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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


It was a very important admonition which Paul delivered to the Ephesian church—"Redeeming the time, because the days are evil." The context in which it stands is equally striking—he had just admonished those to whom he wrote, not to walk as fools; thus implying that a man can give no greater proof of folly, nor more effectually act the part of a fool, than to waste his time—while on the other hand, a just appreciation and right improvement of time are among the brightest displays of true wisdom.

Seneca has somewhere observed that we are all of us complaining of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. We are always mourning that our days are few, and yet acting as though there would be no end of them. This plainly proves that we neither value time correctly, nor improve it diligently. The late Henry Martyn was known at the University by the designation of "The man who never wasted an hour." Nothing can better explain what I mean by improving time; it is never wasting it—but always appropriating it to some useful purpose. Many considerations, my children, urge this upon us.

Time is the most precious thing in the world. In the bestowment of it, God differs from the manner in which he distributes most of his other gifts; in the latter he is profuse, in the former miserly. He can, of course, give us but a moment at a time—but that he does without ever promising another; as if to teach us highly to value, and diligently to improve the present moment, by the consideration that for anything we know, it may be the last.

Time, when once gone, never returns. Where is yesterday? "With the ages beyond the Flood," and we could as soon hope to bring back one as the other. We talk of fetching up a lost hour—but the thing is impossible. A moment once lost is lost forever; we could as rationally set out to find a sound that had expired in the air, as to find a lost moment.

There is much of our time which can be applied to no purpose—except preparing us for improving other portions of our existence. How much goes away in sleep, and in all the other demands of nature, for its refreshment and invigoration—this is not lost, if the subsequent periods be rightly applied, and diligently employed, any more than the time spent in oiling the wheels of a carriage impedes the journey, because the vehicle goes the faster afterwards. But then, if we sleep at night, it is that we might be busy in the day; if we eat and drink, it is that we might be better able to work; and certainly a recollection of the great portion of our time that is necessary for refreshment and repose, should be a stimulus to us to employ the remainder with the greater diligence. We should regard it as an infirmity of nature, that so much sleep and time for eating and drinking is necessary, and endeavor, by diligence in our waking working hours, to improve the surplus.

Then add to this the portions of time which are irresistibly engrossed by the 'tyranny of custom'—all that passes in regulating the superficial decorations of life, or is given up in the reciprocations of civility to the disposal of others; all that is torn from us by the violence of disease, or stolen imperceptibly away by lassitude and languor; that large portion which is spent amid the toys of childhood, and afterwards amid the imbecility of old age. I say, add up these things, and when you have subtracted the amount from the gross sum of man's life, how small is the remainder! Even the active and busy part of mankind apply a very little more than a third part of their existence to any valuable purpose. By this mode of calculation, the old man of eighty has lived but little more than twenty-six years; and the man of forty—but little more than thirteen. A most cogent reason for not wasting an hour!

We should never forget that our time is among the talents for which we must give account at the judgment of God. Time being not the least precious of these, will be required with a strictness proportionate to its value. Let us tremble at this idea, as well we may. We must be tried not only for what we have done—but for what we had time to do, yet neglected to do it. Not only for the hours spent in sin—but for those wasted in idleness. Let us beware of that mode of spending time which some call killing it, "for this murder, like others, will not always be concealed—the hours destroyed in secret will appear when we least expect it, to the unspeakable terror and amazement of our souls—they arise from the dead, and fly away to heaven, where they might have carried better news, and there tell sad tales of us, which we shall be sure to hear of again, when we hold up our hands at the bar, and they shall come as so many swift witnesses against us!"

It might stir us up to diligence in the improvement of our time, to think how much of it has been already misspent. What days, and weeks, and months, and years, have already been utterly wasted, or exhausted upon trifles totally unworthy of them. They are gone, and nothing remains of them but the guilt of having wasted them. We cannot call them back if we would; and all we can do is to let their memorial, like the recollection of any other dead friends whom we treated improperly while they lived, lead us to value more highly, and to use more kindly, those that remain.

