Why Christians should be punctual

  • Kirsten McKinlay
  • 13 March 2017

I have to tell you, I’m writing as someone who is not consistently punctual. In fact, I write this as a reminder to myself more than anyone else!

When I first got married, the subject of punctuality was a source of contention with my new husband. He was (is) that person who always wants to turn up not just on time but early. And I was (am) that person who was often casually late. For the record, I believed (and still do) that arriving early can be inconsiderate—it can throw people into a real tizz when a guest arrives sooner than they were meant to. Those last few minutes before people arrive at your house can be crucial preparation time! Nevertheless, my husband’s eagerness to arrive on time prompted me to consider my behaviour. I decided that my lateness was problematic and inconsistent with my professed Christian witness. I realized it was a subconscious pattern of selfish and prideful thought where I saw my time as more important than the time of others.

There are other disclaimers to make here before I go on. Not everyone is late because, like me, they just lazily haven’t kept track of the time. There are a whole host of good reasons that someone might be late—many of them beyond their control and best intentions. So it’s not to this situation I’m speaking—not the occasional lateness due to unforseen circumstances, or even whole seasons of lateness during a time of struggle (for example, mental health issues or adjusting to life with a baby). Instead I’m talking about the habitual practice of being late due to a lack of concern for being on time.

I also have to acknowledge that lateness—and rudeness—are not fixed concepts but are determined by culture. In many cultures relationships are often prized more highly than precision in time keeping. In those contexts, if a friend drops in just as you are meant to be leaving for another appointment, of course you allow yourself to be late for that other appointment. That is the polite and loving thing to do.

Yet, as John Piper highlights, for most of the Western world the demands of industry and travel have created a culture where lateness is likely to be annoying, disrespectful, inconvenient or even dangerous. While there might be smaller variances from place to place, it’s to this general understanding of lateness that I’m speaking—where punctuality is the common cultural expectation, and meeting times are agreed upon with the purpose of being adhered to.

With that in mind, my question for you is: how often are you late? If you’re someone who is consistently late, are your reasons good? Maybe you’ve never even considered your lateness to be an issue. But have you thought about what it is that you’re (perhaps unintentionally) communicating to the person/people/event that you are late for? I want to suggest five reasons why punctuality matters.

  1. Being consistently late shows a lack of humility. At the end of the day, by not making the effort to be on time for another person, and leaving them waiting, I am (whether I realize it or not) viewing my time as more valuable than theirs. But Philippians 2:3-4 says:
    Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
    I have to remember that my time isn’t of ultimate importance. And on the flip side of this: others are They are worth making the effort for, even if it means putting yourself out.
  2. Being consistently late shows a lack of honour for others. The reality is that I would not be late for a job interview, because I value that person’s time and opinion of me. Most people who are habitually late somehow manage not to be late for appointments they consider important—a meeting with the boss, for example. So why would I be late for somebody else? I have a friend who is chronically late. She’d often turn up 15 minutes late to a coffee date. But when she entered the working world, she somehow always managed to be on time for work-based appointments. When I reflect on that, I feel slightly hurt that she viewed me and my time as less important than her colleagues. But this is something I am guilty of doing to others too.
  3. Being consistently late does not express love for others. Forcing others to wait for time after time is rude. Christians are to love one another and love our enemies as well, and love is not rude (1 Cor 13:5). As we already noted, what is considered ‘rude’ varies from culture to culture, and what’s late in one may not be considered late in another. But part of loving others is learning what ‘late’ means in your context—it means working out what the cultural expectations are. As Piper says, “Love is not so wrapped up in itself that it doesn’t pay attention to such things as what the expectations are in this group”.1 Being loving means caring for the interests of others ahead of ourselves.
  4. Being consistently late undermines my word. When I agree with someone to meet them at a particular time, I am—in effect—making a promise. By being late, I break that agreement. If I agree to a time knowing I’ll be (or even planning to be) late, then that is an issue of integrity. Remember to “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (Jas 5:12). This can also be an issue that affects your Christian witness. We should be known as people of our word, trustworthy and dependable—this reflects the good and dependable character of our God.
  5. Being consistently late may lead another to sin. For those who have made the effort to be on time, being forced to wait can be very frustrating. As well as potentially causing stress and anxiety, it can also produce an irritation that can easily become anger, which can easily become sin.2 God’s word tells us that we are never to be the cause of someone else’s sin. As Jesus said to his disciples: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1).

Remember that, as with all things, God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7) and it’s to him that we are ultimately answerable. There’s grace even for the most hopeless of latecomers! Remember that even if you’re the person who suffers because of another’s lateness. Extend grace to that person and judge them generously, because you don’t know the motivations of their heart, and we will only answer for ourselves on that final day (Rom 14:10-12).

1. J Piper, ‘Is tardiness and punctuality a Christian witness issue’, Desiring God, 5 November 2016 (viewed 24 January 2017).

2. This thought came from the following article: ‘What does the Bible say about being late or lateness’, GotQuestions?.org, 2017 (viewed 24 January 2017).