Is punctuality really a Christian virtue, since nowhere in the Bible are we told that being late for appointments is to sin against God? Is it not rather a cultural issue?

This question is a most interesting one in view of the fact that many who have travelled to other countries would have observed at least some co-relationship between a person’s punctuality consciousness and his country of origin.

More than a decade ago, I was in the United State on a work assignment. One day, I had to go for a product-training seminar. I did not think it was a very important meeting, and so I took my time to get there. I was about 10 minutes late. To my horror, when I opened the door, I was facing the lecturer, and the room was packed. The only seats available were right at the end of the room. To get to them, I had to walk in full view of 60 or 70 pairs of eyes. I was the only Singaporean, and I was late. At the back of the class I found a few Taiwanese who had arrived just before me. The rest of the attendees were Caucasian Americans. It was not the first time I was late, but this is one of the most embarrassing. I learned at that time that comparatively most Americans (Caucasian Americans, that is) are usually punctual, whether they are Christian or not; whereas most Chinese (including many American Chinese) have a problem with punctuality.

A few years later I was in Indonesia to address a group of church leaders, at the invitation of an Indonesian pastor. When I was there, I was warned that there is a general “pelan-pelan” (literally, “slow-slow”) attitude amongst the people, and so I might expect not to be able to begin my lectures on time. Even the worship services did not usually begin on time. This experience seemed again to confirm that there is a cultural or racial link to punctuality.

Then here in Singapore, it is a well-known fact that if you are invited to a wedding banquet at 7.30 pm, you might expect the first dish to be served somewhere between 8.30 and 9 pm. Indeed, I have been told from childhood that if you turn up too early, you might be labelled as being greedy!

But is punctuality merely cultural, so that it is not really wrong or sinful to be late in a culture that finds lateness acceptable? Well, I think being late is not necessarily sinful since one could be late for legitimate reasons or because of situations beyond his control. I do not, for example, think that Samuel sinned in his lateness in getting to Saul at Gilgal (1 Sam 13:8, 11).

However, I do think that punctuality is a biblical/Christian virtue, which every Christian should cultivate regardless of his cultural background or upbringing. I say this,—although there is no direct instruction or commandment with regard to punctuality,—for the following reasons.

Firstly, our conscience tells us that it is wrong to be late. This is why even unbelievers will quote, with approval, William Shakespeare’s dictum: “Better three hours too soon than one minute late.” Although our conscience is not infallible, it is a faculty which God has placed in our soul as part of our moral image (Rom 2:14–15). As such, even though sin has dulled our conscience, what it judges to be wrong by nature, is most likely wrong in the sight of God, and therefore sinful. To ignore the voice of conscience in the matter of punctuality could sear our conscience as much as to ignore it in the matter of purity.

Secondly, punctuality is biblical, because lateness will often involve a breaking of the Eighth Commandment. This is especially so if you are an employee, and you turn up late for work. Of course, many modern employers have adopted flexi-time schemes that make late-coming a non-issue. But if the terms of your employment indicate a starting and ending time for each day of our work, then being late would essentially involve “stealing time” from your employer. Indeed, in a sense, you could also be guilty of breaking the Eighth Commandment in private appointments with another person if your lateness causes the person to “waste time” waiting for you, for you would in a way be stealing his time.

Thirdly, lateness may also be a violation of the Fifth Commandment. It is such a violation when the person or persons you are meeting up with is set in a position of authority and honour over you. It is also such a violation when you are late for a meeting in a regimental institution (such as a school, where there are rules pertaining to punctuality) of which you are a member.

Fourthly, lateness at appointments may be sinful because it may involve our failure to honour others (especially brethren) better than ourselves (Rom 12:10; Phil 2:3). I say this because most of us would be unlikely to be late for an appointment with someone whom we want to honour (say, our Prime Minister, or even our boss at work). If we honour another person better than ourselves, we will make it a point to be on time when meeting with that person.

Fifthly, lateness is generally also a violation of the golden rule of relating to others, which our Lord teaches us: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). How many of us are irked when others are late coming to meet us, but fail to think of how our own lateness can be irksome to others?

Finally, being late can also be a violation of the greatest commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mk 12:30). This happens especially when we are late without good reasons at the appointed means of grace, such as the worship services, prayer meetings, or Bible studies. I say it is a violation of the greatest commandment because when we are late for these meetings to worship God or to learn of God, it may be indicative God is not really as important as whatever causes us to be late, be it our bodily rest, our meals, our recreation, our chores, etc. We are, of course, not saying that all lateness for the appointed means would fall into this sin. But if we are habitually late for the means, we must really examine our attitude towards the Lord. One who is generally on time for other appointments but is usually late for worship or prayer is probably experiencing severe backsliding. One who is generally late for all appointments is probably also suffering some form of tardiness in the soul. No one who genuinely loves Christ can be late for an appointment with Him without feeling shame and embarrassment.

I think we have shown sufficiently that punctuality is indeed a Christian virtue. It is my prayer that every believer will honour the Lord and bear a good testimony before the world by being always punctual. Shakespeare’s dictum on punctuality may be too exaggerated; but I think there is something to be said about “wasting” our time by being early than wasting others’ time and dishonouring God by being late.

How to be on time? I think nothing beats planning to be early and starting out early! For example, if we plan to be at worship 15 minutes before time, it would be highly unlikely that we would be habitual latecomers to worship. Being late on account of heavy traffic (unless it is unexpected) is really quite a lame excuse. How many of us would use that as an excuse for being late meeting the Prime Minister of this land, but here we are talking about meeting the King of kings. Of course, if we are going to an unfamiliar place (say, for prayer meeting), being late can be quite excusable if you lost your way getting there, or get stuck in an unexpected jam. But being late for regular worship or Bible study more than once a year is to be late too often. Yes, as someone said: “better late than never, but better never late!”

I write all these with an acute awareness that I had to (and still often have to) struggle with the problem of punctuality myself because I had tended to want to accomplish as much as possible before setting off for my appointments; but this left me a smiting conscience and a bad testimony, which I knew I have to correct. May the Lord grant that anyone of us who are still poor in punctuality will seek to conduct ourselves aright to the honour of our Lord, for we bear His name. When an unbeliever walks into a church and sees that the congregation is quietly seated way before time, waiting prayerfully for the worship to begin, would not Christ be honoured in their eyes? On the other hand, if the same unbeliever were to see such as profess to love Christ noisily taking their seats just before worship begins or even after worship has begun, would not Christ be belittled in his eyes?