The following post is a reprint of an article I wrote for Christianity Today over 25 years ago. I was convicted as I re-read it in preparation for a sermon that I am preparing for this Sunday's worship service at Central Christian Church.
An "out-of-body" experience?
It was probably as close to an out-of-body experience an evangelical Christian can get. I could hear my mouth saying, "Yes, I'd love to," while my mind screamed, No! Stop! You don't have the time.
We had gathered around the coffee pot for our morning break. One of the senior faculty members said to me, "Carl, I'm working on an important project, and I need the help of a sharp young man. Last night I was thinking about who I could get to help me, and I thought of you." My ego was hooked. I bit on the lures "important project" and "sharp young man" without considering the hours of work and early morning committee meetings that came with them. As the conversation continued, I realized I was on a taut, twenty-pound line for something that I had neither the time nor energy to devote. This kind of thing happens all the time. But I am slowly learning some lessons about how to prevent it; lessons derived not from my pocket calendar but from my wallet. Just as time is money, so good time management resembles good money management. Here's how I'm learning to invest time.
Financial counselors advise us to buy things that last. Quality products will please us months and years after the purchase. Cheap goods often leave us with regrets.
Buying quality time means investing our time in activities with the greatest long-term dividends and avoiding activities with passing value.
Recently, after a particularly disheartening day, I arrived home, weighed down with the knowledge that I needed to go back to the office that night. I rifled through the mail and in the midst of the bills found a letter from Dwight. I opened it and learned that he was about to graduate from college and put his mark on the world. I met Dwight ten years ago when he stood on the brink of another challenge, junior high. He was a kid with an infectious grin who left a trail of mischief wherever he ventured. Dwight and I became friends, and our relationship quickly evolved into one of informal discipleship.
It had been nearly a year since I had spoken to him, but out of the blue he had penned a letter thanking me for our time together when he was facing the traumas of early adolescence. Dwight's letter exuded the enthusiasm of a young man who loved Christ.
Later that evening after clearing my desk, I leaned back in my chair and reminisced about the times Dwight and I had shared. The more I remembered the joys and rewards of our friendship, the more concerned I became. Perhaps at this stage in my life I'm so caught up in projects and responsibilities that I'm not spending time with young men like Dwight. I'm working many hours, but am I buying quality?
Minimize self-gratification purchases
During my last surge of over commitment, I had a disturbing realization. I had driven myself to exhaustion primarily for my own glory. Scarcely noticing the beauty of the changing leaves, I spent the Fall frantically traveling to distant speaking engagements. I had agreed to each one months earlier, rationalizing that each new speaking opportunity would further my ministry. I see now I was mostly interested in enhancing my reputation.
My busy schedule crowded out nearly all time for reflection with the Lord. Reading Scripture became a luxury; prayers were said on the run. In one of my increasingly rare quiet times, I stumbled across the words of Jesus: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Those words did not reflect my lifestyle; the yoke I was struggling to carry was my own.
Time spent to gratify my own ego is like money tossed after passing fancies.
Don't buy on credit
"Buy now, pay later" has become the financial maxim of the eighties and nineties. I recently read that 50 percent of all retail purchases are made on credit. Buying on credit means glibly committing to something that we lack the cash flow, or time flow, to fulfill. Too many of us treat calendars like spendthrifts treat credit cards. We charge them to the limit and deal with the consequences at the end of next month. The tragedy is that sometimes we end up borrowing time from the essentials to pay for the discretionaries. When the demands of our schedules begin to stretch us, typically we borrow from our families (I have counseled many children of Christian workers who have been sacrificed to the schedules of over-committed fathers) or from our time with the Lord in order to fulfill our daily obligations. Before accepting a new responsibility, I am learning to ask, "What sacrifices will I need to make to give this project the attention it merits?"
Avoid impulse buying
Perhaps, like me, you have made spur-of-the-moment purchases, only to wonder later why on earth you parted with your hard-earned money for that useless item. I've blundered in similar ways with my time. I attend a church whose congregation has outgrown its building. Between multiple morning services, chaos reigns as half of those present snake their way to Sunday school while the other half plunge headlong in the opposite direction toward the sanctuary. In the midst of that 800-person press, I felt a tug on my shoulder. Turning around I stood face to face with Charlie, our head usher. With a firm handshake and a warm smile (Charlie gets lots of practice!) he hit me with his pitch: "Hey, Carl, good to see you! By the way, I could use an extra usher on Sunday mornings. It doesn't take much time. What do you think?"
The crowd pushing me along, I gave Charlie the warmest smile I could muster and lied, "Sure, I'd be glad to help you." As I continued downstream, I felt a foreboding weight upon me. Though not a major time commitment, ushering would be one more responsibility in an already overloaded schedule. Since impulse decisions are often poor decisions, I am learning, with some prodding from my wife, to respond to such overtures with, "Thanks for the offer. Give me a day to think about it, and I'll get back to you."
Don't buy a bargain that doesn't fit
Some bargains are hard to resist. Last summer a major discount store on the wrong side of town was going out of business, a victim of urban decay. As my wife and I wandered the nearly empty aisles, I spotted a lone pair of tennis shoes on sale for an unbelievably low price. According to the tag, they were my size. Since we were in a hurry, I didn't bother to try them on. I walked out of the store with my head held high, proud that I bagged such an impressive bargain. When I tried the shoes on a few days later, I found that they fit well-if I had my toes removed. A nonfitting bargain is no bargain at all. Sometimes we make the same mistake with time. We jump at opportunities-just because they don't sound like major time commitments-that don't really fit our areas of giftedness. We lose our focus. We end up nickeled and dimed to death, wasting small amounts of time and energy here and there that could be spent profitably elsewhere. Buying a BMW and keeping a lavish wardrobe may polish one's image, but for those who can't afford it, it can destroy the bank account. Likewise we can spend a lot of time "in the ministry" on activities that have more to do with image than true ministry. My motives tell the story. I am susceptible to pursuing praise, looking for jobs that will get me noticed. I'm not proud of that, and I'm working to change it, but I must contend with that ugly reality. I recognize that God sometimes calls us to obscure ministries, to important tasks that receive no public notice or reward. I admire people who readily accept such jobs. In Christ's short and intense earthly ministry, he took time for children and social outcasts; perhaps my motives have diverted me from similar opportunities. Redeeming time wisely may prove to be the ultimate test of good stewardship. If we spend time as wisely as we would money, I believe we will garner a greater return.