The Art of Financial Time Travel
June 16, 2023
The kingdom of God coming forward into the present through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have profound implications for our work in the world...
The Steve Miller Band’s classic 1976 song, “Fly Like an Eagle,” features the memorable refrain, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” As the hit resounds, time can be elusive. Depending on our circumstances, we seek to accelerate or forestall its impact. When conditions are tough, we long to push fast forward. When times are good, we’re eager to hit pause.
But our personal and collective relationship with time can be even more confounding. As a culture, time and personal productivity have been obsessions for over a century — from agricultural to industrial to digital work — and we seek to do and yield more. As several recent and highly regarded books suggest — including Jenny Odell’s Saving Time and James K.A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time — our lifelong marriage to life’s contemporary cadences needs to change. To thrive, Smith suggests, we need greater “temporal awareness.”
Like pastors and priests who sacramentalize time by officiating holy rites, all Christians can gain greater temporal and spiritual awareness through work and other life activities. Participating in the financial markets is one pathway to achieve greater time dexterity. Thinking carefully about investing and giving can open a unique window on better understanding life’s rhythms: Homebuying, charitable giving, educational planning, and retiring create possibilities to think across the space-time continuum. But as opportunities abound, so too do challenges.
Time Is Money
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management and time-motion studies changed the way we engage in production, setting off an unrelenting race for greater productivity. Through time-motion studies, according to biographer Robert Kanigel in his 1997 book, The One Best Way, Taylor dissected work, then reconstructed it in ways he deemed more efficient. Eclipsing the role of traditional foremen, “the observations, measurements, and analysis needed to set piece rates became the job of a distinct ‘rate-fixing’ department.” With scientific management, “the time needed to machine a tire or overhaul a boiler no longer warranted discussion or debate.” What Taylor started, other management gurus have sustained.
If we don’t control time, as the aphorism goes, it will control us.
A massive time management industry has emerged to aid us in this quest. Just peruse the business and self-help shelves in any bookstore and you’ll find dozens of offerings. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Ferriss’ The Four-Hour Workweek; Allen’s Getting Things Done; and Blanchard and Johnson’s The One Minute Manager are a few of the time-oriented books that have sold millions of copies. Computer scientist and best-selling personal-productivity author Cal Newport makes a provocative claim in an essay in the New Yorker: The knowledge sector’s hyper-focus on personal productivity has created a work-related “tragedy of the commons.”
An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: On the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable.
Becoming more efficient often comes at the expense of others. Gaining personal mastery of our calendars and inboxes can punish the common good. But some are resisting. The relationship between time and life satisfaction has found expression in the slow movement, where many today seek solace by decelerating life’s pace. With dozens of slow-movement subcultures — slow church, slow education, slow food, slow medicine, slow money, slow religion, slow technology, and slow work — nearly anyone can find a community to help them live more deliberatively.
When we’re not seeking to master temporality in realtime, we often turn to fantasy and science fiction for release. In 1895, H.G. Wells published The Time Machine, a popular novel that revolutionized the idea of time travel in literature. Since the book’s release, hundreds of authors have penned novels within this sub-genre and have been rewarded by avid readers who drive these kinds of books to top the charts. Just 10 years after The Time Machine, scientists affirmed the plausibility of time travel. Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity upended a two-century era of Newtonian physics making travel into the future possible. Ten years later, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, making travel into the past empirically feasible. According to journalist Tim Folger in Scientific American, “In Newton’s universe, time was steady everywhere and everywhen; it never sped up or slowed down. But for Einstein, time was relative.”
Time dilation, made possible by Einstein’s theorem, demonstrated that the interval between two events depended on the motion of the observers. In daily life, we can’t observe such effects, but atomic clocks confirm that time is elongated by motion. To illustrate, Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut and the world’s most prolific time traveler, spent 803 days orbiting Earth — 311 days more than originally planned due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union during his space flight. According to journalist Isaiah McCall in a 2021 article in NewsBreak, “Because Krikalev spent so much time in space away from Earth’s center of gravity, time dilation (or the slowing down of clocks) caused him to be 0.02 seconds younger than other people born at the same time as him.”
