Ephesians 5: 15-17. “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.”
You might initially think that these are rather uninspired moralistic counsels, very similar to the better kinds of advice that pagan philosophers of Greece or Rome would give to their disciples. But as we read those words more carefully we notice that it concludes with this phrase, “understand what the Lord’s will is.” Paul is not appealing to the moral consensus of a certain tradition or civilisation; he is not appealing to their consciences. He is making his appeal to the Lord Jesus Christ. This Lord’s will for all those who claim to be his people has been made known, that is, what he wants them to believe and think and do. The Son of God has made his will clear to us. He has preached to us the Sermon on the Mount. He has spoken to us through his servants the apostles. We are not ignorant of what our Lord desires. Before we make a decision to follow him he says, “Count the cost!” We know that we must live different lives. Henceforth we are to devote our lives to him. First, let us put these exhortations of our text to wise and holy living in their proper context.
1. THE TRUE CHRISTIAN IS CHARACTERISED BY NEW LIFE
I found some words of the late Ken Howard to be helpful here: As a general principle, as in nature so in grace; when God gives new life in Christ and a man becomes a Christian, God knows it and the convert knows it. Although that is not the universal rule, it is the general rule. The change necessary to salvation is so great that it is generally marked; it is obvious and identifiable. So Paul says elsewhere: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.” If a man is changed from an old man to a new man, from a state of folly to a state of wisdom, in so radical and remarkable way the world is bound to know it sooner or later, probably sooner. The change is known and felt, and within a little time the convert knows what has happened whether he knows the actual time of his conversion or not. Of course, there are some people who appear proud that they know the day of their conversion, while there are other Christians who are proud that they don’t know the time of their conversion. They think it is more ‘sophisticated’ to confess that they don’t know the day. There is no place for boasting either way, only in the sacrifice of Christ for our sins. I am saying this, that however we came to know the Lord, if we do have his life in our hearts there is bound to be a change, and that change is usually very marked, and generally speaking it is something known and felt.
The next point I want to make is this, that this radical change of Christian conversion which is necessary to salvation is recognisable and identifiable by certain signs such as those Paul spells out in our text. The circumstances of individual conversions will be very different from one case to another. They were in the New Testament even with the same preacher working in the same vicinity; in Philippi Lydia and the jailer came to know the Lord in very different ways. But let there be no misunderstanding about this, amid all the variables, once we are in our Lord Jesus Christ there are bound to be certain constant signs. If you would know the veracity of your own Christian conversion there are certain things that you have to look for, and the sorts of thing Paul draws our attention to in our text must be experienced by every Christian – without exception.
For example, one thing that is true of every Christian conversion is this conviction that the days are evil (v.16). Surely no one who has lived through this past week, and watched and read of this outburst of wickedness in London with at least fifty people killed by bombs and hundreds injured, will deny that our days are evil days. But the Christian is different in this respect that he confesses to God that he himself is part of that evil. We are part of the problem of evil. His own past days have been evil days. Nobody ever found peace with God without first discovering that he has offended God. He is sad about his own evil heart, and he has come to hate it. Christian conversion is for sinners, for the morally and spiritually wicked. It is not for anyone else, it frequently begins with conviction of sin, and produces a humbling sense of our own unworthiness. I am saying to you that that is an invariable, a constant factor in Christian conversion; it is a recognisable element in conversion. We are aware that we ourselves are evil men and women who are living in evil days.
Another invariable element is this, a simple, true, real faith in Jesus Christ acknowledging him as our God. Submission to the Lordship of the Saviour is a sign of spiritual life. Paul refers here to understanding the will of the Lord. Submission to this Master is another proof, a mark of the new birth. Being alive to God a man sees and knows that he needs a Saviour, and placing his faith in Jesus is the sign of Christian conversion. Recognise your own conversion by sincere, simple, reposing of faith in Christ.
