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
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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….