Ethics & Christian living

Busyness: the enemy of spirituality

How often do you hear people make comments like: ‘I’m so busy’ or ‘It’s been a crazy week’ or ‘I just don’t know how I am going to get everything done’.

Being honest, I find myself saying things like this all the time.  I’ve been thinking – why do I say these comments?

My job and other commitments are demanding – and a family with three children is never going to be an oasis of calm.  But that does not mean I need to go around advertising my busyness and inflicting it on others.

Christians can be worse than anyone at sharing their busyness.  Maybe it’s because we have the ‘normal’ stuff of work and family but with an added layer of busyness called ‘church’. 

But it’s a disaster when church becomes just another thing on the ‘to do’ list.  What message does this convey to our communities?  “Come to church – we’ll give you more stuff to stress about!”

Release from the curse of busyness

In contrast, last week I went to a conference where there were a number of people from a wide variety of different backgrounds.  At lunch I found myself sitting opposite a church leader whose attitude to his work shocked me.  Why? Because he did the very opposite of telling us how busy he was. 

Without any conceit, he spoke positively about the support he got, about the importance of prioritising and how much time he invested in others.  Most, notably (and unusually), he continually spoke of how much others were doing and how well they were doing it. 

The table was shocked – was this not outright blasphemy against the god of busyness?

It was – and it was by far the most helpful thing I heard all day.  And like most conferences, it wasn’t said by someone at the front.

‘I have come that you may have life in all its busyness’

I find it hugely beneficial to take time to slow down and take time to reflect.  If Jesus needed to withdrew from the crowds and pray in solitary places then so do we.

Busyness is different to being committed.  I think that we should ‘spend ourselves’ for what we believe (Isaiah 58:10) – but that does not mean we should be hectic.  Fullness of life is more to do with deeper levels of significance in our lives than simply a larger range of activities.

I think busyness can be the enemy of spirituality when it operates in the following ways:

1)     Busyness as a defence

Projecting busyness is a way of controlling events.  It is used especially when there is anxiety about other people’s demands overtaking you.  It can be used to say no to requests without addressing the real reasons for not wanting to do something.  Like the verbal equivalent of a porcupine’s needles, projecting busyness also acts as a protector against criticism.  ‘Can’t they see how busy I am?’

2)    Busyness as denial

Being busy helps people avoid prioritising.  Rushing from task to task means that deeper questions can be avoided – so addressing underlying problems or doing things in new ways can be put off and side-lined.  Rather than helping engage in reality, busyness often helps us deny reality.  This especially happens in meetings – where ‘busyness’ is the perfect default excuse for the avoidance of a difficult decision.

3)    Busyness as identity

Most deeply, being busy, and especially being seen to be busy, fulfils a dangerous need within us for significance.  We want to be seen as someone with major responsibilities, whose time is precious, whose life is full.  Unless checked, our insecurities create idols which we begin to orient our lives around.  Our need for acceptance becomes more important than our relationship with God and with others.

Busyness as the enemy of spirituality

Ten years ago I read the following quote from Eugene Petersen in his book Subversive Spirituality.   I didn’t like it – it offended my activist world view.  But last year I re-read it and it deeply challenged me.  I realised the depth of its truth and now I have it pinned above my desk:

“Busyness is the enemy of spirituality.  It is essentially laziness.  It is doing the easy thing instead of the hard thing.  It is filling our time with our own actions instead of paying attentions to God’s actions.  It is taking charge.”

19 thoughts on “Busyness: the enemy of spirituality”

  1. Thanks for this Jon I found it really challenging. I recently re-watched NOOMA Shells a short video on this exact issue. Rob quotes a friend who said he was ‘drowning in good’, I agree as an activist I can be like this but Rob reminds us in the vid that Jesus said NO to people and he could only say no because he’d said YES to something bigger.


    1. thanks Hayley. Yes I saw a Rob Bell quote on line earlier today which said ‘Busyness is a drug which a lot of us are addicted to’. It is tricky – I want to use time well but I guess Lent is a time to stop and take a bit of stock. I want to learn more about living at the right pace.


  2. I found Peterson’s chapter in “The Contemplative Pastor” called “The unbusy Pastor” really helpful. In fact his book is packed with so much that I think I will need to return to it many times in the future! I feel strongly that we need to have time to develop our own spirituality and invest in our relationship with God. We need to be unbusy. Thank you for this post.


    1. I agree – this book Subversive Spirituality is incredibly helpful – pastoral and caring but also really challenging and upfront. I think the thing that I appreciate about him is his generosity – he recognises the resources available from a wide range of traditions and the benefits from ‘drinking from other wells’ – rather than the narrow, tribalism that plague the church both in the US and in the UK.


  3. Jon, it’s great to hear your voice via this blog. Too right mate…busyness is idolatory. Hope all is good with you. Virginia


  4. Thank you for this Jon – read it on Fulcrum. A challenge I need to hear, especially the bits about busyness as defence and denial…

    in friendship, Blair


  5. Thanks for your thoughts Jon, I just came across your artlcle on iPhone through a google link and am blessed, challenged and encouraged to keep pressing in to listening to what God is saying and doing in the midst of all other voices and pressures of our times. I am just about to order Subversive Spirituality and will try not to be so busy reading it on my tube train equivalent that I miss His cues!
    God bless you for your insightful and challenging reflections and for bringing them faithfully to the church in your many different ways of communication. Good to hear from you again, you are an inspiration!


    1. Thanks so much Hazel for your (as ever) very encouraging comments to me. Actually it was some words you said to me when I left Shaftesbury/Livability which were some of the reasons I started this blog when you told me to continue to speak and write about stuff even though I was going into a more operational role – so thanks for the encouragement. You and your work has been a real inspiration to me.


  6. I know this article is over 4 years old but I am just reading it and see that it is a relevant topic to examine Christian lifestyles at anytime. I recently received a word from my pastor on moving to our ‘next.’ Although busyness is the extreme opposite of procrastination they are first cousins ad they are both an interference to our productivity in the Kingdom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s