Yet another invariable sign of Christian conversion is this, that it changes the whole man. You see the sweep of our text? “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Paul’s concern is not simply for what they believe but their entire living; they are to use every opportunity to display the wisdom that’s come to them from God. Christian conversion is something that changes the principle on which a man lives. It alters, if you like, that which makes a man tick, the principle of his life, the main thing about him. Whereas once he lived for self, now he lives for God. Once he did right because he was afraid of punishment, but now he shuns evil because he hates it. Once he did right in order to get himself to heaven, but now he does right out of simple gratitude, affection, and love to God. The converted man’s life is changed in its objects. Once he lived for gain or repute in the eyes of men, but now he lives for the glory of God.
The Christian is a man whose comforts are different from what they were. Worldly pleasures were once his comforts; worldly dissipations were once his comforts, but they have lost their charm. You can put them all in front of him and they are no temptation, the temptation has gone. They are utterly tasteless and worthless to him. Now the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost satisfies him amply and fully. His comforts are different, and that is a part of the sign. Above that, a man’s desires are changed, and what he once craved after he is now happy to be without. What he once despised he now longs after. A man who has had this change is a man whose fears are different. He fears man no more and he fears the devil no more, but he fears God with a healthy, happy, holy fear.
This man’s hopes are altered; once he hoped for money, prosperity, power, but now he looks “for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God”. A converted man is wholly changed, and if there is no change there is no conversion. If a man professing conversion is exactly the same as he was before, then he is deceiving and misleading himself. Everything, within and without, is different, it all appears on a different plane, in a different hue, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The hymn writer puts it like this:
“Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green,
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen.” (George W. Robinson, 1838-77)
Christian conversion makes a change. It has to do so. The change is the sign that it has happened. We view everything and everyone from a different standpoint. It sanctifies our common work; we find Christ relevant in everything and to everything. “Is Christian conversion really necessary? Can I not become a Christian without this, which I regard as some traumatic experience? How embarrassing! All that emotion and crying. It’s not for me, after all, I am decent, respectable, good living, moral; I am not a gutter sinner, so therefore I do not need to have this.” This is the way people speak. But you see, it is not a difference of your habit; it is not a difference of your belief, although your belief and habit are affected by it. It is a change in yourself; a Christian is a changed man and the change is radical and marked. It is a change according to these dimensions, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” In other words, there is scrupulous care about how we live; we seize every opportunity for wise living; there is a growing understanding and acceptance of God’s will.
A change of life of such dimensions is recognisable; I don’t say it is fully and completely recognisable all at once, of course it is not. There is such a thing as growth in grace. There is such a thing as ongoing apprehension of the meaning of things, but the question I put to you is this: Do you recognise yourself in this man that I have been describing? This changed man who was once foolish, but now is wise. He once frittered away his life, but now he makes the most of every opportunity. He is careful how he lives, with different hopes and aspirations, different fears; he has changed. But of course, only Christians can understand it and they rejoice in it. They rejoice even more in him who brings it about.
The phenomenon of conversion is a standing miracle of Christianity, and there is no Christianity in experience without it. There are many other things in Christianity which I have not mentioned at all, but this spiritual miracle is greater than a physical miracle. It was a miracle that the natural creation should ever have taken place, whether you view it as concerning the world as a whole, or your own natural birth and life, but Christian conversions show that the Lord Jesus Christ is alive, that Christ puts life into the heart that receives the gospel. The gospel that converts sinners is its own evidence; it must be believed because it does what it sets out to do. It is perfectly true that the gospel is a stumbling block to some, it is foolishness to others, but unto those who are in Christ “it is the power of God unto salvation”.
2. THE TRUE CHRISTIAN KNOWS AND UNDERSTANDS GOD’S WILL.
“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (v.17). Here is a plea to understanding. Imagine a man buying a thousand pound personal computer but never reading the instruction book concerning how it works, and never sending for someone who can give him understanding. There it stands on his desk gathering dust while he fumes at it unable even to switch it on. Imagine a teenage girl buying the latest cell phone complete with a camera yet not discovering how it operates. She never reads the instruction book or asks her friend what are the different functions of all these buttons on the keyboard. How foolish.
