July 5, 2020

Unholy Busyness


Unholy Busyness
by Lisa Dye

Now I am saying this for your own benefit, not to put a restraint on you, but because of what is proper and so that you may be devoted to the Lord without distraction.

— 1 Corinthians 7:35

My mother-in-law is 90 years old, works two part-time jobs, prays daily for all her five generations of people and is busily wading through an ambitious extracurricular bucket list. She’s always been a high-energy person who thrives on activity, but even she has her moments when it is all too much. During those times, she utilizes an earthy expression I’ve changed a bit so as not to offend any reader sensibilities. “I’m like a f–t [natural human gas explosion] in a whirlwind.”

Let that settle on you for just a few seconds and tell me if it does not aptly describe the way an overly busy life dissipates not only our effectiveness in practical ways, but our spiritual focus and peace as well. Dissipation is an old-fashioned term for a very contemporary and increasingly common plight.

When I used to think of dissipation, I thought of drunkenness … probably because one of the first Scripture verses I memorized from the New American Standard Bible I used as a young Christian was Ephesians 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” As I’ve grown older, the definition has broadened for me.

The dictionary defines dissipation as “a wasteful expenditure or consumption.” Dissipation is also a science term … something to do with thermodynamic irreversible processes in which energy is transferred from one form to a lesser final form. At any rate, the idea is that dissipation results in weakening powers and concentrations, deviations from focus and effectiveness. Human dissipation could be caused by alcohol or drugs or sex … the things we expect to dissipate us … or it could be caused by something that blindsides us by its seeming worthiness. We don’t expect to be dissipated by the activities of family life or honorable work with which we care for our people or even the practices of our faith. Yet, we may experience as many dissipating effects from what we consider our virtues as from what we consider our vices. John Wesley expressed this thought in one of his sermons when he wrote, “A man may be as much dissipated from God by the study of mathematics or astronomy, as by fondness for cards or hounds.”

Although I’m not particularly drawn to cards or hounds, or even mathematics and astronomy, I’ve been noticing that the daily morning times I spend sitting with the Lord and which I have always considered inviolable are more frequently getting shortened or postponed to evening. The margins of time I have always kept in order to finish a project or buy a birthday present have decreased until their status is usually last minute or late. My desk is a mess. My phone is filled with unanswered text messages and emails. I stay up too late. I wake up tired and I always feel my people are unsatisfied with how much of me they get.

Don’t ask me how this has happened because I am still in the process of trying to figure it out. My nest is emptying and I don’t have the day-to-day loads of laundry and dishes and the chaos of a houseful of children. But somehow I am busier with grown children and work … and more unfocused than at any time in the history of my life. I really hate saying it, but I am in danger of becoming a dissipated woman.

Father Jacque Philippe has this to say in his book Time for God: “Time is not always the real problem. The real problem is knowing what really matters in life.” He points out that we make time to eat and do other things we consider important. The neglect of time with God is a crisis born from failing to see it as a crucial relationship. This neglect wastes our efforts and energies and scatters us to the far winds.

I look around me and see this problem nearly everywhere. We are dissipated people raising dissipated families, working in dissipated communities, worshipping in dissipated churches and living in dissipated countries. Our default is to put the blame on culture or economics or politics, the outward circumstances and influences of our lives. That is certainly where the many problems of dissipation manifest, but it is essentially a spiritual problem of leaving enclosure with Christ.

Richard Foster writes in his book, Freedom of Simplicity, “What will set us free from this bondage to the ever-spiraling demands that are placed upon us? The answer is found in the grace of Christian simplicity. This virtue, once worked into our lives, will unify the demands of our existence; it will prune and trim gently and in the right places, bringing a liberty of soul that will eliminate constant reversions to ourselves.”

The classic picture of unholy busyness versus Christian simplicity in Scripture is that of Lazarus’s household where sister Martha got herself worked into an anxious fit over the details of her dinner party while sister Mary sat oblivious and listening to Jesus talk (see Luke 10:38-42). Being a Martha by nature, I used to get annoyed when reading this story. Why was she the bad one? How does Jesus, or anyone else, think stuff gets done in this world, if not by people who will roll up their sleeves and do it? Slowly, I have come to see that Martha was not being portrayed as the bad sister. She was, however, distracted in a way that Mary was not and Jesus was reminding her of the point of her serving … relationship to Him. He didn’t say, “Stop with the dinner parties, already.” He obviously enjoyed the fruits of her labor and stayed regularly at her house. He was lovingly telling her to simplify, to come in and sit down and be a part of the conversation.

