Time is fascinating. Paradoxically, it both moves quickly and slowly, there is plenty of it and yet never enough. Embracing both of these realities is needed to live well. On the one hand, we need keep our focus on the end toward which time is headed if we’re to live well. At the same time, this focus should drive us back the present moment and the direction that has been given for the moment to moment aspects of our lives. Because these aspects divide fairly neatly, we’ll actually be looking at them over the course of two posts. For this first post, we’ll start with time’s end.
When I, as a good American, want to feel cultured, I turn to Milton (among other sources). Perusing my copy of Milton, I came across a favorite poem entitled On Time.1 In this poem, Milton wrestles with the fact that Time seems to destroy everything it comes in contact with. His response though, is to mock Time’s work.
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy plummet’s pace;
And glut thyself with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more than what is false and vain,
And merely mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain. (l.1-8)2
Milton admits that the passage of time is destructive. However, he approaches this doom with a cavalier attitude. Time is described moving at the pace of “lazy leaden-stepping hours,” phrasing that not only conveys a mental picture of slow movement, but even forces the reader to slow down their reading rate. As it is, Time can only catch up with “what is false and vain, / And merely mortal dross” (l. 5-6).3 From where does the confidence to make these statements come though? The end of the poem sheds insight here:
. . . long eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss . . .
When once our Heav’nly-guided soul shall climb,
Then all this earthy grossness quit,
Attired with stars, we shall forever sit
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee, O Time. (l. 11-12,19-22)4
As Milton sees it, while Time may outlast us in this life, we will ultimately continue long after Time ends. As Lewis put it, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”5 Another way to phrase this would be to say that Time has an end, a destination. And if Time has a specific destination, then Time is not the one possessing power. Rather, God possesses Time and uses it to accomplish his purposes. Further, Milton’s thoughts touch on our understanding of the Kingdom of God. Specifically, the Kingdom’s timing. It is not for nothing that Christ encourages us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).6 Donald Williams, describing the kingdom, states, “The external control of providence and the internal triumph of grace will be united in one eternal, unbreakable and glorious kingdom in which the Father has put all things under the feet of the Son, and Christ is all in all.”7 In other words, the full Kingdom is the climax of history’s story. Time’s end, as Milton portrays it, is the consummation of kingdom. Fittingly, in the middle of Scripture’s closing description of the Kingdom comes the reminder “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6).
The impacts on our lives are at least three-fold. First, as Christ directed, we should pray for the kingdom’s coming. If nothing else, this is an opportunity to express to God our love for him and his kingdom.8 Additionally though, it recenters our focus on the end for our lives. This in turn, helps to motivate our work to extend the kingdom. As stewards of the world,9 we should continue bringing order to the realm until the king arrives. Finally, like Milton, we should rejoice in the fact that the kingdom is coming. Just like in Narnia, there should be a thrill in the knowledge that “Aslan is on the move.”10
In the end, we can join Milton in saying “Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race” because with John we cry “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”11
Is the running of Time a source of stress or joy for you?
Is it possible to be too future focused? If so, how do we avoid this?
2. Milton, John. “On Time,” in The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, Edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (New York: Random House, 2007), 59.
4. Ibid, 59-60.
5. Lewis, C.S. “The Weight of Glory”, in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 46.
6. Scripture quotation are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
7. Williams, Donald. The Disciples’ Prayer: An Intimate Phrase by Phrase Journey Through the Lord’s Prayer (Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1999), 61.
8. Williams, 62.
9. Genesis 1:28-30
10. Lewis, C.S. The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books, 1978), 103.
11. Revelation 22:20
Photo courtesy of Dirk Sebregts