Recently, I was watching a video where a former Jehovah’s Witness mentioned that his viewpoint of time had changed since leaving the Witness faith. This struck a nerve because I have observed the same in myself.
Being raised in “the Truth” from one’s earliest days has a profound effect on development. When I was quite young, certainly before I started Kindergarten, I can recall my mother telling me that Armageddon was 2 or 3 years off. From that point on, I was frozen in time. No matter what the situation, my worldview was that 2 – 3 years from then, everything would change. The effect of such thinking, especially in the early years of one’s life is hard to overestimate. Even after 17 years away from the Organization, I still have this reaction, on occasion, and have to talk myself out of it. I would never be so imprudent as to try to predict a date for Armageddon, but such thoughts are like a mental reflex.
When I first walked into Kindergarten, I was faced with a roomful of strangers and it was the first time I had ever been in a room with so many non-JWs. Having come from a different religious background, it’s no surprise that it was challenging, but because of my worldview, these “worldlings” were not to be adapted to, but to be endured; after all, they would all be gone in another 2 or 3 years, destroyed at Armageddon. This highly flawed way of looking at things was reinforced by comments I heard coming from adult Witnesses in my life. When Witnesses gathered socially, it was only a matter of time before the subject of Armageddon was in the air, usually in the form of outrage at some current event, followed by a long discussion about how this fit in with the “sign” that Armageddon was imminent. It was all but impossible to avoid developing a pattern of thinking which created a very strange view of time.
One’s View Of Time
The Hebrew view of time was linear, while many other ancient cultures tended to think of time as cyclical. The observation of a Sabbath served to delineate time in a fashion that was relatively unique in the world of its time. Many people never dreamed of a day off before that time, and there were advantages to this. While planting and harvest were obviously very significant in the agrarian economy of ancient Israel, they had an added dimension of linear time and had a marker, in the form of Passover. Celebrations linked to historical events, such as Passover, added a sense that time was passing, not just repeating. Also, every year brought them one year closer to the appearance of the Messiah, which was even more significant than the deliverance they had experienced from Egypt. It is not without purpose that ancient Israel was commanded to remember this deliverance and, to this day, an observant Jewish person is likely to know how many Passovers have been observed throughout history.
The Witness’s view of time strikes me as being peculiar. There is a linear aspect, in that Armageddon is expected in the future. But there is also an element of being frozen in a cycle of repeating events that all resolve in waiting for Armageddon to deliver us from the challenges of life. Beyond that, there was a tendency towards the thought that this might be the last Memorial, District Convention, etc. before Armageddon. This is burdensome enough for anyone, but when a child is exposed to this sort of thinking, they may develop a long-term pattern of thinking which will taint their ability to deal with the harsh realities that life may throw our way. A person raised in “the Truth” could easily develop a pattern of not facing life’s problems by relying on Armageddon as the solution to any problem that seems challenging. It took me years to overcome this, in my own behavior.
As a child growing up in the JW world, time was a burden, of sorts, because I wasn’t supposed to think about the future, except as it related to Armageddon. Part of a child’s development involves coming to terms with their own lifetime, and how that fits into history. In order to orient oneself in time, it is important to have a sense of just how it happened that you got to this particular place and time, and this helps us in knowing what to expect from the future. However, in a JW family, there may be a sense of detachment because living with the End just over the horizon, makes family history seem unimportant. How can one plan a future when Armageddon is going to disrupt everything, and probably very soon? Beyond that, every mention of future plans would almost certainly be met with the assurance that Armageddon would be here before any of our future plans would come to fruition, that is, except plans that revolved around JW activities, which were almost always encouraged.
Effect Upon Personal Development
So a young JW can end up feeling stuck. The first priority for a young Witness is to survive Armageddon and the best way to do that, according to the Organization, is to concentrate on “theocratic activities” and wait upon Jehovah. This can impede one’s appreciation of serving God, not from fear of punishment, but out of love for Him as our Creator. There is also a subtle incentive to avoid anything that could unnecessarily expose one to the harsh realities of the “World”. Many Witness youths were expected to remain as pristine as possible so that they could enter into the New System as innocents, unaffected by the realities of life. I recall one JW father who was quite disappointed that his adult, and very responsible son, had taken a wife. He had expected him to wait until Armageddon. I know another that was incensed that his son, in his thirties at the time, didn’t want to continue to live in his parent’s home, waiting until Armageddon before establishing his own household.
Going as far back as my teen years, I noticed that the less zealous among my peer group tended to do better in many aspects of life than the ones that were held up as shining examples. I think it boils down to getting on with the business of life. Perhaps their “lack of zeal” was simply a matter of a more pragmatic view of life, believing in God, but not convinced that Armageddon had to happen at any particular time. The antithesis of this was a phenomenon I observed many times, over the years; young single JWs that seemed frozen, with regard to progress in their lives. Many of these people would spend a great deal of their time in the preaching work, and there were strong social conventions among their peer groups. During a period of slack employment, I went out in service frequently with one such group of people, and the fact that I was seeking permanent, full-time employment was treated as if it were a dangerous notion. Once I did find reliable, full-time employment, I was no longer accepted among them, to the same degree.
