Busyness as Moral Laziness

The Desert Fathers (a protest movement in the early church) spoke of busyness as “moral laziness.” Busyness can also be an addictive drug, which is why its victims are increasingly referred to as “workaholics.” Busyness acts to repress our inner fears and perpetual anxieties, as we scramble to achieve an enviable image to display to others. We become “outward” people, obsessed with how we appear, rather than “inward” people, reflecting on the meaning of our lives.

Busyness also seems to be a determination not to “miss out on life.” Behind much of the rat-race of modern life is the unexamined assumption that what I do determines who I am. In this way, we define ourselves by what we do, rather than by any quality of what we are inside. It is typical in a party for one stranger to approach another with the question, “What do you do?” Perhaps we wouldn’t have a clue how to reply to the deeper question, “Who are you?”

– James Houston, The Transforming Friendship: A Guide to Prayer

* * *

I can hear the protest now, “Lazy? What do you mean, lazy? Nonsense! I work longer and harder than most people I know. I’m always busy doing something. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I weren’t working or involved in some activity!”

Sorry, I insist: Busyness is moral laziness.

Busyness is evidence that I truly “don’t know what to do with myself.” So I never slow down long enough to face the nagging fear within.

I’m using the word in a particular way. A person can be active, productive, and diligent and still not be busy. John Wesley, one of the hardest and most prolific workers the world has ever known, dreaded busyness. He is reported to have said, “Busyness is not of the devil; busyness is the devil.”

Busyness doesn’t just mean I work, it means I have to be doing something. I’m compelled to do so, and I can’t (won’t) be interrupted from my agenda. And what is my agenda based on? When I practice a little self-reflection, a host of ugly little motives come crawling out from under the rock — guilt, the need to win approval, fear of insignificance, desire to gain a reputation, or a hunger to silence other voices that haunt me when life gets quiet.

It is moral laziness because, for the busy person, tending a bunch of irons in the fire can be the easier path. I would rather expend energy on some task I can handle than engage in the harder work of cultivating relationships or putting up with someone who is needy or squandering time on something that has no foreseeable payoff. Or listening to God.

Busyness can be a matter of presumption and pride. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done. I can’t trust others. I see it as a waste of valuable time and resources to partner with them and have to deal with their mistakes when I could get it done so much faster and more efficiently. It’s not only my agenda, it’s my timetable, and my standards that rule. I’m in charge.

The busy person never prays the words of Psalm 131:

Lord, my heart isn’t proud;
my eyes aren’t conceited.
I don’t get involved with things too great or wonderful for me.
No. But I have calmed and quieted myself
like a weaned child on its mother;
I’m like the weaned child on me.
Israel, wait for the Lord—
from now until forever from now! (CEB)

In his book on prayer, James Houston reminds us — the busy ones — that Sunday comes before Monday. Before work comes rest. Before I do what I do, I rest in what God has done and is doing. Knowing he is seated on his throne, ruling the universe and working in every corner of life, I confess that the work I do only finds lasting meaning when it fits in with what he is already doing. I don’t initiate anything. My agenda is always secondary to his. I learn to wait on his timetable. I adjust my standards so that they match his. He’s in charge.

And when I finally acknowledge the puny contribution all my busyness makes, when I recognize the moral laziness that keeps me from hearing and obeying God, when it becomes clear that I am proud and want to be in control and get the credit, I come to Jesus and ask him to do his greatest work….

Kyrie eleison. 

57 thoughts on “Busyness as Moral Laziness

  1. Only if the “foodie” becomes addicted to his/her “foodieness”. The essence of Gluttony is that what you eat (or for Gluttony of Delicacy, what you DON’T eat) is what’s in control, not you.


  2. Share them in what way? On Facebook? From the IM main page just right click and hit “copy link location” (I’m using Firefox, but I think there’s a similar command in IE and Chrome), then once in Facebook paste that into the status update field in Facebook (using ctrl + v or right clicking and hitting “paste”).


  3. I just remembered CM that you’ve confessed to responding to comments while driving, so you clearly need to slow down 😉


  4. Oh, and they didn’t spend hours each day reading blogs, either!


    About the rest of your comments, point taken, likewise.


