Originally published on Dec 2015
According to annual global surveys, Asians work longer than any other nations, and Singaporeans now spend more time working than anywhere else, including Korea and Japan. This is particularly true for those who are middle-class, professionals, managers or self-employed. Singaporeans not only experience the pressure of time but also suffer more acutely from sleep deprivation. Over time, this has serious effects on people’s physical health, psychological well-being, and close relationships. It results in less self-awareness, poorer decision-making and lower productivity. Indeed, despite working longer than workers in Korea and Japan, productivity is lower among Singaporeans.
Pressures of Time and Responsibilities
Christians are not exempt from these pressures. Indeed, they often take on additional responsibilities in churches, Christian organisations and other causes. They find it difficult to keep up with all that is going on, life feels increasingly hurried and hectic and increasingly, they find themselves talking about how busy they are. This often leads to frustration at how much they have to do, guilt at not giving enough time for God and family, and anxiety that they will not successfully accomplish their hopes and goals.
Over time, they more frequently feel tired, fall prey to minor sicknesses and increasingly experience nervous tension. As a result, their family life and friendships begin to suffer, they give less attention to the quality of their spiritual life and sometimes begin to pull back from church commitments and involvement in christian organisations.
Incorrect View of Busyness
Compounding the problem is our belief that busyness is a virtue. Indeed, many people regard it as a badge of honour. It reinforces their conviction that they are important, really achieving something, and a sign of their commitment to God. This is a very modern idea. For most of Christian history, busyness has been regarded as negatively as laziness.
It was a form of sloth, one of the “seven deadly sins”, something the devil used to distract us from focusing on what really mattered. Doing too much and doing too little both prevent us from directing our full attention and energy to what God primarily wants us to do.
The high value we place on busyness is actually a sign of how much we have conformed to the spirit of the age. Though inwardly, we seek to do God’s will, at the practical level, our mindset and behaviour regarding time, is little different from those around us. Along with most people in our society, we have turned time into just another consumer item. We have taken it out of the realm of the kingdom of God and placed it on the stock market of the acquisitive society. Our language betrays us here – we talk about “spending”, “investing”, “buying” and “saving” time, words all drawn from the world of commerce.
Unbiblical View of Time
What we also tend to do is extract the maximum out of time, every last ounce of what we can get. We treat it as merely a resource that can “manage”, “allot”, “mortgage” off to the future just as we do our earned income. Consider the way we cram appointments into our packed schedules, fill our calendars way in advance and draw up five or 10-year career plans. Instead of treasuring time as a gift from the creator, a daily present to be opened with delight and treated as special, we too easily take it for granted and at our disposal. As a divine gift, time should be used discerningly as well as energetically, playfully as well as productively, in a people-sensitive as well as task-oriented way, with an eye to quality as well as quantity, and with a sense of wonder as well as utility.
Despite our prayers for God’s guidance, we frequently fall into the error of those castigated by James:
“‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money. ‘For you do not know what tomorrow will bring… Instead you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’. As it is you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil”. (James 4:13-16)
In considering time, we should recognise that at any point, God could remove us from the scene. While this does not mean we should live only for the present, we should build for the future in a way that does not assume our presence or indispensability, always prepared for the eventuality of being without a job or preparing others to take over from us.
An Alternative Approach
According to Ecclesiastes, however,
“There is a time for everything and for everything there is a time ”. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
It is simply a matter of discerning what we ought to be attending to and giving it as much time as it requires, whether it is a task or responsibility, an experience or relationship, a stage of life or an emergency situation. Mostly, we approach things the other way round – we look at how much time we have and work out what we can fit into it. That is why we often find it so hard to schedule in time even for such basic things as personal reflection or in-depth friendship. Too often, we allow what is important to be pre-empted by what is allegedly more urgent or pressing.
This is why we are rarely satisfied with the time we have but are always trying to get more of it. Instead of being grateful for the time God has given us, we are always trying to find ways of having more. We steal from the evening hours’ time that should be set aside for sleep. To do this, as Psalm 127.1-2 tells us, is an affront to our creator, who lovingly provides us with enough time each night to refresh ourselves for the following day. It is also a way of trying to justify ourselves by our work rather than trusting God to look after whatever needs attending to while we sleep. We may as well get our full amount of sleep anyway, for the passage says that our additional efforts will be in vain since God will not bless them.
This highlights the fallacy of one of the popular time-management seminars entitled “How to get 28 hours out of every 24”! The point is that for what God wants us to do 24 hours is quite enough. To think otherwise is to say in effect that when He worked out how long a day should be, He did not do know what He was doing!
The Need For a Paradigm Shift
While we are encouraged by self-help books and government directives to create a better work-life balance, current approaches to working out a work-life balance tend only to shift the deck-chairs on the titanic busyness propelling us. Unless learning how to manage our time or order our priorities better is accompanied by a paradigm shift in our view and use of time, we are not going to get to the root of the problem.
When such a shift does take place, all our questions about what we should be doing begin to look different. Instead, we find ourselves questioning some of our fundamental assumptions about what we should be doing anyway, out of which a more creative and relevant, full and satisfying, yet less busy and hectic, way of life and Christian service will begin to unfold.
(This article is based on an article first published in the GCF Bulletin on 15 June, 2015. Robert Banks is the author of the award-winning book “The Tyranny of Time” published by InterVarsity Press).
DR. ROBERT BANKS
Dr Robert Banks is currently Visiting Professor in the Centre for the History of Christian Thought, Macquarie University and Honorary Professor, Alphacrucis College. He has held professorial and leadership positions at the Australian National University and Fuller Theological Seminary. Robert writes widely, with a special interest in the relationship between the Bible, community and ethics. Recently, he has regularly addressed groups coming from the workplace, para-church and pastoral settings.