How much of our time is already gone—and how little may be yet to come? The sands of our hour-glass may be almost out, without the possibility of having it turned. Death may be at the door. When you begin a day, you don't know that you shall end it! When you lie down, you don't know that you shall rise up! When you leave your house, you don't know that you shall ever return!

For what is your life? it is even as a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes! Life is a bubble that rises, and shines, and bursts! We know not in any one period of our existence—but that it may be the last. Surely, surely, we should then improve our time, when we may be holding, for anything we know, the last portion of it in our hands! With the absolute certainty of a life as long as Methuselah's, not an hour should be wasted!—how much less when we know not that there is a day in reserve for us!

But what are the PURPOSES for which time should be redeemed?

For the SALVATION OF THE SOUL, the business of true religion, the preparation for eternity. You are immortal creatures, my children, and must live forever in torment or in bliss; and certainly you cannot be forming a right estimate of the value of time, nor be rightly employing it, if the soul be forgotten, salvation neglected, and eternity left out of consideration! "For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul; or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" A man may attain to the science of Newton, to the genius of Milton, to the learning of Bentley, to the wealth of Croesus, and to the fame of Alexander—but if the salvation of the soul be neglected, he will through eternity confess and curse his folly—in losing his time! Our great business in this world is to prepare for the next; time is capital given us to trade with for eternity; and that man who goes off the 'theater of life' without having attended supremely to the great business of true religion, will appear to the inhabitants of the unseen world, as well as to himself, an object of amazement for his unparalleled folly in wasting his time upon matters, which, compared with eternal happiness, were utterly insignificant!

We must redeem time for the pursuits of business, for it is ordained that men shall gain their bread by the sweat of their brow; for the improvement of our mind, so far as circumstances will allow, in all useful knowledge; and for the exercise of benevolence. These are the objects which we must ever keep in view, as the claimants who make their demands for the years and the days which God has given us upon earth.

And FROM WHAT is our time to be redeemed?

From SLOTH. How much of it is consumed by this lazy, slumbering, monster! How many golden hours are wasted upon the downy pillow! Late rising is the enemy of piety, of knowledge, of health, of affluence; and the cause of ignorance, irreligion, and poverty. Shall true religion, wisdom, benevolence—my dear children—be found knocking at your chamber door morning after morning, exclaiming, "Awake, you who sleep, and arise!"—and receive no other answer than, "a little more sleep, and a little more slumber!" A habit of early rising has, in many cases, been a fortune to the pocket, and in many more, a fortune to the mind. Reckoning that a day consists of ten hours' active employment, the difference of life between an individual who rises at six o'clock, and another who rises at eight o'clock, is, in the term of sixty years, no less than equal to twelve years, and those the best years of a man's existence. There is in this calculation that which proves late rising not only to be a loss—but a crime! It is so much deducted from a man's existence—and actually given to his grave!

Many of the most distinguished characters in the literary world, owe their eminence to early rising. It is recorded of Buffon, the celebrated natural historian, that wishing to acquire the habit of early rising—both from his love of knowledge and of fame—he promised to pay his servant extra money, for every morning which the servant would be able to get Buffon out of bed by a given time. The servant went most resolutely to work, under the commission that authorized him to drag Buffon, if necessary, out of bed—and, in spite of threats and ill-usage, which he often had to endure from his somnolent master, succeeded in getting him from his bed by the stipulated hour. And Buffon informs us, that to the unwearied perseverance of his servant, the world is indebted for his work on Natural History.

It is a most injurious practice to invert the order of nature, and sit up late instead of rising early. Nocturnal studies rapidly undermine the strongest constitution. Dr. Owen, a name dear to all who love sterling piety and profound theological learning, used to say, when suffering through his excessive application to study, "That he would gladly give up all the knowledge he had acquired after ten o'clock at night, if he could recover all the strength he had lost by studies carried on after that hour."

Let your sleep, then, be necessary and healthful—not idle and wasteful of time, beyond the needs and conveniences of nature; and sometimes be curious to see the entrance which the sun makes, when he is coming forth from his chambers in the east.