  5. RE: DF as a protest movement: “All Christian monasticism is an implied criticism of the Church’s decision to become a large-scale and inclusive organization.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years).

    Of course, this is a general statement, subject to much clarification.

    As for the “moral laziness” concept, this is from Houston’s quote, and it does not appear he is giving an exact citation from any particular DF but summarizing their teachings on the subject.

    I’m riffing on his use of the phrase more than appealing to the DF’s.


  6. Yes Phil, I agree. My point is that for some people a full time job, routine chores and family responsibilities are enough to choke up their daily calendar without even being workaholics.

    And again, if we’re only talking about career style business, fathers/bread winners in third world countries who have to work from dawn to dusk don’t have the luxury of spiritual chill out time and mystical indulgences. They’re thankful to just get in a few hours sleep.


  7. Point taken. But, on the other hand, please don’t pigeon-hole what I’m saying into “work-life balance.” Yuck.

    I fully acknowledge my (our) place of relative leisure to think and write and read about and discuss these things. On the other hand, the Bible and many devotional works that encourage us to do our work from a place of inner quiet were written in pre-modern settings where just drawing and hauling water could take up half your day and there was no end to the work that was necessary simply to survive.

    Oh, and they didn’t spend hours each day reading blogs, either!


  8. Again, Rob, I’m using “busyness” in a particular way. If I can’t help people from a position of a quiet, loving heart, it won’t be long before my “help” won’t be “help.” I’ve always appreciated that Mother Teresa, when asked what her vocation was, would always answer, “Prayer.” It was out of that relationship with God that she was able to extend true compassion and assistance to others.


  9. I don’t think the groups you mentioned were necessarily the target of this article. It seems to me that it’s talking more about people who feel the need to work in order to fill some sort of void in their lives. I think in the professional realm there is a strong idea that working hard will bring meaning and purpose to one’s life. While it has some truth to it, I think it leaves a lot of people empty.

    As far as single mothers and people scraping, of course I don’t think anyone here would condemn them. I think you’re idea of offering to help a single mother out is great. That’s the Kingdom at work!

    Also, I’ll add that for me personally there’s a different sort of pressure involved in having to do chores like mow the lawn, doing dishes, and work around the house. I don’t feel nearly the same stress in having to get those things done as when I have a deadline at work. I actually think that some people get addicted to the stress of having deadlines, so in some ways, people actually prefer being at the office than to being at home or having free time.


  10. With all due respect, this post is one sided and ignores the other side of the coin where some people are busy just because they HAVE TO not because they WANT TO.

    It’s all well and good to put a spiritual spin on it and say that “I rest in what God has done and is doing” but the lawn won’t mow itself, neither will the leaking tap seal itself, nor will your child’s cry for help with her homework can be ignored, or your elderly parents that need someone to take them to the doctors (all of which, in any given order can take up a lot of your time).

    Have you spoken to a single parent lately who has to work, houseclean, cook and pick up the kids from school? Maybe one of those who have really mastered the art of “hearing God” can hear Him say: “get busy and go take that single mum’s kids out this Saturday to give her a break”.

    So before we stick the “morally lazy” label on people’s foreheads let’s consider that the cause of their busyness may be neither a need for approval nor some other profound psychological undercurrent, but sheer necessity!

    And if we zoom out from our westernised notion of a “work-life balance”, let’s spare a thought for some Christians in a place like Bangladesh for example that have to work 15 hour days for pittance just to meet basic needs of subsistence.

    Again, with all due respect!


  11. I’m currently on week 3 out of 5 being away from home working in Australia (my choice) so guilty as charged on the workaholic front. One thing I would note though: My lovely wife, a dedicated and faithful servant of the church at which she is a member, spends at least 3 to 5 hours a week (or more) on the church grounds, of which only one hour is devoted to worship – and lets be honest – it ain’t an hour of worship. It’s one of the things that drove me away from the whole mess because it seemed like we were always busy fixing something, cleaning something, planning something, setting up or tearing down for something, rehearsing for something, and on and on.


