hen we’re at the beach, my 12 year old son loves to ride the waves on his little Styrofoam surfboard, his “boogie board” as they’re called these days. And I always caution him to stay close to where we’ve set up our umbrella—to stay in front of his father as he rides—because there are some pretty strong currents out there that can carry him down the shoreline away from me.
But despite that caution, what usually happens is this: for the first couple of waves, he looks up to see where I am and then he realigns himself with me before he goes out for another wave. After that, though, he gets so preoccupied that he forgets to look for me after each ride. He simply runs back into the ocean to catch another wave. And then another. And then another. And before long, the current’s taken him hundred yards downstream. Then I have to walk down there and remind him—in Christian love of course—that he’s supposed to stay in near me.
Just like my son, we sometimes ignore the invisible but powerful currents that cause us to drift away from our Father as we go about our daily lives. We know what’s best, as my son does: we should keep our Father in front of us at all times and pay attention to His instruction. We should be checking frequently to make sure we’re aligned with Him, so to speak. But, again like my son, we sometimes drift anyway. Slowly, perhaps, but consistently. Forces that are almost undetectable push us away from Him. And if we don’t actively combat those forces, before long, we’ll be quite a distance away.
Now, you can probably think of many such forces in our culture. They usually come in the form of messages we see and hear every day, whether on television or in the books and magazines we read, or from the people we talk to or especially, in the hundreds of daily advertisements to which we’re exposed. We’re told, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, that being happy is what life’s all about (and, of course, that we can find happiness by spending more money and doing more things). We’re told that we should be concerned about what we look like: what we wear, what we weigh, the color of our hair, the whiteness of our teeth. We’re told that success is measured by what’s on our business card (or whether we even have a business card) as well as by how much we own and even by how busy we are. Overall, we’re told we deserve to have the best of everything and that we need to live for today.
Do any of these messages sound familiar? You may not hear these things directly, but over the next 24 hours, try counting how many times you sense these sorts of messages coming at you. You’ll see just how strong the current is. And how subtle. We live in a culture that encourages us to work too much, to spend too much, to do too much, and to continue to strive for “success” through accumulation and activity.
Now here’s the upshot of all this. Unless we’re paying close attention to these currents—to these messages and to how they shape our thinking—chances are we’ll begin to “drift.” That is, we’ll begin to think as the rest of the culture thinks about how we should live, about what our priorities should be, about what we should buy, about how much we should work, and about what it means to have the good life. And here’s where the link to busyness and overload comes in: the pursuit of that kind of “good life” completely exhausts us. It keeps us continually on the go, running from responsibility to responsibility, and ultimately, it compromises time and energy for what really matters in our life.
When we buy-in to this cultural mind set, we end up working too many hours, whether it's paid work or housework. It steals time from our loved ones. We tend to spend too freely, to be in the habit of spending almost all that we’ve earned. Or even more than we’ve earned. We get trapped in “the cult of the next thing,” as it’s been called: we make a habit of looking beyond what we have to pursue more success, more stuff, more comfort and convenience, more happiness. And as more than a few people can testify there’s a bitter irony that results: that very pursuit of happiness makes us miserable.
A Case in Point
That’s what happened to Joe and Tanya. They were swept downstream by what the culture told them was the good life. They never intended for it to happen, but no one does. They were just going along one day at a time, living their lives without giving these things much thought. And that’s when it happened. Slowly. Quietly. Persistently. They gradually bought in to a definition of the good life that’s purely secular.
As a result, ten years into their marriage, they found themselves surrounded by all sorts of wonderful possessions, but ensnared in a work-and-spend cycle that, little did they know, was destroying their quality of life. To afford their nice home in the suburbs, Joe and Tanya both worked full-time jobs, dropping the kids at school in the morning and picking them up from day care around dinnertime. They ate out a lot because no one wanted to cook. They purchased the latest gadgets and technology, but often didn’t have the time to figure out most of the functions. They got a dog but then paid someone to watch the dog during the day. They bought a membership to the gym, but seldom had the time to use it. And on and on it went.
Then there was all the maintenance of the things they owned. The more they had, the more they had to repair or replace, it seemed.
It all took its toll on Joe and Tanya. Their work-and-spend cycle had them so busy that they were missing out on some of the best parts of life. Their marriage was lackluster because they didn’t give it enough attention. They plugged-in their kids to video games and TV for far too many hours a day. They had friendships, but almost all of them were superficial. They waved to their neighbors, but didn’t know much about them. And most tragically, although they were Christians, neither had time for a close relationship with God. Without intending for it to happen, they’d drifted down the shoreline, and no longer heard His voice.
Occasionally, Joe thought about taking a different job—one that would entail less responsibility, fewer hours, more time with the family—but how could he afford it? Their mortgage and their other financial obligations compelled him to stay at his current income level. In a way, his job had become a pair of golden handcuffs, and he saw no way to escape the bondage. So despite his joylessness, he didn’t dwell on how to change things.
For her part, Tanya would sometimes think about being a stay-at-home mom, but—same issue—how would they be able to make ends meet? She really didn’t want to do any belt-tightening, so that left her with little choice but to work. Besides, since everyone else her age seemed to be living over-extended lives, Tanya figured that her life with Joe and the kids was pretty normal. So she didn’t dwell on how to change things, either. And nothing’s changed.
Some Divine Perspective
Let me speak as plainly as possible here, because this is such a critical point. Like a lot of other people, Joe and Tanya have been deceived. Bottom line: they believe a lie—a worldview that says quality of life comes through accumulation and activity. Now, they wouldn’t say they’ve believed that lie; in fact, they’d probably vehemently deny it. But how they use their time and their money indicates their real priorities. Without intending it, they’ve conformed to a culture of materialism and over-scheduling by accepting the toxic assumption that “more is better.”
