Going through my collection of books. Reading some that I haven’t read before. (Or don’t remember reading before.) Getting rid of the ones I’ll never read. Signs of a growing awareness of my own aging.
For some reason, being drawn to biographies. Notable Christians and famous Americans accomplishing great things. No one would write or read about ordinary people living within their ordinary limitations. But I sense a theme and it hurts. Every one of these people is on the go for fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Forget sleep. Forget relaxation. Forget vacations.
How do their biographers deal with this? They generally start out with a sense of concern. She’s overdoing. He’s overstressing. She can’t go on like this. He’ll bring on a heart attack. They’re succumbing to the pressures from those around them to go, go, go, without regard for their own well-being. Following the rest of the lemmings and heading for a cliff.
But the initial concern invariably turns to respect, admiration, adoration. Look what this person is accomplishing! For humanity, for God. What a great guy he is. What an amazing woman she’s become. The unspoken message: We should all follow the example of these fantastic role models.
Why does it hurt so much to read these stories? Because of my own limitations. My need for rest. My inability to keep up with this fast-paced world that I inhabit. If I can’t live up to these expectations no one will understand me, no one will like me, no one will approve of me.
Why can’t I just be happy for those who’ve done so much? If I was really a good Christian, wouldn’t I rejoice in the accomplishments of others?
I like to think that I’m mainly concerned about the harmful example that they’re setting. About the welfare of those who hear these stories, internalize the message, and miss God’s best because they’ve succumbed to the idea that what’s most important is to follow the American way and fill their hours with busyness.
But I know I’m being envious and covetous and self-pitying. Envying their energy, coveting their accomplishments. Lord, help me to overcome these sins, to minister to others by building them up. Not tearing down, even in my thoughts, those You’ve blessed with great achievements.
At the same time, Christian authors have been warning us for decades that being too busy is often a sign of being out of God’s will, not in it. Books in my home library: Little House on the Freeway: Help for the Hurried Home, Tim Kimmel, 1987; The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits, Richard A. Swenson, 1998. I feel better reading these, nodding my head and saying, “Yes! Yes! It’s bad to do too much. It’s okay that I take so much time to relax each day. God is on my side.”
And yet we (I) get such satisfaction and fulfillment from doing something worthwhile, especially if it ministers to someone else. God made us this way. We’re designed to be doing and going and exploring and building. Adam was put to work in the Garden of Eden even before the Fall (Genesis 2:15). There can be good in this busyness that we all engage in.
But I don’t think anyone would deny that we Americans take it too far. Reporters reveal how much unused vacation time we amass each year. One of the saddest reports that I’ve read (thought I’d saved the article, but can’t find it to give the reference here), says that many millennial Christians feel like worthless failures if they haven’t changed the world by the time they’re 21.
What are we doing to our young people, that their self-expectations are so impossibly high? What kind of message are we sending them? And what kind of suffering are we causing them?
The message: You’re not good enough if you’re not triumphing, succeeding, moving mountains. People won’t notice you, love you, appreciate you if you’re not on the go 24/7, achieving the impossible, sacrificing your all. The most dangerous message: God won’t either. The common thread behind all the biographies seems to be a fear that no one can earn other people’s love, or God’s love, unless they drive themselves relentlessly. No room for grace. They’re not just doing all this for the fun of it. But works-based Christianity is not Christianity at all.
The suffering: Physical and emotional symptoms of stress, burnout, exhaustion. Guilt, self-criticism, even self-hatred if they’re not measuring up to the high level of activity admired and applauded by the traditional media and aggravated even more by social media. Depression. Anxiety. Turning to drugs (both legal and illegal) and alcohol in order to cope with the pressure.
How much is too much? I don’t know. This week’s lesson in my Bible study group stresses the fact that, other than moral laws and general principles that cover everyone, God’s will for me isn’t God’s will for each person. I need to remember this. I am not your Holy Spirit, responsible for telling you how to spend your time.
Maybe it’s right and best for people like Mother Teresa to sacrifice for long hours every day. Maybe it’s right and best for others (like me) to be content to live within our limitations. It’s definitely right and best for each of us to seek God’s will, to sacrifice as He calls us to, to slow down when that is His clear leading.
Maybe I shouldn’t be reading these biographies.