Jesus addressed the problem of unholy busyness elsewhere too. We like to think of the story of the rich young ruler as a commentary on wealth being a snare in spiritual life. True, wealth can result in dissipation, but the ruler was as hindered by all his working at righteousness as he was by his wealth. He wasn’t interested in being saved, but rather in saving himself by trying to fulfill all the jots and tittles of the Law.

In his diatribe against the Pharisees for their additions to the Law and their contrivance of a complex legal and religious system, Jesus warns against this very thing. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on the men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). Jesus’ summation of the Law was simple and succinct. Love God. Love your neighbor.

A complex and weighty burden of religious boxes to tick off is at least part of what Luther longed to reform with his five solae. Instead, he managed to tick off the Church, but for a moment let us put aside the divisiveness of the Reformation and think about the simplicity he advocated … Christ, Scripture, Faith, Grace and Glory to God. If we truly lived in that, we might not have as much to argue and we might not get caught in life’s whirlwinds.

St. Therese of Lisieux captured this simplicity with her “little way.” She was convinced that anything she accomplished in life came by loving God and living in union with him and that when she entered eternity, it would be holding onto nothing but him. Thus, even having lived a cloistered life and dying at a young age, she made a mark in the Church and an impact on Christians throughout the world.

St. Teresa of Avila was a more complicated woman who spent considerable time in silent contemplation of God’s presence. It was a difficult struggle and she admits to often being distracted by worldly things and her own vanity, especially as a young woman. Even as she matured in her faith, distraction in prayer was a continuous battle. She wrote much about it in her autobiography. “Sometimes I say to Him: Oh my God, when can my soul be entirely united in Your praise, instead of being distracted and unable to control itself?”

Granted, these examples are of people whose “work” was religious devotion. Some of them may not have had the cares of family or of trying to scratch out a living in the world, but the principle of simplicity is vital for anyone who wants follow Christ. Distraction and busyness are the springboards to turning aside from God in ever-increasing and ever-broadening ways. They are the little foxes that come into spoil the vine (Solomon 2:15). They are the thorns that choke out the good plants (Mark 4:7). They are the essence of what goes awry and precedes dissipation. Whatever distracts us from loving, enjoying and attending to God in the life to which he calls us is the precursor to the wasteful expenditure of ourselves.

Dissipation is a sly infiltrator. It can sneak up and take us without a shot being fired. We wake up one morning out of money, out of time, out of energy, out of hope and out of ideas. We can no longer keep up with life. It’s easy to get in this predicament, but much harder to get out of it. One problem that comes with dissipation is inertia or apathy. We might be so out of gas physically, emotional and spiritually that we don’t care anymore. It’s one reason why periodic examination to determine how much of anything we should have and do in every area of life is essential. We must edit.

Richard Foster recalls a particularly exhausted and busy time of his life years ago. He sat in an airport reading Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion. Suddenly, he was conscious of tears falling on his coat. The moment, though quiet and personal, was life changing. It was the moment he realized he had to learn to say, “No” … no to people, no to possessions, no to more and more work. Sacramental living is selective and purposeful. It is lived at God’s feet, in submission to his will, and to no one else’s. If we let ourselves be spent by the demands of others, no matter how worthy or urgent, we will not be spent by God, who knows all things and who knows us.

Once when I was at a writer’s conference, one of the speakers told us that as writers we needed to develop a habit of sanctified selfishness. On the surface that seems … well … selfish. But writing does not happen in the press and stress of life. The press and stress may be good fodder for what we do write, but it is the quiet alone times that call up worthy words. I have found this to be a true and needful principle of writing that translates to life and to spiritual life as well. It’s not that we are to live self-centered and narcissistic lives, but we are to live protectively of and exclusively for what God calls us to do and who he calls us to be. For that, we need sanctuary. We need Christ. We need to sit awhile and abide in him. We need to discern his will for our talents and energies and days.

Jesus did this in his own life. When his days grew long and the crowds pressed in constantly, he drew away to quiet places to talk to his Father. He invites us to do the same … to come out of the whirlwind. “Come to me. I will give you rest.”


  1. Lisa, beautifully written! You are perhaps the most expressive contributor to this site and a blessing every time I read your meditations, especially THIS one.

    I think I need some real down time because i find my energy leaking from every crease in my body. Everything I do seems to fall short of satisfactory which, in turn, affects my spiritual life. Dissipation…

    • Lisa Dye says

      Thank you, Oscar. I like your expression too … “energy leaking from every crease in my body.” I think that is what I was feeling when I wrote this.

  2. Robert F says

    What you are saying is very important, and something that many of us need to hear.

    But I’m not sure that I like the term “sanctified selfishness” for what is really a kind of discipline, the recognition of our limitations (which are different from person to person), and the regular practice of observing these limitations in our life circumstances (the ability and need to do this will also be different from person to person), which is something we are often loathe to do, because it requires a kind of self-discipline shaped by humility we often lack.

