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If Time is Money

July 1, 2012, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (James 4:11-17) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: James, 雅各书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Note: This sermon only deals with the verses from James 4:13-17. For an exposition on verses 11,12 on Judging, I recommend my sermon on 'How to Treat Others', link at the footnotes below: [A].

Let’s begin with an experiment. Imagine that you're buying something from an electronics chain store. As you're checking out, the cashier tells you that another store in the chain has the same item on sale for $X less. They're unable to give you the discount at this store, so if you want to save the money you'd have to go to the other store. This would take about half an hour, round trip. You don't have anything urgent to do. Question for all: How much do the savings have to be for you to go to the other store?
[*conduct the experiment*]

About half of the congregation said X had to be $15-30 and the other half said it had to be at least $100. Every person in the first group was told they were buying a DVD player for $90. Every person in the second group was told they were buying a laptop for $1500. What's being purchased shouldn't be relevant since in either case you're running a half-hour errand in order to save $X, but clearly the amount being spent changes our perceptions. Car dealers make a ton of money off this little cognitive misfire by selling extras that we wouldn't buy in isolation but which seem like small potatoes in the context of spending five figures on a new car. [i]

Essentially, when we were doing the experiment, all of us have these three premises in our mind:
a. Time is Money: That price may be different from person to person, but nobody would give up their time for nothing.
b. This sum of Money is good value for the sacrificed Time: Until we realized just how this figure can be easily manipulated, we all thought that the figure in our mind was pretty good.
c. I am in control of this transaction: We assumed that we do have the certainty to convert our spare time into money or savings. Yet, if I were to tell you that you would be killed in an accident on the way to the second store, I doubt any amount of savings would be worth your time.

Conceptually, I think we understand that these three premises aren’t always true. We are well aware of our mortality and that we don’t really have full control over every detail of our lives. And if given a straight-forward dilemma, when it is only one or the other, we will always choose time for our loved ones over money. We do understand that what is good value is always relative. But pragmatically, these premises are still our default assumptions in life. We need to live as if time is always in our hands, and in life, we need to plan our time well to maximise the returns. For most of us, exchanging time for money is something we do unknowingly every day.

Yet, I suspect the effects of “Time is Money” are somewhat different for each one of us. There are those who earn a fixed salary like me. I don’t get anything monetary for every extra hour I put in. So, I am the type that would probably cash in on a $10 savings to go to a store 15 min away. You guys see me carrying my bag with me all the time. What you don’t know is that I carry in it all kinds of vouchers and discount cards, so that I may save a few bucks when I have to buy something. My wife sometimes complains that I choose my restaurants based on my available discounts. I have to explain to her that “time is money” opportunities don’t come by so often for me. I have to change my time for something of value whenever possible.

There are those whose jobs come with variable bonuses and variable increments. Their extra time can be translated into a better performance at work to get that extra bonus. I guess time is worth more money to these folks, because more time invested would mean higher pay. At the next level, ‘Time is money’ is even truer for those who earn by commissions like housing or insurance agents, and also for those who are paid by the hour like lawyers and psychotherapists. Every hour and minute can be easily translated into money. If time is money, it is no surprise to see them on the phone all the time or working during vacations.

Yet, there is a group of people where ‘Time is Money’ operates on a different level altogether. In the ancient times, we call them the merchant class, today we call them traders. In the ancient times, merchants have to plan and say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”(v.13) In today’s world, with everything connected electronically, and commodities and shares represented digitally, trading can take place anytime instantly. For these people, ‘Time is Money’ because ‘Foreknowledge/Foresight is Money’. They are gifted in reading the times, understanding the trends and making the right investments. Making money means knowing the right time to buy and the right time to sell. For the rest of us, the translation of time to money is incremental, but for traders, this translation is exponential. And this is where ‘Time is Money’ really takes off. Every sum of money earned now is more capital to be further invested later. All you need is two ingredients, information about the future and time. When time is not just money, but exponential money, what kind of effects does it have on a person?

You might have heard the quote from Spiderman, that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. What you might not know is that ‘with great power comes great illusion of control’. We will come to appreciate this more and more as our abilities increase as we become older. Those with the gift of the gap can negotiate themselves out of a difficult situation. Those with the technical skills can handle all kinds of complicated devices. Those with great experience come out with innovative solutions. Those with charm can stir up a crowd. With each gift you have, you feel empowered to manage and control your fate. You become the master of your destiny. Traders need the gift of foresight and the ability to lay their cards right. What may look like luck to others is really a matter of hard work and good acumen. There are those who stay up late to monitor the foreign markets. Some research intensively on companies and world events. Others study consumer behaviour and manipulate decision making. These are great powers and those who play the game well, gradually fall into a great illusion of control. You feel like you know what’s coming. You feel like you have what it takes to react perfectly to the situation. Time is money, and given time, money will come. And as your wealth piles up, your sense of security grows with it. You feel you have strength to control the future.

James has 2 responses to the merchant class of his time, and I think they remain relevant for the traders of today. His first response is to go really small: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. (v.14)” This might seem quite silly because the people he was addressing were precisely those who knew what would happen tomorrow. Knowing tomorrow was precisely why they made good merchants and traders. But I guess James was referring to the illusion of control. Most of the time, as traders, you think you know; and you may be right, this is the reason why you make money. But deep down inside, as James would probe, do you really, really know? Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this uncertainty as the Black Swan Event [ii]. He describes the psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs. We often rationalize surprizing events with the benefit of hindsight. Taleb’s company loses money 99.9% of the time hoping to cash in on the one surprise of a lifetime. Guess what? Surprises happen more often than you think, and his company is very profitable. The truth is that you think you know, but you don’t really know.

