I think I’m being pruned by the Lord. It’s very uncomfortable. I cannot parse out the motives of my heart and what exactly he’s cutting back just yet. But I am aware that there are some sinful motives involved and, in his mercy, Jesus is identifying them and wielding garden sheers (John 15:2).
The warning light
This week I found myself in bed with a fever, forced to cancel long-made and highly anticipated plans. The kicker is that this is the third time I’ve been there in three months—down for the count of at least two days. A few of my dearest friends saw this warning light on the dashboard and they called me out.
My initial answers were straight from the surface: I’m just busy because I’m passionate about a lot of things! I like doing all these things! I have a high capacity! It’s so easy to live in the States that I have extra energy! Not only that but I reasoned inside my head that my pace of life is slower and my list of commitments is shorter than a lot of other women I know. Comparison is highly preferred to excavating the heart.
But there were long, make-you-wanna-squirm silences in the conversations that followed with my friends and, at this point, my husband. Fever and friends make a formidable force, after all.
I had to fess up to myself that I don’t want to say no to so many good things. I want to be in on the action. I think about myriad worthy causes and how I only have this life before heaven to invest in those things and so I feel I’ve gotta do it all now! But doing so much that I’m missing sleep and frequently getting sick as a result? I had to keep excavating.
Idols that lead to busyness
There are three pitfalls that I believe I have succumbed to as I’ve allowed myself to become overcommitted. And pitfalls is really a nice way of saying idols. Paul Tripp says that “an idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.”
1. People pleasing or fear of man - Once in my sickbed I realized that I was overly concerned about how others perceive me. I didn’t want to be seen as either lazy or frenetic. I didn’t want to be the flighty friend whose lack of planning or inability to deliver inconvenienced others. The fear of man had laid a snare for me (Proverbs 29:25).
2. Wanting affirmation and to be needed - I like when others seek out my wisdom or my skills. We are indeed called by God to give our lives to others, to do good deeds, to steward what he’s given us for his glory and the good of others—those are pure and in fact our very reason for living! But these motives are prone to stealthily going awry. I cannot identify in my own heart where the good motives become counterfeit and morph into the bad. I’m with Paul and find it impossible to fully judge my own heart (1 Corinthians 4:3). An honest assessment though, reveals that I am overcommitted because I like to be sought out and I don’t want to disappoint, even if it’s not my calling and it lands me sick in bed. There is a feeding of the flesh here, rather than a walking by the Spirit.
3. Not living in my own limitations, but pining after God’s omnipotence - I want to be like God who never sleeps. I don’t want to admit that I cannot cram in just one more thing today. But my Father says. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). The sleeplessness that led to sickness was clear evidence that I was snubbing God’s good gift in pursuit of being like him, rather than like his daughter who is limited and frail and needs her sleep.
Other idols of my heart may surely be involved too. Or maybe you are suspecting idolatry in your heart as you read about mine. Control. An unwillingness to let tasks go because you are sure you’re the only one who can do them properly. Impatience. Worry. Pursuing a frenetic pace so you can avoid introspection. Keeping up with the Joneses. Calvin was right when he said, “man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.”
A practical approach to rooting out busyness
Clearly, my first order of business in rooting out idolatry is to identify it, confess it, and repent. Embracing the Lord’s kindness and mercy, I want him to help me live for him alone, to be fueled by his grace alone, for his glory alone. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are intertwined such that my physical ailment pointed to a spiritual ailment. Having identified that spiritual sickness, I want to forge a path with practical boundaries that will enable me to pursue God’s calling on my life while seeking ways out of the temptation to overcommit.
This is where the book recommendation comes in. A few weeks back I read Tim Challies’ Do More Better. My husband was listening to me daily talk about how much I needed to get done, as well as about some significant writing projects that I believe the Lord is calling me to do. Sensing the imbalance in my to-do list with what Mark agreed was my calling in this season, he kept telling me to read this small, but important, book. He had just read it and was putting its principles to use.
Challies defines productivity as “effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” Our job as creatures is to glorify God by doing good to others. Challies says there are three productivity thieves: laziness and busyness, which are both inward issues or idols of the heart, as well as thorns and thistles, which are outward pressures that are part of life in a fallen world. As is stated in the book, “busyness may make you feel good about yourself and give the illusion of getting things done, but it probably just means that you are directing too little attention in too many directions, that you are prioritizing all the wrong things, and that your productivity is suffering.” I took the call of the book seriously to structure and organize my life so that I can pursue what I believe the Lord is calling me to and not a million other good things.
The process of bringing clarity and structure was helpful for me. Challies first instructs the reader to identify his or her areas of responsibility. By filling out a Personal Productivity Worksheet (one of a few Bonus Materials that can be used with the book) I identified my major roles in life and the tasks required by each role. It was then that I was able to see that some of the tasks I had been doing were not lining up well with my roles and were therefore most likely not productive. They were indeed good things, but they were taking away my time and energy from what I knew to be higher priorities.
In reviewing my worksheet I was able to live out what Randy Alcorn describes as the key to a productive life, “‘planned neglect’—knowing what not to do and being content with saying no to truly good, sometimes fantastic, opportunities. This happens only when you realize how truly limited you are, that you must steward your little life, and that of all the best things to do on the planet, God wants you to do only a minuscule number.”
Following the Productivity Worksheet, Challies walks the reader through setting up helpful productivity tools: a task management tool, a scheduling tool, and an information tool. I’m already an avid scheduler, but the first and the last tools are now in my toolbox and very helpful. Todoist.com has taken the place of my to-do list and evernote.com has become an effective and efficient storage place for writing-related research. The sites are especially helpful because I now have them on my phone and on my computer and I can sync ideas and information as they happen, rather than jotting them down on random pieces of paper or promising myself in vain that I won’t forget them later.
Providentially, I read Do More Better right as I was waking up to the reality that the idols of my heart had led to a busyness that was choking out what God is asking of me right now. The book provided me with tools and a way out. My prayer is that the Lord will lead me in maintaining spiritual health that will lead to enduring physical health. I recommend this quick, but paradigm-shifting book, to all busy moms, professionals, Christian workers, and anyone else who wishes to wisely steward his or her limited days.