Dry heaves and Monday morning are not a winning combination. I had woken up too late to take my usual morning walk with my husband, so I headed to the basement for a quick workout instead. Twenty minutes on the elliptical at twice my normal speed equals double the efficiency, right? Plus, a friend had just downloaded a bunch of sermons onto my smartphone, so I could do double duty and pray while I perspired.
Good plan; poor execution. Instead, I almost expired!
To paraphrase Newton’s third law of motion, for every inaction there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Thirty extra—blissful!—minutes of sleep meant I was behind before I even got out of bed. To “save” time, I put on my headphones and began exercising. I started out slowly, eventually picking up speed so that by the last half mile I was feeling like Jesse Owens. The faster my feet whirled round and round, the stronger and more in-control I felt.
Until I stopped. The moment I stepped off the machine, I felt a strange upheaval in my stomach, the kind of intense nausea I had not felt since I was in the first trimester of pregnancy a quarter-century ago. So I did what any self-actualized, 21st century Christian woman would do: I knelt in front of the porcelain throne until my brief (praise God!) exercise-induced morning sickness receded.
The Bible makes it clear that God can talk to us anywhere—on the top of a mountain, in a bush that won’t burn up, even sitting on a heap of ashes scratching boils with pottery shards—but I’ve never heard of the Holy Spirit talking to someone hugging a toilet. Nonetheless, I believe that’s where he met with me and whispered, Stop.
That’s all. Not loud. Not demanding. Just a gentle, encouraging reminder.
People often rail against four-letter words, but I found this one beautiful. S-T-O-P. It’s one of the first words that my son—and most children—learned to read. Every time we approached a red sign, Clark bounced dangerously in his booster seat and shouted, “Stop, Mommy! STOPPPPPP!”
What I have found since those early days of childrearing, however, is that there’s a three-letter word that is far more dangerous. It’s not a bad word per se, and yet it’s a word that has led to heaps of trouble in my life—more unnecessary stress and anxiety than any other word I have uttered.
My guess is that this same word has royally messed up your life too.
That word, of course, is yes.
Work Is a Good Thing
Maybe you’ve heard the word busy used as an acronym: Being Under Satan’s Yoke. And there’s much truth in this. In The Screwtape Letters, Satan’s apprentice is told that noise is the cheap ticket to sin. Keep people busy. Go, go, go, C.S. Lewis says, and you’ll never stop long enough to hear the quiet voice of God.
Busyness, however, is a close cousin to industriousness. The Bible makes clear that work is a good thing: “You will enjoy the fruit of your labor. How joyful and prosperous you will be!” (Psalm 128:2) It’s also clear that sloth is something to be avoided: “A lazy person is as bad as someone who destroys things” (Proverbs 18:9).
My husband and I serve together in the ministry we co-founded, Blessed Earth. We write. We teach. We speak at churches and colleges and lead retreats. I confess that sometimes (okay, often!) I wear my busyness as a badge of honor, a testimony of my worth to the kingdom. Part of this is because I was raised Jewish and didn’t become a Jesus-follower until my early 40s. Like most Jews who accept Christ, mine was not a lukewarm conversion. It changed everything—my marriage, my vocation, where I lived. My husband, Matthew, left a well-paying job as an ER doctor. We moved to a house the size of our old garage. We downsized and got rid of half of our possessions. Did I mention that Jesus changed everything?
Well, perhaps not everything. Giving our lives to Christ did not change our work ethic. In fact, in some ways, we work harder than ever because our ministry and our life are one. Unless my husband and I set limits, busyness could easily define our lives. Fortunately, however, God has given us the gift of boundaries.
“I feel like I’m on call 24/7.”
“Between work, church, and caring for my family, I never have downtime.”
“My kids need me, my husband needs me, my aging parents need me—but what I really need is a vacation!”
Over the last few years, Matthew and I have traveled the country speaking about burnout, simplicity, and Sabbath. What we’ve heard over and over is that we are a frazzled nation. Why? Most of us have too many demands and not enough time.
A friend of mine calls this problem “time debt,” and it’s not unique to Christians; it’s a universal symptom. Each “yes” requires a future commitment of our time. Like a home mortgage, some of those payments stretch out for months and even years into the future.
The Bible, however, offers an answer. God created the heavens and the earth in five days, and it was good. On the sixth day, God created you and me and it was very good. On the seventh day God created rest, and it was holy.
Sabbath rest is distinguished as one of the “top ten”—the and the most-repeated directive in the Bible. And it comes with a promise: “Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the LORD’s holy day. Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly. Then the LORD will be your delight. I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob. I, the LORD, have spoken!” (Isaiah 58:13–14).
One of my heroes, Eugene Peterson, says that there are only two “rules” for Sabbath: pray and play. For me, that means no emails, no housework, and no shopping. Instead, I do the things that refresh me. I read. I walk. I take guiltless naps. I spend time with family, friends, and God.
Wealthy with Time
Remember that about the rich man inviting guests to a wedding banquet? Similarly, we are all invited to God’s Sabbath banquet. Most of us, however, refuse the invitation. We have fields (of laundry) to plow, a spouse to please, a travel league game to referee.
The Sabbath commandment () begins with “remember” because God knew that we would forget. Jesus is the Sabbath. He invites us to lay down our burdens and find rest. For me, Sabbath is a weekly lesson in hubris; the world can get along just fine without Nancy Sleeth answering her emails for one day out of seven.
When a family has financial problems, the first thing a pastor will advise them to do is tithe. This makes no worldly sense. We don’t have enough money to pay the bills! How can we possibly give ten percent away?
And yet the people I know who tithe regularly—no matter what their income—never seem to have serious money issues. The reason: tithing changes our perspective on money. It all belongs to God. We’re just giving back the first fruits.
The same principle holds true with time. All of it—every second of our lives—belongs to God. In remembering the Sabbath, we are simply giving back the first day to our Lord, the giver of all life.
For many of us, and knowing God for 24 hours each week sounds heavenly—but impossible. Yet God says that we can move mountains (and even meetings!) if we have enough faith. Start small with just four hours. Intentionally write those hours on your calendar. Soon you will long for more. Then, get on your knees and pray about it. The Holy Spirit will open up creative answers that you never dreamed possible.
Finding Our Way Back to God
“Ellipsing” is not a word, but it should be. It’s what many of us are doing with our lives: we are going round and round and never getting anywhere. We do, do, do but never get off the proverbial treadmill—or elliptical machine—to do the things that really matter.
Is busyness bad? Not necessarily. But we get ill—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—when we don’t remember to stop. It is difficult to find meaning in our lives and to do “the work of God” () when we are on the go 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Maybe we need to stop ellipsing ourselves ragged and start remembering to be still. Maybe it’s time for us to stop kneeling in front of the toilet and start kneeling in front of the throne of God.
Nancy Sleeth, the co-founder of Blessed Earth and author of Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life, was named one of Christianity Today’s “50 Women to Watch.” Along with her husband, Matthew Sleeth, M.D.—author of the book and DVD 24/6—Nancy leads retreats on simplicity and Sabbath living.