(This post is part of the Enemies of Grace Series. Click here to learn more.)
It was a fall day, the wind whipping around in so many directions, it seemed to push at me from every side as I set out for a morning run. A bout of bronchitis had attacked me earlier in the year, and my lungs strained for air. But I pushed myself hard. One foot in front of the other. Head down against the wind. Grab a bit of oxygen Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I still remember the exact place on the pavement where the idea burned into my mind: This is what my life has become. Like a blinking neon sign, the thought kept resounding in my brain. I just keep running. I just keep trying to catch a breath.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
In that moment, I felt all of life’s pressures and commitments pushing against me like a wind. My role as a wife and mom caring for two boisterous kids. Volunteering at school in the morning. Freelance editing during afternoon naps. An almost manic pace of involvement at church.
There were personal struggles too. Once solid relationships that had shifted into sinking sand. Frustrating personalities in places where I couldn’t avoid them. Quiet little longings that felt caged by reality. Shortcomings that seemed to be permanently dyed into my soul.
It had been trickle after trickle of little sadnesses and frustrations. And it had all added up to a river of invisible grief I couldn’t deal with. Because I kept running. Hustling. Hoping that if I could just add “one more thing,” maybe it would finally be the thing that made it all feel like enough.
Only enough never came. And if anything, the ache in my heart grew. My spiritual life felt stale. The joy faded. Life had become a holy race against the wind, and I could barely catch my breath.
Friends, I wonder if any of you have found yourself in this space? Maybe your heart resonates with the same feeble cry that escaped my soul during that brutal morning run: God help. I need to breathe. I don’t want to live like this anymore.
Learning to Breathe
I still wrestle with “busy” in so many ways. But since that desperate prayer several years ago, God’s opened my eyes to a way of life that doesn’t feel so busy in my heart. Insecurity still nips at my heels occasionally and storm clouds blow across my emotions at times. But the deeper currents run more smooth and still.
This is grace, friends. The quiet, everyday acceptance that no, I am not enough for anyone and yet at the same time I am enough to be held in God’s heart. While the culture around me keeps shouting that I should speed up and do more to prove my worth: God gives me the quiet confidence to slow down and simply be myself.
I can breathe again. And it tastes like peace and freedom and joy.
So how did I make the journey from busy and worn-out to finding joy as God’s beloved daughter? This simple question cut helped me get there: Just because you can keep that busy schedule rolling along, does it mean you should?
You see, like most of us busy women, I can keep a lot of plates spinning in the air. I can make lists and use planners, and get creative with the calendar to squeeze more in. I can–at least at a basic physical level–fill in every moment of the day.
But at some point, all that running around takes your holy breath away.
Henri Nouwen describes this kind of life as “absurd living . . . a way of life in which we remain deaf to the voice that speaks to us in our silence.” God likes to show up as a “gentle whisper,” (I Kings 9:12), but with lives chock full of activity, it becomes difficult for us to hear it.
Here’s the hard part, friends: Sometimes busyness looks so holy and right. There are great activities to help our kids learn and play. Righteous causes to join and volunteer positions to fill. So many amazing experiences to enjoy with family and friends. But are these things really holy if they keep us from hearing the Holy One? Are they still right if underneath it all, our hearts feel disconnected from God?
We often wear busyness as a badge of honor. But is it a badge God has called us to wear?
“It seems that the noisy, busy world conspires against our hearing [God’s] voice and tries to make us absolutely deaf” Nouwen writes. And he’s hit the nail on the head: The more we stay busy trying to impress the world around us, the more we go deaf to the quiet Voice within.
If this all sounds achingly familiar to you, I want to assure you that there’s a road out of busyness. There is a way to live that helps you stay connected to God’s great heart. But it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s going to mean fighting against the prevailing winds of our culture in order to hold on to your soul. It’s going to mean cutting back on activity and letting a few things go.
“But what good does it do for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
If you’re ready to push back against the busyness in your life and you’re wondering where to start, here are two guideposts that have served me well on my own journey. I hope they help you prioritize God’s voice over the noise of your everyday life, too:
1. Presence Versus Productivity
I love efficiency. I am a big fan of time management tools and to-do lists. And I often attack that to-do list with the nobility of a champion fighter training for the big prize. (Cue the theme of Rocky here.)
But all that productivity doesn’t amount to much if my heart’s not in it. I don’t want to just show up and get through the next youth group meeting I volunteer for: I want to truly engage with students, notice their needs and concerns. I don’t want to just power through the nightly slew of carpooling, homework, and dinner prep: I want to share some laughter with my family along the way.
