Stop saying you’re busy

I am as prone to it as you are. When people ask me how things are going, I often respond by saying, ‘Busy!’ But I was provoked this week to stop using this word.

I went to a day conference in honour of the late Eugene Peterson. Various pastors were sharing the impact Peterson had had upon them, and a strong theme was Peterson’s opposition to busyness in pastoral ministry. He used to say his day was ‘full’ rather than ‘busy’. Peterson lived a fruitful life, authoring more than 30 books (one of which was his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message), while pastoring a local church. But he also saw busyness as a dangerous mindset, a deceptive and pride-ridden way of thinking and speaking.

In his book, The Contemplative Pastor, he gives a few reasons why pastors (and I think the rest of us too) should stop saying we’re busy.

1. It’s blasphemy. ‘The adjective “busy” set as a modifier to “pastor” should sound to our ears like “adulterous” to characterise a wife or “embezzling” to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.’ By thinking and acting as though we need to do God’s work for him, we are in a state of ‘blasphemous anxiety’ – a kind of God-denying functional atheism. This is as true for you as it is for me.

2. It’s a boast. There is a lot of vanity in busyness. Peterson says, ‘I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy?’ Of course, this is a vacuous and empty way of seeking to live a significant life. Significance is determined by faithfulness to God, and it is not measured by one’s frantic activity. Oliver Burkeman makes a similar observation in his TEDx talk: ‘It’s kind of a boast, right? Because we’ve turned busyness into this standard by which we measure our importance; by which we measure if we’re making a contribution to the world.’ When you see this for what it is, you can stop the facade. 

3. It’s laziness. Perhaps the most surprising reason we feel busy is that we are too lazy to set our own goals, and abdicate this task to others. We become busy because we fail to decide upfront what is important for us to do.  Apparently C. S. Lewis used to say that only lazy people work hard. Peterson describes it like this: ‘I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself.’ This resonates with me as a true diagnosis, not least because when I read the gospels I see how Jesus refused to let his time and agenda be determined by others. He knew his purpose under the Father’s will, and you should too.