At the time of this writing, I am 43 years old. I have been married for 21 years. I have four children from age 19 down to almost 3. I have moved houses 19 times, in three different states and two countries. These facts hold multiple experiences and transitions. The stabilizing factor is my spiritual walk with God, and like everyone else, that walk has taken me on different terrain throughout various times.
I have found it helpful to live in attentiveness to a guiding truth that’s easily lost in the clutter of our lives. It is this: God desires us to discern the ‘fullness of time’ we are in so that we flourish.
WHAT IS “THE FULLNESS OF TIME”?
In Galatians 4:4, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
What is the meaning of “the fullness of time”?
This idea – the fullness of time – was not invented by Paul. Jesus used it to describe His presence in the world. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).
The idea of ‘fulfilled time’ or the ‘fullness of time’ means that it is the right time, the perfect time for God’s plan to be accomplished.
The first century was the right time for the incarnate Messiah to come into the world, putting on flesh and dwelling among us. The Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean world, and the areas bordering it. The construction of safe roads and improved communications brought peoples of the region closer together. The influence of the Greek language provided a more unified world view, enabling better communication. To many, the appeal of monotheism was intense, leading some to become converts to Judaism, or at least “God-fearers.” Polytheism or religions that involved human sacrifice were becoming more and more unsatisfactory to the more philosophically-minded. In the Jewish world, many, knowing biblical prophecy, were waiting for the Messiah’s imminent appearance to restore their independence from Roman rule.
The stage took thousands of years to set, but finally, the right time for God’s plan to be accomplished to send the Great Rescuer, had come. The Gospel of Jesus could and would flourish in such a time as this.
Paul emphasizes this idea again in Ephesians 1:9-10 where he wrote, “Making known to us the mystery of his will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
God does not act arbitrarily. He has not changed.
There is a right time, a perfect time for every one of God’s plans for our lives to be accomplished. And it is not all at the same time!
King Solomon observed this truth in his description of the cycles of life, as found in the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes. He made a list of human activities, in fourteen pairs of contrasts as examples of how life’s comprised in various seasons. Both the actions and the timing of them in our lives are important to God.
“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.”
We see that when we do the right activities according to God’s time (v.11), the result is “beautiful.” The root of the Hebrew word translated beautiful means “bright, suitable, appropriate, and timely”. God’s oversight of events and what he wants to accomplish in them are something good, something that brings about a flourishing.
Yet, because God has put in our hearts an expectation and longing for eternity–the abiding continuance of the same– we often fail to understand the shifting work which God does in the world and our lives. We become agitated and attempt to move things along or keep them just as they are, and in doing so, we cease to flourish. I know; I’ve responded this way too many times.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FLOURISH?
Have you have considered that it is your Father God’s every intention for you to flourish?
By flourish, I mean being planted and thriving in God’s presence in every life situation.
Do you trust that the gospel of Jesus Christ provides for profound renewal so that you can flourish?
Human flourishing is biblically-speaking, the way life is to be, initiated, and sustained by God. We were made to be fruitful and live in a state of shalom. Remember Eden, pre-fall? I was moved to hear Libby John in a recent podcast of Art & Faith Conversations urging her listeners to, “Carry Eden in your heart, the garden of beauty you were created to tend to.” We pursue and foster flourishing because we believe that the level to which this is possible post-Eden points to God and the way things ought to be. We are to carry Eden in our hearts.
You could say that our flourishing is the reason Jesus came. The reason for Christmas!
The idea of flourishing is our Father’s heart for us and one that he wants us to revisit this Christmas. But I believe we’ll miss it in our lives and see it in general rather than personal terms if we are not aware and attentive to how God works in regards to time.
HOW CAN WE DISCERN OUR TIMES?
The Bible teaches us that God holds our times in his hands (Psalm 31) and that we ought to “number our days aright that we might gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90). We want to be like the men of Issachar who understood the times (I Chronicles 12:32), both in the grand sweep historically and the smaller sweep individually. Time operates under God’s creative decree.
