This article was created in partnership with InterVarsity Press.
It’s true what people say about the passage of time, how the years flow more quickly and frequently the older we get. It’s a strange sensation. I still feel young. At any moment, I can close my eyes and place myself in memories that feel as near as they’ve ever been.
I can see myself in the delivery room when my firstborn son was born. I remember the first time I held him. (So small!) His first diaper. (So gross!) I remember his teensy, papery fingernails and how it had never occurred to me that a newborn would even have fingernails.
It’s a cliché to say. It all feels like yesterday.
But here I am now, having just emailed my car insurance company to add my son to my policy. Soon, I’ll watch him as he sits in the driver’s seat, clasping his hands on the steering wheel with the same hands that barely wrapped around my index finger the night he was born.Why do I feel a jot of sadness when I drive past the cornfield that now occupies the space where my childhood home once stood?
I once heard someone describe children as “parent clocks.” As our kids grow taller and older, they said, we parents must grapple with the reality of our own aging.
Parents have unique insight to this aging process, but the reality certainly isn’t unique to us. Every day brings all people closer to our final day on earth. Chances are good that day is approaching faster than we’ve come to accept and certainly faster than we’ve prepared. Our lives are here one moment and gone the next. Like it happened yesterday.
Or like it never happened at all.
Os Guinness interrogates this sensation in his book Carpe Diem Redeemed: “Time flies. Nothing lasts forever,” he writes. “The grandest and most magnificent human endeavors are only sandcastles washed away by time and tide.”
Guinness calls this the “linear” perspective of time, where the march of history decrees that the human experience amounts to nothing at the end of all things. Absent any divine influence, he says, the cumulative events of the past, present, and future are all for naught.
It’s a hopeless way of viewing our place in the world, yet troublingly, when taken to its logical conclusion, Guinness argues, this is precisely the dominant view of our secular age.
Linear time would tell me that today I am less free than I was yesterday. My life to this point is a bell I can never unring. Whether for good or bad, I can never go back from my past, never savor the good times nor absolve myself for my errors and poor choices. Moreover, linear time says that in another 15, 20, 40 years, I’ll be less free still—more deeply shackled with each passing day with no hope of things ever being any different.
What hope for today or tomorrow—heck, what hope for anything—does the sinner have under these circumstances?
I often think about how famed astronomer and educator Carl Sagan once described our place in the universe:
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
If Sagan’s thought is accepted, the life we live is nothing more than the sum total of a past we can never unwind, facing down a future that exists in terms of dwindling possibilities. Everything and everyone we have ever known might as well be a “mote of dust.” A sandcastle washed away. Like the morning fog—here a little while and then it’s gone.
The funny thing is, Sagan is a renowned atheist. I am not. But at least Sagan is operating in good faith, taking his worldview where it would lead him.
What’s my excuse?
As a baptized believer, why do I feel a jot of sadness when I drive past the cornfield that now occupies the space where my childhood home once stood? Why do I flip through my Facebook memories bouncing between bouts of happy recollection and flits of regret and yearning?
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Dylan Thomas once penned. For some men—men like Sagan, perhaps—the dying of the light is the most natural order of things. Resign yourself to it, they may say. Why concern oneself with a mote of dust’s affairs?
But other men rage against the dying. Why is that?
Perhaps they’re hopelessly delusional, heeding the whims of a survival instinct they can’t overcome.
But I suspect it’s more profound than that. Something deep within us knows that whatever this intangible “light” may be, it’s not meant to die.
The thought of it makes my head spin. Mercifully, a deeper reading of Carpe Diem Redeemed is helpful for thinking through this. Guinness goes on to argue that a biblical worldview demonstrates that time is not merely linear. Time is also covenantal:
[Human beings] are free with a freedom that is unfathomable but precious and unique among the life forms on the earth.… Under the twin truths of God’s sovereignty and human significance, time and history are going somewhere, and each of us is not only unique and significant in ourselves, but we have a unique and significant part to play in our own lives, in our own generation, and therefore in the overall sweep of history.
[C]reated in the image and likeness of God, we humans are free, active, responsible, creative, innovative, and consequential. We have a unique agency in the world around us, and we are called to a unique task: partnership with God on behalf of his world, which is what makes time not only linear but covenantal. We are both created and creative. We humans have both the freedom and the responsibility to live and to act into time and into history.
You and I are not cosmic accidents left to our own devices. As image bearers of the Triune God, there are no such things as insignificant men or women nor irredeemable circumstances. Yes, memory informs who we are. Our actions, the things we’ve done—both the good and the bad—they are a part of us now, permanently etched into our bodies, forever recorded to the annals of history.
The human story needs a redemption arc. Covenantal time consoles us with the knowledge that we are neither alone nor ignored. It tells me that my nagging sense of loss and yearning, my grasping to savor more, to feel more, my desire to bottle up my kids exactly as they are so I won’t have to say goodbye to my children as they exist today, my longing to return to a childhood home that no longer exists—these points of melancholy are pointing me somewhere.
We rage against the dying of the light because the God-filled universe terminates on neither a funeral nor whimper nor sigh, but with resurrection, sanctuary, and Sabbath rest. Christ is preparing a feast of homecoming and restoration, one where the tired sinner will one day commune freely with the Son of God and joyfully affirm with the multitudes of Revelation 5:9, “You purchased my life for God by your blood.” What is lost will be found.
Late last year, my wife and I had friends over on the first Sunday of Advent. We sat around the table that night, laughing, enjoying a fresh shepherd’s pie from the oven, sampling stinky cheeses, and filling our bellies with hot, spiced wassail and Christmas whiskey. My children took turns chasing our dog through the house.
We capped the evening in our family room with a round of holiday songs. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,” we caroled. “Till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth!”
The way of Christ acknowledges that many of our days will be full of loss and grief. But it also brings comfort amidst the light’s dying. There are moments in time—redeemed, covenanted moments—when we’ll experience a foretaste of what’s to come, this side of that future Table.
The evidence of God’s goodness surrounded us that Advent night, in the lingering aroma of our meal, the warmth of the fireplace, the melodies echoing against the walls. There we were, a room of once-lost souls, indwelled by Christ’s Spirit, steeling our worth against the relentless march of time, its power frustrated by the lavish grace of a loving Father. Grace that’s never ending, light that never dies—a thrill of hope born into a time-trodden, weary world.
Os Guinness’s latest book, Carpe Diem Redeemed, published by InterVarsity Press, is now available.