So how should we deal with the inescapable overload of life in the twenty-first century?
Do you ever get overwhelmed by all the things you need to get done, and discouraged by all the things you probably won't? Almost every day, right?
I've felt that way a number of times recently. I felt overloaded when we made a few small domestic renovations and our home was in something more than its usual disarray. I felt the same way when I went to delete the messages in my inbox archive and discovered that more than ten thousand emails had accumulated since the end of last summer. And I felt that way when I went to count the books on my "recently acquired, really important to read books shelf"--or shelves, actually, plus some piles on the floor--and discovered that I am now 157 books behind (not counting the pile beside my bed at home). And then there are all the important things that need to get done in the ordinary course of ministry and the daily life of the home.
It Only Gets Worse
You are probably just as busy--not with the same things, perhaps, but busy nonetheless. And the problem will only get worse. Listen to what Richard Swenson says in his book The Overload Syndrome :
Progress always gives us more and more of everything faster and faster . There are only so many details that can be comfortably managed in anybody's life. Once this number has been exceeded, one of two things happens: disorganization or frustration. Yet progress gives us more and more details every year--often at exponential rates. We have to deal with more "things per person" than ever before in the history of humankind. Every year we have more products, more information, more technology, more activities, more choices, more change, more traffic, more commitments, more work. In short, more of everything. Faster. . . . Progress automatically leads to increasing overload, meaninglessness, speed, change, stress, and complexity [Richard A. Swenson, The Overload Syndrome (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998), pp. 43-44; emphasis in the original].
The trouble, of course, is that all of this overload gets in the way of our spiritual progress. More than a century ago Phillips Brooks observed, "The more we watch the lives of men, the more we see that one of the reasons why men are not occupied with great thoughts and interests is the way in which their lives are overfilled with little things " [quoted by William Philip in a January 2003 newsletter from The Proclamation Trust in London]. What about you? Is your life occupied with great things for God, or is it overfilled with little things? And if it is, what, if anything, are you going to do about it?
A friend of mine is beginning to lobby for an eighth day of the week. He calls it grundsday , and tells me it would fall between Wednesday and Thursday. No phone calls, no emails, no meetings--just a chance to catch up. I don't know about you, but I'm all for it. Maybe it would help me get a better handle on some of my "things per person." But of course it wouldn't really solve anything. On the assumption that we had more time, we would try to do even more, and soon grundsday would be packed just as full as all the other days of the week.
Offloading the Overload
So how should we deal with the inescapable overload of life in the twenty-first century? I may not be the most qualified person to speak on this subject, but allow me to make three simple suggestions.
First, whatever else you do, make time for communion with Christ. Remember what Jesus said to Martha, that only "one thing is necessary" (Luke 10:42)--that is, to be with Jesus, listening to what he says and talking with him about what we need. It is only when we allow God to minister to us through Bible study and prayer that the rest of life makes any sense at all.
Second, embrace the limitations of your finitude. Rather than feeling anxious and distressed about everything you're not getting done, or always complaining that you need more time, take satisfaction in the many daily reminders that you are not God. You are not all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing. Only God is. So when the overload confronts you with your limitations, be reminded that you are only a creature who needs to rest in your Savior's care (see Matt. 6:25-34; 11:28-30).
Just Say No
Third, choose wisely. The hardest choices in life are not the choices between the good things and the bad things. When it comes to discriminating the good from the bad, most Christians find it relatively easy to tell the difference. No, the hard choices are the ones between the good things and the best things. To make these decisions we need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, who works through Scripture, through circumstances, through counsel, and through our conscience to help us "discern what is best" (Phil. 1:10; NIV).
In order to carry out God's calling for your life, you will have to learn to say "no." Many good things in life--many wholesome entertainments, many useful ministry opportunities, and many God-given pleasures--get in the way of God's calling and therefore must be declined. Late last fall, I took a short trip to a beautiful golf resort in Florida. I taught, but to my disappointment, did not golf. Not that there is anything wrong with a round of golf. In fact, from what I saw in the brochure, it's such a beautiful course that it almost seemed wrong not to play it. It's just that if I had stayed to do that, I would have gotten back too late on Saturday night to be a good husband to my wife, a good father to my children, or a good pastor to this congregation.
What choices will you make this week and in the weeks to come? Will you make the time to be with Christ? Will you embrace the limitations of your finitude, resting in the infinite grace of your God? And will you have the wisdom to make the right choice when you have to say "Yes" to some things and "No" to others? If not, you will end up even more overloaded than God wants you to be.
Philip Ryken can be heard on Every Last Word.