We’re starting a new series today called Toolkit for Living. I’m not a handyman, but I’ve found that most jobs are possible with the right tools. Once you are using the right tools, the job is a cinch.
There are some tools that have fallen out of favor, but they’re as relevant today as they ever were. Over the next few weeks, I’d like for us to look at four tools that you don’t hear about too much today. They’re tools, though, that will make a huge difference in our lives. The first tool is slowing.
If you ask someone, “How are you?” there’s a good chance you’ll hear “Busy” as the answer. Busy has replaced good as the default answer. We’re so busy that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to not be busy.
They actually have one-minute bed time stories for kids now. We have fast food, alarm clocks, rush hour, and express lanes. We work longer hours and take fewer vacations than ever before. I knew we were in trouble when they came out with Easy Mac: “Make your life easier with Kraft Easy Mac.” How hard was macaroni and cheese to start with? Even I could make that. We have more appliances and time-saving techniques than ever before, but we’re more time-pressed and less satisfied than we can ever remember.
Living busy lives is costing us. We’re stressed and rushed even when we don’t need to be. One day runs into the next. It used to be that the months stretched out in front of us. Summers seemed to last forever. Now, it feels like we’re stuck on a hamster wheel, and we wish we could get off. Some of us take a vacation and end up getting sick because we’re exhausted. We’re less satisfied, but we can’t see how things are going to change.
Busyness also takes its toll on our relationships. Our kids are also busier than ever. They used to give the kids homework; now they give the parents homework. We have sheets to sign and homework to check. Our kids are booked in activities. We don’t have the time we’d like to connect the way we’d like to.
Marriages also suffer from busyness. Relationships take time. As things get busy, that time is sacrificed. After a while, we lose touch on how to connect. The longer we go, the harder it is. Some marriages have died from busyness.
It’s the same with God. We’d love to take time to pray, but where do we find the time? How can we slow down enough to read the books we want to read, to take time for ourselves, to get all the work done, to build our relationships, and to play? As the VeggieTales would say, “We’re busy, busy, dreadfully busy You’ve no idea what we have to do. Busy, busy, shockingly busy; Much, much too busy for you.”
This is something that I struggle with. A few years ago, my schedule was way out of control. I had meetings and commitments, and I couldn’t see a break in sight. Around the same time, I heard of a pastor friend who was in the hospital with a life-threatening illness. For a moment, I envied him for his schedule. That wasn’t a sane thought. I knew then that I was in trouble, and that I had to make a change immediately. Busyness, taken to an extreme, endangers our souls.
Psalm 127 has a word that we need to hear. It was written thousands of years ago, years before we even measured our days by the hands of a clock. As we read the Psalm, it’s as if it speaks to our current situation. It gives us a diagnosis that we need to hear in our lives today.
Psalm 127:1-2 says:
Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat-
for he grants sleep to those he loves. (NIV)
One word is repeated three times in the first two verses: vain. This is the Biblical diagnosis for our lives: you may be working in vain. It’s not that you aren’t working hard enough; you are. It’s not even that you’re working on bad things. Building houses and guarding cities are examples of some work that is good, but vain under certain conditions. You may be working hard and on good things, but all that work might be in vain.
Want an example of this? I think a lot of us could pause at the end of the year and ask ourselves what we accomplished over the past year. We’ve been busy, but a lot of what we’ve been busy doing doesn’t have any lasting value. I look back at entire years – say, 1985 – and I can’t tell you a single thing I did that year. I’m pretty sure I was busy. I know I was doing something, and it seemed pretty important at the time. You can go entire years, even decades, and have nothing to show for it at the end. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t busy. It means that you were busy working for things that don’t really make a difference in the end.
Verse two sounds like the way a lot of us live: rising early, staying up late, working to put food on the table. The Psalm, though, says that it is in vain. Working hard at good things is no guarantee that we’re investing our lives well. There’s nothing to show for this way of living in the end.
When we live this way, we end up failing even when we succeed. We could work day and night to build a business that is successful beyond our expectations. Even when the business succeeds, according to this Psalm, it could be in vain. We could be wasting our lives.
What’s the alternative? Psalm 127:2 gives us a hint. It says, “He grants sleep to those he loves.” The NIV has a footnote with an alternate reading: “While they sleep, he provides for those he loves.” Both readings are possible, but the second one seems to make more sense in this Psalm. You can work like crazy and it’s all in vain. On the other hand, those that God loves are enjoying their sleep, and God is at work providing for them even while they’re asleep. It’s a choice: work hard and lost it all, or have God provide for you even while you’re asleep. The second is a much better way to live.
