People often say we have to balance our time commitments. Life seems like one big deadline and demands from different areas of life continually fight for our attention. Everyday, we are flooded with options: do we perform our obligations to the family at the expense of a golden opportunity for enhancing our career? Should we spend our public holidays finishing the church work that we hardly can find time to do, or take the family on a well-deserved trip? What really is the proper balance? More to the point, is balance the biblical approach to apportioning time? How should we allocate our time for God?
Before we can look at life's demands in the proper perspective, let's address two popular notions of time management. The first is the hierarchical approach of prioritizing: placing the different demands we face in a sequence according to importance, and living our lives by this list. The second is the arbitrary division of life into "sacred" and "secular" components. This seems necessary if we want to apportion our time for God-for surely God is much concerned with our Bible-reading, prayer, and evangelism, but takes little interest in our career, education, hobbies, or household chores, right?
First Things First?
The hierarchical approach—God first, family second, work third—sounds pretty good at first. But does it really help you tackle competing time demands? How much time do you need to spend with God in prayer and Bible study before you are considered one who puts God first? Fifteen minutes? An hour? But you work eight hours a day! God must need more than eight hours in order to be considered "first"! And how much of something must we accomplish before we move on to the next on the list? Thirty percent? Eighty percent? One hundred percent?
We can never effectively prioritize all the many little things that require our attention everyday: washing the car, reading a magazine, calling a friend, bathing the baby, visiting a sick relative, calling the plumber, buying grocery. If we spend time prioritizing these things, we would have no time to do anything! This approach is good only for all-or-nothing situations like choosing between quitting church or quitting your job if your boss does not want church-goers on the payroll. But the little trade-offs that we encounter in everyday life require more than such a list. Because there are so many other factors to consider, we don't find ourselves strictly ordering our priorities. We situationalize them. At times, washing the church van comes before buying the baby's milk. At other times, it's all right to skip a Bible study to see to a family matter.
Some people use the ranking outlined by the acronym JOY: Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. While the element of altruism is commendable, the approach is too simplistic and cannot be adopted without qualification. If others come before self, do we build up the spirituality of others before building up our own? Do we place the salvation of others over and above that of our unsaved family members? Is your responsibility to yourself less important than your responsibility to others?
Sacred or Secular?
The sacred-secular dichotomy likewise crumbles when it comes to real-life situations. Is your relationship with Christians more important than your relationship with non-Christians? Will God be more pleased when we are responsible in church work than when we are diligent at the office or school? Are family responsibilities less important than church responsibilities? Is a family split not as bad as a church split? Is raising a child less important to God than grooming a choir?
Read the Bible and you'll see Christ's condemnation of the Pharisaic practice of neglecting one's parents by giving God the money meant for them
(Mt 15:5-6). Paul declares that if anyone does not provide for his relatives, he has denied the faith
(1 Tim 5:8). James describes true religion as the visiting of orphans and widows in trouble
(Jas 1:27). Jesus Himself teaches that feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, visiting prisoners and receiving strangers are all vital aspects of true Christian faith
(Mt 25:31-46). He also teaches how our relationship with non-Christians can be as sacred as that with fellow Christians
The key to understanding all this lies in the motivation for our actions. Because we are Christians, our motivation in all that we do is Christ
(Mt 10:40-42; 25:40). If eating meat causes our brother to stumble, then it is our divine obligation to abstain from meat. If the life we now live in the flesh is for Christ, then taking care of our physical body is a religious duty. In this way, everything that a Christian does is sacred; nothing is secular.
The Bible's Approach
Once we tear down the dividing wall between the sacred and secular, priority lists become more difficult to construct. A Christian, however, still needs a model to base his decisions on. Does the Bible prescribe such a model?
For simplicity, time commitments have generally been grouped into five broad areas: God, family, work, community, personal. What easily comes to mind is a pie-shaped time chart that looks like this:
Our task is to decide what proportion of space each of these five areas should occupy. But we have agreed that the whole of our lives is surrendered to Christ Therefore, our lives become totally sanctified and consecrated
(Rom 6:13; 12:1-2); since everything we do is for God, He is the Lord of our lives, not just a portion of the pie. Thus we replace the time chart with a relationship chart:
This chart is boundless, without any surrounding time line to form the circumference. The segments do not represent equal time blocks devoted to particular areas of responsibility. Rather, God is the center of our lives and He works through us to perform our obligations in different areas, which are simultaneous responsibilities rather than sequential priorities. Note that they are all biblical obligations:
||4:17, 5:21, 6:10-20
We fail God if we neglect any of them, not only when we neglect the church. It becomes immediately clear that there is really no such thing as apportioning our time for God. Everything we do must be for God, and God must have 100% of our time. Jesus' command to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness"
(Mt 6:33) does not teach us about sequencing, that we can seek God first and seek the world second. It teaches rather, that we seek God and none other, laying up treasures in heaven and not on earth
(Mt 6:19-20), serving God and not mammon (Mt 6:24).