It is not enough to possess something, you must also know what to do with it. It is not enough to live in God’s world you must know what he wants you to do in his world. What is the Creator’s will for his creatures? He has told us his will, not in the heavens, in cloud formations, and not in nature, in the cries of the seagulls, the wind in the trees or the barking of a dog. He has spoken to us through his servants the prophets in the Bible and in his Son Jesus Christ. The Lord has told us his will.
God says to us, “These are my commandments. I alone are to be you God and you worship only me. You don’t make an idol of anything and worship it. You honour my name, and keep one day holy each week. You honour your family especially your parents. You do no violence against any person; you don’t commit any sexual sin; you don’t steal, or lie, or covet. These are my ten commandments.” Then God says to us, “Be this sort of son or daughter. Be this kind of parent; husbands live like this; wives live like that. Bosses behave to the men who work for you in this way. Servants work hard like this, not just when your manager is looking at you. You have an enemy? Then love him. In suffering respond like this; in loneliness and bereavement live in this way. When you come to die then die like this.” The Lord has made known to us his will. Wouldn’t we be fools to ignore it? If hitherto you have been fascinated about texting with your mobile, or adding music to your iPod, or discovering what shortcuts you can set up with your personal computer, how much more important it is to understand God’s will for today and the rest of your life?
Paul is saying what any Christian man may say, “I don’t know what tomorrow has in store for me, but I do know my Lord. I don’t know my future, but I do know the one who holds my tomorrow in his hand. I don’t know the issues of life, but I do know him who does, and I know his will for my life day by day.” Doesn’t that transform every situation? It brings the known alongside the unknown. It takes away the hopelessness and the despair from that otherwise uncertain situation, for the essence of religion is to know God and to know his will for my life. The essence of religion is when the creature lives in harmony, union, and fellowship with his Creator. That determines how a Christian man reacts to a crisis. I don’t say he has no tears, sorrows, or stress. He is human, he feels all the emotion that any other human being feels, and should feel, but he does see that his helplessness at that point is not the only factor in the situation. His God is there and everything, his helplessness included, is in God’s hands. He knows how he should live. He is not ignorant of how to please God. This is the basic distinction between a Christian and a non-Christian in this matter.
When a non-Christian comes to his crisis he comes to it alone. He has no safety net. Where is he going to turn? He boasts he is the master of his fate. That is the situation he is in; he can do nothing about life and he can do nothing about the prospect of death. When a Christian man comes to his crisis he doesn’t face it alone. Whether it is sorrow, perplexity about the future, or the valley of the shadow of death, there is Another, the Helper of the helpless. When “truth seems to be for ever on the scaffold and wrong for ever on the throne, God is within the shadow keeping watch over his own.” God is there, not just because he has been called into the emergency. He is there because he is always there in the life of a Christian man, always governing, always guiding, always enabling, always supporting. As he supports in the day when the sun shines, so he supports when the night falls. Indeed that is the key to the whole experience. We have an understanding of God’s will.
Paul’s God was Paul’s daily companion in the Roman jail, his daily strength, daily light. Paul looks for nothing new. The times of his freedom were as much God’s as any other and now the times of his imprisonment left him in the same position. It is a totally false understanding of Christianity to think of it as an insurance policy against trouble. Here is no immunity pledged to us in the everlasting covenant of God from the burdens and bereavements of this passing scene. It was never meant to be that, it isn’t proclaimed as that, although I am afraid there are some Christian people who still say that if you come to Jesus you’ll never have any trouble. You can’t keep God in reserve as an insurance against a crisis, but in such a crisis you can know God’s presence in the storm just as you know his presence in the calm. You may know his will, honour him, love him, and be near to him in the person of his Son Jesus Christ before ever the wind of sorrow begins to whine or the sharks of tragedy and danger begin to circle around us with their sharp warning fins getting nearer and nearer. You don’t have to wait for the crisis. That is a Christian man’s comfort in sorrow; there is the absolute certainty of God’s presence at all times who can appear on our behalf at the darkest hour of our existence, and in a moment change our night into day. So then, how does a Christian man face a crisis? He faces the fact that his times are uncertain and against the unknown he places the known.
