The Relativity of Time

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Have you ever thought about how time tends to vanish and nothing ever seems to get done? Time is like the proverbial left sock in a dryer: it disappears into thin air, never to be seen again. And, just like your missing left sock, once time is gone you’re sure to need it.

Why is time like this? Why does there never seem to be enough time? It wasn’t always this way, you know. When I was a little kid, I can remember how long the weeks were; 5 days of school was almost an eternity! And months? Months were an unreal measurement of time!

The same was even more true when the summer arrived. There was, apparently, no end in sight to the long weeks of summer vacation. I grew up in the city, and so when the summer came I would go visit my friend, Scott, at his farm in the country. We would spend the long, fun-filled days horseback riding, playing, roaming through the woods in search of “little green men from Alpha Centauri.” Those were great days, days filled with lazy speculation about the future and with joyful flights of fancy. When I was a young boy it always seemed like there was more than enough time to do everything I wanted, needed, or had to do. When I was a young boy the old saying: “as slow as Christmas” meant something. Today, it is meaningless.

Albert Einstein, the great physicist, said that the passage of time was always relative to the motion and location of the observer. The faster one is moving, the slower time appears to be passing--but not to the person in motion, only to the person watching from a “stationary” location. In other words, if I were traveling at almost the speed of light I would think that time was passing normally but, to somebody watching me from the Earth’s surface I would appear to be frozen in time! Not only would I be aging much more slowly than a person watching from Earth, but for me the trip I was making would appear to take much less time than it would to the observer. What a wonderful idea! Just get going fast enough, and time slows down and you age more slowly! Unfortunately, from our perspective it would appear that Einstein missed an important point in his Relativity Equations: the passage of time is not only relative to how fast we are moving, it is also relative to how old and how busy we are. As we get older and busier, and as we pine after those glory days long gone by, time appears to move faster and faster. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? When we’re young, and have more time on our hands, it feels as though we have all the time in the world. But, as we age we come to realize that time is quite limited and, horror upon horrors, it is moving way too fast!

Albert Einstein was right: time is relative. For me, time is relative to how much I have to do. In other words, the more I have to do, the less time I have to do it in.

We all face this dilemma. “I can’t afford the time to do that” is a very common complaint among us these days. And the sad thing is that it’s true.

“I can’t afford the time to go to one more board meeting.”
“I can’t afford the time to go to one more training seminar.”
“I can’t afford the time to teach that Sunday School Class.”
“I can’t afford the time to come to Church.”
“I can’t afford the time to pray today.”

Sound familiar? More times than I would like to admit, I have heard many of these same phrases coming out of my own mouth. And, at the time, they too seemed true.

It is also true that we cannot afford not to make the time to do many of these things. And notice, I said make. Time is not found, it is not rescued, and it certainly is not saved. Time is made.

Not long ago I had a serious problem with a friend of mine. We both live very busy lives. Our schedules clashed horribly. When he was coming, I was going; when I was going, he was coming. Needless to say, this resulted in some serious misunderstandings, and our friendship suffered as a result. It is sad, but true: if you don’t make time for others, if you don’t make time for your relationships, if you don’t make time for the things that are important to you, they will quickly fade into the background and become less important as time slips away. A friendship can be easily starved to death if it is not given any time.

The same is true for our spiritual lives. Yes, we’ve all got 10 thousand things to do by yesterday, and yes there are a million more things to do by tonight, but it is possible to make time for God. It is possible to make time for a strong, healthy prayer life. It is possible to make time for service to the Church. Just like with human relationships, if we don’t make the time for our relationship with God it too will falter.

Time, as I said, is relative; but not to God. We often talk about God as if God were trapped in time, or were subject to the passage of time. For God, however, time is truly non-relative. I believe that God perceives time -- past, present, and future -- as if it was all now. If God created time, then certainly God must be beyond time, right? And, assuming this, does this not make some sense out of all those difficult ideas like predestination and Divine foreknowledge? Word additives like “pre” and “fore” are temporally based, and therefore have meaning for us. But not for God. For God, all things, be they past, present, or future, happen at once; they happen now.

Which means, my friends, that we don’t have to be worried about time, or our lack of it. Even if it appears to be passing way too quickly for us, God has all the time in eternity to take care of you and me.

© 1994 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from