Making Busy Matter

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BY TIFFANY MUSICK MATTHEWS

Addressing busyness is no simple task. First, it requires us to recognize that simply being busy isn’t the issue. Having multiple commitments is an unavoidable part of life. Rather, it’s living in hurry—an unfocused, unfulfilling state of busy—that’s problematic. Correcting this requires reprioritizing our time—something that can seem nearly impossible once accustomed to our overflowing schedules. Fortunately, as Christians, we have an invaluable resource to help us identify what our focus should be. Through the Bible, and more specifically, through the life of Christ, we have a model of what it looks like to live a purpose-filled life. 

Jesus lived differently than most of us. He didn’t have a spouse or kids. He didn’t have a required 40-hour workweek, a commute in rush-hour traffic, or an overflowing inbox. He didn’t have electricity, advanced technology, or many of the other things we might argue contribute to our busyness.

But He also didn’t have many of the conveniences that come with our 
modern-day lifestyles. He didn’t have a space to call His own, no office or house in which to seek privacy. There was no method of quick transportation, no supermarkets or fast food restaurants, no appliances to speed life up or electronics to simplify communication.

Despite these differences, Jesus was busy. Twice in Mark, we learn that He and the disciples were in such demand that they didn’t even have time to eat. Yet in the midst of His busyness, Jesus knew how to prioritize His time. By examining how He lived His life, we can learn valuable lessons on how to better manage our own.

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Simply learning what our priorities should be, however, isn’t where the transformation ends. Rather, we must also consider how to effectively implement these priorities in how we spend our time, the commitments we make, and how we treat others. When it comes to making Godly priorities a part of our daily lives, spiritual disciplines can help. Spiritual disciplines, as the name suggests, require intentional, focused practice—and as such, demand we take time away from our busyness to develop them. As challenging as it is, when we do take time to establish disciplines, we can cultivate a new outlook and a fresh approach to busyness.

Learn to Say No

In John 10, Jesus uses the analogy of a good shepherd and a flock of sheep to describe His relationship with His followers. In this beautiful imagery, Jesus makes a bold declaration about His role as shepherd: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Jesus knew His purpose on earth. He had a mission and understood that it was not a mission dictated by the world but by the Father. By accepting the God-given plan for His life, He made it His priority.

In his book Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book About a (Really) Big Problem, pastor Kevin DeYoung discusses how Jesus experienced temptation to get off mission in the Gospels. After spending a busy day in Capernaum teaching, healing the sick, and casting out demons, Jesus went to a solitary place to pray. When He was found and encouraged to return to the town where people were looking for Him, Jesus instructed His disciples: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

“Jesus understood His mission,” writes DeYoung. “He was not driven by the needs of others, though He often stopped to help hurting people. He was not driven by the approval of others, though He cared deeply for the lost and the broken. Ultimately, Jesus was driven by the Spirit. He was driven by His God-given mission. He knew His priorities and did not let the many temptations of a busy life deter Him from His task.”

As can be seen in this passage, Jesus’ devotion to His mission sometimes required that He say no. The work He was doing in Capernaum was good; it was important. But His mission required Him to be elsewhere. When urged to continue in Capernaum, even though there were undoubtedly more people in need of healing and teaching, Jesus walked away. Though He cared for people, His focus was not on them, but on God.

Like Jesus, we, too, can turn our focus from our many obligations to our God-appointed purpose. And as He demonstrated, this will mean saying no to things that distract us—even when those things are good. Just as Jesus didn’t meet every need, neither are we meant to seize every opportunity before us.

DeYoung affirms this thinking by reminding Christians that caring is not the same as doing. While we are all called to care about serious issues, such as sex trafficking and homelessness, we are not all called to directly combat these problems. Rather, we have been given unique gifts and interests to excel in certain areas and should keep these in mind when determining where to commit our time.

“Stewarding my time is not about selfishly pursuing only the things I like to do,” writes DeYoung. “It’s about effectively serving others in the ways I’m best able to serve and in the ways I’m most uniquely called to serve.”

When it comes to uncovering God’s unique callings for our lives and deciding where our time and effort would best be placed, the spiritual discipline of discernment can help. Discernment stems from being mindful of God’s voice, not only in Scripture or times of prayer, but also in the world around us—through the objects, situations, and people He puts in our path.