“He knoweth the need of my soul,
The trial that calls for His grace,
The weakness that leans on His strength,
The fear that looks up to His face.
He knoweth what sifting is best,
To scatter the chaff from the wheat,
And lay all my self-righteous pride
Low down in the dust at His feet.”
So these converted people live their lives by understanding and doing the Lord’s will. This is how the church made an impact on the world of their day. They were like salt and light in that pagan age. This is put into words in a document from that time, in the Epistle to Diognetus (about AD 150). We read there how Christians differed from other people not by their country nor language nor customs. Nowhere do they live in their own communes or cities. They didn’t employ a strange language of any kind, nor do they lead a strange life. But, while they lived in Greek and non-Greek cities, and while they follow the customs of the land with regard to clothing and food and other matters of daily living, they nonetheless display a wonderful, universally acknowledged, and unique lifestyle. They did the will of the Lord. The letter says this:
“They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are ‘in the flesh,’ but they do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.”
That hits the nail on the head! They refused adultery and licentiousness; they neither aborted nor abandoned children. They had a lifestyle where homosexual behavior was avoided, women entered adulthood with modesty and purity, widows and orphans were cared for, strangers found lodging, prisoners received visits, and the dead were buried with dignity. That was the fruit of the people of God doing God’s will. Time and again letters like this and similar arguments were advanced by writers in the early church to defend their Christian morality as normal morality.
3. THE TRUE CHRISTIAN SHOWS A CERTAIN URGENCY.
“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity,” (v.15). He repeats the same words to the Colossians; “Make the most of every opportunity” (Cols. 4:5). In the context of Ephesians 5, Paul is encouraging Christians in their public witness. He is saying, in effect, that we are the public face of Christ in the world today, and therefore should reflect his character and priorities at all times. We are never off duty; every moment is the appropriate time to serve God – whether it be by a smile, a silence or a sacrifice. Here is a new note of urgency for wise living. On average a human life lasts less than 1,000 months. One third of these months are spent asleep, so a conscious human existence averages between merely 600 and 700 months. Then you take away the whole period before your conversion and you see how brief your life as a Christian is. There seems scarcely time to draw breath before the last breath is drawn. So be very careful how you live.
How unimaginably vast is eternity by comparison. This little lifetime a split second, never to be repeated, our character and destiny and relationship with God formed in this time, and then the massive weight of eternity with God. Of course you understand that only by faith. Otherwise all you have is this lifetime – that’s it – its memories, its regrets, its anxious expectations, its disappointments. A Christian will measure time by the amount of “life in Christ” that has filled it. You read the life of Hudson Taylor or Charles Haddon Spurgeon or Martin Luther or Jim Elliot and those men seemed to live more than one lifetime in a lifetime, while other Christians through constantly halting between two opinions, through unbelief, through timidity, through lack of energy, through lack of devotion spend an entire lifetime living less than one lifetime. It’s as if these latter have been eating their soup with a fork. They failed to make the most of every opportunity; they failed to grasp the extraordinary opportunities of the Christian life. We have just this one lifetime; this one month – one of the 600 to 700 we are allocated – and then it will be gone for ever. How can we best present our bodies to God as our reasonable service? How shall we most efficiently and humbly take up our cross and pass most usefully from point to point? How can we burn most brightly and cheerfully in this evil age? Make the most of every opportunity because life is hurtling by and soon it will be over. Don’t be unwise but wise.
