Good Busyness

Oct 14, 2013 |Kevin DeYoung
Good Busyness

Sometimes being a friend, or just being a Christian, means a lot of time-consuming, burden-bearing, gloriously busy, and wildly inefficient work.

Busyness is a big problem. When we are crazy busy, we put our souls at risk and, for many of us, the hustle and bustle of activity is a sad expression of a deeper acedia. But I don't want you to think the best thing we can do for ourselves and for the world is to take a pass on every difficult request, live for leisure, and throw ourselves a giant "me party." I don't want you to think that hard work is the problem, or that sacrificing for others is the problem, or that suffering is necessarily the problem. If you have creativity, ambition, and love, you will be busy. We are supposed to disciple the nations. We are supposed to work with our hands. We are supposed to love God with our minds. It's not a sin to be busy. It's not wrong to be active.

Busyness, as I've been diagnosing it, is as much a mind-set and a heart sickness as it is a failure in time management. It's possible to live your days in a flurry of hard work, serving, and bearing burdens, and to do so with the right character and a right dependence on God so that it doesn't feel crazy busy. By the same token, it's possible to feel amazingly stressed and frenzied while actually accomplishing very little. The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude, and trust in the providence of God.

The busyness that's bad is not the busyness of work, but the busyness that works hard at the wrong things. It's being busy trying to please people, busy trying to control others, busy trying to do things we haven't been called to do. So please don't hear from me that work is bad or that bearing burdens is bad. That's part of life. That's part of being a Christian. We were made to be busy.

To Serve Is to Suffer

One of the reasons we struggle so mightily with busyness is because we do not expect to struggle. Many Western Christians — and I'm chief among them — can easily live with the tacit assumption that we should not suffer. Sure, we might get cancer someday. We might lose our job for a season. Maybe we'll get one of those terrifying calls in the middle of the night. Those are dreadful losses. But day in and day out we don't expect to suffer. And the less we expect to suffer, the more devastating suffering becomes.

We simply don't think of our busyness as even a possible part of our cross to bear. But what if being a responsible student is supposed to be challenging? What if serving others well is supposed to be difficult? What if being a friend, or just being a Christian, is supposed to mean a lot of time-consuming, burden-bearing, gloriously busy, and wildly inefficient work?

In his excellent article "To Serve Is to Suffer," Ajith Fernando writes about using our gifts "in the fog of fatigue." He explains how people often sympathize with him for serving in a country like Sri Lanka, a country wracked by war and hostile to evangelism. And he admits that ministry there can be very hard. One of his ministry's staff workers was brutally assaulted and killed. But the greatest suffering has come from the people he works with: "Whether you live in the East or the West," Fernando says, "you will suffer if you are committed to people."

Then he tells a story that ought to make those of us from the "developed world" sit up and take note:

I have a large group of people to whom I write asking for prayer when I have a need. Sometimes my need is overcoming tiredness. When I write about this, many write back saying they are praying that God would strengthen me and guide me in my scheduling. However, there are differences in the way friends from the East and some from the West respond. I get the strong feeling that many in the West think struggling with tiredness from overwork is evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is that it is wrong if one gets sick from overwork through drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to endure tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people.

Let that sink in and then read one more paragraph:

The West, having struggled with the tyrannical rule of time, has a lot to teach the East about the need for rest. The East has something to teach the West about embracing physical problems that come from commitment to people. If you think it is wrong to suffer physically because of ministry, then you suffer more from the problem than those who believe that suffering is an inevitable step on the path to fruitfulness and fulfillment.

When I first read that a couple of years ago I had to stop, and think, and then repent. How quick I am to feel sorry for myself. How quick to assume I shouldn't have to bear any heavy burdens. How quick to conclude that God could never want me to struggle with tiredness or sickness for the sake of others. This does not negate the fact that when we are crazy busy, we put our souls at risk. But I know from personal experience that some forms of busyness are from the Lord and bring him glory. Effective love is rarely efficient. People take time. Relationships are messy. If we love others, how can we not be busy and burdened at least some of the time?

No matter how well we plan or how much we get re-energized from a Sabbath or a vacation, there are bound to be times where life feels overwhelming. While working on my book Crazy Busy, I enjoyed many days of relative calm, without many pressures in my schedule. But as soon as I went back to work everything hit me again—all at once. This is what it's like for any of us coming back from a break. The day after I returned from my study leave I had an elders' meeting, a meeting with our pastoral interns, a meeting with an engaged couple to plan their wedding, and a last-minute funeral—plus all the regular emails and phone calls and a sermon to write. After weeks of ruminating about busyness, suddenly I was tremendously busy again. Nothing could have prevented the busyness of returning to work, but it helped to remember that busyness isn't always bad and can't always be avoided. Momma said there'd be days like this.

Second Corinthians 11:28 always seemed like a strange verse to me. Until I became a pastor. Here's Paul rattling off all the ways he's been beaten up for Jesus—imprisonments, lashes, rods, stoning, being shipwrecked and adrift at sea, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure, danger from everyone everywhere (vv. 23–27)—and then, as the cherry on top, Paul mentions one more trial: "apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches" (v. 28). This is the mighty apostle Paul, the one who counted it a joy to "spend and be spent" for his people (12:15), the one who was sorrowful yet always rejoicing (6:10). This is the Paul who faced every imaginable opposition and yet learned to be content (Phil. 4:11) and anxious about nothing (4:6). And here he is admitting that, even with everything else he's endured, he still feels daily pressure and anxiety for all the churches.

Ever since becoming a pastor, I have found unusual comfort in this verse. It's not that I have accomplished what Paul accomplished, or suffered what he suffered, but every earnest minister will feel this burden for the church. And Paul had several churches to burden him! Even if you're not a pastor, you know what Paul is talking about. He's talking about the pain of human relationships. The early Christian communities (like our Christian communities) were full of infighting and backbiting. They had to deal with false teaching. They were prone to legalism on one end and complete chaos on the other. Some of the church members were making insignificant matters too important, while others were too willing to compromise on Christian essentials. Paul loved these churches, and their struggles burdened him more than shipwreck or imprisonment.

I'm not surprised that Paul felt daily pressure. His work never seemed to let up. He had letters to write, visits to make, a collection to gather for the church in Jerusalem. He had to send people here and there and manage the affairs of his churches from a distance. He had to respond to a myriad of criticisms, often conflicting criticisms. Some people thought he was too harsh. Others said he was too weak. Some people in his churches were ascetics and thought Paul was worldly. Others were licentious and thought Paul was too ethically demanding. They complained about his teaching. They questioned his credentials. They compared him negatively to the original apostles. They thought him lame compared to the false apostles. They didn't like the way he handled money. They didn't like his preaching style. They didn't like the way he arranged his travel plans. They didn't like his discipline. On some days they just didn't like Paul anymore. All this for the man who led them to Christ, loved them like a father, planted their church, refused their money, and risked his neck for their spiritual good. There was no weight for Paul like the weight of caring for God's people.

Paul was busy, in all the right ways. If you love God and serve others, you will be busy too. Sometimes we will get frazzled. We will feel pressure. We will be tired. We will get discouraged. We will feel exhausted. We will say, "Who is weak, and I am not weak?" (2 Cor. 11:29). But be encouraged. God uses weak things to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). His grace is sufficient for you; his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). For the sake of Christ, we must be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. And yes, sometimes we must be content with busyness. For when you are weak, then you are strong (v. 10). Paul had pressure. You have pressure too. But God can handle the pressure. Do not be surprised when you face crazy weeks of all kinds. And do not be surprised when God sustains you in the midst of them.

Content modified from Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung © 2013. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, Crossway.org.

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