Seize the Day, Part 2

The entire craze for purpose today raises important questions: What does it say of how we see the meaning of life, and how are we to make the most of it? Os Guinness addresses these questions in his new book, Carpe Diem Redeemed. Read part 2 of 3 below.

Taken from Carpe Diem Redeemed by Os Guinness. ©2019 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL, 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com. Image: ©2019 [Jens Bonnke] c/o theispot.com.

This article is part 2 of 3. Read part 1 here.

Not a Moment, But a Way of Life

The Bible’s idea of carpe diem, “seize the day,” or “redeeming the time” is sharply different from the direction to which most people take the ideal—toward the selfish, the short term, and the purely spontaneous. There is no surer foundation, no stronger propulsion, and no more soaring vision of carpe diem than within the biblical or covenantal view of time. Yet just as freedom is not “the permission to do what you like” but “the power to do what you should,” so “seizing the day” is far more than the matter of bare choice—Krznaric’s “that you choose rather than what you choose.” Why you choose, how you choose, and what you choose are all vital and decisive factors in the Bible’s understanding.

As discussed earlier in this book, repentance and forgiveness are the key to “redeeming the time” in terms of the past, and notions such as Sabbath and sabbaticals are a key to redeeming the time in terms of the present. But what of redeeming the time in terms of the future, as “Carpe Diem” is usually understood? Seizing the day or redeeming future time is rising to life within a powerful matrix of truths that sets out an entire way of life in which the ideal of carpe diem can come to its highest fruition. God calls us in the flux and flow of time and history, and the gift of being able to seize the day flowers from a way of life that weaves together three principles: “Walk before God,” “Read the signs of the times,” and “Serve God’s purpose in your generation.”

Walk Before God

Why “walk before God” rather than merely striking out in whatever impromptu acts of faith or whatever unplanned new directions in life may spring to mind? For one thing, creative improvisation is far more than random impulsiveness, a studied effort to flout the past, a passion to shock the bourgeoisie, or a trendy craze to be creatively destructive. The freest and most brilliant creative improvisations, whether in sport, singing, jazz, painting, dancing, politics, or thinking, are not random acts of fancy but the fruit of a genuine mastery of an art. They are born of countless hours of training, practice, and discipline—the celebrated “ten thousand hours” principle through which mastery has become intuitive and there is freedom for the new and creative. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, was often known for his surprising and spontaneous acts, but far from random, they were born of the depth of his deep and daily relationship with Jesus and his care for his fellow humans and God’s other creatures.

For another thing, the natural and necessary foundation of the life of faith is walking before God. What a person says and does, and how they live in daily life, are always the best test of what they say they believe and the truest indication of their intentions and motivations. Goethe remarked that “we should try in vain to describe a man’s character, but let his acts be collected, and an idea of the character will be presented to us.”13 That may sound obvious, but it is not how many people think about God and faith. Just ask the question, Is there a God, and what is the best way to know him? and most people will answer in terms of philosophy. Western thinking and faith have been heavily influenced by the Greeks, and many people therefore tend naturally to discuss God using philosophy. They think about God and understand faith through philosophical arguments and proofs, using logic and building a case from nature (for example, the famous theistic proofs for God).

What a person says and does, and how they live in daily life, are always the best test of what they say they believe and the truest indication of their intentions and motivations.

Yet the Jewish people have long pointed out that God is introduced in the Bible through history rather than philosophy, and that faithfulness (or reliability and loyalty) is central to the notion of faith. Faith in God is not the conclusion of a syllogism or the last link that completes an intellectual chain of logic. God is known in the Bible through the story of encounters, in experience, in history. The Jews knew God unmistakably because he rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and they saw and experienced his majesty at Mt. Sinai. As the rabbis point out, one might expect the Ten Commandments to be introduced with the words, “I am the Lord your God who created the heavens and the earth.” But what God actually said in declaring them was, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). They knew God unmistakably through his great acts in history—the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the encounter at Mt. Sinai, the provision of water and manna in the wilderness.

This emphasis on the walk of faith is striking in the description of God’s call to Abraham. The text in Genesis is very specific about what he is to leave and break away from:

Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you. (Gen 12:1)

But it is silent—it says absolutely nothing—about what he is to do when he gets there. All Abraham is told is “Walk before Me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). The same was true for the first followers of Jesus. They became “followers of Jesus” or “followers of the Way.” The good news the early Christians trumpeted to the world was the story of what God had done and what as firsthand witnesses they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. But their basic witness was the way they lived it out in their lives—their “walk.”

This stress on history rather than philosophy is behind the vast difference between what Pascal described as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” who is not the “god of philosophers and scholars.” A truth well-lived outweighs both a truth well-stated and a truth well-argued. A truth well-stated is excellent, but a truth well-lived is priceless. To say that is not to disparage good philosophy. Good philosophy is as a matter of “good thinking about thinking,” and it is especially crucial for establishing the sort of wisdom common to all human beings as well as for clearing the ground and showing that faith is neither irrational nor foolish as critics claim. But God is primarily known through his actions in history and in the lives of individuals rather than through arguments alone.

A truth well-stated is excellent, but a truth well-lived is priceless.

Above all, the reality of God is better demonstrated in the story of the life, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus than in a thousand arguments about the existence of God. And the credibility of faith shines out more clearly in a life of real faith than in the statement of mere beliefs or the declaration of a creed. A life of faith is the story of the truths Christians believe but are embodied in human form. Each such life adds its support to the voice of the Bible as the grand story of a thousand smaller stories of God’s breaking into the experience of human beings in real life. To be sure, words count crucially, propositions matter vitally, and truths about God may and must be stated theologically and accurately, as in the majestic prophecies of Isaiah, the profundity of St. Paul’s arguments to the first Christians in Rome, or in the historic creeds of the church. Clarity of faith is essential, loyalty to truth is all-important, and truth claims must always be set out as cogently as possible. But the multilayered reality of truth comes into its own in the visible, audible, and tangible reality of a life lived by faith.

Many implications flow from this point. For example, the reminder and insistence that faith (in Hebrew emunah) means faithfulness, loyalty, and trustworthiness, so that apostasy is tantamount to adultery, a violation of love and loyalty and not simply a failure of theological correctness. But one central implication is that the life of faith is a way of living in relationship with God, and not simply a matter of a stated belief. For people of faith, this means that seizing the day is never a sudden impulse or a random act of unplanned inspiration. It is not a whim or short-lived intention like a New Year’s resolution. Seizing the day is the creative expression of a seasoned way of life that knows God and is steeped in always seeing time, history, and life “under God,” and in living God’s way faithfully before him. “Walking before God,” then, is living as God intends us to live, and the essential foundation without which making the most of life is impossible.

Os Guinness (DPhil, Oxford) is a social critic and member of the RZIM speaking team. This article appears in Just Thinking Magazine issue 27.4.

Want a copy of Carpe Diem Redeemed? Purchase it here.

13Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, quoted in John Lukacs, Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians and Historical Knowledge, ed. Mark G. Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004), 5, 9.

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