A podcast listener named Lisa writes in about chronic lateness. She asks, “Dear Pastor John, is habitual tardiness a sin? How would you go about talking to fellow church members who are consistently late (like 10, or 15, or even 20 minutes late) for their commitments?”
Maybe if I approach this in a certain way it will prove useful, not just for dealing with chronically late people, but perhaps with other irritants or foibles or flaws that people have that we need to either address or work around. So I hope what I say here will be of broader use than only that one particular issue.
And the first thing we need to say, of course: Consider the culture you live in. Whether a person is late is determined in part by cultural expectations of when one ought to arrive, and there are some cultural differences among varying groups. We think of cultures that are less oriented on precision — the kind that is demanded by Western transportation and industry. Such cultures may have, for generations, governed their gatherings by where the sun is in the sky, not where the hands are on the clock. And therefore one would not be considered late if he comes a half an hour on either side or maybe an hour on either side. In that culture that is just the way it is.
When I was in Germany in the 1970s, I was invited to my doctor father’s house for an evening gathering, the first time ever. I’m new in a German situation, and I didn’t know what to expect. So I took the train. And, by the way, you can count on the trains being on time in Munich, Germany. I took a train and walked around till about five before the hour and rang the doorbell and a sinking feeling came over me when his wife opened the door with a kind of a surprised look on her face. She recovered quickly and invited me in and later I was told the ideal time to arrive is five minutes after the appointed time, not five minutes before. Well, you just learn what late means and what early means. So the first thing is culture.
For most of the Western world, the demands of industry and travel have created a culture where lateness can be not only annoying or disrespectful or inconvenient, but even dangerous — both to the person who is late and those who have to wait. For example, if you are late for an airplane, you are going to miss your flight — that may be a big deal. If you are in the military and the order is: At 1900 hours there will be air force fire power, and you can take your platoon and run for 15 minutes across this open territory because they won’t be able to shoot at you. You miss that by three minutes and maybe most of you are dead. So lateness can be a major issue or a minor inconvenience.
Once you have discerned the level of expectation in the group that you belong to, and once you have figured out the measure of inconvenience, or irritation, or disturbance, or even danger that a person might bring about, then you have to discern: How much effort do I put into helping somebody not be late? And it becomes a moral issue, the Bible says, if you are doing wrong to your neighbor (Romans 13:10). “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” and if lateness is wronging the group, in some way making their work harder, then you are not acting in love — and then it becomes a moral issue.
Paul says, “love is not rude” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). And that idea of rude means it doesn’t offend against cultural expectations. And rudeness changes from culture to culture. Love is not so wrapped up in itself that it doesn’t pay attention to such things as what the expectations are in this group. The Bible also says: Love counts others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:1–3). And love takes thought for the interests of others, not just for ourselves. So in cases of lateness, they can become a serious sin issue if enough people are being seriously hampered by your lateness.
So what do you do if you know someone — or you are in that group — and they need somebody to help them, and it is causing inconvenience, it is disrupting, it is hindering? Here’s what I would do:
First, I would gently, perhaps jokingly, point out to a person in private and say that it would be helpful if they got there on time. Leave it at that. No big deal.
Second, if it doesn’t produce any change at all, I would get alone with that person a second time and ask if there is a problem, if there is a reason why they are always late and why they can’t get there on time. And you may discover something that you could help them with. Or you may discern — and this happens — that there is simply a personality disconnect here of some kind. And it makes them habitually inattentive to time. And in that case the question is: Do you have enough relational capital to work on that with them? If you don’t, you probably are not going to be able to do much.
But if you do, if they are willing to let you into their life, then you might say, “How about setting your alarm 15 minutes earlier in the morning?” Or you might say, “I got an app on my phone and this app warns you ahead of time. And how about setting that up? How about letting me set it up for you?” In other words, you have got to determine: Is this person’s inattentiveness such that he is going to walk away and say: Good idea — and never do it? Or can you do it for him?
Now, of course, all of that requires an enormous amount of humility on the part of the other person who is being late — to admit that they have a problem and they can’t solve it on their own. And will they submit to your counsel? Will they assume a position of a needy person who is not able to run their life as effectively as they would like, and that bothers other people?
And if you don’t encounter that kind of humility that lets you work with them in some practical way but is resistant, then you probably are just going to need to pray for them and work around them. And that means that they probably won’t ever assume a certain role in that group where you need more precision, more care, more intentionality, and attentiveness. And you’re going to expect them to be late and take them for what they are.
In service with others, some things we change, some things we forgive, some things we forbear. And we need wisdom to know which is which for each person in our lives.