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The business of busyness

With the advent of Internet shopping, 24/7 supermarkets and 90-second news updates, our culture has never been in more of a hurry. Charles Anderson takes time out to focus on a biblical approach to busyness

The business of Britain is busyness. Everywhere, people feel rushed, weighed down by their to-do list, overwhelmed by an overflowing inbox. Most of us experience busyness in some shape or form. Listen to how we talk. Richard Swenson, a Christian author, lists the ways we talk about time: "We talk of no time, lack of time, not enough time, or being out of time. Trying to get more time, we borrow time only to incur a time debt and end up with even less time... Then, it's crisis time."

Look at how we live: supermarkets open 24/7, not to mention Internet shopping; Starbucks' coffee with double the normal caffeine to fuel our hectic pace; and family life where parents run a taxi service, and children rush from swimming lessons to dance to rugby practice to homework. This is what one expert calls "scheduled hyperactivity". Luckily, a new version of the Bible has been condensed into 100 minutes of reading, the ideal solution for our busyness.

How have we come to feel so busy? There is a host of reasons, but at least two important factors are over-choice and the blurring of boundaries, largely through technology. Over-choice refers to the stress we feel from having more options than we can handle or actually need. For example, while the wide variety of affordable items in the supermarket is a real benefit, does it really matter if I buy the shampoo with mint and tea tree, or the one with rose and aloe? But having to decide sucks up time and energy.

More fundamentally, overchoice proves problematic for identity formation. Because of the increasing number of things we can do, we want and try to do them. But such overchoice breeds frustrated busyness, because time will not expand to accommodate all these options.

The boundaries in our lives are more blurred than ever, which shapes our feeling busy. Distinctions between work and home have receded. In our workplace we fill the whiteboard with reminders about family activities, while at home we organise a desk for late-night work. As long as our smartphones remain on, we're never out of work's reach.

With the move toward an information-based economy, how we experience time becomes detached from natural rhythms. There is no "downtime" in a 24/7 economic world. When people in Tokyo and London can experience a business meeting or news event at the same time, then time differences have faded, and boundaries melt away.

Busyness can be a virtue or a vice. First, all of us undeniably benefit from what busy people accomplish. The economic prosperity we enjoy has come about, in no small part, from long, hard work. In addition, many scientific and cultural advances have resulted from the labour of diligent people. Busyness can lead to good things.

As a virtue, busyness may reflect an acknowledgment that life imposes inevitable limits on what is possible. We cannot accomplish all that we would like. People who accept this conclusion may resolve to use well the time they do have, and thus be busy. Busyness, so orientated, represents a right response in recognizing the limits inherent in all things.

Busyness as vice comes when this driven pace refuses to remain tethered by such constraints. The way many people practise (and are overtaken by) busyness actually bucks against these limits. They work hard, seemingly believing that anything is achievable; it just takes a little more effort or ingenuity. Limits fade away, and the highest good comes from what a person does – and the more, the better.

Today's response to the question, "How are you?" is often "Busy!" As we complain about working on a spreadsheet to prepare for tomorrow's meeting, or the quick drive from clarinet lessons to football practice, we may actually be boasting: "I'm so busy, I must be important!" As the writer Barbara Moses says, "One's busyness is worn like a badge of honour, a measure of one's status." It is possible to become defined by what we do.

Recognising and redeeming time

These last observations about busyness as virtue or vice lead us to reflect in an explicitly Christian way about busyness. We begin with the truth that God is Lord of time. God created time, and his sovereignty includes night and day, the seasons, all our times, and the end of our lives. God sets the boundaries of time for our activities, and our submission represents our trust that he will take care of us. Thus the psalmist chides:

In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat –
for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Psalm 127:2

We are to recognise time as a gift. We do not control the time we have; God has given it to us and can do with it as he pleases (Job 1:21). James rebukes planning that presumptuously fails to account for our lack of control over time (James 4:13-16). We are stewards of however long God grants us. He is its Lord, and our Lord, as we live in the time he gives us.

We have accordingly a responsibility to redeem the time. God is moving history toward its appointed end, and indeed, that end has already begun. With the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the new age has broken in, and Christians live as the people "upon whom the ages overlap" (1 Cor 10:11). Yet we still await Christ's second coming when we will be delivered, judgment levied, and creation redeemed.

In this in-between, this already-not yet, we are to redeem the time. In Colossians 4:5, that phrase means living wisely toward outsiders, taking every opportunity and fully using the time granted us and making the most of evangelistic opportunities. In Ephesians 5:16, it means to seek God's will and cultivate holiness, because the days are evil.

To redeem the time means to fill it with divine purpose, not just with any and every activity. Christ has come and inaugurated the end of time, from which we should find motivation for godliness. To trust God as Lord of time and to redeem the time he gives us requires discernment. Busyness is neither all good, nor all bad, and we must use biblically-shaped wisdom to tell the difference, examining the beliefs and motivations, as well as the practice, of busyness.

Idolatrous busyness

The busyness orientated toward achievement is exemplified in a story Barbara Moses tells about how two companies approached high-tech reengineering. Both agreed it increased busyness, but the second company had simply added that to existing workloads. Queried about the effects, "the speaker casually replied that, in fact, two employees had recently suffered heart attacks, one fatal. 'It's unfortunate,' she said, 'but it's a cost of doing a business.'"

This "cost of doing business" is actually the price of exploitive choices made by company executives when the bottom-line trumps all. Busyness orientated toward economic gain at the cost of human life should be called for what it is – greed. As Tim Chester wisely points out, one way to identify idolatrous busyness is that it ultimately causes harm.