  12. Totally agree. But this reminds me of a joke (forgive me, I can’t resist):

    Guy in the south meets a pretty lady from New York one day and asks, “Howdy mam, where are ya’ll from?” to which the lady replied, “I’m from a place where we don’t end our sentences in prepositions”, to which the fellow replied, “Oh, excuse me. Let me rephrase. Where are ya’ll from, jerk.”


  13. A really excellent article.

    I know I will seem like a neo-luddite by asking this question, but is there any way to share articles like this?


  14. What if your busyness is helping others in their pain and suffering? Do I follow this logic and turn from helping others and toward navel gaze upon myself? Is there scripture to support this?

    Please don’t quote the Martha passage because it does not give us the example to look inward but instead towards Christ.


  15. “The Desert Fathers (a protest movement in the early church)”

    Is this how Evangelicals normally parse them? Does anti-monasitic sentiment really run that strong? I realize that there is a current of thought which holds monasticism to have been the result of corruption in the church hierarchy, as persecution ceased (for non-heretics) and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, but surely this is too reductive by half. The motivations they themselves express include the desire to follow Christ’s example (by fasting in the desert), to dedicate their whole lives to God, etc. Political shifts can explain some of their relocations (e.g. to Egypt) but not their decision to follow this vocation.

    Oh, and another thing: *Which* desert father or mother called busyness “moral lazyness”? Is this an attempt to translate “acedia”?


  16. Nope, I get around in either a manual or power wheelchair, depending on how long I have to sit up. I made a special exception and took the manual up to see Eagle… it was totally worth it. I can even putter around my house on foot a bit.


  17. Thank you, JoanieD, for providing my journal writing prompt for today. I’m always writing about what I’m doing but hardly ever write about who I’m being, or who I want to be …


  18. I’d never thought about it like this. It might also help explain many other things that happen in our newer cultures. Including the crazy socioeconomic situations we find ourselves in (laissez-faire capitalism, extreme individualism).


  19. David, maybe busyness is a “colonial affliction”. It was like that in South Africa, it is more like that here in Canada, (which is exactly like the US, from what I’ve heard). Maybe one could trace it to young, upcoming countries, as opposed to the old world? An affliction which affects the less rooted ones. Face it, if you live in a town which has been there for well over 1000 years (in London’s case, 2000 years), you might be reminded that there is a long term…


  20. We have beenyah and comyah people – the Geechee (one of our island dialects) for those who are from here (been here) and those who have come here.

    I’ve been reading quite a bit about Maine recently and am thinking it is very similar to the low country.


  21. JoanieD That sounds rough! I will pray for you! My husband is an engineer, and I think he has a similar personality.


  22. I have at more than a few times in my life, resembled this description. I remember a sermon Bishop Judy Craig preached on this Psalm at West Michigan Conference 20 plus years ago.


  23. My husband admits that he does not know how to relax and since he only works part-time now, this is difficult for him. He feels that he needs a “mission” to be useful and because he does not enjoy the work that he does, he is not a happy camper. I can see that it bothers him to see me sitting and reading a book. He seems to come up with chores at that time that he thinks I need to do right then! His personality or chemical make-up or something is one that dislikes what he calls mundane things, small talk, regular conversation and instead, he has to constantly be teaching, lecturing, explaining. If he sees things that he thinks are wrong, he gets very unhappy or irate. Only alcohol, unfortunately, gives him a bit of release. He had a little bit of counseling some years ago but said just because someone can explain why you are the way you are, it didn’t change the fact that he was the way he was. Pray for us, fellow imonkers!


  24. I wish there was a “Like” button, EV. I like your comment.

    I am from Maine and Mainers talk about anyone who is NOT from Maine as being “from away.” I wonder if people in other states do that or is it peculiar to Maine? For a while I thought maybe it was just peculiar to the people I know, but as I read more things written by other Mainers, I realized that lots of people in Maine say it. “Hey, have you met the new neighbors?” “No, but Ben says they are from away.”