The Bible and Time
Preoccupations with time and its implications extend to biblical interpretation, with the beginning and end of the scriptural narrative gaining the most attention. While young-earth (literal six-day) creationists clash with old-earth believers and evolutionists, other Christians engage in theological conflict over end times, especially related to the thousand-year reign of Christ referenced in Revelation 20:3. Amillennialists who don’t anticipate a literal thousand-year reign of Christ contrast with postmillennialists and premillennialists, who do expect one but with different signposts and outcomes.
Sound confusing? It is. These emotional and often technical debates about the eschaton remind me of a former pastor, who’d jokingly and regularly throw up his arms and declare he was a panmillennialist, a person who believed it would all “pan out in the end.” Although often laden with weighty emotion, eschatology is a vital doctrine for the church. What we believe about the future determines how we live our lives today. God’s work in the world is unfolding; his future kingdom has broken into the present through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and continues through the work of the church. The divine plan of redemption has been inaugurated, even though it can be difficult to perceive at present.
What does the Bible say about navigating time? “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8). Although time remains a mystery as conveyed by the apostle Peter, theologian Robert Banks offers several important lessons in a contributed article in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity for how we might think about it.
First, we should view time as a gift from God. As outlined in scripture, daily, weekly, and seasonal patterns originate with God (See Gen 1:3, 2:3; Lev 23; Ps 74:16). Time and its material abundance are not man made, and neither are they under humankind’s control. The rich fool — the subject of one of Jesus’ parables in Luke 12 — is chided for believing otherwise. Our understanding of time must always be subordinate to God’s work in and through history. “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established” (Prov 19:21).
Second, time is limited. As the psalmist reminds us, our lifespans reach 70 or 80 years; “they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps 90:10). Because our human lives are bounded, we should continually ask God to “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Ps 90:12). Being prudent with time doesn’t mean we over-structure our daily activities, as Banks explains:
Instead of seeing time as sufficient for whatever is important, we treat it as a scarce resource to be parceled out in small amounts, constantly regretting the fact that there is too little of it and that it passes too quickly. As a divine gift, time should be used playfully as well as energetically, big-heartedly and generously as well as carefully and thoughtfully, in people-oriented as well as task-oriented ways, with an eye to quality more than quantity and with a sense of wonder and adventure.
On this point, time management theory often goes awry with its claim that carefully choreographing our calendar will always enable us to do more. This leads to a third principle: Our management of time should not only accommodate the needs of others, but ours as well. God calls us to work, serve, play, and rest (See John 9:4, Jas 2:15-17, Ex 34:21). Even when life gets busy, we’re to honor God’s creational pattern for us as his image-bearers. The author of Ecclesiastes declares, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl 3:1). The next verses, as Banks notes, signal common life events such as birth, death, weeping, laughing, mourning, and dancing, all of which command our devoted time and attention.
Finally, our notion of time should be elastic enough to respond to both planned and unplanned events (See 2 Cor 2:12-13, Prov 19:21). The story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10 is one such occasion. Mary, unlike Martha, puts aside her tasks when hosting Jesus, sitting joyfully at his feet to learn and soak up his presence.
Learning to manage our time well takes courage and creativity. There’s no perfect system that will work for everyone. Our temperament, capacity, needs, and commitments all play a role. The apostle Paul warns, “Be very careful, then, how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15-16 NIV). Banks elaborates:
Using our time wisely and responsibly does not mean developing a busy lifestyle that fills every moment with activities or seizes every possibility that comes our way. This is a misunderstanding of what is said in Ephesians 5:16, which only in the mid-20th century was translated as “making the most of every opportunity.” Earlier translations, such as the King James, more accurately render the verse as “redeeming the time.”
This means we may need to restructure our calendar and to-do lists in radical ways. It may mean we’ll need to heighten our sensitivities to how God is moving, guiding, and structuring life events.
The Time Value of Money and the Kingdom of God
The time value of money (TVM) — a central concept in discounted cash flow analysis — is a financial principle that investors and advisors alike employ to discern various financial alternatives. Simply stated, a dollar invested today is worth more than at some point in the future unless the rate of return on that investment exceeds the cost of holding that dollar uninvested. In a competitive financial services sector, the underlying value proposition is that a dollar invested today is worth more in one year than the same dollar invested at a rival firm over the same period.
The principle of TVM depends on time, a compounding return that produces gains. It presupposes a horizon that stretches into the future, and even when factoring in market fluctuations yields a satisfactory return that outpaces inherent investment risks. The kingdom of God doesn’t always mirror exponential or linear returns, at least as we understand them by traditional financial metrics.
