Monday, April 26, 2021

Anonymous Asks (142)

“How can we redeem the time?”

The word “redeem” in our English Bibles translates the Greek exagorazō, meaning to “buy up” or to “buy back”. The instruction to “redeem the time”, which we find in Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5, acknowledges that much of our time is in someone else’s control, and that if we do not do something active to acquire control of it for ourselves, those moments will slip away from us and be lost forever.

I don’t know about you, but that describes my experience of life these days pretty well. Gone are the lazy afternoons of childhood when my brothers and I might occasionally complain about being bored or having nothing to do. Time has taken wing, and there is never enough of it to do everything that needs doing.

There are at least two implications in Paul’s use of the word “redeem” to describe what Christians ought to do about time.

Lost Time

The first is that some of us have already lost time we could have had. We have wasted it on things that didn’t matter then and don’t now. Peter writes, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” Some of us lived like that for extended periods, and the opportunity to do better things with those lost moments is gone forever. That includes Christians whose walk has become worldly, whose interest in the things of God has waned, and whose spiritual growth has stalled out and is in freefall.

And yet amazingly there is a biblical sense in which we can buy those years back. Joel 2 is concerned with lost time, and it contains a promise from the Lord to “restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” The “you” refers to Israelites, who the Lord urges through his prophet to repent of their wicked deeds: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” The picture Joel gives us is of harvest after harvest consumed by a teeming horde of locusts, gone forever with no benefit to be derived from the farmer’s labor.

I suspect that when God speaks of “restoring” these lost harvests, he does not mean that he will literally wind back the clock, or grant some kind of extension of life to the repentant in order to do the things they didn’t do before. There are no do-overs in the believer’s experience. Rather, I suggest the Lord is promising that for those who return to him with all their hearts, the remainder of their lives will be full of such concentrated blessing from God that it will more than replace the lost opportunities of the past. The security in a promise like this comes from the character of God himself, who has not changed since the book of Joel was written. I believe Christians who come to him in the same spirit can expect the same response.

In this case, to “redeem the time” means to buy back what was lost. Paul had a strong sense of this from his own experience, having invested much of his religious energy as a young man in the lost cause of Judaism to the point of persecuting those whose company he later joined. So he could write, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” For Paul, redeeming the time meant throwing himself into the pursuit of the knowledge of Christ with every last ounce of his energy. He wanted to “gain Christ”.

Time for Sale

However, many new believers have no sad stories to tell us about lawless, idolatrous years and drunken decades. They are young, serious, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and that is a wonderful thing to see. Their experience with the “locusts” of life is minimal or non-existent. For Christians in this position, exagorazō can also mean to “buy up”. Even if you do not have years to make up for, your present and the future are made up of millions of choices, often the same ones over and over again. And these choices are not binary, which is to say we are not merely concerned as Christians with doing good and not doing bad. Even good choices exist on a spectrum, from “good for the body in the short term” (physical exercise) to “good for the spirit eternally” (training oneself to live in a godly way). Our choices may well be between good, better or best, and everything in between. The Christian who consistently seeks out and chooses the very best things is redeeming the time in a way that his fellow believers who settle for merely “good” or “okay” are not.

In other words, when you are out time-shopping, it is your job to seek out the best possible deal. “Redeeming the time” in this sense means making the best possible use of it.

Also, each of us has time we control and time we do not. “Redeeming the time” may involve freeing up some of the time we don’t currently control if we can make that happen. For example, Paul addresses Christian slaves, saying, “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” A freed Christian slave obviously had a greater range of choices in service available to him than one who was still obligated to his master. Likewise, we all have current obligations that could potentially be reassessed. In doing so we may find, for example, that by changing employers, by living a little more frugally, or by working a little more efficiently, we could free up much more opportunity for hands-on Christian service than we have currently.

This too is “buying up” the time.

In Practice

The two passages that speak of redeeming the time have different emphases. In Colossians, Paul is concerned with verbal testimony:

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

Here, “redeem the time” means “Don’t waste the opportunities you have. Work Christ into your interactions with others rather than simply multiplying words. Make good conversational choices.”

In Ephesians, Paul’s concern is less verbal and more practical:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”

Here he is concerned that believers remain alert when others around them are inattentive; controlled by the Spirit of God rather than by foreign substances; praising, singing and giving thanks rather than involved in unprofitable and empty pastimes.

All these are ways of redeeming the time.

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