The biggest dangers with busyness are not material and temporal inconveniences. A person can do physical labor twelve hours a day, six days a week for an entire life and not suffer for it. In fact, he may be exceptionally healthy. But if the strain is mental—as is the case for most jobs and for most of us—the negative effects can be huge.
And even more so when the threats are spiritual.
When we are crazy busy we put our souls at risk. The challenge is not merely to make a few bad habits go away. The challenge is not to let our spiritual lives slip away. The dangers are serious, and they are growing. And few of us are as safe as we seem.
The first danger is that busyness can ruin our joy. This is the most immediate and obvious spiritual threat. As Christians, our lives should be marked by joy (Phil. 4:4), taste like joy (Gal. 5:22), and be filled with the fullness of joy (John 15:11). Busyness attacks all that. One study found that commuters experience greater levels of stress than fighter pilots and riot police (Chester 115). That’s what we’re facing. The sin is still our sin, but there’s no doubt that when our lives are frantic and frenzied we are more prone to anxiety, resentment, impatience, and irritability.
As I’ve worked on a new book over these past two weeks I could sense an improved spirit in me. Not because of my writing, but because of the time I had off to do the writing. During my break from the pressures of travel, meetings, and constant sermon preparation, I found myself more patient with my kids, more thoughtful toward my wife, and more able to hear from God. Obviously, we all have weeks and months where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. In those seasons we will have to fight hard for joy in the midst of busyness. But few of us will fight
right now for next week’s joy by tackling the unnecessary habits of busyness that make most weeks an unhappy hassle.
Years ago I listened to an interview with Richard Swenson, a Christian physician, about the concept of margin. There’s nothing uniquely Christian about the idea itself, but there is something very un-Christian about ignoring it. “Margin,” Swenson says, “is the space between our load and our limits” (69). Planning for margin means planning for the unplannable. It means we understand what’s possible for us as finite creatures and schedule for less than that.
Over the past year I’ve come to see that too often I plan no margin in my weeks, reverse margin actually. I look at my week and before any interruptions come or any new opportunities arise or any setbacks occur I already have no idea how I’m going to get everything done. I see the meetings I need to have, the sermons I need to prepare, the emails I need to write, the blogs I need to post, the projects I need to complete, the people I need to see and figure that if everything goes a little better than expected
, I’ll be able to squeeze it all it in. But of course, there are no ideal weeks, and I end up with no margin to absorb the surprises. So I hunker down, get harried, and get busy. That’s all I can do in the moment because I didn’t plan better weeks before.
Busyness is like sin: kill it or it will be killing you. Most of us fall into a predictable pattern. We start to get overwhelmed by one or two big projects. Then we feel crushed by the daily grind. Then we despair of ever feeling at peace again and swear that something has to change. Then two weeks later life is more bearable, and we forget about our oath until the cycle starts all over again. What we don’t realize is that all the while, we’ve been a joyless wretch, snapping like a turtle and as personally engaging as a cat. When busyness goes after joy, it goes after everyone’s joy.