A good portion of my work these days involves coaching and mentoring leaders, both in the United States and around the world. Increasingly, whether I’m speaking with leaders at home or abroad, at Willow Creek or in other circles of my life, I hear the same words repeated over and over: exhausted, overwhelmed, overscheduled, anxious, isolated, dissatisfied. It’s a common problem - young and old, rich and poor, professionals and parents, women and men. And it’s a global issue - I’ve heard these words in English and in [firstworld and countless other developing nations].
Simplify your life
It was startling to hear these words so often, that made me realise that, as leaders and Christ followers, we needed to address this situation. So whenever I had a chance, I began openly discussing burnout, stress, and dissatisfaction. My gut told me the topics might strike a chord with people, because they certainly struck a chord with me. I grossly underestimated the impact!
As I explored the concerns that leave people feeling isolated, overwhelmed, and exhausted, and as I sought to formulate a framework for how to tackle the diverse complexities of these issues, I began using the term ‘simplify’. How do we simplify our lives? The term stuck. The very word seemed to energise people.
Jesus urges us to slow down
Of all the people Jesus interacted with during His three-year teaching ministry, Scripture records only one person whom He redirected in the area of simplicity: a good friend of His, a woman named Martha.
The incident I’m about to describe took place as the demands on Jesus were growing. The more He taught, the more people wanted from Him - more healings, more miracles, more of everything He could offer. His days were increasingly packed. So occasionally, Jesus called a time-out and retreated to the serenity of the guest quarters in Bethany, where He could wind down for a day or two and refuel in the company of His close friends.
Here’s how Luke describes one such visit: “As Jesus and His disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to Him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed - or indeed only One. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’ Luke 10:38-42.
Are you too busy?
You can see the dynamics of this situation shaping up from a mile away. Mary and Martha have had no time to prepare for this drop-in visit by Jesus and twelve dusty disciples. But Jesus feels comfortable enough in His friendship with them that He stops by for some replenishing time.
Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Meanwhile, Martha has busied herself in the kitchen getting a meal going. She is frantically trying to play the role of accommodating hostess, tending to the physical needs of Jesus and His disciples - appetizers, entrées, and drinks. It begins to grate on her that Mary is simply lounging in the other room with Jesus, catching up on the latest events.
After a while, Martha snaps. She loses it. She’s clearly ticked. We don’t know whether Mary has missed, or has chosen to ignore, her sister’s hints that she needs help, but at a certain point, Martha bursts into the room and interrupts the conversation Mary is having with Jesus. She doesn’t address Mary; she addresses Jesus directly with an opening salvo: “Lord, don’t You care?”
Be still and sit at His feet
The irony here is thick. “Don’t You care?” she asks the Lord of the universe, the one who left Heaven’s splendour to put on human flesh and descend [into the earth]; who has been out on the road, teaching and healing and serving others until He’s absolutely exhausted; and who will soon bleed and die for the Redemption of everyone in the world, including Martha.
I picture Martha in this scene with a wooden spoon in her hand. But Jesus doesn’t escalate the conflict. He doesn’t power up on Martha. He doesn’t say, “How dare you speak to the Son of God this way...” According to the text, He simply says her name twice: “Martha, Martha.” In other words, “Easy does it, Martha. Take a chill pill.” Then, with genuine kindness, He makes an observation: “You are worried and upset about many things.” He can tell she’s overwhelmed, overscheduled, and exhausted - the very words that define our culture. And He invites her to put down her spoon and take a couple of deep breaths.
What do you really need?
In Luke’s text, Jesus tells Martha something that I, too, often need to be reminded of: “Few things are needed - indeed only One.” Martha was missing what mattered most, but not Mary. She got it. “Mary has chosen the good part,” Jesus says, “and I’m not going to take it away from her...I will not send her into the kitchen to do a dozen things that don’t really matter in the big picture.” By affirming Mary’s choice, Jesus invites Martha to set down her apron and follow her sister’s example.
Your heart and mine yearn for an antidote to all the ‘driven-ness’ and busyness in our lives. The antidote isn’t getting it all done in the kitchen - or the office, or the mall. The antidote is leaving that stuff - sometimes undone - to sit down for an unrushed conversation with Jesus. What a terrific story. In a few short words, Jesus teaches us about His values and priorities.
What sacrifices are you making?
Simplified living is about more than doing less. It’s being who God called us to be, with a wholehearted, single-minded focus. It’s walking away from innumerable lesser opportunities in favour of the few to which we’ve been called and for which we’ve been created.
It’s a lifestyle that allows us, when our heads hit the pillow at night, to reflect with gratitude that our day was well invested and the varied responsibilities of our lives are in order. If we don’t change how we live, our overcomplicated world will begin to feel frighteningly normal. We will become accustomed to life at a frantic pace, no longer able to discriminate between the important and the unessential. And that’s the danger: When we fritter away our one and only life doing things that don’t really matter, we sacrifice the things that do matter.
Depleted, distracted, discouraged
The path to simplicity is not for the faint of heart. It’s a process that requires total honesty. So let me pose the question: How depleted are you? How long has it been since you have felt fully replenished?
When we’re connected with God and we’re secure in our identity as His daughters and sons, we can spend all our energy on stuff that meets God’s agenda for our lives, rather than on image management. Life is simpler when we have only one agenda to meet: God’s. For me, the number one priority in my daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythm is to stay as closely connected with God as I possibly can. It is by far the biggest replenisher in my life.
BILL HYBELS is the founder of Willowcreek Community Church. This extract is from his book Simplify’. It offers ten practical chapters that will help you to simplify and unclutter your life. For more info: www.willowcreeksa.co.za
Bill Hybels will be speaking via Podcast together with several other international business leaders at the 2015 Global Leadership Summit in South Africa. See www.willowcreek.com/gls/i_southafrica.asp for more details.