Time Lost or Time Gained

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As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

The year 2020 seemed like a year lost. It’s not just the time of stay-at-home orders and missed in-person school days for the children. There was a deep loss of what normalcy of life felt like. Since our family chose voluntary quarantine since mid-March, every day felt exhaustingly repetitive, like the movie Groundhog Day.

I sometimes wonder if this rhythm of life resembles living in a monastery. Yes, the simplicity can be good, but the boredom also might take over. Time seems to be slipping away. And after hundreds of days like this, dullness sets in as if your whole life is slipping away too. The lethargy of living in this perpetual “non-spontaneity” even makes calling an old friend a daunting task. As Christians, the knowledge that we ought to be content and joyful in every situation God places us in sometimes brings an added layer of guilt too.

Anxiety is a constant battle for human beings. We feel anxious when there is too much to do, and our souls get equally restless when there is not much happening. During the year of COVID, for many people, isolation and unemployment have added to the mental stress. With plenty of time at hand and a once-in-a-century pandemic raging, people have spent much more time watching the news. And besides the mishandling of COVID, the outbreak of multiple socio-political crises compounded the trauma, and many are suffering a quasi-PTSD.

While we as adults struggle, children exhibit more resilience in such time. They live carelessly not just because we shield them from constant bad news of the year, but mainly because of how they live through time without dwelling on the need to fill that time. In fact, my 7-year-old son just learned to distinguish lunch from dinner, and his little sister still has no idea why a day has a morning, noon, and afternoon. Yet during the past year, our young children became our source of joy and contentment. They not only remind us of God’s providence for our family, but also his goodwill in time.

Herman Bavinck reflects in volume II of his Reformed Dogmatics that a good analogy for God’s eternity is in the “the abundant and exuberant life of the cheerful laborer for whom time barely exists and days fly by” (pg. 162). The time of COVID is challenging, but how we view our existence in it and how to structure our days is a spiritual discipline.

It is common to the human experience that the more we grow up, the more we worry. As our sense of reality becomes nuanced and informed, we lose some of that childlike naiveness in the understanding of time. Social competition taught us that time is money and thus not to be wasted. So we base our sense of self on a productivity-oriented accomplishment culture. By the time we gain some stability in our careers, we have been programmed into viewing time as merely instrumental. Our understanding of time becomes utterly detached from God himself. And in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, when time loses its command on our activities, we feel an existential threat and thus anxiety. According to Herman Bavinck, such tormenting with “only time” but “no eternity” makes hell a most painful place.

Just when we lose that sense of rootedness in time, God reminds us by the examples of young children. Jesus famously said that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3, NIV). Often we interpret it as God’s calling for more childlike humility in us. But that humility has much to do with how we, in our creatureliness, treat the divine gift of time. By itself, time has no structure, but it serves as a God-ordained mode of our existence. As Herman Bavinck writes, “The more a creature resembles God and is his image, the more one will rise above the imperfections of time and approach eternity.”

About the Author

Mary Li Ma, Ph.D., is a a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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