Yes, there is the danger of abuse. A workaholic can say he's working for God. Newlyweds may give up church duties unnecessarily. Community work can subtly overtake evangelism. But this will not be the case if God is truly central in our lives. All areas will be taken care of as God directs, thus fulfilling His will in our lives. The following principles will help us understand what this means.
The Principle of Optimization
Paul charged the Ephesians: "See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil"
(Eph 5:15-16). Optimizing the limited time that we have to accomplish God's will in our lives involves two key elements. One is diligence. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might
(Eccl 9:10) before night comes when no one can work (Jn 9:4). Do not take the easy way out by choosing to do things that are more pleasurable and less pressurizing.
Next is a correct sense of value. The many things that we do may all be lawful, but not all are beneficial
(1 Cor 10:23). The value of what a man does with his life can be likened to the grade of material a builder uses for his
house—gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay or straw
(1 Cor 3:12-15). And value is not measured only in terms of present contribution. It should be assessed with an eye on the overall benefit in the long run
(1 Tim 4:7-8). If academic pursuits can help you serve God better in the future, by all means, study hard! On the contrary, if it is robbing you of time now and would most probably hinder your future service to God, then stop wasting your time on books.
The Principle of Accountability
Since God is the center of our lives, we yield to Him as our Master—we are accountable to Him for the way we lead our lives and how we spend our time
(Eccl 11:9). Paul lamented to the Philippians about many who "seek their own, not the things which are of Christ
(Phil 2:21) and those who "set their mind on earthly things" (Phil 3:19). Such people are like the fig tree that takes in nutrients only for its own growth without bearing its owner any fruit, and will likely be cut down
The Principle of Christ
In all that a Christian does, he must never lose sight of the ultimate goal of living: knowing Christ, pleasing Christ, loving Christ, following Christ, becoming like Christ
(Phil 3:10-14). This is the overriding principle. For want of a better name, we term it the principle of Christ.
Not losing sight of this goal is not enough. Everything that we do must be in tandem with this goal, and must enhance our ability to attain it: "But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ"
(Phil 3:7-8). This powerful conviction caused Paul to make many personal sacrifices for the sake of others. And we know he ultimately did not lose out, for he said, "I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved"
(2 Cor 12:15).
Like Paul, every true Christian would have made this ultimate trade-off when he took Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Such a realization better equips us to handle life's little trade-offs effectively. So by all means, preach the Gospel in season and out of season, but do spare a little time to attend a wedding feast, or to prepare a special meal. Be devoted to the soul's welfare, but it's all right to drink a little wine for your stomach's sake
(1 Tim 5:23). The important thing is to find Christ in everything you do, and be in union with Him every moment of your life.
Applying the Model
Let's returning to our relationship chart and honestly examine how we have been spending our resources in light of the above principles. We may find that we need adjustment to put things right. We may have been over-involved in one area and negligent in another:
We have seen that putting things right does not mean having a fixed list of priorities and expecting all our time commitments to fall neatly into place, like a marble that naturally settles at the exact center of a semi-circular bowl:
Life's demands and situations are constantly changing. A static balance as described above is elusive and unreal. Rather, one should adopt a dynamic approach to time management, like balancing a marble at the apex of an overturned bowl:
Responsibilities and time demands tug from every side, but the Christian remains at the top. This more accurately describes the model advocated in the Bible: a God-centered life achieving dynamic equilibrium in all areas of responsibility according to biblical principles. It requires a Christian to be in constant fellowship with Christ to seek to understand His will
(Eph 5:17). It is not easy, but this is what Christian maturity is all about. Paul also experienced being "hard pressed" between two decisions. He admitted, "Yet what I shall choose I cannot tell." But as he allowed God to choose he became convinced of the benefit of that choice
(Phil 1:21-25). As a Christian matures, he will be closer to the goal of being like Christ and that "dynamic equilibrium." The actual order in which he discharges his responsibilities is the consequence of this equilibrium, rather than a reflection of some prior sequence.
The Bible's approach to time management does not call for us to adhere rigidly to a fixed list of priorities. This would reduce us to children who cannot be expected to make responsible decisions. Christians are expected to be mature enough to exercise their freedom in Christ as long as they do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh
(Gal 5:13). When a Christian subjects himself to the rulership of Christ out of his own free will, his life becomes a fragrant offering.