“Discernment is rooted in spiritual practice, yet it is not a step-by-step process,” writes theologian Henri Nouwen in his book Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, which was compiled by PLNU associate professor of Christian ministry Dr. Rebecca Laird and her husband, Dr. Michael Christensen (77). “It requires learning to listen for and recognize over time the voice and character of God in our hearts and daily lives.”

Essentially, discernment helps us listen to what God is saying by prompting us to pay attention. As God uses various mediums to speak, we can become aware of His constant presence and pay attention to even the unlikely sources He may use.

While discerning the particulars God has for us—things like vocation, location, and relationships—can be difficult, Laird reminds us of one truth that never requires second-guessing.

“You have to remember that at the root of everything is our mission to love God and love our neighbor. If you’re in a time of confusion and aren’t sure what to do, that core mission doesn’t change.

As long as every day you’re seeking to love God and others, you’re living on mission. Everything else is secondary.”

In those periods of confusion, relationships that offer accountability can help monitor whether our decisions and involvements reflect our mission. As a discipline, accountability holds us responsible for our actions and provides an honest, supportive environment to discuss our struggles or areas of uncertainty. Should we get off track, these relationships can also offer redirection, or at the very least, make us aware of attitudes and behaviors that don’t line up with Scripture.

Take a Time-Out

Luke 5:15-16 reads: “Yet the news about Him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” This passage shows that, while Jesus was clearly mission-focused, He also knew the importance of taking time to be alone with God.

“There was a rhythm to the way Jesus lived,” said Laird. “He would go away to a lonely place to pray, then re-engage in mission with those in need, go away to pray, then re-engage.”

Not only did Jesus live in this rhythm, He encouraged the apostles to do the same, beckoning them in Mark 6:31 to “come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

There is perhaps no better indication of the need for balance between constantly doing and taking time for spiritual renewal than in Luke 10. It is a well-known passage in Scripture and arguably one of the most relevant when it comes to busyness. While Jesus is visiting the home of sisters Mary and Martha, Martha is distracted while Mary is sitting and listening to Jesus. Martha, who is busy with preparations, is frustrated with her sister for not pitching in and looks to Jesus for help. His response was likely not the one she was hoping for, but it is one that speaks straight to the heart of the busy: “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Though there were things to do, they paled in comparison to sitting at the feet of Jesus. His words remind us that, though we insist there are many things that must be done, we have only one true necessity in life. By taking time to address this need, we are able to experience “what is better.” When we fail to address this need, however, we become like Martha.

It is important to note that it was Martha who invited Jesus into their home. She desired His presence but failed to be present herself. Consumed with her to-do list, she missed an opportunity to spend time with Christ, and in doing so, missed the blessing that came with it. According to author John Ortberg in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, a threat for similar missed opportunities exists in our constant state of hurry.

“For many of us the danger is not that we will renounce our faith,” writes Ortberg. “It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it.”

In an effort to avoid this, it is important that we seek to imitate the rhythm of Christ. In Ortberg’s words, “If we want to follow someone, we can’t go faster than the one who is leading.”

When it comes to slowing the pace of our lives, fasting is one discipline that can remove us from our busy routine and open up much needed time to spend with God.

“We tend to think of fasting from food, but it can be from other things as well,” Laird said. “Fasting is saying no to one thing so we can say yes to something else. It can be a fast from technology or a fast from overscheduling by actually scheduling in gaps for free time.”

Ortberg talks about solitude as a fast from society rather than food. Practicing solitude, he writes, requires perseverance in order to withdraw from the numerous distractions around us—people, noise, stimulation—and focus on what God has for us instead. As Ortberg points out, Jesus actually began and ended His ministry with solitude, starting with prayer and fasting in the wilderness and finishing with prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before His death.

Yet another form of fasting would be stepping away from our daily agenda altogether for a period of rest and reflection. Sabbath is one example of how we can reject our routine for a period of time and focus instead on the restoration only God can provide.

“Sabbath is a call to fast from our 24/7 lifestyle and set aside regular time—daily, weekly, and yearly—to focus on joy and worship, and rest for ourselves, others, and all of creation,” said Laird.

Keep It Simple

As clear as it is to see what Christ viewed as important, it is equally obvious through His words and actions to see what His priorities were not.