There are days when an overstuffed to-do list forces me into robot mode. There’s no time for interruptions. No time for unwelcome emotions. No time for accidents or misunderstandings or any of the other fragile ways we show up as humans in everyday life.
I hate those days. I hate seeing my real self get buried underneath the almighty need to get everything done.
So now when I consider the tasks I want to tackle each day, I also think about how I’m going to tackle them: Am I going to be cheerful and emotionally available to my family? Am I going to resent interruptions—or recognize them as sacred opportunities to be present to a friend?
And will I also be present to myself? Will I be kind to this woman God created me to be—listening to her heart, considering her needs, giving her space and time to rest and reconnect with her True love?
I still feel the pull to “get things done” all the time. But here’s what “presence over productivity” means to me these days: I’m making time for coffee with friends in my schedule. I’m ignoring texts and emails in the evenings so I can unwind before I go to bed. I go for a quiet country walk on Sunday afternoons.
Bit by bit, I’m learning. Productivity looks impressive: But it’s no substitute for the joy of being present in our lives.
2. Margin Versus Maximizing
My son occasionally sets up domino chains, and one never knows when they’ll have to cautiously step around a line of colorful dominos in our home. Every so often, he sets off the first domino and the chain falls down perfectly, one domino seamlessly falling after another. But more often than not? There’s a kink somewhere along the way that stops the chain reaction.
That’s life, isn’t it? No matter all our good intentions and good planning, things don’t always go the way we plan. We don’t know what afternoon our child will come off the bus in tears, or what evening our spouse will be in a spontaneously goofy mood. We can’t predict when a friend is going to face a crisis, or when our neighbor is going to want to shoot the breeze.
The “chain reaction” of life can be thrown off in countless ways—both good and bad. And when it does, I don’t want to be left feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and angry.
For a long time, I lived day after day with the calendar filled to capacity. I thought it was noble and good to maximize. I felt a burden to use my gifts well and tried to respond to every good cause I’d hear about, every call for volunteer help from my community and church.
I also tried to maximize opportunities that could benefit my work and family. So if I was offered another freelance project, I better take it. If I heard about a great family outing someone else enjoyed, I’d look for a weekend we could try it too. Maximize our money. Maximize our fun. Maximize our service and impact and career. This is the American way!
But all that maximizing gets in the way of what we treasure most: Relationships. Connections. Being Known. Is it any wonder that loneliness has reached epidemic levels in our culture?
Relationships. Just. Take. Time. And if you to connect with God and with others, than you need to leave some space around the edges of your life for the unpredictability of those connections.
I’m learning to leave margin for everyday hiccups in my life. To leave empty space in my schedule so I’m available to others. Even more importantly, I’m using some of that margin to simply rest. To enjoy the holy, white space of resting with God.
As I’ve embraced the idea of margin, I’ve discovered a different kind of maximizing happening in my life: Because there in the margins, God often meets me with new perspective, new energy, and new peace that I can share with those around me.
It’s there in the margins where He writes the most meaningful parts of my story.
There’s another side to that running story I shared at the beginning of the post: While I fought the wind and struggled for breath, I was listening to a song.* These words crashed through my ears like a wave of grace to my heart:
“You run. You run as far as you can run from love. You run . . .”
And I was running. In all the busyness, in all the swirl of activity I’d stirred up in my life, I was running from the one simple truth God was trying to whisper to me all along: Daughter, you are loved. Just as you are. Even when you’re broken. Even when you rest. I’m not asking you to do. it. all.
And then, this past Sunday, as I stood among friends in worship at church, another set of lyrics about running. Perhaps you’ve heard them too: “Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. Oh it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found . . .”*
Dear heart, I don’t know where you’re at today. Maybe you’ve been so busy for so long, you never even noticed when the joy faded and the angst settled in. Maybe you’ve just had a busy month, or a busy day—and you can’t seem to catch a breath.
However long you’ve been running, know this: God is running too. He’s chasing after you. Fighting for you. And he won’t stop until you finally listen to his quiet plea: Be still, beloved. There’s nowhere you can run and nothing you can do that will satisfy your heart like Me. So maybe, just maybe, you can be brave enough to stop. And turn toward his loving embrace.
You are worth catching, you know.
You are worth all the time it takes to find God’s gentle, quiet heart.
(This post is part of the Enemies of Grace Series. Click here to read more.)