I sat alone in the living room, popcorn bowl in hand, and watched as John Keating—the fictitious teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society—taught Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” The iconic scene culminated in Keating’s grand soliloquy. Asking the students to face the school trophy case, to gaze into the eyes of those who’d gone before them, Keating said, “[Those] boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you . . . carpe diem, seize the day.”
I was 15, a budding romantic, and this scene became my motivator. I would “gather rosebuds” and suck the marrow from life. I would take every day captive and make the most of it. But as I began to practice this kind of living, I noticed it felt more akin to wrestling tigers.
With age and ever-growing responsibilities, seizing the day became more difficult. There was the church meltdown that occurred in my early 20s, the business meetings that derailed best-laid plans for my family in my early 30s, and the illness that struck my son Titus in my mid-30s. Relatives died. Friends disappointed.
What’s more, my eyes were opened to the plight of the broader world. There were Christians being persecuted in Southeast Asia, Northeast Africa, and the Middle East. There were malnourished children the world over. A tsunami devastated Indonesia. An earthquake shook Haiti to the ground. Certainly, those affected by these tragedies were limited in their ability to seize the day—at least by Keating’s standards.
As I turned to Scripture for answers, I realized that God’s Word never instructs us to seize the day. In fact, the Bible gives us example after example of those whose lives were seized by the day. Consider Stephen, who was stoned for preaching the good news of Jesus. Consider Paul and Silas, who were arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison. Consider Jesus, God in the flesh, who was seized by Roman guards and tortured to death.
God’s Word never instructs us to seize the day—it gives us example after example of those whose lives were seized by the day.
Scripture gives us few examples of those who had the opportunity to gather rosebuds. Life is too tumultuous, too unpredictable. There are times when our lives will be disrupted. For some, it may be the unexpected work obligations or family illness; for others, the seizing may be much more ominous. Perhaps this is why James writes in his epistle:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city. . . ”Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow . . . Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that” (4:13-15).
If James were alive today, he might agree with Keating’s assessment that we will, someday, be daffodil fertilizer. However, I think he’d take exception to the directive to make one’s life extraordinary. Instead, he’d remind us that our plans are often disrupted—seized, if you will—by the will of God.
Likewise, Paul does not argue for this kind of carpe diem living. Instead, he instructs us to make the most of our time. How? In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children . . . [Try] to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” He continues, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (5:1, 10-11, 15-17 emphasis added). Paul could have asked us to make our lives into something extraordinary. Instead, he instructed us to something more humble and less self-serving: to bring Christ’s light to dark corners of the world and take every opportunity to speak the truth.
As I write this, I consider the 21 Coptic Christians who died martyrs’ deaths at the hands of ISIS in February. Did they seize the day or did the day seize them? And when their best plans were disrupted, when their lives were on the line, they exposed the evil of religious terrorism to the light of Christ.
This is the kind of living Paul had in mind.
It’s been over 20 years since I first watched Dead Poets Society. But now I know that seizing the day is difficult for most and impossible for some. So when the day seizes me, when I’m presented with unforeseen difficulties, I’ll pray for the wisdom to make the most of the day and shine the light of Jesus in the darkness. And if that requires sacrificing the appearance of an extraordinary life, I hope Jesus will meet me in the moment and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Illustration by Paul Blow