Do you ever feel so busy that your spiritual life suffers? Here are some ideas for making time for what’s important
Busyness is a way of life for the majority of people I know. For some it is a source of pride and even self-worth. For others it is a problem for which they are constantly seeking a solution. Some feel it is unavoidable, while others deliberately fill any white space in their planners with activity, stopping only to get the minimal amount of sleep they need to do it all again the next day.
‘Let’s be clear, a busy life isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But a busy life without God is,’ says Rev Richard Perkins, minister of Christ Church in Balham, where people are busy and church members’ lives are full of activity. He says: ‘They’re busy with work commitments, with church responsibilities, with recreational activity and with social relationships. People don’t have a lot of slack in the system.’
As well as the tasks of daily life, we are bombarded with a phenomenal amount of digital information, creating a state of ‘continual partial attention’ as Linda Stone, a former Microsoft executive termed it. Via email, Twitter, television, iPhone updates, radio, advertising, Facebook and texts we are informed about wars, natural disasters, developments in fashion, local weather, and the intricate details of the lives of more ‘friends’ than we can meaningfully interact with, and our brains quite literally cannot keep pace. A new study by scientists at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute found that the brain needs six to eight seconds to respond to stories of virtue or social pain, longer than we generally have. The researchers warn that we risk becoming ethically numb, cautioning that ‘The rapidity of attentionrequiring information, which hallmarks the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of emotions, with potentially negative consequences.’
As Christians we inhabit the same busy, informationsaturated world, and among the negative consequences we can experience is an impoverished spiritual life. Through the ages, followers of Christ have found certain practices enhanced the depth and substance of their relationship with God, practices such as reading the Bible, spending time in prayer, meeting with other Christians, being involved in service and social justice, worshipping. We know this just like we know we should try and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and get regular exercise. But for many of us, any serious spiritual investment has been replaced by snacking on titbits of fast food, supplementing a diet already heavy with info-calories. We are distracted to distraction, and have no more attention left to give.
Is it possible that we can find a way to improve our spiritual health without walking away from the life we have been given and heading for a quiet monastic retreat in the French Alps?
Before you even think about doing anything, take note of this reminder from Richard Perkins: ‘We need to pursue God in such a way that we actively make ourselves conscious of his existence and presence but in such a way that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we’re earning his attention. We’re not.’
With this in mind, here is an account of my personal exploration of four spiritual disciplines, which I focused on over a four week period. I have also listed the barriers to practicing them in a busy life and some suggestions for overcoming the obstacles.
Week One: prayer
‘Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life. Of all the Spiritual Disciplines prayer is the most central because it ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father.’ – Richard Foster
Communication is vitally important to any relationship. If we neglect to talk to God, and fail to find the time and space to listen to what he might be saying to us then our relationship will reflect that. I think that the key here is not so much where we are or what we are doing but whether we are inclined to turn our minds and hearts God-wards in what Foster calls ‘perpetual communion with the Father.’
My challenge this week was to pray more mindfully and intentionally. I planned a couple of prayer times with other people. I meet with two women to pray every Wednesday afternoon. We have four preschoolers with us and our prayers are interspersed with interventions (‘Don’t hit Henry with the train, Josh!’) and interruptions (‘More juice Mummy!’). Somehow, we usually manage to share what we need to and pray for one another.
Through Friday night Alexa, my two-year-old daughter, was very unwell, and I had to go and speak at a women’s breakfast the next day. I was anxious about Alexa, and worried about how I would manage the talk on no sleep, but as I talked to the Lord through the night I felt his company giving me strength.
Our life with God happens in the gritty reality of business deals, toddler tantrums, traffi c jams, dishwasher loading and finance juggling. Through the creation and the incarnation Jesus has sanctified the everyday, and in our everyday life we can find ways to commune with him – indeed we must find ways.
Ideas to deepen your prayer life:
• Use something you do or see regularly to trigger yourself to pray, such as praying each time you put the kettle on, or whenever you look at your watch.
• Use your journeys as opportunities to listen to God, times of space and stillness. If you have a long commute on a tube, use each stop to pray for a different thing.
• Find a friend or two to pray with on a regular basis.
• Get into the habit of praying every night without fail – even if it’s just a few words.
Week Two: Worship
‘We can admire, appreciate and perhaps even adore someone without a sense of wonder. But we cannot worship without wonder. For worship to be worship, it must contain something of the otherness of God.’ – Matt Redman
In worship, we are acknowledging the rightful place of God in our lives – as central and all-consuming. And yet, even as I sing worship songs in church I find my mind runs through conversations I have had, my list of things to do, my various concerns and preoccupations, and I find I rarely give my entire focus to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The challenge this week is to get my heart and mind before God in ‘reverence and awe’ (Hebrews 12:28).
This week, as well as going to church and listening to more worship music than usual in the car, I went to the funeral of a close relative who had died in her forties of breast cancer. Her two teenage sons and husband chose to have a very worship-centred service of thanksgiving for her life, and it was a powerful, beautiful and Godglorifying time, as well as being desperately sad. It is right that we praise God in ALL circumstances, as Job did. Whatever our feelings are telling us, God is good, present and always loving.
Suggestions for becoming more worshipful:
• The Psalms contain beautiful expressions of worship and praise. Try memorising Psalm 92 and saying or singing it to God every opportunity you get this week.