Transformation often comes in fits and starts and may not require chronological time to mature. In Jesus Christ, TVM collapses in both a figurative and literal sense. The future comes into the present, and the present extends into the future in ways that — this side of heaven — we don’t fully understand, “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4). The cross signaled defeat, but on Easter Sunday, as N.T. Wright reminds us, “a new order of being … burst upon the startled old world, opening up new possibilities.” With calvary’s climax, “The Creator has done what he promised. From now on, we are living in a new age, the already-begun new world. The light is now shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
As such, the Bible teaches that we’re residents of two worlds, time travelers between the earth and the New Jerusalem. The apostle Paul elucidates this idea of living and serving in this place of temporal overlap; he emboldens us to an earthly ministry of stewardship, reconciliation, and ambassadorship, while simultaneously calling us to “seek the things that are above” and remembering always that “our citizenship is in heaven” (See Col 1:20, 3:1, 2 Cor 5:20, Phil 3:20).
A biblical view of life should challenge us to hold different, even competing, time horizons in more comfortable tension. Jesus’ earliest proclamation of his ministry, citing Isaiah 61:1, established his mission in ways that play out along the full time-space continuum:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
And with that, the text tells us, “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down,” declaring: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20-21). Jesus’ ministry launch collapsed time in on itself. The eschaton came forward into the present and the present leaped forward into the future.
The three historic ways of thinking about time, chronos, kairos, and prolepsis, offer guidance for understanding this new inverted reality.
Chronos and Kairos
Jesus lived his life according to chronos (chronological, defined) time, as naturally as he did kairos (divine, opportune) time, regularly shifting between the two and inviting us to do the same. In Walking on Water, acclaimed writer, Madeleine L’Engle, captures this fluidity well: “Jesus took John and James and Peter up the mountain in ordinary, daily chronos; during the glory of the Transfiguration they were dwelling in Kairos.” It’s in chronos that we live the majority of our lives, L’Engle continues, where we “watch our bodies growing older, our skin losing elasticity, our energies their powers of duration.” Kairos moments are laden in different ways with God’s indwelling. The painter is at work in kairos, as is a child building a toy tower, or the investment advisor helping her client gain new possibilities for financial freedom. “In Kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, cocreators with God, touching the wonder of creation,” L’Engle writes.
Understanding time as it relates to God’s in-breaking kingdom invites a proleptic posture as well. According to theologian Lee C. Camp, “Proleptic is a grammatical term in which a future event is so sure to come, so sure to be the case, that it is spoken of in the present tense.” The prayer Jesus taught his followers is one such example:
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Jesus’ promise of eternal life is another: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26).
Think about it like this: God’s coming kingdom of wholesale shalom, integrity, justice, and well-being is fail-safe and therefore is a proleptical, present-tense frame. As pastor-theologian Eric Jacobsen observes in his book The Space Between, “The eschaton is not some kind of an abstract future that looms far beyond the distant horizon but is rather a dynamic state that exists beyond our linear time. Rather than us simply traveling toward it, the eschaton is also breaking into our world in various signs of the coming kingdom.” Both the Old and New Testaments affirm this view that the cosmic restoration has already begun (See Isa 25:6-8, 65:17, 66:22, Ezek 37, Rom 8:19-20, Col 1:20, 1 Cor 15:24-28, 2 Pet 3:13, Rev 21:1).
God’s acts of renewal and renovation are so assured that we can presume their reality today even though we now only see glimmers of their light, “for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).
The Art of Financial Time Travel
The kingdom of God coming forward into the present through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have profound implications for our work in the world, including our financial decision-making. By implication, as N.T. Wright puts it:
What you do in the present — by [investing], painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself — will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
In his classic work, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis imagines a conversation between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his young mentee, Wormwood. In one particular letter, Screwtape reveals how best to exploit the concept of time with God’s faithful:
It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. … In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.
A more biblical perspective of time has the capacity to help us develop more chronos and kairos approaches to work, money, and life. Doing so can allay worry about the future by anchoring commitment in the present and can dispel anxiety about the present by directing investment in the future. In essence, offering a proleptic perspective. Like cosmonaut Krikalev, as discussed earlier, Christians have a unique capacity for time travel. As such, when at our best, we navigate the risk and reward time continuum with greater ease, inviting others to do the same for a truly flourishing life.