish with Frodo that the current crises not have happened in our time. To that, even great wizards might add a hearty, “So do I.” But that is not for us to decide. What will we do with the time God has given us?