I recently pushed through 13.1 grueling miles to complete a half marathon. I’m not a runner by nature, so I credit three things in making this possible — an epic playlist, my family cheering from the sidelines, and a dozen aid stations along the course. Never in my life have I been more grateful for the occasional sip of Gatorade and splash of cold water on my sweaty face.
As I crossed the finish line, the thrill of the medal placed around my neck was quickly overpowered by utter exhaustion. My body made it clear that food and sleep were critical priorities. For once, I listened.
But too often, in my day-to-day routine, I do just the opposite. In our culture that idolizes productivity and accomplishment, how easy it is to blow past God-ordained aid stations left and right — meals, sleep, friendship, Sabbath. Our bodies get tired, and we pour another cup of coffee. The sun goes down, and we turn on the lights. Our to-do list takes priority over our true needs. Rhythms of rest, connection and enjoyment are lost in the pursuit of doing more…and there is always more to do!
Ever been there? Maybe you catch yourself answering e-mails before you get out of bed, stuffing down a cereal bar on your way out the door, working through lunch, skipping the gym to knock out a project, or saying “yes” to a ministry commitment that keeps you out until 10 p.m. Falling into bed exhausted — your mind already racing about tomorrow — you wonder, when did life get so crazy?
Without the time limitations of a spouse or kids waiting at home, it’s incredibly easy to over-commit without even realizing it. Perhaps you’ve been tempted to shoulder more responsibility at work in the hopes of a promotion, or take on a second or third job to chip away at student loans. Maybe you’ve heard messages from the Christian community urging you to “use” your singleness for the glory of God (a.k.a. sign up for every ministry opportunity possible). Or you stay busy to avoid going home to an empty apartment and facing how life has not turned out the way you expected.
Whatever the specific scenario, saying “yes” is particularly applauded and reinforced for singles, and there is little accountability to slow down and rest. Before we know it, we’re in a disordered relationship with time that is sucking our life away.
On the surface, it may look good; we keep others happy, we get things done, and we serve God…right?
Not necessarily. We can easily confuse a jam-packed schedule with a fruitful life. And when we neglect our own needs and limitations, it never ends well.
I Do, Therefore I Am
Pursuing a meaningful vocation is foundational to our created purpose, but when doing gets tied up with our identity, value and worth, it’s incredibly difficult to say “no.” The result is often an unboundaried, semi-frantic lifestyle that feels more like bondage than our calling. Propelled by the soundtrack of inadequacy, we frantically put one foot in front of the other, failing to recognize that the medals handed out at this finish line are disillusionment and burnout.
Even the best athlete in the world cannot sprint indefinitely. And research suggests that neither can we. Over-commitment comes with a cost. A recent longitudinal study found that Americans’ stress levels are the highest in ten years, with younger individuals and women reporting the highest levels. Chronic stress takes a toll on our bodies, our minds, and our souls. We may struggle with health problems, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, or addictive behavior. We may feel exhausted and robotic, empty and even resentful. When we try to “do it all,” we sacrifice what matters most on the altar of what’s urgent. Along the way, we lose joy, purpose and connection.
The truth is, we were never intended to live this way. We follow a God who “gives strength to the weary” (Isa. 40:29) and urges us to “be strong and courageous” (Josh. 1:9), but He also invites us to “come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a little while” (Mk. 6:31). The biblical mandate for Sabbath is not an out-of-date cultural practice; it is at the crux of our created design. Building regular time into our schedules to rest and rejuvenate — whether that be a nap, a walk, or a gathering with friends — can feel selfish and unrealistic. And it surely won’t just happen.
In a society that glorifies a lifestyle of crazy busyness, maybe God’s invitation to us is particularly counter-cultural: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls…” (Matt. 11:28). If we want to build a sustainable life, we must grapple with the reality that we are finite human beings who can never “do it all.” We have limited time, energy and mental capacity, and we can’t outwit our biology, no matter how hard we try with coffee or willpower.
Embracing Our Limitations
Reclaiming control over our frenzied lives begins with examining what’s going on at a heart level, and honestly facing our needs and motivations. In my own life, I’ve found a few questions incredibly revealing:
What is driving my busyness? What makes it hard to slow down? I love the thrill of being busy and the high of a job well done. But this can easily morph into bowing down at the idols of productivity and other people’s approval, finding my significance and worth there rather than in Jesus. How easy it is to live in fear of others’ expectations or at the mercy of our own perfectionism. Work — even ministry — can become a sophisticated way to avoid feelings of inadequacy and failure, or an attempt to play God in someone else’s life. It’s only when we have the courage to face our wounds and fears that we are truly free to make God-honoring decisions that may at times be quite counter-cultural.
What do I ultimately want out of life? Are my current decisions moving me toward that? Living strategically for the kingdom of God requires that we make intentional decisions about how we spend our time and energy. Many people in your life — bosses, colleagues, even friends and family members — are not going to protect your time. They will ask for it in a hundred legitimate and heart-tugging ways. Christian psychologist John Townsend wisely points out that if you are not disappointing other people in some way, you are likely not setting boundaries. You may end up captive to other people’s expectations and agendas rather than walking in step with the Holy Spirit.
What is mine to do? What is God calling me to? The Bible challenges us, “Work heartily as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23), but we also follow a God who “leads [us] beside still waters and restores [our] souls” (Ps. 23:2-3). First and foremost, God always calls us to himself. Living in a fallen world, there will always be needs and opportunities beyond our capacity. There is also this life that God has created for us to enjoy, not just survive. And ironically, every time we say “yes” to something, we are inherently saying “no” to something else. When we learn to recognize and honor our limitations, they can serve as guiding lights to what matters most.
The Freedom of Living Loved
Building a sustainable, fruitful life is far from a one-time commitment. Developing rhythms of rest and connection that equip us for the work God has uniquely called us to is no easy task in a world that constantly tells us you are what you do. This is a daily battle: to make the most of every opportunity God gives (Eph. 5:16), without falling prey to the frenzied panic of trying to keep everyone happy or meet all their needs. That is a recipe for chaos!
Our limits, rather than being something to disavow, serve as a poignant reminder that God works through our weaknesses and imperfections (2 Cor. 12:9). Only One is limitless and perfect, and He has welcomed us in as His beloved sons and daughters. Our identity in Him is secure. Rooted and grounded in this reality, we are no longer at constant risk of being redefined by someone else’s disappointment or criticism, or our own shortcomings. We can be led by the Holy Spirit, not fear or insecurity. In the words of Sarah Bessey:
Living loved, we relax our expectations, our efforts, our strivings, our spine, our breath, our plans, our job descriptions, and checklists…We are not the authors of our redemption. No, God is at work, and his love for us is boundless and deep, wide, and high, beyond all comprehension.
Next time you feel that tug — the tenacious, addictive pull of doing — that gets so easily intertwined with your identity and very existence, stop for a moment. Pause. Breathe. Remember who you are as His beloved. Consider, is this mine to do? What are my motives for jumping in so quickly? Am I truly living out my calling, or trying to avoid something by popping the pill of busyness?
Living in the freedom of the gospel enables us to say “yes” with conviction and “no” without guilt. The ways we love and serve and give our lives away — in our jobs, churches, and communities — are no longer an attempt to prove our worth and value. Every action is a response of gratitude, an overflow of knowing we are perfectly loved.
Start from this place, and you may just find that the tyranny of doing begins to lose its grip on your heart.
Copyright 2017 by Laura Captari. All rights reserved.