Again and again the Scriptures underline the importance of each moment that passes. It is an ethical imperative to act and act quickly when lives are at stake, when justice is perverted, when truth is in jeopardy, when mercy is at risk, when souls are endangered, and when the Gospel is assaulted. We are admonished to “make the most of our time” (Eph. 5:16). We are to “redeem the time” (Col. 4:5). We are to utilize “every day to the utmost” (Heb. 3:13). In short, we are to sanctify the time (Eccl. 3:1–8). Decisiveness, determination, single-mindedness, constancy, diligence, and passion must inform our agenda. Such is the characteristic of holy zeal.
At the same time, the Bible makes it plain that victory will not be won in a day, however fervently we act. It will take time — perhaps generations. In the interim, we are to rest and rely on God’s “very great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:3). We are to trust that His sovereign working will indeed make all things right (Rom. 8:28) and that His good providence will by no means be thwarted (Eph. 1:11). Though the times are hard and all the earth cries out under the burden of wickedness, injustice, and perversion, we have the assurance that God’s purposes will not ultimately be frustrated. We need not be anxious (Phil. 4:6). We need not worry (Matt. 6:25). We need not fret (Luke 12:22). Instead, we are to be patient in hope (Rom. 8:5). We are to be patient in affliction (Rom. 12:12). We are to be patient in our preaching (2 Tim. 4:2). We are to clothe ourselves in patience (Col. 3:12). And we are to endure in patience (Rev. 3:12). The pace we set must be steady. Because the task we face will not soon be dispatched. Such is the characteristic of holy patience.
Our stewardship of time calls for both: urgency and patience. We must be zealous for that which is good and right and true. But we must also persevere by resting in God’s good providence.
Perhaps no man in all of history demonstrates the integration of these two godly virtues as well as William Wilberforce (1759–1833) did throughout his life. A member of the British Parliament, he introduced anti-slavery measures year after year for forty years. He never wavered. He never tempered his fervency. And yet, he never resorted to revolutionary insurgency. He stood fast and firm. Finally, in 1833, as he lay dying, word was brought him that the bill to outlaw slavery everywhere in the British Empire had finally been passed. The dream for which he had struggled for decades was now within sight of fulfillment. His steady patience and uncompromising urgency had finally won the day.
As a youth, Wilberforce had been a witty, somewhat dissipated man about town who had misspent his time at Cambridge and squandered his considerable talents on silly amusements. He was a member of the high society elite and he reveled in it. A friend of William Pitt — who later became Prime Minister — and himself a member of Parliament, Wilberforce seemed assured of a bright political future. But then, in 1784, after winning his election in Yorkshire, he accompanied his sister to the Riviera for her health. As an afterthought, Isaac Milner, a tutor at Queen’s College, Cambridge and acquaintance from college days was asked along.
Milner was a deeply pious evangelical Christian. He shared his testimony with the vacationers — particularly urging Wilberforce to commit his life to Christ. Wilberforce had always thought of himself a believer. But it was soon all too evident to him that a total commitment to Christ was demanded by the nature of the Gospel itself. He struggled in anguish for several months — during which time he read Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Here was a faith far deeper than anything he had known. He fell under the sway of the Good News once and for all.
He would never be the same. Neither would the British Empire.
After he returned home he had to wonder if it was proper for him to continue to hold a seat in the government. He confided his dilemma in William Pitt. The ever-ambitious Pitt, wanting Wilberforce as an ally, urged him to remain. Still unsettled in his conscience, Wilberforce spoke to his pastor, John Newton. Best remembered as the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, Newton had been converted while a blasphemous sailor and slave trader. He too counseled Wilberforce to remain in politics — in order to be a champion of godly causes.
Shortly thereafter, Wilberforce not only determined to take up various causes, which would raise the standard of life and morals in England; he took up the abolitionist cause. He was supported in his efforts through the years by a group of Evangelical stalwarts known as the Clapham Sect — they were called that because a goodly number of them lived in the village of Clapham.
Rarely in history have so many owed so much to so few. These dozen or so Clapham men and women not only fought side by side with Wilberforce through all those wearying years against slavery but also against every other sort of modern vice. They fought for everything from education for the poor masses, support of Bible societies, and private relief organizations to protection of day laborers, creation of Sunday Schools, and establishment of orphanages.
But the greatest achievement was their provocation in Wilberforce’s life of both urgency and patience that led to the abolition of slavery. As David Vaughan has portrayed in his fine biography Statesman and Saint, just days after he heard the Good News, Wilberforce died “altogether content — at last.”