We want to perceive, accept, adapt to, and appreciate the idea of the fullness of time not only as we look back at the past advent and coming appearing of Jesus but in our own lives. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 implies that we are responsible for discerning the right times for the right actions for flourishing results.
So how do we do this? How do we recognize the times we are in, what God is doing in us and around us?
We begin by seeing throughout Scripture that God is one of repetition; his present acts and revelation always build upon his previous ones. He made seasons and cycles, and I believe he expects us to know about them and understand them.
We also see in Scripture that outward symbols reflect inward realities. There are earthly representations of how things operate in the spiritual realms.
The scriptures also say, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork.” In nature, there are insights to be gained from the patterns of nature, clues to inform our rhythms of living, and ways of ordering our lives.
Jesus often drew from the natural world when he spoke in parables or used examples in his teaching. He often talked about sowers sowing seed, and vines and vineyards. He spoke of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.
So, if we accept the fact that God is into patterns, representations, parables, and nature, we can look closely at the physical rhythms he has set and discover great spiritual parallel insights.
FOUR SEASONS OF TIME FULFILLED
I grew up in Michigan and then later lived in Chicago, where I experienced four temperate seasons for 30 years of my life. I don’t miss the dark, cold winters, but I do miss the apparent patterns of nature brought by the shifting seasons. Living for seven years in Florida and now into my seventh year here in Mexico, I’ve lost a grip on the awareness I used to have of nature’s rhythms. It has left me sometimes feeling that life is one monotonous stretch, broken up by only rain. Regardless of my geography, the established rhythms remain. I know that as it says in Genesis 8:22, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
It seems to be that in reflection to nature, we experience four different seasons in our spiritual lives as we walk with God. Seasons are all about changes called cycles, and they affect us. Each season presents its own set of benefits and challenges, limitations, and opportunities. We can choose to cooperate and maximize the characteristics of each, or we can waste and even prolong the cycle.
Our ability to determine which season we are in requires keenness of spirit. But, a contemplative life is an abundant life! As I detail the descriptions of the various seasons, try to identify the season you are currently in (and in my experience some seasons, as in nature, can overlap for a time or come to us out of their natural order).
In nature, this is marked by a long and dreary season. The axis of the Earth is away from the sun. Animals hibernate, passing the months in a near-sleep state. Plant growth stops, except for in trees– this is the time that “heart growth” happens in the innermost part of the trunk. The fields are resting from the last harvest. Snow cover helps regulate the temperature of the Earth’s surface, and once that snow melts, the water helps fill rivers and reservoirs in many regions of the world. We can call this a time of “conceiving” because rest is enabling nature for a time of renewal. It’s also a time of gestation for larger animals, new lives growing in secret.
In our spiritual lives, the season of winter represents a time of introspection and examination of our heart motives. It’s a time of quietness and rest, sometimes pulling back or even holding on to all that is familiar. Winter in our spirits is when it does not seem that much is happening, but there is often a real “gestation” happening. Waiting is also a mark of winter. It can be a time in which God feels distant, hidden under the snow or a different side of his character truly experienced for the first time. It’s also the season of lament, of grief, of endings. It can feel like a death, but it is a dormancy for inner growth and new life. It’s a deconstruction and needed rest if we lean into it and allow the Holy Spirit to do within us a deep surgery. Wintertime always follows harvest time.
In nature, this is a season of cleansing and restoration from the difficult days of the long winter. The Earth’s soil rotates, refreshing rains come. It is a time of transition from less to more sun and of new plant growth. The temperature of the air and soil starts to warm up as daylight increases. Everything seems to wake up, and the world bursts into fresh greens and bright flowers. The birds return, and their songs are heard again. Spring is when new life is born among animals. We can call this too a season of “sowing” because this is when most often, new seeds are intentionally planted in fields, gardens, and flower beds in hopes for a coming harvest.