“No one lived a simpler, more unencumbered life than [Christ],” writes author Richard Swenson, M.D., in his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. “He was born with nothing, lived with little, and died with nothing. His simplicity was not accidental. Jesus could have chosen any standard, yet He chose to live simply.”

What Jesus deemed as lacking value is precisely what the world lauds as necessary and worthy of pursuit. Wealth, power, possessions, status—today there are countless books, tutorials, and conferences on how to accumulate these things. In the Gospels, Jesus spends much of His time teaching not only their unimportance, but also the destruction that can come from focusing on such things. In Luke 12:15, He warns “’Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’” In Matthew 6, He instructs His followers to store up heavenly treasures rather than earthly riches, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He goes on to condemn worry, even for such things as food or clothing, but rather encourages trust in God that He may provide for our needs.

These lessons are important to heed even today, or perhaps especially today. These things—greed, possessions, worry—keep us from focusing on our mission, largely because they keep us busy.

“When we enter the material world for our contentment, it pulls us deeper and deeper, and the pull is deceptively strong,” writes Swenson. “That for which I long becomes that to which I belong.”

In addition to being a byproduct of trying to keep up with the Joneses, busyness has also become a status symbol in itself. Our degree of busyness is often equated with our degree of importance. As a result, we tend to derive a sense of value from maintaining jam-packed schedules.

Laird confirms this acceptance of busyness in society, but also warns Christians against this mindset: “There is an ego-benefit to being busy—it’s a good thing; it’s culturally affirmed. But the Gospels almost always call us to be counter-cultural, to go against what the world considers good, or at the very least to be mindful of it.”

A prime example of our biblical call to go against the worldly grain comes in Jesus’ warnings about the power and influence of money. Take His words from Luke 16:13 as an example: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

“Jesus speaks to the question of economics more than any other single social issue,” writes author and theologian Richard Foster. “If, in a comparatively simple society, our Lord lays such strong emphasis upon the spiritual dangers of wealth, how much more should we who live in a highly affluent culture take seriously the economic question?”

Foster identifies simplicity as a spiritual discipline that can help rid money and possessions of their power and re-classify them as sources of enjoyment rather than destruction. In addition, by choosing to live simply, we begin to look to God as the source of our contentment and better appreciate His provision. A few of Foster’s suggestions for creating this change are buying items for usefulness instead of status, making a habit of giving things away, learning to enjoy things without owning them, and taking time to appreciate God’s creation.

“The discipline of simplicity is about paring away the clutter, whether it’s physical or internal, and cultivating a spirit of detachment from stuff,” said Laird. “You have to ask yourself ‘What are the things that don’t have anything to do with who I am in God?’ and get rid of these things. Instead, focus on what you need to keep for the current season of your life in order to be agile and ready to respond to God.”

The Right Kind of Busy

As we consider how to address our busyness, it is important to remember that we will undoubtedly always be busy. Serving God and others through our work, engaging in community and ministry—these things require time and effort. Even as we look to the life of Christ for answers, we can see that having His priorities in order didn’t mean Jesus wasn’t busy. He was very busy. But He was the right kind of busy.

“Jesus often had much to do, but He never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between Him and the Father. He never did it in a way that interfered with his ability to give love when love was called for,” writes Ortberg.

There is a difference between being purposefully busy—the sort of busy that provides fulfillment and seeks to accomplish the good work we’ve been called to do—and being rushed, distracted, and weary. In the words of DeYoung: “The busyness that’s bad is not the busyness of work, but the busyness that works hard at the wrong things.”

“Slowing down is not the goal,” affirmed Laird. “Being formed in the likeness of Christ so that we may more fully live out the kingdom of God on earth is our motivation for not being so busy. I encourage people to pray to ask God to help them with busyness and to work through the spiritual disciplines to reform their lives.”

With this mindset and an openness to God’s work in our lives, we can begin to eliminate destructive busyness and, instead, uncover a new kind of busy—one that still offers love and compassion to those around us, rather than being focused on personal to-do lists; a busy that knows how to prioritize the things that matter, the things that have eternal value, over the temporary things of this world; and a busy that knows how to set aside time to revel in the invitation and promise of Christ found in Matthew 11:28: “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

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