God of Time

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,

4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.

We are going to get a little nerdy today. You may be stretched to think about things that you have never thought about before, or in ways that you have not previously considered. This message is one that you are very welcome to disagree with me on and we can still be friends at the end of the day. I want to look at how God relates to chronological time because I have found some comfort in a different way of thinking that has allowed me to be a little more flexible in my understanding of God. But before we get into all of that, we need to all remind ourselves something important. Repeat after me: “My salvation is not contingent upon my full understanding of God’s relationship to linear, chronological time.”

Last week we looked at one of the two well-known passages from the book of Ecclesiastes, and I figured that this week we would consider the other one. This passage is probably known by many people because of the song Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds from the 1960’s.

In this scripture Solomon is naming a number of opposites and noting that for everything there is a time. There is a time to plant and a time to harvest. There is a time for war and a time for peace. There is a time to live and a time to die. Some translations include the word “appointed” in verse 1 and read something like, “There is an appointed time for everything.”

There are people that believe that this means that everything is therefore planned by God. God plans when we will be born and when we will die because there is an appointed time. That idea doesn’t sound too bad if a person lives a full life into old age. When I start to struggle with that idea is when you hear of a child or young parent dying before they have the chance to grow old. It gets even worse when they are taken by a violent act or terrible sickness. I really don’t want to think that God caused a 12-year-old girl to die from cancer. And I don’t find it helpful when someone says, “I guess it was just their time” when a child dies.

The way that I understand Solomon here is not that he is saying that God has determined exactly when everyone will be born or die, or exactly when there will be war and peace. What he is doing is naming reality. What God has done is created the seasons of the year and the seasons of life. God has made a world where there is summer, fall, winter, and spring, as well as birth and death, war and peace, stones to gather and stones to throw. But just because God has made a world where there are stones does not mean that God has predetermined when we would throw those stones and when we would gather them, if we throw or gather them at all!

The Mennonite Church is a part of a tradition that believes we are given free will. From the creation of the world God has given us choices. Don’t eat of this tree, but if you do, there will be consequences. Don’t look back or you will be turned into stone. Sell everything you have and follow me. These are all examples of people exercising their free will to do or not to do as God had commanded. There are also plenty of examples of when people did follow God. But always, it was their choice.

So we can say in our tradition that the idea that God causes everything to happen is a concept that does not reflect our reality. And we can find plenty of biblical support for the idea of free will. But if God does not cause everything that happens to happen, what is God’s relationship to chronological time? Does God experience days and weeks, months and years in the same way that we do? Some people believe that God operates outside of chronological time and views our time like we view a book.

If you were to pick up a novel, you would probably start on page one. On page one you would be introduced to the characters and their setting. You would continue to read the pages in order and you would find out how the characters and their stories develop. But I know that some of you are like me and you have a difficult time putting down a good book because you want to know how it is going to end. What’s going to happen to the lead character? Will they catch the criminal? You might stay up reading until 3 am just to find out! Or you could just read the last couple of pages and come back to the rest later.

This is how some people view God, as if God were able to look out at the world God had created as if it were a book. God could look at the past as if it were happening right now, or at what we call the present, or what we call the future. It’s just a matter of turning a few pages.

A friend of mine recently made a theological statement online that made me think. It wasn’t that he said something that I hadn’t heard before but the way that he said it that made me stop and ponder for a few minutes. He said, with all too much confidence, that since God created the entire world and everything in it God also created time. And as the creator of time, God was therefore not bound by time.

This friend was getting all sorts of positive comments and “likes” on his post, but I was left scratching my head. I was wondering first of all why he assumed that time was something that needed to be created. Sure, God created the 24 hour day by ordering the earth to spin on its axis at a certain speed, but was time really something that God needed to create? Was there ever a time when time was not? If God preceded time then there was not a time when there was no time and there was just God. God just was, is, and is to come.

I know that was kind of confusing, but let’s just say that my friend’s argument wasn’t as rock solid as he thought it was. I understand what he was trying to say, if God created not only the earth and everything in it but also the rules that govern this world, like gravity and buoyancy, then God is not bound by his own rules. I believe that. And when we have examples of this in the Bible, we call them “miracles.” The laws of nature say that a metal axe head won’t float on water and that a person cannot part a body of water with a gesture of their hands. The laws of nature say that a person cannot walk on water or come back from the dead. But since God is not bound by God’s own natural laws, God can bend or even break the laws of nature. What my friend wanted to then say is that God is also not bound by time in the same way that we are. And when people make this claim I believe that they are trying to do everything that they can to make God into the most powerful being possible. Any idea that you can come up with to set our God off as superior “must” be true! It is a “My God can beat up your god” mentality.

I get why people want to say this, but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that it says that God created linear, chronological time and is therefore not subject to its laws. The closest thing that I can find is in Psalm 90 and repeated in 2 Peter 3, where we find that to God a day is like a 1,000 years, and 1,000 years are like a day. That doesn’t mean that God can travel back and forth in time, or view future and past events as if they are happening right now. It means that God is eternal and that a 24 hour period and 1,000 years are all rather insignificant to an eternal being. I don’t think we need to read any of the stories in the Bible as saying that God can move forward or backwards in time, and in fact I would say that there are some stories in the Bible that show us that God operates within linear, chronological time. So if you want to say that God created time and is not bound by the natural laws of time, that’s fine. But you need to follow that by saying God voluntarily chooses to operate within linear, chronological time.