The psalmist tells us to number our days so that we apply our hearts to wisdom. The apostle urges us to redeem the time. The word “redeem” means to buy out of a market. It is a word which gives us the idea of women at a sale snatching up bargains. So we are to snatch up our opportunities and make the most of our time. We sometimes speak about the stewardship of time and money and that these two are similar in many respects. Both are precious. We “spend” time as we spend money. Time is a kind of currency which should be as carefully spent as our money. Make the most of every opportunity!
When Michael Griffiths was a missionary in Japan he travelled to a particular engagement by a rather complicated system of public transport. When he arrived after his lengthy journey tired and late he was gently rebuked by an older missionary for not taking a taxi. Are we as careful about our time as we are about our money? It can be argued that time is more precious than money. If we lose money we may possibly recover it but time once spent, can never be recovered. When the Puritan Joseph Alleine was studying at Oxford he had many friends, but if their visits interrupted his studying he wouldn’t let them in, saying, “It is better that they should wonder at my rudeness than that I should lose my time; for only a few will take notice of the rudeness, but many may feel my loss of time.” Alleine’s whole life was an illustration of his saying, “Give me a Christian that counts his time more precious than gold”. When the week began he would say, “Another week is now before us, let us spend this week for God”, and each morning, “Now let us live this one day well!” “All the time of his health,” writes his wife, “he did rise constantly at or before four o’clock, and on the Sabbath sooner, if he did wake; he would be much troubled if he heard any smiths, or shoemakers, or such tradesmen, at work at their trades before he was in his duties with God; saying to me after, ‘O how this noise shames me! Doth not my master deserve more than theirs?’ I shudder when I hear Christians talking of “killing time” or “filling in time.” We are not to fill in time, we are to redeem it, making the most of every opportunity!
“The days are evil,” says the New Testament. This means we must take care not to be affected by the spirit and outlook of the age in which we live. It is so easy to forget that our citizenship is in heaven and to take our standards of ease and leisure from the world. In the Song of Zacharias we read, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he has visited and redeemed his people”. But why has he redeemed his people? ” . . . that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68, 74, 75). We make the most of every opportunity because we ourselves are redeemed. We are to live to him who bought us, taking care that the world does not squeeze us into its pattern.
Again, wicked days call for Christians who will use all their time for God’s glory. When the days are evil and the labourers few then it is even more imperative that Christians seize each opportunity. There is need all around us and the night comes when no man can work (John 9:4). How can we make the most of every opportunity? Richard Chester suggests the following in a helpful article he once wrote in Reformation Today in September 30 years ago which I gratefully accept and quote from extensively in the remainder of this sermon:
i] We need to sort out our priorities
Unless we have decided what is important we can never make the most of every opportunity. The person who moves steadily from one task to another is inevitably the one who has determined what is important and has decided he’s not going to waste time and energy on non-essentials. We always seem to have time for what we judge to be important. For instance, the book fanatic always has time to read through the second-hand book lists and send off for that book he wants. So then, we need to consider the responsibilities, gifts and abilities God has given to us. We must fulfil these responsibilities and develop these gifts. We must not spend time and energy coveting the gifts of others. Our priorities will, of course, vary with differing circumstances and each person must arrive at his own conclusions before the Lord.
As we do this, however, let me remind you of three ways in which the Lord Jesus made the most of every opportunity.
Firstly, Christ made the most of prayer. In all the activity of his ministry he found time for seasons of communion with his Father. How easy it is, like Martha, to be careful and troubled about many things but to neglect the one thing needful. At one busy period in Luther’s life he wrote in his diary, “I am so stressed at this present time I can’t do with less than four hours each day in the presence of God”. To put it at its very lowest, prayer saves time. Someone sent me this simple anonymous poem:
“I got up quite early one morning
Rushed into the deeds of the day,
There was so much I had to accomplish
I’d no time to kneel down and pray.
The problems just surged all around me
And heavier and heavier each task,
‘Why doesn’t God help me?’ I wondered,
He answered, “Why didn’t you ask?”
I saw nothing of grandeur and beauty,
The day sped by heavy and bleak,
I asked, “O Lord why won’t you help me?”
He said, “But you never did seek.”
