Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. –Psalm 127:1
I am a doer. I like getting things done, seeing progress happen, watching myself and others grow and be transformed. I thrive on having a goal and pushing through obstacles to see that goal achieved. I can keep positive and energetic as long as I have a concrete goal in mind, and see obstacles and difficulties on my path to the goal as things that need to be removed.
I work project-to-project, which works pretty well for me as a scientist and a teacher. Complete one experiment, plan the next. Complete one lesson, learn all I can about a topic, plan the next. When I achieve a goal, I shoot a little higher and work toward that goal. The quicker I achieve a goal, the sooner I can move to the next level. I get one set of results from my experiments and think, what’s the next step? What do I do with this?
I do not like doing anything mindlessly, even entertainment. I play video games in Japanese to at least feel like I’m learning something. If I don’t see how an activity, or whatever is happening in my life, will be of benefit to my character or personal growth, I put it in the category of “obstacle” to be removed. The nice thing is that I’m very self-motivated, but the downside is as some of you may imagine, basal levels of anxiety. It’s the fear of feelings of inadequacy that come from failure or the inability to complete a project on my own. It’s trying to push down any of those fears because I believe I “should” be able to complete a goal in my work, emotional, and spiritual life.
I suspect many of you are like me, especially in a culture and environment that values progress. But since I’ve been thinking about breaking my nervous habit (you may be proud to know that I’ve gone up to 3 days in a row now of no-nail-biting!), I’m becoming more aware of how the basal level of anxiety plays a role in my life, and often hinders my productivity because I’ll do some things out of desperation or to get rid of the anxiety, which is not a good emotional state if you want to do things well.
I struggle with this, because I think of my self-motivation, my drive for achieving goals and growth, as a good thing and a God-given gift. But I also recognize my natural tendency to just do things that may seem like good things, especially in ministry, but may end up draining me out and just not helpful for anyone.
In this post, I will address some principles of the value of rest, of working to be attentive to the movement of God, and of critically analyzing the motivations behind what we do. In reverse order.
In Dallas Willard’s Hearing God, Willard poses the question, “Is this serving what I want or what God wants?” In one of his Leadership Podcasts, Andy Stanley encourages us to ask, “in light of my past experiences, my current emotions and circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing to do?”
These questions have been helpful for me to think about what responsibilities I decide to take on. Is it to make me feel like I’m doing something good? Am I doing this to suppress my fear of inadequacy, or am I doing this because God has called me to it? Is God actually building this “house” with me, or am I building it and hoping that God will join and agree with me?
Asking these questions has brought immense clarity and simplicity into my life. If God is in the things that I do, that really streamlines my activities. I’m not trying to build houses that God is not also building. And that removes a lot of frustration when a project goes poorly or stops progressing. It takes a lot of discernment to tell if failure or a lack of progress means it’s time to abandon the project, or if it’s just an obstacle to learn from and keep going.
So here’s the balance I’m learning to strike: because I believe that God actually does want me to do good things, and I believe that God is in many of the things that I do, I need to draw my energy from God. Which means dropping some things to intentionally create times of rest and not-doing-anything to simply sit and rest with him. Sometimes I feel like God is telling me something, sometimes I feel like he just wants me to sit and be with him. But these times of silence and solitude have helped me become more aware of where God is throughout my day.
How do you know if God is in the things you’re working toward? It takes a relationship with God. I also believe that sometimes God may frustrate our efforts if they’re drawing us away from him. It takes an attentiveness to the movement of his Spirit, which comes through time and practice. I’m surely not perfect at this, but I’ve been a lot happier and calmer since I started this “rest with God” project, which has made me more efficient and helps me think soundly about the things I do instead of doing them out of fear and anxiety. Resting and spending time investing in a relationship with God has worked wonders for me. Try it sometime.