In point of fact, the exact opposite is true. For many people, Joe and Tanya included, less would yield more, at least more of what really matters in life. Our quality of life would actually be enhanced by de-accumulating, doing fewer things, and embracing a simpler life. Theologians, pastors and others have taught this for centuries. The simplicity of owning less, owing less, and stepping off the treadmill is truly a blessing, a blessing of more time and energy for the people God has entrusted to us, as well as more time for God, more time to become the person He wants us to be, and more time for ourselves as well.
But don’t take it from me, or even from the time-honored teachings of wise men and women of God. Take it from Jesus Himself. To a stunned crowd on the Mount that was marinated in a culture that clearly separated the “haves” from the “have-nots,” he said don’t envy those who are well-off. Don’t seek to accumulate worldly possessions like they do. Instead “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” the things that God cares about, not the things that people care about (Matthew 6:20).
In the same way, to a stunned rich man who asked how he could gain eternal life, Jesus said the answer is to reject the idolatry of possessions and to simply follow him (Matthew 19:21). And to a stunned group of Pharisees, who had come to love money, he said “No servant can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).
Jesus’ message to these people and to us is plain: Don’t drift. Don’t be pulled away from God by a world that’ll encourage you to chase the idols of wealth and comfort and convenience. Instead, live a simpler, less materialistic, less frenetic life.
Jesus says the good life isn’t found in things. I know you know that, but every one of us is susceptible to drifting into that sort of secular thinking, and to drifting into the busy, overloaded life that accompanies that thinking, unless we actively resist these cultural currents and stay near our Father.
How to Escape the Bondage of Busyness
Let me share with you one of many possible remedies, but I think it’s the one with the most staying power. And let me describe it based on the experience of our friends Joe and Tanya.
Last year they decided to splurge for a getaway to Brazil. The travel brochures were incredible, boasting of a country so abundant in beautiful weather, beautiful countryside and beautiful people that its citizens gratefully proclaim “God is Brazilian.” The trip was a stretch for their budget, but it seemed too good to pass up.
As they flew into Sao Paulo, though, an enormous city with three times the population of Los Angeles and twice the area of Rhode Island, what they saw belied the brochures.
The image [of pverty] haunted Joe and Tanya, enough so that they altered their vacation plans to taxi through some of the neighborhoods and learn what they could. Their taxi driver, Rodolfo, served as an impromptu tour guide. He told them that poverty is a way of life in the city.... But the worst part was the children: skinny, vivacious children of all ages .... Rodolfo explained some of them have families, but many are orphans.
“They’re street children,” he said. “The street is their home. Some try to make money as roving vendors, some just beg. Many, though, sell drugs, weapons or even their bodies just so they can eat...."
Joe and Tanya were stunned. What Rodolfo revealed in broken English broke their hearts.
The couple left that country shaken, recognizing the abundance of their life for the first time. God had blessed them with so much, and they returned to Him so little. How could they have been so blind? How could they have thought that possessions, comfort and career were so important, when so many in the world are barely surviving? One thing was for sure: their life would never be the same.
Through this experience, God transformed Joe and Tanya, shepherding them to a life of non-negotiable priorities: God first, quality time with family, faithful stewardship of income, and simplicity in everything. Perspective on the blessings in their life yielded gratitude and gratitude yielded contentment—something that they had chased but never caught until now. Contentment, in turn, is permitting them to downshift to a life of less work, less spending, less running around, less overload. Their new inward reality of gratitude to God is yielding an outward lifestyle of simplicity that, among other things, has lifted the weight of busyness and exhaustion from their lives.
Today, to help them maintain perspective, Joe and Tanya keep a picture of Sao Paulo on their wall. And they’re returning to that city again soon, this time on a missions trip to minister to street children.
God used their escape to Brazil to help them escape from bondage. He blessed Joe and Tanya with a perspective that cured their blindness and ultimately, their over-extension and their alienation from Him.
And He wants to do the same for the rest of us. He continues to invite us to gain a perspective—a new way of thinking—that will help us live more simply and more faithfully. The formal invitation reads: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
That’s an echo of Jesus’ words on the Mount. Think differently, Jesus says. Focus on what you have, rather than on what you don’t have. See the abundance of your life for what it is, and then consider simplifying, once and for all trading your busy life for a better life.
Excerpted from the Freedom from Busyness: Biblical Help for Overloaded People (Bible study and video curriculum), LifeWay Christian Resources, 2006. For more information on this resource, click here.
Michael Zigarelli was an Associate Professor of Management at Charleston Southern University and the editor of Christianity9to5.net when this article was published. The piece first appeared on the Adventist Review's website in November, 2007.
For more information on simplifying your life, consider these resources:
· Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster (Harper & Row, 1981)
· “The Simplicity of the Carefree Life” by Deitrich Bonhoeffer (Chapter 17 of The Cost of Discipleship)
· Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson (NavPress, 1995)
· Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (Zondervan, 1992)
· Simplify Your Spiritual Life by Donald Whitney (NavPress, 2003). For an extended excerpt from this book, click here.
· “The Eighth Deadly Sin: Busyness” by Kirk Jones. This article appeared in the Spring 2001 edition of Leadership Journal, one of the leading pastor’s magazines.
· “Taking Care of Busyness” by John Ortberg. This article appeared in the Fall 1998 edition of Leadership Journal.
· See also the archives of Discipleship Journal, including several helpful articles about overcoming overload