  25. Tokah, I am glad to hear that your disease is in something of a remission. Does that mean that you are not currently “stuck in bed?” I always appreciate your comments.


  26. Hit that nail right on the head-I could see myself in some of your post. Scary. Not only are we shortchanging our relationship with God with all the busyness, but it also keeps us from the 55 or so “ONE another’s” and “EACH other’s” listed in the Word because we are too tired to deal or the relationship becomes a burden due to time constraints. Sometimes I wonder if busyness is more of an excuse than an addiction.


  27. When I was young I was discipled ( now they call it mentoring) by a woman who meant well but oh how wrong she was. She told me, “It’s better to burn out than to rust out.” Well, 30 some years later, trying to keep up the evangelical pace at church and at work, I burned out. Trust me – it isn’t better.


  28. Before I retired my company sent me to London to help finish up a project that had been stalled, partly due to rivalry and little conflicts between these two parts of the company. This was a wonderful experience for me, and an eyeopener. The people in London were hard working, fast walking, and to the point. Yet they knew how to relax. After work one day we all walked to a pub about a block away to celebrate an upcoming marriage. The beer flowed like a river! I limited myself because I needed to walk back to the hotel and had to remember which way pointed to the Thames.

    Another time about five of them took me out to lunch. Again, several beers in the middle of the day! And the lunch seemed to extend to about 90 minutes, maybe more counting walking time.

    Then suddenly I started hearing about Holiday coming. I had no idea what this meant. My boss called me and said to end my work by weekend, because the Brits would disappear soon and unless I wanted to work in an empty building, to head for home.

    They had their own bad habits, but they were not the work addicts we seem to be. I loved it there, maybe not forever but for this brief time.


  29. In Charleston, we ask, “where are your people are from?”

    Which used to elicit a response like, “Well, you see. My daddy’s people are from Yemasee – they were Porche who married into Draytons. And my momma’s people come from Awandaw but they were originally from Camden. (You always talk about the family side that has deeper ties to the low country.)

    Then you settle in to hear about theirs and begin to find out ways your people might have known their people. Sweet Tea (otherwise known as Tea) is needed just to keep your mouth from drying out with all the talking.


  30. What saddens me is when I meet people who say things like, “I haven’t taken a vacation in 10 years” or something like that as a point of pride. These people will tell you that they sincerely believe that they simply couldn’t leave their work for a week or two because of what would happen. Or if they do go somewhere, they have to constantly keep in contact with the office via email or phone. My professional opinion is that these people are simply lying to themselves. They like to think that they are so indispensable that the world can’t go on without them, but in reality it doesn’t take long for the world to move on.

    I had a boss who was somewhat like this a few years ago, but he had a biking accident that laid him up for a little while. Guess what, even though he couldn’t make it in for a while, the business survived, the projects got done, and the world kept spinning. I really think that it’s that people simply want to believe they’re indispensable more than the reality that they can’t get away.


  31. I used to be mixed up in a splinter church that DID it. 24/7 Wretched Urgency, Work For The Night Is Coming!


  32. …something like C.S. Lewis equating extreme austerity with gluttony (“Oh please, please…all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.”).

    This is known as “Gluttony of Delicacy”, and is endemic among the eternally-dieting, uber-uber-health-conscious Beautiful People out here in Cali.

    Busyness, or workaholism, is also known as idolatry. But not enough people can see that.

    My father was a workaholic. Funny thing about workaholics. They constantly look forward to Retirement and “getting out of the rat race”, but once they DO retire, all the inactivity gets to them and their health fails spectacularly. My father was able to keep himself busy-busy-busy for three-four years, then he ran out of things to keep him busy and his health nosedived. He was dead of cancer plus heart attack within two years.


  33. My wife’s family is from the area of Bourbon County, Kentucky (north of Lexington). They weren’t as interested in what one did for a living, or the geographical area (although that might be important), but your family background (father, grandfather, cousins, etc). Genealogy seemed to be the important factor, because if they had that information they knew your reputation, relationships and everything else. When I went to family gatherings (and they were big) I never had a clue who they were talking about (distant cousins, uncle so an so’s wife’s first son from a previous marriage, etc).

