In his song “Time in a Bottle,” Jim Croce sings about wishing he could capture and contain time so he could spend eternity with the one he loved. But he laments that:

There never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them

You know the feeling. Our days get filled up with things that, upon reflection, don’t seem to really matter much, leaving little time for things that are important. Rather than being a friend, time seems more like a foe; “more of a nemesis or taskmaster,” says organizational coach Mark Freier.{1}

In the Middle Ages, time was measured primarily in periods within which people dwelt. Days were divided into rhythmic patterns: sunrise, breakfast time, work hours, evening, sunset. Hours were significant in relation to the daily cycle of prayers prescribed by the Church. But even in that case, there wasn’t a concern with sticking to precise times of the day.

In the Middle Ages people weren’t primarily concerned with time measured by the clock but with the quality of life’s experiences.

As the West moved into modernity, clock time assumed greater importance. Now we worry, not only about hours, but about minutes. As a fund raising specialist told me, if you ask a businessman for ten minutes, take ten minutes and no more. His time is carefully apportioned out, and, as we have heard many times, time is money.

Busyness has become so routine that we easily feel guilty if we don’t have anything we have to do. How can we “waste time” like that? But that’s usually not a problem! The world outside has a way of filling up our daily planner even if we don’t.

There are two ways to think about time I’d like to consider, designated by different words.

One is chronos. Chronos was the name given by the Greeks to the god who represented time. Chronos time is clock time. It is marked off by seconds, minutes, hours. Chronos is what I’m thinking about when I’m adding new things to my daily calendar. It’s the measure of time I can give to one project or person before I must be moving on to the next item on the agenda.

The other word for time is kairos. Kairos was a child of Zeus. He represented opportunity. While chronos time is a quantitative thing, kairos is more qualitative; the concern is with the what that is to be done and the importance of doing it. Both are ways of measuring our experience in life, but they do so quite differently. Let’s look at them more closely.

Two things help with understanding what kairos is. It speaks of the quality of our actions and of opportunity. Kairos time focuses on what we’re doing (or planning to do) rather than the number of minutes or hours it will take. And it connotes the perfect time, the perfect moment, to do what needs to be done. It points to the significance of certain things. Success isn’t measured by how many things we get done in a short amount of time, but by how well we’ve done the important things.

Theologian Daniel Clendenin uses Martin Luther King, Jr., and an example of someone who wanted to grasp the moment. Even though he knew his life had been threatened, he determined to press on with his work for civil rights. It was the time for that, even if King’s chronos time might well be cut short very soon. And indeed it was.{2}

Winston Churchill provides another illustration. When things were going very badly for England in World War II, Churchill rallied the country to fight as hard as they could, because it was a time in which freedom could be lost by many, many people. The Nazis had to be defeated. It was the right time, in the sense of kairos. But even as kairos speaks of the opportunity to do something great, it can also be fraught with danger.

Still one more illustration is the song by the Byrds, Turn, Turn, Turn, taken from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes:

To everything / There is a season / And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die / A time to plant, a time to reap

Notice the songwriter didn’t say, “There’s a time to plant, and that’s at 6 a.m. on September 3. And we have eight hours to get it done.” Even though farmers might set a day for everyone to gather and begin, that isn’t the point of the song (or the Scripture). The time to plant is different from the time to harvest. When it’s time to plant, nothing else will do but to plant.

Chronos and kairos are certainly connected, but they are qualitatively different. Kairos intersects chronos. It is within chronos time that we experience kairos. We can’t have kairos without chronos, but we can have chronos without kairos.

Chronos time can often be made up, but that isn’t so easy with kairos. I can find an open half hour block in my schedule tomorrow for that meeting I couldn’t attend today. But can I get back that time I should have given a co-worker who’s been going through tough times and really needed a listening ear? What matters with kairos isn’t whether something fits in my schedule. What matters is, what matters! In kairos time, minutes aren’t the measure of the value of our acts. The things we do, rather, grant value to the minutes they take. Mark Freier put it very well: “”To miscalculate kronos {3} is inconvenient. To miscalculate kairos is lamentable.”{4}

Kairos speaks of a quality of life that sees ourselves, others, the world, as significant and worthy of our time, attention, energy, resources. Its enemies include pragmatism, doubts about our own significance, an absence of a long view of things, and, even more so, no eternal view—no understanding of what gives our lives eternal significance.

The old cry was “Carpe diem!” “Seize the day!” Someone might wonder, seize it for what? If nothing lasts, if nothing has eternal significance, what is the point? It all slips through our fingers and is gone. Seizing the day isn’t to be understood as the existentialist’s call to experience the moment. The focus on the latter is on fleeting experiences. The hope is that by focusing on those, one can shape one’s own life rather than living the life others hand you. But there’s nothing eternal about this. I am reminded of Meursault, the protagonist in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, who believes he lives in an indifferent world, or what should be an indifferent world, and wonders why people think anything is really significant. Nothing is of any more value than anything else because it all ends in death. The universe doesn’t care.

Which brings me to a specifically Christian view of time as kairos.

My search through the NT showed eighty uses of the word. It’s a significant concept in Scripture. The most familiar reference to kairos in the New Testament is probably Eph. 5:15-16: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The King James used the more familiar phrase, “redeem the time.” It means literally to buy up, or rescue from loss, the opportunity, the proper season, the right time. The word kairos is also used in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. After Jesus resisted Satan, Luke writes that “he [Satan] left Him until an opportune time” (Lk. 4:13).

What gives significance to our time (and even to chronos time) is that we live in a world created by God who is working out His plan that will be consummated at His appointed time. Theologian James Emery White wrote this: “Kairos moments are never pragmatic moves to ensure a blessed life during our short tenure on earth. They are moments to be seized for the sake of eternity and the Lord of eternity.”{5} Good works have been prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10), and we should apply ourselves because they matter beyond the grave.

So, how do we do it? How does one live in kairos time in a world governed by chronos? Others want me to think of time the way they do, as openings in my schedule that can be filled with something else. I have responsibilities in my job and with my family and church that require keeping a calendar.

We aren’t going to return to an agrarian society like that of the Middle Ages. And our lives are intertwined with others’. We can, however, do something about it. For starters, we can be more aware of how we use the time that is truly ours. Are we doing useful things? That doesn’t mean to fill our time with “meaningful busyness.” There’s a proper time for rest as well as for work, for creativity as well as for chores. Changing a mindset and habits takes practice. Little by little we can “re-color” our lives.

More significantly, however, is a fundamental change in our thinking about the importance of the things we do. Few of us will become Martin Luther Kings or Winston Churchills. But we—you and I—are important, and we touch the lives of important people. Not all kairos times have to be of society wide significance. The main point is that life and what we do with it, even in the details, is rich with significance and meaning. We can make a difference in this world, in others’ lives, if we’ll but seize the opportunities while they are present.


1. Mark Freier, Whatif Enterprises.
2. Daniel Clendenin, “When Chronos Meets Kairos, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2006.”
3. Alternate spelling for “chronos”
4. Freier.
5. James Emory White, Life Defining Moments: Daily Choices with the Power to Transform Your Life (Waterbrook Press, 2001), 97; quoted by Mark Freier.


© 2009 Probe Ministries

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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