Keeping an Eye on the Backward Clock: How Getting Things Done Relates to the Biblical Call for Holiness

Scott Belsky, in Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality:

The notion of the backward clock is simple: if you were told the exact year, day, and time that your life would end, would you manage your time and energy any differently? Even if that date were seventy-three years, twelve days, two hours, and thirty seconds from now, would you become more aware of time passing, minute by minute?

In essence, we all have a final date and time ahead of us, but we are not burdened with a countdown. This is probably a good thing, given the anxiety that such information would create. Nevertheless, there are some benefits from keeping an eye on the backward clock. As you seek to capitalize on your creative energy, insights, and ideas, the window of opportunity is always closing. A dose of pressure is a good thing.

The fact that time is ticking should motivate you to take action on your ideas. When little opportunities present themselves, you might decide to seize them. An eye on the backward clock helps you stomach the risk because, after all, time is running out. Get on it.

Belsky’s point is that we all have a limited time here on earth, and so if we have ideas we want to make happen and things we want to accomplish, that should motivate us to get going.

His point is profoundly true — and biblical. Notice how the apostle Paul, for example, argues similarly — and how he seems to have one difference at first, but which upon further reflection really isn’t. Here’s what Paul says:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself….Besides this, you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime… (Romans 13:9, 11-13).

Like Belsky, Paul is calling attention to the fact that the time is short. Here the emphasis is on the fact that Christ will be returning, and as each moment passes we grow closer to the final day. Then, like Belsky, Paul also points out that this should be motivating to our behavior. It should lead us to “walk properly as in the daytime,” walking as children of light, not darkness.

And here is where it looks like Belsky and the apostle Paul part ways. For at first it looks like Paul’s application is very different from Belsky’s. If we were in to overspiritualizing, we could accidentally (and unfairly) Jesus-juke Belsky here by saying something like “Belsky, he’s great, but you know, what’s really important in light of the fact that our time is short is that we live holy lives — not get things done.” To say that would diminish the value of Belsky’s point here, something that is true and significant in its own right.

The biblical approach, I believe, is to affirm the truth and significance of Belsky’s point, and then notice that it connects to some biblical realities that give it an even deeper foundation and wider application.

And when we do this, we find that Belsky and the apostle Paul are actually very close together in their applications.

But, that’s hard to see. The reason that’s hard to see is because we so easily translate the biblical calls to holiness in to the avoidance ethic. That’s the notion that biblical holiness is chiefly about avoiding evil rather than proactively doing good. It’s the notion that if we sit at home every night watching clean PG-13 movies with our family, avoid cussing, and stay far away from anything that appears sinful, we are doing fine. That avoiding evil is the essence of biblical holiness and what God requires of us.

But it’s not. Biblical holiness is not simply about avoiding evil, though that is important; it is about proactively doing good. The call of the Scriptures is that we are to be eager and creative and proactive in doing all the positive good we can — and doing it in humble reliance on God’s power. That is the essence of a holy life.We are to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” not simply “stay squeaky clean by avoiding evil.” In fact, if the essence of your Christian ethic is what you don’t do, you’ve failed to grasp that you’ve not succeded in avoiding evil at all — for the greatest of all evils is right in your heart, in your refusal to proactively take action on behalf of others, “loving your neighbor as yourself.”

How does this relate to Belsky’s point? Belsky is talking about making ideas happen and getting things done in his book. Here’s the connection: When Paul is calling us to “walk as children of the light,” he is not simply calling us to stay away from sin (the avoidance ethic); he is calling us to proactively do good for others. This follows not only from the very meaning of “light” and “holiness” in the Bible, but also from the fact that Paul had just quoted the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” and is actually elaborating on that. The biblical ethic of loving our neighbor as ourselves is the essence of the proactive ethic I am talking about here. For we love ourselves proactively (for example, I don’t wait to run out of gas before filling my car; I anticipate how much gas I have left and obtain it in advance), and we are to love others the same way, with just as much energy and enthusiasm as we have for our own happiness. “Love your neighbor as yourself” means to love your neighbor with the same enthusiasm, eagerness, forethought, and creativity with which we meet our own needs.

And to do this — that is, to be proactive in doing good for others — requires getting things done and making ideas happen. Knowing how to get things done is a chief tool in our arsenal for going about the world with our eyes and ears open, seeking to do all the good we can in all the ways we can.

When you are making ideas happen, in other words, you are serving your neighbor and serving the world, if you do it in faith and for the glory of God. Further, by learning how to make ideas happen, we learn how to be more effective in executing the initiatives necessary to meet the needs of others — and thus become more effective in serving others and loving them in ways that actually help (and work, without taking forever!).

That’s what getting things done is about. And that’s why Belsky’s point is not only true and correct in itself, but also even more true for the Christian — who has even higher and greater motives to make their ideas happen: chiefly, the good of others and the glory of God, which is especially urgent not just because we will one day die, but because this age is drawing to a close and “salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”


  • john sullivan

    “lord teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” ps 90:12

  • Philip Shimer

    I really appreciate this. On my blog I am doing something I read first on another site. It is called creating Finish List

    I want to call people to action on their dreams and goals. I knew that I was not doing this to simply call people simply to try and improve their morality. I tried to explain why I was doing this a little more in another post:

    I really appreciate your thoughts because I grew up with the attitude of avoid evil receive justification philosophy and now that I have wrestled through that and understand it better I want to call people to do good, but for an entire different reasoning. I think it is crazy that I got to a point where I felt bad for calling people to do good. This has helped me better understand why I am doing it…thank you sir.

  • Carey

    Thanks for thinking this through and sharing your thoughts Matt… I completely agree. Paul is all about DOING holy things in this world… the return of Christ as a huge factor in his estimation of how to go about that. I love the Romans 13 reference… it’s powerful, if we let it be. Blessings!

  • Loren Pinilis

    Another interesting point is to consider God’s grace in not telling us the time of Jesus’s return or the time of our deaths. If it was for our benefit to know when these things would happen, God would have told us.
    As I think about it, it seems to me that this lack of knowledge prevents us from wasting our lives and then trying to make a deathbed conversion. The potential of impending death is one motivator to not be slow with these matters.
    But it does seem to actually be a prohibitor to productivity in that our sin nature can often lull us to sleep instead of leading us to number our days. Perhaps that’s another reason why the Bible so often points out the shortness of our lives and the value of our time.

  • Matt

    Amen, Loren. Great thoughts.

  • Pingback: 5 "Thinking Man (or Woman)" Articles - PastorPelton()