As I mentioned, I’ve seen this phenomenon on a number of occasions, in a number of congregations. While a young non-Witness might measure their success in practical terms, these young Witnesses measured their success almost solely in terms of their Witness activities. The problem with this is that life can pass you by and soon enough, a 20-year-old pioneer becomes a 30-year-old pioneer, then a 40 or 50-year-old pioneer; one whose prospects are hindered because of a history of menial employment and limited formal education. Tragically, because such persons anticipate Armageddon at any minute, they can go deep into adulthood without having charted any course in life, beyond being a “full-time minister”. It’s quite possible for someone in this situation to find themselves middle-aged and with little in the way of marketable skills. I distinctly remember a JW man that was doing the grueling work of hanging drywall at an age when many men were retired. Imagine a man in his late sixties lifting sheets of drywall in order to make a living. It’s tragic.
Time As A Tool
Our view of time is actually quite predictive of our success in leading a happy and productive life. Our life is not a series of repeating years but is instead a series of non-repeating stages of development. Children find it much easier to learn languages and reading than an adult that attempts to master a new language or learn to read. It’s obvious that our Creator made us thusly. Even in perfection, there are milestones. For example, Jesus was 30 years old before being baptized and starting to preach. However, Jesus was not wasting his years up until that time. After staying behind at the temple (at the age of 12) and being retrieved by his parents, Luke 2:52 tells us “and Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people”. He would not have been regarded with favor by people, had he spent his youth unproductively.
In order to succeed, we have to build a foundation for our lives, preparing ourselves for the challenges of making a living, and learning how to deal with our neighbors, co-workers, etc. These are not necessarily easy things to do, but if we view our life as a journey forward through time, we will be much more likely to succeed than if we simply kick all of life’s challenges down the road, hoping that Armageddon will heal all of our problems. Just to clarify, when I mention success, I am not talking about the accumulation of wealth, but instead, living effectively and happily.
On a more personal level, I find that I have had an unusual degree of difficulty in accepting the passage of time, over the course of my life. However, since leaving the JWs, this has somewhat abated. While I’m no psychologist, my suspicion is that being away from the constant drumbeat of “the End” being near, is the reason for this. Once this imposed state of emergency was no longer part of my everyday life, I found that I could look at life with much greater perspective, and see my efforts, not just as surviving until End, but as part of a flow of events that has continuity with the lives of my ancestors and my age-group peers. I can’t control when Armageddon happens, but I can live effectively and whenever God’s Kingdom arrives, I will have built a wealth of wisdom and experience which will be useful no matter what the circumstances.
It’s hard to imagine that it was 40 years ago, but I have a distinct memory of buying a cassette tape of an Eagles concert and being introduced to a song called Wasted Time, which was about the ongoing cycle of “relationships” in these sexually libertine times and hoping that one day the characters in the song could look back and see that their time has not been wasted, after all. That song has resonated with me ever since. From the perspective of 40 years hence, I have much more than I did back then. Greater practical skills, more education, durable goods, and equity in a home. But I don’t have more time than I did back then. The decades I spent putting off life because perceived nearness of Armageddon were the definition of wasted time. More significantly, my spiritual development accelerated after I took my leave from the Organization.
So where does that leave us, as persons who were influenced by years in the JW Organization? We cannot go back in time, and the antidote to wasted time is not to waste even more time with regrets. To anyone struggling with such issues, I would suggest starting by facing the passage of time, face the fact that Armageddon will come on God’s timetable and not that of any humans, then endeavor to live the life God has given you now, whether Armageddon is near, or beyond your lifespan. You are alive now, in a fallen world filled with evil and God knows what you face. The hope of deliverance is where it always has been, in God’s hands, at His time.
An Example from Scripture
One scripture that has helped me greatly, is Jeremiah 29, God’s instructions to the exiles taken to Babylon. There were false prophets predicting an early return to Judah, but Jeremiah told them that they needed to get on with life in Babylon. They were instructed to build homes, marry, and live out their lives. Jeremiah 29:4 “This is what the Lord of armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and father sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may give birth to sons and daughters; and grow in numbers there and do not decrease. 7 Seek the prosperity of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity will be your prosperity.” I strongly recommend reading the entire chapter of Jeremiah 29.
We’re in a fallen world, and life is not always easy. But we can apply Jeremiah 29 to our current situation, and leave Armageddon in God’s hands. As long as we remain faithful, our God will remember us when His time arrives. He doesn’t expect us to freeze ourselves in time in order to please Him. Armageddon is His deliverance from evil, not a Sword of Damocles that freezes us in our tracks.