Busy, Busy, Busy

If you walk up to the average American—a churchgoer or not—and ask them how they’re doing, what is the typical response? What does almost everyone say? “Busy, man, super busy. It’s been crazy.” This feeling is true for the vast majority of people, whether you're a teenager, a parent of four, or a stay at home grandma. Americans are literally addicted to busyness. But why is this?  

First, let's look externally. America is full of workaholics—as much as 25% of the workforce by some estimates. Workers take an average of 16 paid holidays a year, which you probably think feels like a lot if you’re American. But that is less than half of what standard European workers take. “Time is money,” we often say. So, we can’t possibly spend our most valuable resource on something that doesn’t drive profit, revenue, material value, right? In a 2016 study completed by the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that Americans perceived busy people as higher status than those who spent more time on leisure. However, Italians are the opposite. Being able to spend time on leisure activities is a sign of wealth and success in Italy, and the whole country takes July & August off.  

So what’s going on here? Secondly, we need to look internally, at our hearts. Because of the culture in which we live, certain things are valued and emphasized. Deep in our bones we want to be seen as valuable and important, and, in America, being busy and “productive” is what makes you valuable and important. So we fill up our schedules and our minds with constant activity, shifting from one thing to the next, and we project that image to others, without even knowing it. In a recent article on the topic, a John’s Hopkins researcher quipped, “In our rush to make more money and to have the American Dream as it's been defined to us, we ended up crowding out our opportunity to have more time.” By chasing after money that we can use to spend more time on things we enjoy, we no longer have time to enjoy things. 

We are literally chasing the wind. The Industrial Revolution—which brought about the beginning of the productivity revolution in America almost 200 years ago—was built on the bedrock of what’s known as the Protestant work ethic; a worldview shaped initially by seeing work as worship, as calling, and as service to others. People worked hard because they were working for the Lord & for others, surrounded by grace and exercising God’s energy and investing the talents he gave them. But as we’ve lost God’s place in our work, we end up working from nothing to nothing; we are hamsters in wheels.  

Or so we think. Because there’s another factor in this discussion: we are horrible estimators of our time. All of us believe we have far less free time than we do. In actuality, Americans spend more time with their kids now than they did 50 years ago, and the average American still watches up to 20 hours of TV per week. So, we have time, but we’re “simply frittering it away with mindless versions of passive leisure that don’t register as restorative” (The Cult of Busy, Elizabeth Dickenson).  

This means that in America at large, and in our church, many of us are experiencing a crisis of both work and rest. We don’t know how to work productively, because we’re approaching it as a status symbol, and we allow it to overrun the banks. But we also don’t know how to rest well, and so we waste it away on silly things like scrolling Instagram and reading ESPN. Left to ourselves, we are a mess. 

Do you know what we need?  We need God. We need his truth—crystal clear and countercultural, cutting through to the core of our desires and reorienting our hearts.  

Listen to what God says in Psalm 127.  “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” God doesn’t want us to run around like chickens with no heads from morning to night, trying to get full on constant activity. And Jesus addressed this as well in John 6, where he said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will giveto you…Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doingthe works of God?’  Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believein him whom he has sent.’” You see, it’s not the activity of our hands and the slots in our schedules that matter most. It’s the state of our hearts and the object of our faith.  

You want to be truly productive, to change the world?  Believe in Jesus, receive his grace, worship him, and thus enter into the transcendent work of God. “Be still, and knowthat he is God,” and that you are not.  This reminds us of our need to confess our sins.  

Kevin Kleiman