Redeem time, from the vain pursuits of personal adornment and DRESS. This applies chiefly, though not exclusively, to the softer sex. It is shocking to think how much precious time is wasted at the mirror, in the silly ambition of rivaling the butterfly and the peacock! What a reproach to a rational creature, is it to neglect the improvement of the soul, for the adornings of the body! This is like painting the outside of a house, while the interior is left to be dark, damp, disheveled, and filthy.

Unprofitable reading is another consumer of time which must be avoided. Worldly amusements, and parties of pleasure, are also injurious. I do not by this mean to condemn the occasional communion of friends in the social circle, where the civilities of life are given and received, the ties of friendship strengthened, and the mind recreated, without any injury being done to the spiritual or moral interests. But the theater, the card-table, the billiard-room, are all to be avoided as vile thieves, which steal our time and hurt our souls! Pleasure parties in general are to be watched with care, and resorted to but seldom, for they seldom pay for the time that is spent. "There are a multitude of people in the world, who, being idle themselves, do their best endeavors to make others so—in which work, partly through a disposition in those others to be made so, and partly through a fear and false shame, which hinders them from fraying away such birds of prey, they are too often allowed to succeed. An assembly of such people can be compared only to a slaughterhouse, where the precious hours, and often the characters of all their friends and acquaintance, are butchered without mercy!"

We must redeem time from the TRIFLING CONVERSATION and gossip of IDLE COMPANIONS, "for no man," says Jeremy Taylor, "can be provident of his time, that is not prudent in the choice of his company; and if one of the speakers be vain, tedious, and trifling—he who hears, and he who answers, are equal losers in their time." "There are always some drones in society, who make much noise—but no honey." We should avoid all those who talk much—but say little, and watch against people whose conversation is like the buzz of moths and caterpillars, not only disagreeable—but carrying on a system of spoliation; and who eat into an hour before we are aware that the mischief is commenced. Such people should consider, that in consuming a man's time, they are committing a felony upon his property, for time is a part of his capital. And all others should retire from such people—for idleness is contagious!

EFFICIENCY. If you would redeem the time, you should not only avoid absolute idleness, or doing nothing—but a slow and sauntering habit of doing anything. To use an old proverb, "We ought not to make greater haste, than good speed." There are some people who are always in a hurry, and all they do, bears marks of haste. Everything they do is half done, or badly done. But there is a wide difference between habits of efficiency—and bustling hurry. A thing is not better done for having twice as much time consumed upon it, as it needs. There are individuals who seem always to creep to an engagement, and almost to slumber over it. As it respects general habits, a parent can scarcely teach a child a more valuable art than efficiency without bustle—nor can any one that values his time, cultivate a more desirable one for himself.

ORDER and PUNCTUALITY are essential to a right improvement of time. I mention these things together, because they are so closely connected, and have such a mutual influence on each other. One, indeed, is the order of 'place', the other is the order of 'time'. The best, and indeed the only rules, which any man can with propriety prescribe for himself, are these—"A time for everything—and everything in its time. A place for everything—and everything in its place." A habit of order may be fairly said to lengthen a man's life, not by multiplying its hours—but by enabling him more advantageously to employ them. Disorderly habits are perpetually wasting our time. When a person has no one place for any one thing—but lays everything down, just wherever he may happen to be, he is sure to spend his life in confusion. He never knows where to find what he needs. Let such a person conceive what an amount of time would be made up by all the minutes and hours which he has employed during his life in looking for misplaced articles; to say nothing of the trouble he has endured, and the inconvenience in which others have been involved. In business, order is property, and every tradesman deficient in this virtue, ought, in taking stock, to have this item on the loss side of the balance-sheet, "So much lost for lack of order." And, as disorderly habits waste our time, they are not only improper—but actually sinful.

PUNCTUALITY is another habit very important to a right improvement of time. Fix your time—and then keep it. Perhaps you know some people who are always behind-hand. The clock is to them an article without use—they do all things as if by whim or impulse. They are thus mischief-makers, without malice; and as far as in them lies, bring a chaos into human affairs. An individual who keeps a company of twelve people waiting for him but five minutes, wastes an hour! "Punctuality," says an elegant writer, "is a quality which the interest of mankind requires to be diffused through all the ranks of life—but which many seem to consider as a vulgar and ignoble virtue, below the ambition of greatness, or the attention of wit; scarcely requisite among men of gaiety and spirit, and sold at its highest rate when it is sacrificed to a frolic or a jest."

