The Everything Trap


Are you carrying more than you can handle? Do you think it’s up to you to manage the world? What do you do when your super-sized to-do list exceeds the hours in your day? Here is some perspective.

When my friend Dan moved, I helped him load the moving van. We tried to pack thirty-seven cubic yards of household goods into a twenty-seven cubic yard U-Haul. I’m glad I didn’t have to drive that bulging truck over the mountain pass that separated Dan and his family from their new home. I’m even gladder that I wasn’t the truck.

A few days after Dan’s move, as I was having my quiet time and doodling in my journal, I realized that I was in a precarious place spiritually. I felt overwhelmed and drained. I just didn’t have any energy left to care. It’s not that I cared too little. It’s that I cared too much. In many ways, I was — and still am — like that truck. I try to pack more into life than I’m designed to carry.

I was packing thirty-seven cubic yards of what I assumed to be my responsibility into a frame that was designed for twenty-seven. I couldn’t get up any speed. In fact, I could barely get out of the driveway. I was carrying much more than I could handle, and my ability to care was gone. I was numb.

It turned out that many of my friends were experiencing the same thing. There was little joy. Life was comfortable but ho-hum. We may have looked active — even frantic — on the outside, but inside everything was moving in slow motion.

What was happening? Aren’t we Christians supposed to care? Aren’t we supposed to be on our knees daily in tears for a lost and dying world? Aren’t we supposed to be actively involved in the kids’ soccer club, in the PTA, on the church board, at the crisis pregnancy center, in our home Bible study group and with our neighbors? And that’s just for starters.

We often feel responsible for the whole world — human trafficking, starvation in Somalia, war in Iraq and all the political and economic woes of the world. We’re exhorted to write to Congress about this bill or that amendment. We’re expected to show up on the steps of the capitol to make our voices heard. Vote. Recycle. Pray. Do, do, do.

So I did, did, did. The whole thirty-seven cubic yards. But I couldn’t put it together. I was trying to do everything I thought good Christians were supposed to do. But inside I was dying. I realized then that I had to get a handle on my role in relation to everything that was pressing in on me. I looked at my typical day, and that’s where I found my first insight. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I ask myself is, “What do I have to do today?” I formulate a to-do list in my head. It’s usually packed with thirty-seven cubic yards of tasks which need to be crammed into a twenty-seven cubic yard week. Then I glance at the morning newspaper — “School board considering new curriculum.” Another five cubic yards, this time an emotional load as well as a portent of more meetings to attend. Next I’m off to my office. The piles grow rather than shrink. Later, I arrive home for dinner, and my wife greets me with, “Brian’s teacher called — again — and by the way, did you remember that we have a meeting at church tonight?” At bedtime I turn on the ten o’clock news and scene after scene of human tragedy flashes by. I want to feel something for these people but I just can’t. I don’t have anything left.

Climbing Mount Perspective

The world is into bigness. A friend of mine was on a trip and forgot to pack his toothpaste. He stopped at a grocery store and asked the clerk for a tube. There were three sizes — large, family size and giant. When he asked the clerk if she had anything smaller, she replied, “Mister, large is as small as we’ve got.” If large is the smallest category we think in, it’s no wonder that we take on more than we can handle.

The reason I take on more than I can carry is because I transfer God’s bigness to me. “Move over, God, I’ve come to assist you — with everything.” For some reason, I think I should do something about everything that comes my way. And what’s more, I’m tempted to believe that I can. I pile all the “oughts” and “shoulds” higher and deeper. And when the time comes to move, my truck is bulging, and I can’t get out of the driveway. U-Haul means I-Haul, and I’ve hauled all I can.

I’ve read all the self-help books — How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, Managing Your Desk, Ordering Your Private World — but I’ve concluded that the problem isn’t one of adjusting priorities. It’s an issue of perspective. I don’t need more time management skills. Instead, I need to take a trip to what Chuck Swindoll has called Mount Perspective.

When I stand at the top of a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado, my first sensation is always one of grandeur and awe. I feel an awesome, silent vastness — a boundless enormity. After the first few breathless moments, a restful silence overtakes me. Then the wonder begins to ebb. I slowly become aware of myself again, but somehow I’ve changed. I have a new perspective. I’m always left feeling small, but somehow that’s okay. Small doesn’t mean insignificant.

Climbing a Mount Perspective inside ourselves can help us see our cares in a new light, too. We really are small, compared to everything else that’s going on. Smallness can’t carry on as if it were bigness.

Sometimes we should think big. The problem is that we think our actions ought to keep pace with our thinking. You’ve heard the catch phrase “Think globally, act locally.” Many of us fall into the trap of “Think globally, act globally.” Nobody can do that. The world is too complex.