Let’s just consider a few biblical examples to get us all thinking. Genesis 6:5-7 gives us this interesting bit of information: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.’”

The story then goes on to tell us that God was able to find one righteous person on the earth and chose to repopulate the earth through that man, Noah, rather than wiping out the entire human race.

If God was not operating within linear time, why was God grieved when he saw how wicked human beings had become? Wouldn’t God have already known how wicked humans would become? And if God already knew how wicked human beings were going to become and that it would grieve him when they became so evil, rather than wiping out every living creature on the earth, why not just choose to not create them if you are not bound by linear time? Using the analogy of a book, if God could look a few chapters later in the book to see that human beings were going to be so very wicked, why not change the beginning of the story before in was ever written? Why not invent Smurfs instead of humans?

Similarly, twice in 1 Samuel 15 we are told that God regretted making Saul king over Israel because Saul turned away from God (verses 11 and 35). If God was outside of time, he would have known that Saul would do turn away from him.

There are other times when God tests his people, like in Deuteronomy 8:2: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” Genesis 22 is the story of the binding of Isaac where God tests Abraham to see if Abraham will be faithful. This seems like a very traumatic event to put Isaac and Abraham through if God already knew the future as if he had already read the end of the book.

There are plenty of other times when we are told that God changes his mind (some say 39 times), which doesn’t make sense if God is outside of chronological time. I know that all of these things can be interpreted differently and that there are other examples that can be used to argue that God is outside of time. But again let me remind you that your salvation does not depend on getting this one just right. I have found it helpful to understand God operating within time and giving us free will because the opposite scenario makes God out to be a monster.

When my friend made the bold proclamation that God is outside of time, he was also trying to affirm a Calvinist understanding of predestination and sovereignty of God. So does it mean that I don’t believe that God is all knowing if I also believe that God operates within chronological time? Is God less sovereign in this framework? Not at all. It just means that I understand these terms differently.

Let’s just state the obvious right up front. I am not all knowing. There are a few major gaps in my knowledge. For instance, I have been married to the same person now for almost 12 years, and it seems like I am learning something new about her every day. So why don’t we use a hypothetical situation to show the difference between my limited knowledge about my wife, who I probably know better than anyone else in the world, and God’s knowledge of my wife.

Imagine Sonya and I went out for a nice lunch at the local Burger King. We arrive at the restaurant and we enter the line to order our meal. But rather than follow me, Sonya says that she will be right back because she needs to use the restroom.

The line moves quicker than expected and I find myself standing at the register and a young woman asks me, “What can I get for you?” I know what I want. I get the same thing every time. I want a Whopper with fries, thank-you very much. But Sonya is not back from the restroom yet, and I have to make a decision. Do I order for her or do I wait, angering the cashier and the people standing behind me? Well Sonya also usually gets the same thing, but probably only about 80% of the time. She usually gets the grilled chicken sandwich. And if I have an 80% chance of getting it right, I’m probably just going to go ahead and order the chicken sandwich.

When she gets back from the restroom I tell her what I have done, and she is disappointed with me. Why? Because she just had a grilled chicken breast last night and she really doesn’t want another one.

I didn’t know that she had grilled chicken last night. How could I have known?

I can guess what my wife is going to want to eat based on previous experiences, but ultimately it is only a guess. I am not all knowing. But I believe that God sees everything—and I mean everything, including our thoughts—and therefore God would know that Sonya had chicken earlier and that she did not want it now.

I do not think that God stands outside of time like a person who holds a book. But I do think that God knows all possible outcomes because God knows us perfectly. God knows all that is knowable because God knows what we have experienced and how we will react. God knows our personality, our history, and our patterns. God knows that Sonya had chicken yesterday and doesn’t want any more.

The reason that it is helpful to think of God operating within time has a lot to do with questions of suffering, pain, and natural disaster. Think of some of the worst things that have happened to human beings. To think of God as one outside of time means that God would have known the lengths to which Hitler would take the Holocaust and God would have known this before the beginning of time. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and approximately 60 million people died fighting in WWII. If God knew all of that was going to happen from before the beginning of time, it would seem like a good idea to do something about it. Something as simple as not allowing Hitler’s parents to meet may have altered the course of the world.

Surely there are many things that we don’t know and cannot know. But if I knew today that a decision that I was about to make would lead to the death of 66 million people, I probably would make a different decision. And you have to think that God is at least as ethical as I am.

So what does God know about the future? God knows what he is going to do, and what he wants of our lives. “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. God knows that one day he will restore this world to what he had intended for it to be. But not because God reads the past, present, and future like a book. God knows us perfectly and God knows how we will act when things come up. We have a choice, and God knows it!

But the exciting thing about God operating within linear, chronological time is that it means that our lives matter, our prayers matter, and our decisions matter. If God had already predetermined everything that was going to happen, then what would it matter if we prayed today? If God had already determined that a 12-year-old girl was going to die from cancer, or that Aunt Mabel was going to have to endure a painful healing process after her surgery, why pray? No, the future is not set in stone! God may have predetermined how this world will end and the new heaven and new earth will be ushered in, but there is a lot that is up to us. If this world is a book, what is past has already been transcribed, and so has the ending. But what happens today is still in progress. And we have a say in how it is to be written.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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