The second response from James is to go really big: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (v.14)” When ‘Time is Money’, there’s no stopping you from getting lots of money. And as your wealth piles up, it feels like physical evidence that you have done a lot with your time. I was like this (gesture small) last time, but now I am like this (gesture big). With money, it feels like you can even control time, because now you can use money to buy time. You have people to do the daily chores and people to do things faster for you. You are saving time which can be further converted to money. But let’s reflect on this for a moment. No matter what you do, are you really gaining time, or are you losing time? In the end, you realise that time is the only commodity you own that can never be replenished. And when you go really big picture, as James has asked, our entire lifetime is actually a rather short time. This is why people have mid-life crises. They suddenly realise, half their life is gone and they haven’t driven a sport car yet. With great power, comes the great illusion of control. But aging is something you cannot control. Money can only help you with cosmetics to cover up the effects.

The solution from James and his subsequent condemnation seems disproportionate. His solution seems to be to add in five words: “If it is the Lord’s will.” Otherwise, without the 5 words, James would condemn and say “you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.” Isn’t this an over-reaction? Such an understanding of this passage is why we hear in Christian circles, people saying “If it is the Lord’s will, I will do this” or “If it is the Lord’s will, I will do that”. Such a superficial understanding makes James sound ridiculous, because it seems merely about the use of some pious-sounding words. Furthermore, it also doesn’t flow with the next line which talks about the sin of omission: “17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

To reconcile all these, we have to understand the relationship between ‘Time is Money’ and ‘Doing good and God’s will’. In 1973, John Darley and Daniel Batson published one of the most famous papers looking into helping behavior. The study was entitled From Jerusalem to Jericho, and was effectively a modern-day reenactment of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The study involved seminarians who were then scheduled to deliver a sermon at an appointed time and place. Half of them were even assigned to preach on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Upon arriving at the designated place the seminarians were told that the location of the sermon had been changed at the last minute and that they were to go to a new location. A third of the seminarians were put under strong time pressure, and told that they needed to get to the new venue in a hurry. The second third was under moderate time pressure and the final third was told there was no hurry.

Along the route (an alleyway) to the next venue Darley and Batson had placed a person who showed signs of distress. As the subject passed, the confederate would cough twice and groan, basically showing signs of abdominal pain. As the seminarians went pass, a key variable was recorded: Would they stop to check on the groaning person?

In short, what we have is a controlled simulation of Jesus's parable. Overall, the results revealed that the single biggest factor in helping was the hurry manipulation. In the Low Hurry Condition: 63% offered aid. In the High Hurry Condition: only 10% offered aid. And, incidentally, some seminarians in the high hurry condition literally stepped over the groaning person on the way to deliver their sermon on the Good Samaritan. [iii]

From the study, I hope you now understand the relationship between ‘Time is Money’ and ‘Doing good and God’s will’. It isn’t that we don’t know God’s will or we don’t know how to do good. Very often, it is because we are always in a hurry. And nothing spells out hurry like ‘Time is Money’. Every bit of time that is not utilized is money lost. And for traders, every sum of money lost is money that they know they could compound over time. And here is where James’ solution, asking ‘if it is God’s will’, makes sense. You have to decide. Is it ‘Time is Money’ or is it ‘Time is God’s Will’? If you have reflected on the two responses given by James, you should know that ‘Time is God’s Will’. God is the one who holds tomorrow. God is the one who is eternal. And this is why anyone who denies this, and insists that ‘no, the time is mine’ and ‘the money is mine’ is boasting. This is why such boasting is evil, because you are claiming to be above God. ‘Time is Money’ is when you know the good you are supposed to do but you don’t do it because you have no more time.

There is an argument I’ve heard from a person who said “You keep asking me to give time to the church, but I can better use that time to make money. For every amount of time I give to the Church, if I use it to make money, I can give that money to employ more full time staff with time to serve.” Logically, that makes sense. Why take one hour from one guy who can use that hour to buy many more hours from another guy? The merchants of James’ era can make the same argument: “why give one dollar to the poor now, when I can invest and multiply that dollar and give much more to the poor later?” If ‘Time is Money’, then these traders can make it happen, because the future is foreseeable and within their control.

But Time is not Money, Time is God’s Will. Where you use your time is where you would use your money. If you believe the time and money is yours, why should you give to something with whom you have no connection? But if you believe the time and money is subjected to God’s will, you will spend time on God’s purposes, and you will use money on God’s purposes. This is why you ask ‘if it is God’s will’, and this is how you can avoid sins of omission.

To make this even more practical for you, I like how a theologian uses this term ‘Interruptibility’. “Basically, interruptibility is a way of making room for others. Making room in your To Do list, making space so we can slow down and pay attention to others. Interruptibility is also a form of humility. We tend to become uninterruptible when we think our agenda is the most important. Thus, when you allow someone to interrupt you, you are implicitly setting their agenda ahead of your own. From today onwards, set aside the worldly notion that Time is Money, and submit yourself to Time that is God’s will. Put other people's interests on your To Do list. Be interruptible.

[i] Thanks to my online friend for this anecdote:
[iii] Summary taken from

James 4:11–17 (Listen)

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.