• How can God be glorified in what you have in your diary over the next few days? Spend some time considering how to turn the events you have coming up into expressions of worship.
• In a notebook, write down each characteristic of God that strikes you as you go about your days, praising him for who he is as the list gets longer.
Week Three: Bible Study
‘The Bible is God’s eternal word. Read it, understand it, obey it.’ – Gordon D Fee and Douglas Stuart
Bible reading is one of those things you do need to be sitting down and concentrating to do. But with a life full of distractions, chores and noise, finding time to read, digest and reflect even once a week, let alone every day, can seem impossible.
This week, I attempted to read a portion of the Bible every day. I used an online Bible guide produced by Scripture Union, WordLive, and continued on with a Bible-in-a-year schedule that I have been following.
I tried to do my reading while Alexa ate her breakfast, but mostly she ate too fast and noisily to make this work well. Then I moved it to bedtime, when I was tired and found it hard to concentrate. On a couple of days I just picked up the Bible in the middle of the chaos and tried to absorb it through the competing background noise. The more I read, the more I want to – I often come away feeling nourished, my mind clarified and my sense of purpose and direction reaffirmed. Conversely, when I neglect the Bible, I find my mind soon resorts to old, unedifying patterns of thought.
Ways you could make time for Bible reading:
• Download audio versions of the Bible and listen to it on your iPod.
• Set your alarm 15 minutes earlier each day and use the extra time on Bible study.
• Keep a Bible in the bathroom and read it in snatches.
Week Four: Journaling
‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ – Socrates
Journaling is a great way of forcing ourselves to slow down and concentrate. It can help us to reflect on and document the ways in which we have seen God at work in our life. It is a means by which we can discipline our minds and still our hearts, and it gives us a record of God’s faithfulness for future reference. The challenge for this week is to journal each day.
It has been a few months since I used my journal on a regular basis, and I have been inspired to go back to the practice. In a day, there might be many times when God speaks to me in a quiet way and these wisps of conversation can so easily be lost if not recorded. Reading back over things I had written over the last year or so I am amazed at how many prayers have been heard, how God has helped me with diffi cult relationships and chipped away at my character flaws, and how utterly faithful he has been.
Getting a journal started:
• Get hold of a notebook that you can use for this purpose, and keep it handy with your Bible and a pen.
• Things you could consider writing in your notebook: prayers, Bible verses that have stood out for you; things that have caught your attention in sermons; significant things friends have said to you; unresolved issues that you want to bring before God; people you are praying for; whatever you can find to give thanks for…the list is infinite really.
• Get into the habit of writing a short entry each time you read your Bible.
I had imagined myself writing a rousing and inspiring conclusion to this article, based on the wonderful discovery I would have made that all you need to become more spiritually deep is good intentions and a little time management. I have actually found over this month that life is not conducive to welcoming in any additional practices, however beneficial, worthy and enjoyable they might be. It could be that rather than trying to fit God into our busy routines, we need to face the fact that the worth we place on some of our activities is too high, and that some sacrifices need to be made in order to give God the priority that he deserves.
I was reminded too, that in pursuing godliness I am working against myself – my natural inclination is towards sinfulness and, to put it bluntly, laziness. CJ Mahaney said this, ‘The realisation that I could be simultaneously busy and lazy, that I could be a hectic sluggard, that my busyness was no immunity from laziness, became a life-altering and work-altering insight.’
One way to combat this would be to look at the whole of life differently. ‘It’d make a whole heap of difference if we consciously thought about what we’re doing in the light of our identity as Christian disciples, if the way that we did it was pleasing to God and the reason for which we did it was the glory of God,’ says Richard Perkins. ‘And I’m not just talking about the so-called spiritual activities. I’m taking about every activity. As long as it’s not illegal or immoral! I can teach a class of school children for God’s glory. I can raise my young child for God’s glory. I can play rugby for God’s glory. I can even party for God’s glory. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul does say that whatever we do we ought to do for God’s glory. Most of us would benefit from thinking how what we have to do and what we choose to do can contribute to God’s glory.’
My other discovery has been that the very fabric of my life and who I am is bound up with my identity as a child of God, and that his love of me is not dependent on the time and effort I put into my ‘quiet time’ or other overtly Christian activities. Busy people often carry a burden of guilt that they aren’t managing to do anything well, including following Jesus, which can lead to defensiveness and an unwillingness to engage with God.
He is with us and in us always, and has promised that if we seek him he will be found. I for one am determined to keep seeking, and keep trying to use these spiritual disciplines as a means to that end, but I am grateful for the grace that covers my poor efforts and makes me acceptable anyway.
Additional reporting by Ruth Dickinson
A word to church leaders...
Are you a church leader? Take a moment to stop and think about whether you could be hindering rather than helping your flock’s spiritual growth.
‘I’m sure that as a church leadership we don’t help the congregation as much as we ought,’ says Richard Perkins. ‘Our great longing is to grow disciples for Christ but our resources are stretched because we are a small church. I have no doubt that some of our church plans and programmes are on the ambitious end of the spectrum. And we rely on the godly goodwill and enthusiasm of our volunteers to make things happen. This can mean every month it feels as though they’re being recruited to resource a new initiative. And so we, as church leaders, can fill their lives with activity. Some of that’s good, it’s done in good faith, but we need to be wary of overburdening people and adding to their busy stressful activity filled lives.’