This past week I found myself, once again, busily paging through my daily calendar as I stood with friends, as they paged through theirs, trying to find a period of time in which we could meet. We were only looking for an hour, a mere sixty minutes of time—which isn’t actually very much given the 168 hours we have each week—but that one hour was, nevertheless, rather difficult to find. Afterwards, I found myself wondering how much time we each spend, over a lifetime, trying to find time.
Busyness is a mark of our age, but very few think of busyness within distinctively Christian categories. In fact, most Christians might be surprised to discover that to think of busyness properly, we should probably begin by reflecting on the meaning of sloth. Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, sloth is the most distinctively modern. Nothing so clearly distinguishes modern Western society from all previous societies as its sloth.
That claim sounds absurd in view of the fact that we are a busy, fussing, anxious, fast-moving, success-worshipping, performance-oriented, Martha-type society, replete with ulcers, nervous breakdowns, and suicides. But at least we are hard-working. We have the grossest national product. How can anyone say we are lazy? I did not say we are lazy. I said we are slothful.
Contrary to popular opinion, sloth isn’t laziness, per se. Sloth is whatever keeps us from seeking and hungering after God—and so whether the culprit be laziness or busyness, the sin in each case is identical: its name is sloth. “Relaxing is not sloth,” Kreeft explains. “The person who never relaxes is not a saint but a fidget.” If that is true, then our age is an age which has made fidgets into heroes, and has transformed slothfulness into a virtue.
Christian faithfulness requires a response to the interminable and self-satisfied busyness that masquerades as godliness, but is merely slothfulness at high-speed. And the first part of the response is to unmask a lie: There is no time famine. God created us to live and to serve him in 24-hour days, and he called the arrangement “good.” There may be an excess of activities, of course, a glut of commitments, but there is no time famine. God created us to live before him in a weekly cycle of work and rest, and to ignore this creational norm is to be unfaithful.
But saying all that is easy; it’s much harder to get a handle on things. Following are five resources to help us think the matter through.
Freedom from Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles E. Hummel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1997) 132 pp. + index.
Filled with biblical wisdom, common sense, discussion questions, and a host of practical suggestions, Freedom from Tyranny of the Urgent is designed not to make you feel guilty, but to help you love God with your time. Here, to give one brief example, are some of Dr. Hummel’s practical suggestions on ways to help us learn to say no:
Avoid desperate requests for your time by making a policy never to say yes to anything right away, before praying and consulting your calendar.
Screen phone calls when necessary, to give yourself time to revisit your priorities.
Put a limit on what you say yes to, and then stick to it when pressured to do more (“We thought as long as you were driving the kids to the retreat you wouldn’t mind staying to cook dinner”).
Ration your time and energy. If you plan to lead a Bible study this fall that takes two hours a week in preparation and two hours for the discussion and chatting afterwards, you may need to postpone signing up to assist at the homeless shelter. Pick up that opportunity after the Bible study ends.
Go with your gifts. Perhaps you are being pressured to join the church’s finance committee and to head up the welcome ministry. You don’t have room for both tasks. Choose the one where you can do the better job; decline the other.
Reaffirm that you should not feel guilty about saying no when the task is one the Father is giving you to do.
Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles E. Hummel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 32 pp.
This booklet is must reading—and probably should be reread at least once each year. If you are too busy to read it once each year, then read it twice each year. Hummel’s message is simple, but compelling: if we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by urgent things, we will miss accomplishing what is truly important.
Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure by Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1995) 292 pp. + index.
Whereas Hummel’s treatment is a bit more devotional and practical, Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College, approaches the topic by bringing together biblical insight and sociological research. “Earlier in this century,” Dr. Ryken notes, “someone claimed that we work at our play and play at our work. Today the confusion has deepened: we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.”
Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity by Eugene H. Peterson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1987) 131 pp. + notes.
More pastoral and theological—though written in a warmly engaging style—a former pastor who now teaches at Regent college explores what he sees as the heart of the minister’s calling: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. Though addressed primarily to pastors, Peterson’s gentle and biblical instruction on the basics of Christian spirituality makes Working the Angles a very helpful book.
“Fall From Grace: How Modern Life has Made Waiting a Desperate Act” by Noelle Oxenhandler in The New Yorker (June 16, 1997) pp. 65-68.
A thoughtful and creative reflection on the corrosive effects of busyness in the ordinary things of life. “Preindustrial village life,” Ms. Oxenhandler notes, is under the sway of day and night, heat and cold, drought and rain, seed and fruit, sacred and profane.
But increasingly we live in the twenty-four-hour time of commerce, of convenience. It is 7-Eleven time, the flourescent time of unmodulated, shadowless light, where coffee and doughnuts are available at all hours, where the rhythm of breakfast, lunch, and dinner has no meaning, and where Sunday is Monday.
There is another place with the same shrill, twenty-four-hour light, the doors that never shut, the windowless air, and a counter or front desk manned by the rotation of pale clerks with their free-floating body clocks: the emergency room. What does it mean that the 7-Eleven and the emergency room are atmospherically similar? The emergency room is the true domain of necessity, the place where there is no drawing back before the bleeding wound, the broken bone, the last-minute contractions. But a Pop-Tart, a six-pack of Coke in the middle of the night? We have come to believe that convenience is necessity.
Questions1. To what extent is the “time famine” a problem in your life? To what extent is the weekly biblical cycle of work and rest out of balance in your life? Why?
2. What attitude(s) towards work, rest, and leisure did you grow up with? How have they affected you? To what extent is your thinking about time, work, rest, and leisure molded by the surrounding culture instead of by God’s word?
3. Broadly speaking, our lives can be divided into two categories: work and rest. Seen in this light, define each. What’s the difference between “rest” and “leisure” and “laziness”?
4. What practical problem(s) do we face juggling work, rest, leisure, and time? What pressures do Christians face in this area non-Christians are free from?
5. The “time famine” means that many people feel harried, stressed, and guilty that they haven’t accomplished more. What is at the root of the problem?
6. If we value leisure as much as our complaining about work seems to indicate, why do we make so little time for it, and feel so guilty about enjoying it? Why, for example, is it that if someone stops by on Saturday and discovers us changing the oil, we feel little need to justify ourselves, but if someone discovers us napping, we often make excuses? Why is it that the one time many Christians feel free to lie is when someone wakes us up at 10 in the morning and asks, “Did I wake you up?” Is this a mark of godliness or of worldliness?
7. Write out a theology of work, time, rest, and leisure (complete with references to both Scripture and the historic creeds and confessions), using the outline of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.
Then spell out the implications of such an understanding in terms of: (a) how you would explain it to a fellow believer, (b) how you would explain it to a non-Christian, and (c) how you will live it out practically in an age of busyness.