I tried to come into God’s presence
I used all my keys at the lock.
God lovingly, gently chided
“My dear, why didn’t you knock?”
I woke up much earlier this morning
And paused before starting the day.
I had endless work to accomplish
I needed much more time to pray.”
To quote Luther again, “he that has prayed well has studied well”. How easy it is to press on in the energy of the flesh and how much longer it takes! It does not matter to God at what hour of the day I pray, but the discipline of setting that same time aside each day makes that prayer a priority. Once I begin to say, ‘I can do it when it’s convenient,’ I also begin to say, ‘It’s not really any more important than all my other activities.’ We must make time for prayer.
Secondly, our Lord made the most of people. God forbid that we should carry out a time and motion study on our lives which makes us less than human! Jesus never gave the impression that others were intruding on the time of a very busy man. He had time to stop and talk, and listen. Have we? A man I know had to stay for a few days in an unfamiliar city. He called in at a run-down café for a snack and found a number of street women there talking to one another. He overheard one saying to the others, “It’s Agnes’ birthday tomorrow.” He thought about these women and their needs, and so the next morning he went to a cake shop and bought a birthday cake, asking them to inscribe “Happy Birthday Agnes,” on it. He went back to the café that next evening and when Agnes came in and sat down he went across with his cake and a lighted candle and put it in front of her. She began to cry. He talked with her, explained who he was that he wanted nothing from her but had something to say to her and explained the great gift of God to us, his own Son. He prayed with her before leaving, that the Lord would change her for the better and be good to her all her life. All the people listened. The man who ran the café watched all this and said to him as he was leaving, “What church do you belong to anyway?” He replied, “The kind that has birthday parties for prostitutes.” In other words we in the body of Christ have good news for all men and women. Something to give them of infinite worth.
Thirdly, he made the most of relaxation. He had time to rest by a well and time to sleep in a boat. He had time to go to a wedding and time to take his disciples away for a rest. Nowhere does he give the impression that these things were of secondary importance. We need time for relaxation. But listen to the words of Jeremy Taylor, “Let not your recreations be lavish spenders of your time; but choose such as are healthful, short, transient, recreative, and apt to refresh you; but at no hand dwell upon them, or make them your great employment for he that spends his time in sports, and calls it recreation is like him whose garment is all made of fringes, and his meat nothing but sauces; they are healthless, chargeable, and useless. And, therefore, avoid such games as require much time or long attendance; or which are apt to steal thy affections from more severe employments”. The first thing we need to do is to sort out our priorities and let go of non-essentials. So how do we make the most of every opportunity?
ii] We need to learn to live a day at a time
This is not just good advice. Scripture clearly teaches that God deals with us in days. At creation he made a day the basic measurement of time and all the way through the Scriptures God’s dealings with man have been on a daily basis. We are taught to pray each day for our daily bread. The manna was given daily to inculcate daily trust. God Promises that “as your days so shall your strength be” in order that we might prove him each day. We are forbidden to worry about tomorrow for every day has trouble enough of its own. Paul speaks of the inward man being renewed day by day and exhorts us not to let the sun go down upon our wrath.
I find it very easy to live in the future that is, to persuade myself that circumstances will be more favourable when such and such has happened, or when I have got a particular task behind me. Our failure is that we do not buy up the present opportunities. We forget that God has a plan and purpose for each day and our first waking desire should be that of Alleine’s, “Now let me live this one day well!”
