The Psychology of Postponement

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 11, 2004

The subject of tonight’s Window on the World is a spiritual condition known as “the psychology of postponement.” Ironically, I was going to deliver it back on the first Sunday of the New Year. But something came up. There was another topic I decided to address first, so I guess you could say that I postponed postponement. By the time there was another opening in our schedule, it was already Easter, so here we are.

I first read the phrase “psychology of postponement” in a ministry newsletter, which explained that medical marriages, “while no less stable than those in the general population, are often characterized by a ‘psychology of postponement,’ in which couples convince themselves that time, leisure, companionship will come at the next stage of the doctor’s career, which never seems to come.”

This condition is by no means limited to doctors, or to people who are married. In one way or another, it afflicts almost all of us. How easy it is to think that life will be better “when.” The “when” changes, but the attitude stays the same: “Life will be better when I’m a big girl and get to go to school.” “Life will be better when I get my driver’s license.” “Life will be better when I go off to college.” “Life will be better when I can pay off my college loans.” “Life will be better when I get married, when I have kids, when my kids are out of diapers, when my kids are out of the house, when I retire”–the list goes on and on and on.

The “when” might even be some time in the past. Call it the psychology of “pastponement”–the idea that life isn’t as good now as it used to be. So people say that life was better before they had to work for a living, or before they had the accident, or before they had to deal with whatever difficulty they happen to be facing right now.

There are a number of problems with this kind of thinking. One is that the “when” doesn’t always turn out to be all that we thought it would be. Spring Break can be a prime example. Students (and teachers) count the days until they get some time off. But when the vacation comes it isn’t as long, or as restful, or as productive, or as exciting as we hoped it would be.

Another problem is that we can’t control the “whens” of our lives, and some of them never happen at all. This is obviously true in the case of “pastponement.” The “good old days” may or may not have been as good as we remember them, but whether they were or not, we can’t go back. And as far as the future is concerned, things may or may not turn out the way that we hope. As the book of James reminds us, we do not know what tomorrow will bring, so we should always say, “If the Lord wills, we live and do this or that” (James 4:15). We may not get married. We may not have children. We may not make it to retirement. If not–and if that is where we have put our hopes–then we have only set ourselves up for frustration.

In this connection, I often think of a poem that I heard Charles Swindoll read in chapel at Wheaton College:

It was Spring, but it was Summer I wanted:

The warm days and the great outdoors.

It was Summer, but it was Fall I wanted:

The colorful leaves and the cool, dry air.

It was Fall, but it was Winter I wanted:

The beautiful snow and the joy of the holiday season.

It was Winter, but it was Spring I wanted:

The warmth and the blossoming of nature.

I was a child, and it was adulthood I wanted:

The freedom and the respect.

I was 20, but it was 30 I wanted:

To be mature and sophisticated.

I was middle-aged, but it was 20 I wanted:

The youth and the free spirit.

I was retired, but it was middle-aged I wanted:

The presence of mind without limitations.

My life was over,

and I never got what I wanted.

The biggest problem with the psychology of postponement–or “pastponement”–is that we are missing out on what God has for us right here and right now. What we are really postponing is the contentment and joy that God wants us to have, regardless of our circumstances. We are called to make the best use of every opportunity that God gives us to serve him–what the older translations call “redeeming the time” (Eph. 5:16; KJV).

This means embracing whatever God has for us in every season of life. When we are young, we are called to use our strength in the service of God. When we are in school, we are called to pursue the life of the mind. When we are out of school, we are called to glorify God in our work. If we are single, we are called to glorify God with single-hearted devotion, taking advantage of the freedom that comes from living on our own. If we are married, we are called to see our families as one primary sphere of our ministry.

God does not want us to put off enjoying what he has for us until some day that may never come. Recently I realized what would happen if I were to delay getting into better physical condition until my kids go off to college, when I will “have more time.” Maybe I will have more time, but as it turns out, I’ll also be 55, and I’m guessing that if I wait until then, it won’t be any easier to get back in shape.

What is true for me physically is true for us all spiritually. At every stage of life, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to glorify God and grow in our fellowship with Christ, and we need to make the most of it. Don’t postpone your joy. Every day say, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24).

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