Punctuality has another reference besides our time, I mean to our word. To promise without intending to perform, is absolute falsehood. But we ought to be very cautious how we bind ourselves by a promise, which is subject to contingencies beyond our foresight, or above our control. Many a man has subjected himself to the reproach of a liar without intending to deceive. Some people make all engagements with their eyes shut, and no sooner open them than they find it impossible to fulfill their word. We should always pause before we issue these verbal promissory notes, and calculate whether we have the means to meet them when they are presented for payment.

Nothing can be more unjust or cruel, than a willful lack of punctuality in pecuniary transactions. It is unkind to keep, through our delays, a cook stirring a dinner in the kitchen. To thwart the expectation of a tradesman, dependent, upon our punctuality, is a species of inhuman cruelty.

A good method, wisely arranged and punctually observed in the distribution of our time, would materially assist us in rightly employing it. True religion, business, mental improvement, the exercises of benevolence, ought all, so far as the ever-varying circumstances of life will admit of it, to have their proper allotments. Each hour should know its proper employment, and receive its proper care in its season. No one should leave his days to be occupied by whatever accident or chance can seize them; for then, trifles being more common and clamorous than other things of greater importance, are likely to run off with the greatest share.

Have always some work in hand, which may be going on during the many spare intervals, for there will be many spare intervals in both of business and recreation. Pliny, in one of his letters, where he gives an account of the various methods he used, to fill up every vacancy of time, after several employments which he enumerates, says, "Sometimes I hunt—but then I carry with me a book, that while my servants are busied in disposing of the nets and other matters, I may be employed in something that may be useful to me in my studies; and that if I miss of my game, I may at the least bring home some of my own thoughts with me, and not have the disappointment of having caught nothing all day."

This is the way to excellence and wisdom; and it is a road open to all. Carry about with you, therefore, some book, or subject, which shall gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost; for these fragments, like chips of diamond, or fragments of gold—are too precious to be thrown away. It is with our property as with our time, when we look at it in the gross, we spend freely because it seems as if it would never be exhausted; and when we have hours, half hours, or quarters, we squander them because they are not worth keeping.

There is a proverb which our frugal ancestors have taught us, "Take care of the shillings, and the pounds will take care of themselves." So in reference to our time I would say, "Take care of your hours, and the years will take care of themselves." A man that is thrifty with his money, will grow rich upon what another throws away, as not worth saving; so a man that is thrifty of his time, will grow wise by those small vacancies which intervene in the most crowded variety of employment, and which many are foolish enough to squander upon trifles—or saunter away in idleness!

Avoid procrastination. Do at once what at once ought to be done. Let not the season of action be spent in the hesitancy of skepticism, or the purpose of future effort. Do not let tomorrow be perpetually the time when everything is to be done, unmindful that the present time alone is ours—as the past is dead—and the future yet unborn.

A right improvement of time, then, my dear children, is the way to knowledge, which does not in every case require uninterrupted leisure; only keep the mind open to receive ideas, and diligently employ every spare moment in collecting them, and it is astonishing how rapidly the accumulation of mental treasure will go forward.

But it is chiefly in reference to eternity that I exhort you to redeem the time. Too many attempt to justify their neglect of true religion by pleading a lack of opportunity to attend to its high concerns. But how inadmissible such a plea is, the subject of this chapter plainly proves—for, as we have formerly shown, true religion is a right disposition of mind towards the great and blessed God, and we now see that such a disposition, besides the more solemn seasons of public and private prayer, will pour its influence over the whole of a man's life, and fill the vacancies which are left between the most crowded occupations, with short petitions to heaven, and the aspirations of a soul panting after God, and the anticipations of a renewed mind looking towards eternity.

Remember then, above all things, that time was given you to repent of sin, to pray for pardon, to believe in Christ, to work out your salvation, to lay up treasures in heaven, to prepare for the solemnities of judgment, and secure that happiness which is not measured by the revolution of years—but is, in the strictest sense of the word, ETERNAL!

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