If we go into each day assured of the Father’s plan, then we will not be perplexed when the unexpected happens or when interruptions come. How easy it is to go out in the morning with good intentions of all we are going to achieve and then interruptions come or friends call unexpectedly. Frustration sets in and the sovereignty of God becomes a mere theory. How differently the Lord Jesus reacted to his interruptions. When the crowds anticipated his place of rest (Mark 6:31-34), when the poor woman interrupted his journey to the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:25-34), how did our Lord react? In each case he accepted the interruption and took advantage of it. His poise was not disturbed because these things were already accounted for in his Father’s plan. They became stepping-stones not stumbling-blocks. May God teach us to live a day at a time and what we cannot complete in one day we must be happy to leave until the next. How do we make the most of every opportunity?
iii] We need to exercise self-discipline
I wonder how many of us can see ourselves in the true-to-life picture of the sluggard that is given us in the book of Proverbs. “The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing” (20:4). He is one who has got so used to making soft choices that he can never do anything costly. “The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets” (26:13). The sluggard is one who has got so used to making excuses (even ridiculous ones like this!) that he really comes to believe they are valid. “As the door turneth upon his hinges, so doth the slothful upon his bed” (26: 14), in other words he never makes any progress! He would like to do things, but be is so tired he cannot face them now. “The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason” (26: 16). He is a master at rationalising his laziness. He has really come to believe he is fully stretched and is more convincing in arguing his case than seven rational men.
Of course, some find the matter of self-discipline easier than others. Some are orderly in their thinking and behaviour, others are not. However, one fruit of the Spirit is self-control. This brings self-discipline into the scope of every spiritual man and woman. There are two areas in particular where we need to exercise discipline.
Firstly, regarding sleep (both going to bed and getting up!). John Angel James was one of the great evangelical nonconformist leaders of the last century. He went to Carr’s Lane, Birmingham, in 1805 when the congregation numbered about 150 and were mostly elderly people. For the first seven years of his ministry he met with little success and much discouragement. In 1813 there was a marked change in his preaching and many were converted under his ministry so that in 1859 the congregation had risen to 1,800. He attributed his early failure to his own lack of diligent study and thorough preparation for the pulpit. Later in life be wrote, “I deeply regret much misspent time, and greatly deplore that I did not, from the commencement of ministerial life, acquire the habit of early rising. Oh, what time I have slept away’ and for ever lost!”
Secondly, regarding odd moments. Again, discipline is needed to “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run”. Moments are wasted in travelling or waiting for a meal or sitting at the barbers. We need to keep a book of collected letters or short articles for times like these. Neither must we assume that because we have one engagement arranged for an evening we can do nothing else that same evening. There are times when we can write a letter or two. I have found I must never wait until I have time to write letters, otherwise I would never write any! Beware of the daily newspaper. Dr. Kevan’s advice to his students was, “read the newspaper standing up and when you are tired it is time to stop!”
Richard Baxter, the remarkable pastor at Kidderminster, was a man who exercised discipline regarding his use of time. Amidst all his visiting and pastoral duties he found time to write 128 books and his total writings cover 35,000 closely printed pages. Yet towards the end of his life he could complain, “I have these 40 years been sensible of the sin of wasting time!” He tells us, “for the Saints Rest I had four months vacancy to write it (but in the midst of continual languishing and medicine). But for the rest, I wrote them in the crowd of all my other employments which would allow me no great leisure for polishing and exactness, or any ornament”. How do we learn to make the most of every opportunity?
iv] We need a variety of activities
We might be excused for thinking that if we fill every moment with activity we will be worn out at the end of a month. My experience, however, has been that it is not so much the amount of activity that causes tiredness, but rather that it is the lack of variety that causes staleness. A man can come home from the office, have his evening meal and sink into the armchair worn out. Then his friend calls inviting him to a game of golf or tennis and suddenly all his tiredness is gone! He is refreshed even at the thought of a change of activity. It is interesting that immediately after Paul has pointed out the danger of weariness in well doing, he exhorts, “as we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:9, 10). There may be a danger that our “well-doing” may become rather rigidly defined. We might think of it, for instance, in terms of attendance at church worship, taking a Sunday School class and perhaps occasionally visiting a sick friend. Perhaps if we broadened our horizons a little we would return to these other important activities feeling greatly refreshed.
