Living in Time, Living with God
I do not have a good natural sense of the passage of time. Some people are very good at estimating how long an activity will take to complete. Some folks almost never lose track of how much time has passed between when they sit down to work on a project and when they finish. For me those things are hard. I can easily lose my orientation in time.
Spatial relationships are not so hard for me. I don’t easily become lost. (I realize that that is such a “guy” thing to say, but it is actually true. No, really!) I can follow my progress on a map without having to turn it up-side down or sideways. I can move through space and not lose my orientation.
Time, however, can slide across my back without my noticing it. Managing myself in time has always been a problem for me. That has resulted in not a little embarrassment and frustration to me over the years. But there is simply no way around the problem. We human beings live in time, and so we have to learn the best we can to navigate along the river of time that we live in.
One of the characteristics of what it means to be human is to have the conscious awareness of living our lives in three tenses – past, present, and future – and to be able to think about that fact at a fairly refined and sophisticated level. This ability is one of the things that sets human beings apart from animals. This may be more a matter of degree than of kind; that is, we may just be able to do it better than they can. But I believe that what we do when we reflect upon our lives in the context of time is a qualitatively different thing than what animals do. Certainly, animals like my dog seem to be very well able to remember things that have happened in the past. Otherwise, they would be incapable of learning anything. Though, I don’t think their kind of memory is the same as our kind of memory. For animals, memory is really more like association. If I give my dog a treat every time she comes to me when I call her, she soon comes to associate good things with coming when I call her. And that is not the same as remembering that I have given her treats on four of the last eight occasions when I called her to me.
Human memory is a very powerful and subtle instrument. Human beings are able to draw up particular memories. We are able to consciously think about those memories and reflect on what they mean. We are able to relate different memories to each other and discover new meanings from our past.
In a certain sense, then, our past is not an inert thing, settled and unchanging. We cannot change what actually happened in our past, but we can discover new and even surprising meaning by thinking about the events of our past. We can arrive at a new and transformational understanding of our lives from reflecting on our memories of past things. In this way, reflecting on our past – meditating on our memories – can be a very creative act. It can become a work of building new foundations for understanding and action in the present and the future.
It’s important for us always to keep in mind that reflecting on the past must never become and end in itself. Meditating on our memories must always be done as a means of helping us to live faithfully in the present and to prepare to live obediently in the future.
Remembering is an important activity of the Christian life, but it is not an activity that must ever be allowed to stand alone. It must always be linked with our actions in the present and our preparations and expectations for the future. What is now – the Present – looks back and builds on what has been. Conversely, what is now looks ahead to what is to come in order to prepare the way. And in that way, all of time is interlinked as we live our lives thoughtfully, reflectively, and, above all, prayerfully.
All human beings are able to interact with the flow of time in these three tense. It is a fundamental human characteristic that we can think backward and forward in time. Why has God-given us this ability to think up and down through time?
Well, we human beings can and often do try to use our ability to remember the past and to anticipate the future toward the goal of advancing our own interests in the world. We can and often do use it to gain advantage over other people. And very often that is simply an expression of our own sinfulness and pride. But God does not give us gifts so that we can spend them on our own aggrandizement. (Jas. 4:3).
Prayerfully tracing God’s hand in our lives is an act of moving up close to him, of communing with him. Prayerfully remembering our lives to discern the hand of God in our past, prayerfully looking for God’s hand in our present experience and responding to him, and prayerfully anticipating (discerning) God’s movements into our future – these are crucial acts of the spiritual life for all Christians. The prayerful disciplines of remembering, experiencing, and anticipating God in our lives equips us to live all of life for God – to perceive, recognize, celebrate, submit to, and cooperate with his will as it is worked out in our lives. And that is the best place for any of us to live. It is exactly the place where we have been designed to live.
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
- Prayer Note #36–The Time of My Life (gachorpenning.wordpress.com)
- Prayer Note #39–On Not Being All That I Could Be (gachorpenning.wordpress.com)