    Even if they were not a relation, this is the information they sought out.

    And these people were not workaholics, but hard working. It seemed that their work was defined by them, more then they being defined by their work.


  34. What a wonderful reminder. And I appreciate the distinction between hard work and busyness. At its root, the latter is often associated with an exaggerated sense of self-importance (“Life as we know it will cease if I don’t accomplish X, Y and Z today, and God help anyone who gets in my way!”).

    A related danger is categorizing people around us as “useful” (those who can help us accomplish our agendas) or “distractions” (those who limit our productivity) which leads to a pragmatic–rather than Jesus-focused–view of relationships.


  35. Lee, growing up around my grandfather, he never asked what you did. He wanted to know where you were from! We lived in Tennessee but he was from Alabama. He would always try to meet someone who could possibly have a connection to his home town. Oddly enough more than once he made that connection!


  36. Love this post, CM. We all need to hear this.

    50-60 years ago, when the northeastern US was more industrialized, and the southeast was even more rural and agricultural than it is today, if someone from up north met an individual for the first time, the likely question was “What do you do?” For us southerners, who moved at a slower pace in many regards, the question was either “Where are you from?” or “Who is your daddy?” Place and connection were stronger concepts in an agricultural society than performance or position.

    The lines are bit more blurred culturally these days (Listen, not all of us down here are Swamp People or “Honey Boo Boo”). Our world as a whole is more transient, less connected (even with social media…I’m disheartened that I keep up with family who live locally on Facebook, rather than making time to visit them…), and very, very busy. Unfortunately, this spills over into our churches…We must offer more programs, more excitement, more “relevant” preaching, more, more, more.

    I wonder what would happen if our churches began promoting themselves more as oases, rather than as circuses? What if we made place (a well defined geographic area, AKA “parish”) and connection (inviting people into small, tight-knit community rather than fighting to outgrow 1st Baptist down the road) the priorities?

    I feel a blog post at my own place coming on…Gotta stay busy!


  37. I am the mother of a two month old. When I am not caring for him I feel guilt for not busying myself around the house. Thanks for this wonderful post! I needed to read this this morning!!


  38. I had my busyness yanked out of me bit by bit in the process of growing disability. Finally, stuck in bed, the world going dark, I just had to learn to live with me. It was a gift in so many ways. After I went into remission it was a gift that stayed with me. I can really be where I am, hear who I’m talking to, and revel in the moments of life. I don’t need umpteen entertainments (though I enjoy them well enough), and when I’m done with the things that truly need doing I can rest.

    The question of “what do you do?” versus “who are you?” came to a funny head when I was in process of becoming a member of a church. The pastor normally would introduce the person fomally and talk about what they do. He called me the night before, trying to plumb some information that would fit into his normal conversational molds. Sometime over the night he must have a had a change of heart, because none of those things came out of his mouth the next day. Instead he went off script, and his introduction became about who I am, and the value in who I am.

    The challenge is, here with the disease in something of a remission, not to lose those lessons and to see other people for who they are, not for how much or what they do.


  39. “And it may be a question that many people would not care to answer.”

    Or a question that many people would not know the answer to.


  40. Very timely, and guilty as charged.

    And as I have learned, through family, co-workers, and a boss telling me, it catches up to you. It impacts your health, relationships, etc…

    For the 1st time in years, I will be (per “orders from headquarters”) taking some time off- to do..well…nothing.


  41. Excellent post, Chaplain Mike. I think Houston is correct that “Perhaps we wouldn’t have a clue how to reply to the deeper question, ‘Who are you?’ ” Some people would just respond with their name and what they do: “My name is John Doe and I work as an electrician.” But if the person persisted and said, “No, I mean what motivates you, inspires you, gives you joy” then it becomes a different question completely. And it may be a question that many people would not care to answer.


  42. Thanks, Mike. Interesting irony to equate busyness with moral laziness—something like C.S. Lewis equating extreme austerity with gluttony (“Oh please, please…all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.”).

    Busyness, or workaholism, is also known as idolatry. But not enough people can see that.


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