Who runs the world?

Recently, I was reading Working The Angles by Eugene Peterson. Nestled in the next to last paragraph of chapter one, I found a sentence that changed my life. Peterson describes the difference between the way Greeks (our rational, philosophical ancestors) and Hebrews (our spiritual ancestors and models) think and live. He writes, “The Hebrews’ purpose was not to understand what was going on in the human race but to be a part of what was going on with God … we experience the world first not as a problem to be solved [a burden to be carried], but as a reality in which God is acting.”

The issue of our perspective comes down to a question of ownership. The Hebrews of Bible times didn’t own the world. God does. They didn’t own their destiny. God does. They didn’t even own their day. Because it belongs to God, he is primarily responsible for its events. In their exuberant love of life, the Hebrews weren’t acting irresponsibly; they just knew their place. They wanted to participate in what God was doing, not to set their own agenda. They saw God as being fully in charge of their days, their lives and their world.

Being a twentieth-century American, I like to set my own agenda. When I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I do. What’s wrong with that? Actually, quite a lot.

Whose day is this, really?

The problem is that I assume that it’s my day and my agenda. My plan is what matters — my list, my word, my will. It’s mine. Period. Since it belongs to me, then it’s up to me to see that it gets done. I select the most important thing from the list and start doing it. Oh, I can certainly ask for God’s help, but the problem is that I’d be asking for the wrong thing.

You see, the biblical view of a day is radically different from mine. My day begins when I get up in the morning and ends when I fall exhausted into bed at night. Anything important has to happen during those waking hours. But Genesis 1 says, “… and there was evening and there was morning — the first day … and there was evening and there was morning — the second day” (verses 5 and 8). In God’s design a day begins in the evening and concludes with the morning. Even today, the Jewish Sabbath doesn’t begin on Saturday morning. It begins at sunset on Friday evening.

Essentially, this means that when I go to bed, God’s day is just getting started. He works all night long. When I get up in the morning I can only join in with what’s already in progress — if he wants me to. He may not. It’s up to him. He sets the agenda. Most of what happens in a day — God’s day — won’t involve me. So I’ve changed the question I ask when I get up in the morning from “What do I have to do today?” to “Lord, what are you already doing today that I can participate in?”

I awaken in the middle of God’s day. And like walking into the middle of a conversation, I may not have anything to add. I may need to shut up and listen for a while before anything I could toss in would even make sense. The question, “Lord, what are you already doing that I can participate in?” puts me in a listening posture. He has the first word.

How freeing it is to know that the world is in God’s hands when I go to bed! That means I’m not responsible to get it going the next day. And I’m not responsible to fix it all. I’ll have a small part, but only the part God wants me to have. He’s got the whole world in his hands, and he might not need a hand with most of it.

The view from Mount Perspective is refreshing. God is big. I am small. God writes the whole story, and my part in it is just a few lines long. I can pray for Iraq but I don’t need to panic. The school board might even make a wise decision without hearing my opinion. I will need to go see my son’s teacher — again, but every time a new invitation comes along to get involved in something more, I can ask the new question once again. “Lord, is there something you’re doing here that you want me to participate in?”

What do I do with my huge list of tasks? I submit it to God. When something unexpected happens, such as my car breaking down, I understand that God might be superimposing his agenda over mine. And maybe that ill-timed phone call will turn out to be an opportunity to encourage the person on the other end of the line. I do have to say yes or no to all the opportunities and needs that my mail, the newspaper and the TV present to me. And I do have to decide whether or not to take on another speaking responsibility. But my yes is in submission to God’s yes. And if God doesn’t want me to take on something, that’s fine. My truck can only haul so much.

Unloading the truck

There’s a statue in front of the RCA building in New York City. It’s a massively proportioned, magnificently muscled Atlas with the world resting on his shoulders. Yet as powerfully built as he is, he is straining under the weight, barely able to stand.

Across the street in St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a little shrine of the boy Jesus. It’s almost hidden by the altar. Jesus appears to be no more than eight or nine years old. And yet, as little and as frail as he appears, he is holding the world in one hand! We have to decide whether we will try to be like Atlas or will trust Jesus to carry the cares of our world. We can ask, “Lord, what are you already doing today that I can participate in?” Or we can continue to load up our lives with cubic yard after cubic yard of responsibilities which are too massive for us to bear. By the way, my friend Dan did manage to get his truck over the pass to his new home. Of course, in order to do it, he had to leave a few things behind. But that’s okay. A lot of it didn’t really belong to him anyway.

—Dennis Anderson