This kind of busyness understands itself in terms of how much it can accomplish, whether individually or corporately. Its motives may be for economic gain, recognition from others, or something laudable, like social justice. Whatever the case, it feels pushed by not having enough time to accomplish its goals. This busyness, driven by achievement, frustrated over lack of time, ultimately reflects patterns of idolatry. We allow ourselves to be defined and regulated by this perceived lack of time, the very definition of idolatry.

Moreover, those who practice this busyness, who implicitly define themselves in terms of how much they do, are only a short step away from denying the gospel. That may sound like an overstatement, but such busyness pushes toward self-justification: If I can work just a little harder, do a little more, then I will be successful.

The gospel tells us there is nothing we can do to be successful. Our hope is not in any self-constructed deliverance but in reliance upon God:

In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength.

Isaiah 30:15

We do not usually connect this kind of busyness explicitly to such weighty spiritual consequences as idolatry and denying the gospel, but this is the logical outworking and ultimate destination of such an orientation.

Holy busyness

Holy busyness, orientated toward God in both motive and practice, is exemplified in Paul. He characterizes his apostolic ministry as working "harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me". Through all his tentmaking, evangelism, church-planting and travel, he maintained a profound awareness of the motive and source of his busyness. Writing in the letter to the Colossians, he said, "We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which works so powerfully in me."

Paul was busy so that, by bringing people to maturity in Christ, he could glorify God. His strength to work hard and redeem the time came from God's grace. How can we distinguish holy and idolatrous busyness? Both include doing much. So what makes them different? Holy busyness is grounded in the gospel: according to Ephesians 2, God has saved us by grace and created us in Christ Jesus to do good works. Who we are comes before what we do. Being grounded in the gospel means that relationships – with God, with others, and with creation – precede activity. Often, it is activity that expresses and helps build such relationships, but who we are remains primary. So holy busyness does not begin with what we do, but with what God does.

When it comes to what exactly we do, holy busyness carries a sense of eternal priorities. It recognizes that time will end, and that this world is the stage on which the drama of redemption plays. Because we will all face judgment, time must be used to prepare ourselves and others to stand before God.

Earlier Christian generations knew this better than we do. Very little contemporary Christian writing on busyness (and there is a lot!) talks about eternity or final judgment. In contrast, Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century preacher and theologian, considered time precious mainly because eternity depends upon it. Similarly, a 19th century SPCK tract urged people "to use time in reference to its true end – eternity." It suggests that waking up an hour earlier each day will provide enough time over the course of a year to memorize a Gospel, read five to six Christian biographies, or study apologetics. Granted that the life-situation of these audiences was different than ours, the contrast is still striking. They had their eyes fixed on eternity, which decisively shaped how they approached the use of time.

Because time is God's gift to us, holy busyness stewards it wisely. That involves working hard at what is important and cultivating times of rest. Holy busyness is difficult to maintain – the pace of activity tends to crowd out disciplines like prayer and rest that we need for cultivating long-term fruitfulness. We can easily slide into an unbalanced approach, where our motives remain right, but our practice is no longer in line with scripture.

We must heed the example of Jesus, who withdrew for times of solitude and prayer. We should find satisfaction in our work, recognizing it as a gift from God. For in a culture gone mad for how much it can do, a good night of sleep becomes a subversive, counter-cultural activity. When it comes to rest, we must remember that God made us creatures before he made us Christians.

Spiritual formation in busyness

These reflections on holy busyness have led us to consider who we are to be and how we are to live, which is the only proper conclusion for such analysis. Holy busyness involves beliefs, motives and practices, and so should our counsel about how to live. That begins, therefore, with the heart.

Tim Chester puts it well: "More important than managing our time is managing our hearts." Taken together, Colossians 4:5 and Psalm 127 encapsulate the correct heart perspective on busyness: we should redeem the time as we trust him within the boundaries he has set. One way to test our hearts is to cultivate patience. If we complain about not having enough time, who else are we ultimately blaming but God? After all, who has given us our time? So we are patient and content because we trust that God has given us our vocation and our time, and that each is sufficient for the other.

Working outward from the heart, we come to our individual practices. What can we do as individuals to pursue holy busyness? The suggestions are lengthy, but at least one way is to turn off the TV. The average person spends nearly 2.5 hours on TV and radio each day. And as Gene Rodenberry, creator of Star Trek, once confessed, "TV does not exist to entertain you. TV exists to sell you things". We do not have to banish the TV all together, but if time is finite, and eternity depends on it, then turning off the TV a lot more will free up time for real rest and genuinely productive activity.

Working outward from the individual, we come to corporate practices, namely the church. Busyness is such a pervasive trend that it requires a communal response. Thus the church has the opportunity to set an example to the world of another way of living in time.

One church practice for holy busyness is sabbath-keeping, by which I mean a day dedicated to corporate worship and rest. Such a day reminds us that as creatures, we need time to rest and re-charge from our varied labours, and as Christians, we need time to worship God with others and give heed to our spiritual state. Sabbath-keeping is counter-cultural, because it steps away from the drive for achievement and consumption by marking off time free from such pursuits.

So in our hearts, and then our individual and corporate practices, with discernment, we should pursue holy busyness. In the midst of a world so often frustrated over not having enough time to do everything it wants to do, may God make us into a faithful church that lives in holy busyness as we wait expectantly for the Lord of time to draw time to an end.
charles anderson  
Charles Anderson lectures in New Testament and Biblical
Languages at Oak Hill.
This article is an extract from Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, by Vanhoozer, Anderson and Sleasman (Baker Academic, 2007), and is used by permission of Baker Publishing Group.  
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