In this connection I have been learning afresh the importance of doing everything heartily, as to the Lord. For instance, I know that it is my responsibility as a father to spend time with my children. But I have found it very easy to do this in a legalistic fashion with my mind on other things, so that I almost begrudge the time spent in this way. Similarly, pastors may be told of their duty to spend one evening a week sitting with their wives. So they come out of the study armed with a pile of papers and books and simply change their place of work for one evening. When I play with my children or relax with my wife, I must do it heartily as to the Lord. How do we make the most of every opportunity?
v] We need to discipline our children to redeem the time.
It is most important that our children are taught to work. Young children can be taught to make their own beds and help with the washing up. Older ones can help with the housework and garden and, if firmness is accompanied by encouragement, they soon come to accept and even enjoy it. This is not only a blessing to the children but also it makes life a good deal easier for the parents. How tragic that in some Christian homes mothers are almost at their wits’ end because their teenage children never lift a hand to help. How do we make the most of every opportunity?
vi] We need to remember we are not indispensable.
Andrew Bonar once made the following remark to a friend concerning 1 Corinthians 16: 12, “Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity” “What a comfort that verse is!” People sometimes write so pressingly: “You must come, it is an opportunity of usefulness”. Paul says, “Apollos would not come and he is not blamed for it”. It is not easy to say “No”, but sometimes we must be willing to do so.
Here, then, are some practical directives which I have found useful. As we come to regret deeply the time we have wasted there are two reactions we might make, both of which are quite wrong. We might indulge in vain regrets and keep looking back and saying, “If only . . .” If this is so we need to read again 1 Corinthians 15: 8-10. Paul sorrows over his early persecution of the church. But what is the attitude of this “late starter”? “I laboured more abundantly than they all”. That’s the spirit! We must not be paralysed by vain regrets. God can restore the years that the locusts have eaten. The other reaction is to put off redeeming the time until the circumstances are more convenient. Procrastination is still the thief of time. The convenient season, like the horizon, disappears as you draw near to it. Let us begin today. Let us live this day to God’s glory. “Make the most of every opportunity.”
Let me conclude as Jonathan Edward closed a sermon on this theme. He asked how do we make the most of every opportunity, and this is how he answered it:
(i) Consider you are accountable to God for time.
Time is a talent and we are God’s servants. At the day’s end He will call us to account and ask us how we have used it. Every morning and evening consider what you have done with it.
(ii) Consider how much time you have lost already.
Use rightly what remains. Redeem lost time. In view of time wasted be more diligent in its use because,
(a) Your opportunity is so much shorter.
Life is short. When you reckon up your lost years life is shorter still and opportunities less.
(b) Your work is so much greater.
You have less time to do it in, yet the work of repentance is the same. By wasting time you have made work for yourself. Repent now with all your might.
(c) You have lost the best of your time.
The past childhood years are the finest. To have lived in sin beyond youth is to have lost the best part of life. Yet do not be discouraged. In youth the devil makes fools of men, persuading them there is still time, and in after years he persuades it is too late. But even in a late hour God calls to repentance, and may give it if you are in earnest.
(iii) Consider that time is valued by some when they come to die.
Death-bed sinners see its preciousness and cry for an inch of time. It is because you are blind and deceived that you do not see time’s value as they do at death.
(iv) Consider what value is placed on time by those who have gone before.
The damned long for time again to have opportunity of finding eternal life. Have you the same desire? Men come to value time by
1 – reasoning on its shortness and uncertainty,
2 – by experience. Though the latter is the more effective, without the former it is of no benefit.
1. Improve precious time without delay.
Not to do so is evidence that to you it is of no value.
2. Improve those parts of time which are most precious.
There is common time and holy time. Improve your Sabbaths, especially public worship. Be not inattentive under divine ordinances. Use rightly your youth. Value the time of Holy Spirit striving with you for then God is near and that time is precious.
3. Improve your leisure time.
All men have some. Use it for your soul’s good. Leisure must he subservient to secular and spiritual callings. Use to the utmost every talent, advantage, opportunity in the light of that day when time shall be no more.
10 July 2005 GEOFF THOMAS