As a kid I was deeply afraid of falling prey to quicksand. My great, great grandfather was one of the people who raced across the border of Oklahoma to claim land in 1890, and in his accounts, he talked about having to be careful crossing a river because of quicksand.
My 5-year-old brain imagined him and his horse being sucked down slowly and terrifyingly into the sand. As a result, I grew quite aware of local sand. Perhaps my friend’s sandbox would devour me. Or maybe I’d put my foot too close to the sand castle I just built, and it would slowly pull me in. My obituary would read, “Boy Full of Potential Now Full of Sand.”
Recently I’ve been reminded of my childhood fear. I’ve noticed that productivity has begun to do what I was afraid that sand castle would. A productive life seems to be slowly swallowing me. The more I try to run and accomplish and serve, the less I am able to move. And as I grow more exhausted, I become more enveloped by stress.
Busyness is the Gold Standard
So how did I get into this spiritual quicksand? Here’s something I’ve noticed. In everyday life, I am lauded for my busyness. Every small group I start, every spiritual conversation I have, every ministry I sign up for, is another spiritual gold star. The more I do, the more I am admired. Sometimes it even seems as though my exhaustion directly correlates to the amount of respect I get from the people around me.
Consider this sample conversation.
“Drew, how in the world do you have time to lead a small group, spend time in the Word, write inspirational tweets, save cats from trees, and walk old women across the street?”
I shrug sheepishly — imagining the Christian Superhero emblem appearing on my chest — and say, “You know, I’m not sure. I guess it’s just a matter of having a heart to serve others.”
“Wow, you sure are a good Christian.”
“No, no, no,” I protest, pushing off the compliment like it’s unwanted or unneeded due to my heavenly humility. But all the while I’m subconsciously wondering if God noticed.
Then I go home, crawl into bed, and feel empty. Drained. Exhausted.
No Rest For the Weary
I have discovered it’s easy to treat life like a checklist and to gauge my success by the number of tasks I accomplish. Rest, though needed, is a squishy concept. It isn’t quantifiable; and it’s definitely not something celebrated in a capitalistic culture. We’re told we need to be productive to out-perform our competitors and not waste time. Sometimes rest is even equated with laziness.
However, there is a big difference between rest and laziness. When I wake up each morning, I would prefer to stay in bed and watch Netflix. If I skipped work to do this, I wouldn’t be resting — I would just be lazy. Rest comes after productivity has happened. The two are not mutually exclusive; they are interwoven and highly compatible.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, Paul instructs Christians to work with their hands. Paul himself was a tent maker (Acts 18:3) and knew the value of hard work and productivity. He writes elsewhere, in Ephesians 4:28, to “let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Productivity is not only good, it is essential, because it keeps us honest and allows us to help those in need.
Unfortunately, my productivity often feels rushed and draining. I don’t have time to answer my friend’s phone call, because I’m too busy writing my next blog post. I don’t have time to go see that movie, because I need to finish preparing for my Bible study. I don’t have time to hang out with my best friends, because I need to get coffee with the student I’m discipling.
I worry if I don’t do these things, I’m being selfish and sinful. And so my productivity becomes legalistic busyness. I am aiming at perfection and condemning myself when I don’t reach it. It’s exhausting.
Experiencing God in Rest
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Healthy productivity should yield a stillness in which we are able to hear the Lord’s voice.
After his showdown against the prophets of Baal, Elijah must have been feeling pretty burnt out when he told the Lord, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
As he waited for the Lord’s reply, Elijah witnessed a violent windstorm, an earthquake, and a fire. But the Lord was not in any of them. It was not until Elijah heard a low whisper that he experienced the Lord’s calling (1 Kings 19:9-18).
My productivity should point me to God’s calling on my life, and that means calming the windstorm of busyness, the earthquake of expectations, and the fire of perfectionism. I have to remove the distractions to be available to hear the whisper. All of this is easier said than done. In my quest to alleviate busyness and cultivate healthy rest, I have found these three questions to be helpful:
1. Do I have time to rest?
In the Old Testament, God called the Israelites to rest one day each week. The Sabbath was a time set aside for the people of God to remember and experience His goodness and worship Him. When Christ came, he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). So while rest is still important in the believer’s life, we do not need to cling to it legalistically. Still, observing a Sabbath can bring us rest amidst healthy work.
This past semester I didn’t take a Sabbath. I went to church each week, but I would spend the rest of the day doing schoolwork. I had just started my graduate degree and was also trying to maintain a website while leading a small group Bible study. I didn’t have time to take a nap, read for fun, or even just be quiet for a few minutes. After attending a writing retreat, I felt the Lord encouraging me to take advantage of the Sabbath.
Since I’ve been intentional about observing a day of rest each week, life seems to flow more naturally. I’m less exhausted, and I’ve received a different perspective on performance and productivity. I’ve begun to realize that God’s love for me is not dependent on how productive I am or how high my grades are or even how “well” I spend my Sabbath. God loves me independently of all of that.
2. Am I organizing my schedule to maintain spiritual appearances or to serve the Lord?
I struggle with expectations. I am expected to lead a small group at church. I am expected to mentor younger students. I am expected to crank out regular blog posts. When it comes to my relationship with God, I often fall into the trap of performance-based legalism instead of genuine relationship. I convince myself I need to fill up my schedule with certain activities to meet all those expectations. However, I can camouflage doing “good things” under the banner of serving God. As I reassessed my priorities, I was able to see the activities that were aimed at fulfilling expectations rather than pleasing God, and knock some of those things out of my schedule.
We were not created to perform good works so God could love us. We do good works because God loves us. As I’ve begun to allow myself to rest, I’ve realized that rest teaches me something spiritually that performance cannot: It teaches me what it means to be with God as opposed to work for God.
I now write out prayers in the morning or go for runs through the canyon behind my house. Sometimes, in the middle of my runs, I will stop and walk while the sun sets. In those moments God encourages me to just be with Him. He encourages me to drop the expectations I have for myself in that moment and recognize my status as His child.
Rest reminds me where my true motivation comes from. It shouldn’t come from the number of activities I can perform in a day, the people I am able to impress, or the good deeds I’m able to perform. My motivation should come from God, and I can experience that through the rest He offers me.
Copyright 2016 Drew Brown. All rights reserved.