All through the Bible, you see God doing this. You have people who work to get ahead, and their efforts don’t amount to anything. Think of all the people who failed despite succeeding: all the political leaders, all the kings, all the big shots. Think of all the nobodies who couldn’t make it to the top even if they wanted to. God provided for them and put them in positions they couldn’t have reached if they had tried. God provides for those he loves even when they’re sleeping.
The rest of the psalm gives us an example:
Sons are a heritage from the LORD,
children a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are sons born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
(Psalm 127:3-5 NIV)
Kids are a good example of a project that God is involved with. If you’ve had children, it’s clear that you had something to do with it. You got the process started, and it’s not like mothers-to-be don’t have a role. But God does most of the work. It’s God who provides the children in the first place. Even when you’re asleep, God is guiding the growth of the baby until that baby is ready to be born. Children are a project in which we play a role, but we succeed ultimately because God is involved. We wouldn’t be able to do it without Him.
When we’re at work with God’s projects, then we can go to bed at night, knowing that God is at work even when we’re not. Victor Hugo says, “”When you have accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace; God is awake.”
So here’s what this should mean to us. The lesson is pretty clear. When we are involved with our own projects, we’re wasting our time. They may be very good projects, but if God isn’t involved, then our busyness is counterproductive. It’s in vain. We can build houses, guard cities, build businesses, write books, complete projects. It can all be good, but it can all be in vain if God isn’t in it. This is what happens sometimes when we start something and ask God later to bless it. God doesn’t bless it, because it wasn’t His idea in the first place. We’re wrong when we invite God to join our agenda. That’s not the way it works.
Here’s what we can do if we don’t want to waste our lives. Instead of inviting God to join our agenda, we can get involved in His agenda. We can figure out what projects are God’s and get involved with what He’s doing. This is asking the question of what God wants you to do with your life. It’s asking Him for his agenda, so that He’s at work in your life, even when you’re asleep.
The problem is that when we’re busy we don’t have time to ask God what his projects are. When we’re busy, we get caught up in our own agendas. We collapse in bed at the end of the day, tired and hoping that what we did mattered. When we’re busy, we never take time to stop and ask if what we’re doing matters. It’s possible to waste years, and in the end, all that work doesn’t really matter.
I don’t have easy answers on what God’s projects are that He’d like you to join. I do know that we will never know until we take the time to slow, to stop some of the things that are keeping us busy, so we have time to listen to God for direction. Slowing makes sense for two reasons. One: it stops us from doing things that are vain in the first place. Two: it gives us time to ask God what He’d like us to do with our lives.
Whenever I slow and ask God to give me wisdom for what I should be doing, I’ve sensed His leading in my life. We can take time to slow, to check in with God, to think about His Word. We can ask Him what He’d like us to stop in our lives. We can ask Him if there’s anything He would like us to start doing. We can ask God the big questions about what we should be doing with our lives. We can ask God for daily direction, for what directions He’d like us to take that day. When we slow (or stop), we can switch from our projects to God’s projects.
This is the first tool we can use. Slowing is not a tool that is in common use these days. Most of us are running faster and faster. Slowing is necessary if we’re going to listen to God’s direction for our lives, and to get involved with His projects.
Some questions for you: Is your pace sustainable? Can you keep going at your current speed, or do you need to slow to a pace that you can manage? What do you need to stop doing? Is there anything that you’re currently doing, and you already know that it’s not part of God’s agenda for your life? What do you sense He’s asking you to stop?
Are you skimming on relationships? Are you going so fast that you don’t have time to spend with those who are close to you? Is it time to stop so that you can spend time with the projects God has already given you – your marriage, your kids, your grandkids? If you’re skimming on your relationship with God, what steps do you need to take to slow to the point you can spend some time with Him? Not as a burden. God wants to have a relationship with you that is based on His love for you.
Are you going slow enough to hear God’s voice? God sometimes forces us to hear His voice. Other times, He speaks softly, and we only hear Him when we take the time to listen.
This past week, I was in a rush. I know, I need this sermon too. I had to get the kids to school, but I forgot something in the house. I pulled the car into the driveway, got out of the car, and unlocked the back door. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the car was rolling back. I had forgotten to leave the car in gear. I called for my daughter to yank the emergency brake, but she had never paid attention to where it’s located before. I had to go run and yank the brake so that it would stop before the rolling car caused an accident.
A lot of us are rolling and headed for trouble, and we’re not exactly sure where the emergency brake is. God can come in and yank the brake and slow us down if He has too. Or, we can choose to slow down ourselves, to avoid the accident, and to take some time to ask God what He’d like us to do.
Slowing is essential for a soul that’s listening to God. I’m going to invite you to find a way to slow this week and to spend some time listening to God.