In our spiritual lives, spring represents a time of freshness and wonder after dormancy and hardships. Ironically enough, with new spring growth from deeply established roots, there is a need for pruning when God shapes and molds to remove the parts of us that will not produce fruit. Temptations and tests challenge the new release God has initiated. The warmth of a community is often experienced, and like the spring birds, our songs increase. The solitude of winter is passed. New creativity comes, as well as a measure of healing. We are being built up and receiving and participating in nurturing acts. Being an apprentice of Jesus and working alongside him in an easy yoke is sweet. We are faithfully sowing seeds into the future with a sense of purpose.
In nature, summer consists of months of extreme dryness and heat. More water than usual is needed to sustain life. The top of the ground can crack from the weather, and the grass can burn. The sun is most active in this season; everything gets lots of energy. Summer is when the whole ecology is bursting forth with life and activity. Gardens need not only water but the work of weeding. It’s a bustling, buzzing time when lots of growth is happening with expediency. Summer is a season of ‘cultivating’; land and plants and animal habitats are used and developed well.
Summer in our spiritual lives can mean a long thirst, with a constant need for water for our souls. We need a lot of spiritual food to stay alive. Nourishment is necessary more than ever. We are growing stronger, even in adversity. The old is gone, really gone and the new has come. There is an end of lament. We are more visible and vocal, feeling established and confident in Christ and who he has made and called us to be. We are giving the effort to make peace on all fronts and “showing up” to be “all here.” There is a contentedness with godliness that is evident. We ask the Lord to “weed us” and submit to this, even as we cultivate all he’s given us. Waiting to see if all the grinding of this season has been necessary is also a hallmark.
We know that in the fall, crops are harvested. Autumn is a season of transition and loss. Leaves fall from the trees. Cooler temperatures and shorter days occur. All the plants go to seed and then die. The moon is brighter, though, and more stars appear in the sky. Birds migrate, and the air is more still and crisp. Needed rest is soon coming and color dissipating for a time. It is the cycle of reaping and slowing-down.
The fall of our spiritual lives is also a time of harvest. We see and experience some of the fruit of our labors. After the harvest is often the time when spiritual warfare increases. A sense of loss is felt when things begin to slow, and the requirements of one season are past, but we feel open to change and transition. Our rhythms shift, and we seek out and consider what can be that never has been. The light of hope is persistent, even in uncertainty. Often more correction and sure guidance from the Lord and assurance of His presence is needed to prepare for the long winter season.
Winter is the season of conceiving. Spring is the season of birthing. Summer is the season of cultivating. Autumn is the season of harvesting. All created by God and reflected in each of our lives.
Surely more insights could be added to this summary of nature and soul seasons. Perhaps you have experienced them in different ways and patterns in your life and in that of your family. Start conversations with others to learn from their descriptions of the various spiritual seasons and the inner landscape of their spiritual formation. We are being made more into the likeness of Jesus through each cycle, growing in maturing.
The more we understand where God has us right now in our lives, the more we can cooperate with his Spirit within to both sanctify and use us to bring his love and light to others. We also are better equipped to make decisions and cast vision for the future. We’re less prone to give audience to despair, apathy, impatience, or rebellion if we can find language for our current terrain and companions along the way. The implications of this discernment are far-reaching as we “work out our own salvation” (Philippians 2:12).
God desires us to discern the ‘fullness of time’ we are in so that we can flourish.
Our flourishing–being firmly planted and thriving in the very presence of God within the already-not-yet Kingdom– is the reason Jesus came; the reason for Christmas! Christ provides renewal deep within to thrive in every season of our lives.
Let us honor his humility and sacrifice for us by discerning the times he has set in our lives.
Our God is the same God that brought into the world the long-awaited Messiah in the ‘fullness of time”. He will ensure that every purpose for which we are created is accomplished (Ps. 138:8). Each one at the right time, in the perfect time, throughout every season of our lives.