Do we allow God’s Word to change the way we interact with the world around us, or do we try to read God’s Word so as to validate those things we already know and like? Ideally, we are the clay (cf. Isaiah 64:8), and rather than reading the Bible to affirm what we already want to believe, we should be allowing God to mold us and transform us according to His will (cf. Romans 12:2). The very-human tendency to latch on to those passages within the Bible which encourage our current behavior whilst neglecting those which might challenge our norms will not produce transformation, but instead allows for stagnation and complacency. This happens in ways both large and small, and it is a temptation against which the student of the Bible should guard as best as possible when seeking to interpret and apply God’s word to self and to the world around.
Consider, by way of example, the issue of punctuality.
Americans, by and large, are a punctual people. We like things to happen when they are supposed to happen. There are a few cultures more punctual, such as Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, but not many. This also means that there is a good chunk of the world which operates on a much more flexible time scale. Americans traveling abroad can find such a scale frustrating, nerve-wracking and even maddening. We like people to show up when they say they will; we like meetings and events to start on the hour; we like our projects to be done when they say they will be done. We are so accustomed to such punctuality that we find it hard to empathize with a world-view where showing up half an hour late is considered not just acceptable, but normal, where starting meetings fifteen or thirty minutes late because you are still waiting on participants to arrive is the polite thing to do, and where estimations of scheduling are mostly polite fictions.
Understanding this about ourselves, consider the question then of whether punctuality is a Christian Virtue, or simply a Cultural Virtue?
If you were to ask this question in most American churches, a good number of those answering would insist that punctuality must be a Christian virtue and they would even be able to marshal arguments from the Scriptures to prove their point. Christians are to be honest, with their “yes” being “yes,” and their “no” being “no” (cf. Matthew 5:37). If we say we are going to do a thing at a certain time, then honesty, we would argue, compels us to do our best to meet that schedule. Likewise, Christians are to be a considerate people. We are reminded, “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:2).” Certainly, we would like to think, being courteous and considerate means showing up on time. With such reasoning, we feel justified in feeling upset when people are late, for we feel they are being discourteous to us.
Yet, is it possible that we might be overlooking other Biblical lessons which, if applied, would compel us to seek to adjust our thinking? The Bible advises us to recognize that not everything is always going to go according to plan (cf. James 4:13-17). The Bible also tells us that, “Love is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4).” Love, being patient, is perfectly willing to wait for others.
The apostolic church of the New Testament was not necessarily a punctual church. Not everyone got to the worship service at the same time. This allowed some to eat all of the communion bread before others got there, and to drink all the juice, a thing which Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-22). In seeking to solve this problem, the American would likely seek to promote greater punctuality. The inspired apostle, we might notice, chose a different solution: “when you come together to eat, wait for one another (1 Corinthians 11:33).”
Relatedly, God is not always going to operate according to our desired schedule. Rather than fret over this, or get angry at God, the Scriptures counsel: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him (Psalm 37:7).”
There is nothing wrong with punctuality, but neither should we convince ourselves that it makes us more godly, simply because it is the way we prefer to do things. The true virtue taught in Scripture is patience: a willingness to wait upon others when they are not meeting our desired schedule. Whether it is learning to wait upon God, or learning to wait for other people, it is in this learning of patience that we will become more the person God wants us to be.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.