Prescript Solomon, for all the advantages of being a king and possessing both fabled wisdom and wealth enough to buy the time of others, faced challenges similar to ours—he knew the unending cycle of busyness. "All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it," he wrote. "The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (Ecclesiastes 1:8).
This post investigates how we should live in this kind of a world, how we should think and what we should—and should not—do. I'd like to know how you'd answer the questions posed in the postscript.
The photos capture a few of the things that fill my mind these days, from paperwork to weeds.
The (not) Busy Mind
If an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop, what is the busy mind? In an age that worships productivity, the busy mind is the expected hallmark of a successful person. But is it?
The idle mind is vacuous: It wants only an appealing philosophy, a captivating trend, or a fleshly impulse to fill it. It’s bored and soulless and ready for something—for anything—to satisfy its emptiness and give it direction. That makes the idle mind easy prey for the Devil.
The busy mind, on the other hand, is overfilled. It’s stuffed with details. It has no time to think because it’s thinking all the time. The Lilliputian threads of appointments and activities and plans and people anchor the mind to the ground and take captive big thoughts about important things. The busy mind is, in many ways, just as bored and soulless as the idle mind, making it likewise fertile soil for Satan’s schemes.
I’m not suggesting that the busy-minded person feeds on a stream of filthy thoughts or that he worships stone idols in his closet. Satan’s schemes are often more subtle than that. But they have the same effect: They cut off the soul from God. They isolate and insulate and contaminate—sometimes in ways that society applauds. They keep us busy doing without ever doing what is important.
After all, we think, diligence is a virtue—so to dedicate every waking hour to achievement is worthy. Fervency in a cause is a good thing—so to bury the hours in a stream of activity is useful. Efficiency is the companion of productivity—so to focus thoughts on only the duties at hand is essential.
What the busy mind leaves out is the value of worship—because worship takes time without any clear evidence of accomplishment. The busy mind substitutes quantity for quality, pleasure for peace, and the thin happiness of momentary achievement for solid, lasting understanding.
This is not to say that we should put our minds in neutral. The “not-busy” mind is preoccupied, not unoccupied; it’s not vacant, but focused on the Author of Life through the chatter of living.
Several years ago, we ran a series of family races on our lawn. At the conclusion of one sprint Andrew overshot the finish line and wound up in a flower bed. “I was going so fast I forgot where I was going!” he announced when he rejoined us. That’s the trouble with the busy mind.
The last several months I’ve been blessed with new responsibilities at work—and at the same time a couple of large glass jobs have come through. The net result has been a steep learning curve during the ten to eleven hours of my day job combined with a schedule of glass work that needs attention at night. Gradually I’ve worn my way from weary to exhausted to hopeless. I let little sleep and much to do hijack my mind. Many times I’ve run out of gas and found myself sitting side of the road partway to my destination; the only option, it seems, is to get out and push.
But is it? Is the cure for the chronically busy mind to work harder, to run faster?
We can’t pretend that it’s all OK; we know that it isn’t.
We can’t quit life, hole up in a cave, or forget our responsibilities; some things must go on.
The answer is simple: the ramifications are complex.
Stop. Be still. Know that God is God.
Maybe a few minutes of quiet at the end of the day suffice for you. Maybe a quiet night at home is enough to re-collect, re-focus, and worship. Maybe it takes more.
People who came in contact with Jesus, who really connected with Him, let everything else go. A fisherman relinquished his livelihood, a housekeeper forgot the dinner for her guests, a teacher walked out on his society and into streets filled with untouchables. Peter, Mary, and Paul stopped. They quit everything else for the surpassing worth of knowing Him. What will genuine connection with Jesus look like in my life? Here are a few things I’m realizing:
If I can’t do this job with Jesus in center-view, then I can’t do this job.
I’ll always remember the story told by a pastor-turned-carpenter about the temptations he faced working with a roofing crew. When their language began popping into his mind as an automatic response to trouble, he knew something had to change. He decided that if he couldn’t conquer the temptation, he would have to quit the job. That’s a pretty serious step, but that’s the nature of following-Jesus: Discipleship is measured by what we’re willing to give up to keep in step with Him.
For the busy-minded man or woman, this means that no price is too high to pay to do what is most important, to choose, with Mary, the “better part.” When something in life must give, make sure that what gives is the less important thing.
If I think I can’t stop, then stopping is the most important thing to do.
The signal that life is out-of-control is when my brakes quit working. Traveling the mountainous areas of the West, you can’t miss the runaway ramps on long downgrades. They’re deep, gravel-filled truck-catchers. When a truck careens into one, it stops—and it takes a tow-truck to pull it out. It’s a severe measure to take, but it’s much better than plunging over a precipice. A characteristic of the busy mind is that it sincerely believes that it can’t stop, it must not stop; the world revolves because it madly races on its way. The busy mind has the worst kind of brake-fade; if it takes a runaway ramp to stop, take it.
If I tend to overrate my capacity, then I must deliberately under-commit.
For some of us, schedules look great on paper when they’re only snatches of dreams, snippets of unreality in a world where time and energy are subjects rather than potentates. But putting plans into action is something like what happens when the space shuttle re-enters earth’s atmosphere: Unbelievable friction and heat test it, and, in some cases cause catastrophic failure. I’m a dreamer; I love to live at high-speed in the space-world of my own mind. But in doing the dreams, I tend to fall apart, to run out of energy and time.
Living out a dream that isn’t from God is a nightmare.
If I believe “This won’t get done if I don't do it," that doesn't mean I should do it.
The busy mind is idolatrous because it is egocentric. It believes that it is the only solution to its problems. It thinks of itself as the little boy with his finger in the dike, holding back the flood that otherwise would wipe out his town. We do cooperate with God in the fulfillment of His purposes, but the Kingdom doesn’t rise and fall on us. We are not little saviors whose job is to single-handedly turn the tide of wickedness, or deliver people chained in darkness, or even to keep our own family in shoes and clothes. We do these things, but by the grace of God—and in the process, through our weakness and inadequacy, we show the real Savior.
There are things we cannot do. Just because a project is meritorious or a need is great does not automatically mean that it is my assignment from God. It’s audacious—and idolatrous—to assume that I care more about the Kingdom than the King does. Sometimes we have to let good things go, trusting that the King will tend to matters beyond our call.
Father, You know my busy mind.
You know my production-oriented, self-focused earnestness.
And You know my limitations.
You’re the One who called me and the One who empowers me to fulfill that call.
Forgive me for setting my affections on visible things,
for losing my way in the search for tangible success,
for forfeiting connection with You in the frenzy to connect with everything else.
I don’t even know how to begin, Father, so I’m starting by stopping.
In the stillness, teach me to know that You are God,
God in the middle of life’s chaos,
God unbounded by time and unrestrained by human limitations.
You are God and I worship You.
I wish that the end of the post marked the end of my struggle with a busy mind, but it doesn't. And I'm sure I'm not alone in the battle.
I'm fascinated to watch my parents, now retired from the orthodox workaday world, living wildly busy lives, too.
Busyness is just a part of life.
Some things we can and should simplify, even eliminate. They are unnecessary clutter. But there are some things that we cannot change, things that, for now, are part of God's purpose for us.
So this post poses two questions:
"What can be eliminated so we can focus on what's most important?" . . .
. . . and "How can we cultivate a mind-at-rest in the midst of necessary activities?"
This is a journey, not a destination. What input do you have as you battle the busy mind?