Time: Opportunity Lost or Opportunity Gained?

Larry Crabb Part 3 of 14

As I write, I am within three months of turning sixty. A simple truth that has been dawning on my soul for a long time is now becoming clearer and will, I suspect, become clearer still. It is this: time is not our natural environment. Morning and evening were not meant to mark the passage from hopeful seasons of life that linger only in memory to shorter seasons of fading strength that must surely end.

I could not see this when I was young and unaware of the inevitable emptiness that accompanies realized goals. I could see only the prospect of satisfaction if I did my best to follow Christ. The satisfaction I was seeking, I now realize, was with myself and with life in this world. The words of Ecclesiastes meant nothing to me then. They do now.

But the sense that every natural ambition is, in truth, a chasing after the wind is awakening a deeper sense within me. Perhaps it is wisdom. I think it is. Every sunset, I am near believing, is not a farewell to lost hope and to pleasures never to be restored, but is intended rather to signal the opportunity for rest, deep rest that energizes us for higher adventure and the promise of satisfaction that is available now only in anticipation.

I look back on six decades and join the chorus of older folks watching the sun moving relentlessly toward the far horizon: “Where did the time go?” we say together. As long as I avoid mirrors, I can imagine myself to be still young. But it’s becoming clear I am a young soul in an old body. I am full of life and weary with life at the same time.

No observer will any longer mistake me for a middle-aged man in my forties. I am sixty (or soon will be), and I look it. And truth be known, I do feel it.

When I think along these lines, time seems my enemy. It brings unwelcome decline and the fading of certain dreams. If this were the only kind of time I knew, I would echo B.F. Skinner when, as an old man addressing the American Psychological Association, he said something like this: “Reinforcers that used to bring me pleasure have lost their power. I must now resort to more potent stimuli to arouse my dulled appetite.”

When I read his comment to my aging father, he wryly quipped, “What I can then look forward to is spicy food and hardcore pornography.” And then he added, “That is not an ending fit for one who bears God’s image.”

Happily, there is another kind of time, a kind that better matches the original design of sunset before sunrise, of weeping in the night before singing in the morning. This kind of time is my friend. It’s the environment in which, as Paul put it, our inner man can be renewed.

Two Kinds of Time

Call it Opportunity Gained: the opportunity to see the unseen, to place suffering in larger perspective, to access the heroic in our humanness, to identify the immortal being within that is destined to draw closer and closer to the source of everything good until the eternal day when we splash wildly about in its endless warmth, like a child in a wading pool.

If the first kind of time (call it Opportunity Lost) is all there is, then the best an aging person can do is cover the emptiness with whatever addictive substance works for as long as it works.

Religion or pornography. Deeds of kindness or violence. What does it matter? Time as Opportunity Lost is a devouring monster that swallows our pleasures, never to release them again.

I remember driving by a Little League field on my way to speak about the nature of our journey through life. A couple of dozen ten-year-olds in spanking clean uniforms were playing baseball in front of a couple of dozen young to early middle-aged parents.

Tears filled my eyes. I had to pull my car to the side of the road. I’d once known that joy, both joys, of playing ball in front of my dad when he was in his thirties and of watching my two sons play ball when I was in my thirties.

A sense of loss overwhelmed me. The memory of a particular pleasure that I would never again enjoy tortured me. Nostalgia, with nothing of similiar pleasure ahead, is unbearable. It is Opportunity Lost.

But I drove on. Every opportunity lost opens a surprising door to opportunity gained. In this second kind of time, I am becoming who I already am, and I am discovering what is indestructibly alive within me and capable of joys yet unfelt that most surely lie ahead. As I remember shouting encouragement to my nervous, gum-chewing boys as they strode manfully to the plate, I see into the real world, past the shadows. In that world, I’m the kid. I’m still in the game. God is cheering me on.

And his ability is slowly rising within me. I am learning to take a hard swing at life the way Jesus did. He always hit the ball. I strike out a lot. But there’s always another at bat.

Next time, I can bat the temptation to quit or compromise or complain out of the park, and as I cross home plate in victory, I can look up and see my Father stand to his feet and cheer, “Well done!” And who knows? Maybe there are Little League ball parks in heaven, and I’ll play again.

Could God intend less joy in that world than this?

But there is a difficulty in this line of thinking. The pleasures that time steals from me are easily, that is to say naturally, felt. God-followers and God-deniers can both enjoy them. The pleasures that only advancing time provide are not so easily felt. And only God-followers, redeemed by God and indwelt by God, who look at life through God’s eyes, can experience them.

An elderly man was dying of cancer, a painful death that medication could relieve only if it numbed his mind as much as his body. He would not have it. Those who were there reported that his suffering was intense. And yet he praised God with unforced cheer.

“How do you manage it?” several asked.

His answer sends chills of hope up my spine. “This is my last opportunity to praise him while I’m in pain. He takes no pleasure in my pain, but I believe he takes great pleasure in my loving him enough to praise him in my pain. Think of it. I have the privilege to bring him pleasure that he can experience only from suffering saints.”

In time, the first kind, he lost his life. In time, the second kind, he seized the opportunity of his life. Both he and God felt pleasure.

I don’t want to sentimentalize the nature of life’s journey. Life hurts. It can hurt terribly. But the time of Opportunity Gained never passes. And if we see it and seize it, we become pilgrims who soar like eagles, who run to the finish line, who walk in company with saints, and who, having done all, stand in the limitless power of God, in the middle of the divine community.

The Bible is full of examples. Whom would you prefer as your spiritual director? Moses at age forty, headstrong with confidence when he killed the Egyptian, or at age eighty, when arrogance had yielded to felt weakness? When was he wiser?

If I had my choice, I’d want to seek his direction when he was 120, sitting on a hilltop gazing at a land he would never enter. Then, I suggest, is when he knew God best. Time as Opportunity Lost was his enemy. He could not go back in time to speak to the rock rather than strike it. But time as Opportunity Gained was his friend. He discovered both his soul and his God through failure and perseverance.

Think, too, of Jacob. A conniver from birth, he did nothing that God chose to record as an example of faith until he reached the age of 147. Then, as he leaned on his staff and worshiped, after encountering God in seven appearances, God saw that the time of Opportunity Gained had served its purposes, and he memorialized Jacob forever in Hebrews 11.

Let me mention one extra-biblical illustration of my point. Without hesitation, I would have grabbed any chance to chat with C.S. Lewis, whether as an atheist, a new convert, or a seasoned Christian thinker. But I suspect his most enduring impact on my soul might have come had I met him a few months before his death. After recovering from a heart attack-induced coma, he wrote to a friend, “It seems a pity to glide so painlessly to heaven’s gate only to have it slammed shut, knowing that you must go through it all again. Poor Lazarus.”

And then, Warren Lewis tells us that a week before dying, his brother said, “I have done what I was put on earth to do. I’m ready to go home.”

When I was a teen, a man in his sixties seemed only a step away from the nursing home. Now that man is me. And I can recognize my father’s wisdom when, approaching eighty, he told a large group, “Some pleasures, like combing my hair, are lost. But, like seasoned sailors who smell land before they see it, I am catching a whiff of heaven. And I know the best is yet to come.”

Opportunity lost? Of course. And it brings pain. Opportunity gained? More than I ever imagined. I can bring God pleasure, now and forever. And that, I’m starting to see, is my deepest joy.

Larry Crabb is a psychologist, author, spiritual director, and Founder and Director of New Way Ministries.
Listen to all parts in this Conversation 2.2: The Spiritual Journey series