    In addition, when we do undertake such discipline of drawing aside, we are as likely to find these times filled with Gethsemane-like experiences, spiritual struggles that reach into the very core of our being and energy, as of moments of quiet intimacy with God, rest and restoration.

    It’s often noted that Jesus regularly drew aside with his disciples for prayer and quiet, but in those cases where the gospels actually tell us what happened when he did this, we find that he and the disciples were followed into their place and time of retreat by crowds seeking Jesus. We are never told that he turned them aside. In fact, he sometimes ministered to the crowds that pursued him in ways that the apostles resisted, such as at the miraculous feedings.

    Yes, it’s good to draw aside, to recognize our limitations and dependence of God. But if we imagine that we can control or predict what will happen in these times of retreat, then we are in fact practicing a more subtle form of busyness, rather than sourcing ourselves in God and humbly relying on him.

    • Lisa Dye says

      Robert, I agree that “sanctified selfishness” sounds selfish and it would be if our walls were always up never welcoming others into our lives. Still, a certain amount of solitude is necessary and restorative to those who practice it. It is true that we cannot predict how we will be interrupted. Life is just like that, but I have more energy and comfort and practical help to give when I get time in prayer and meditation. So I think the practice of solitude isn’t just beneficial to those who practice it, but to the people of those who practice it. Jesus was eventually followed by the crowds and he ministered in those cases. Nevertheless, he made a point of getting away. In Matthew 14:23, he dismissed the crowd and went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. In Mark 1:35, he got up very early while it was still dark and left the house for a solitary place to pray. He instructs us in Matthew 6:6 to go into our room and close the door and pray.

      You point out that it is a discipline and I think that is the art of figuring out how to have solitude in a way that still allows for care of people … thus the purposeful planning … thus the early rising. Regardless of those efforts, there will be times that others may feel we aren’t giving them enough. This is where I struggle. I hate disappointing people. I know God will multiply my efforts, but I need to remember to stay connected to the vine or I will wither and die. I need to remember God might have five things he wants me to do and not get distracted by the one hundred others might expect and which would dissipate me. It is trying to find a balance and we will never do it perfectly. I think it’s good to talk about it in places like this because we learn from each other and encourage each other as we are doing right now. Thank you for your good and thoughtful comments.

    • I get that “sanctified selfishness” sounds, well, selfish. However, I read that we are to first love God then our neighbors as ourselves. All too often I forget the last two words in that sentence. I am not loving to myself when I forget, or don’t carve out the time to listen to God call me aside for a sabbath rest. I am not loving to myself when I let busyness crowd out the time that he desires to spend with me in study and reflection. I am not loving to myself when I am so tired and spent that I no longer consciously choose to act for another, but rather let myself become a choiceless doormat. That time of selfishness is not just about me, like we typically think. It becomes more about relationship.

    • I truly marvel at Jesus. This is one of the reasons why. His ability to put aside his feelings at the moment (“I need rest”) to respond with compassion to a need. Honestly, I think only Jesus could do the things he did. Seemingly always ready.

      Maybe there’s a false sense that once we’ve become Christian, once we’ve got Him inside us transforming us, that we can do all that he could do, that suddenly we become this Super Christian, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound in order to serve, serve, serve. But after 27 years as a born-again believer…it certainly don’t feel like a Super Christian. Oh, maybe in short bursts, but certainly not to the extent Jesus seemed to always be willing.

      • Robert F says

        You may feel like Super Christian in short bursts, but I never do. I certainly can’t point to myself as someone who even makes convincing gestures in the direction of emulating Jesus. I’m a big failure in the sanctity department.

        But in one of the miracles of feeding, having tried to withdraw to a quiet place for rest and renewal, Jesus and the apostles are followed by a large crowd who have come to hear Jesus’ teaching. After a while, the apostles ask Jesus to send the people who’ve gathered home so they can get something to eat.

        Jesus tells them, “You feed them.”

        When they protest that they cannot, having only brought a few fish and loaves of bread for themselves, he tells them to gather what they can, and when they have, he blesses it and gives it to THEM to pass on to the multitude.

        Double whammy: the quiet withdrawal to a place of rest is scuttled, and then Jesus asks the apostles to give up the food they have brought for themselves as part of their plan for rest, refreshment and renewal.

      • Robert F says

        Yes, I know that some interpreters take this story as a narrative enactment of how the Eucharist is channeled through the apostles to the laity, and I don’t deny that this may be so, but I also believe the story should be taken at face value as meant for a wider range of Christians as well. After all, though they may comprise a special priesthood within the priesthood of all believers, the apostles were merely human beings as well, like you and me, Rick Ro., and no more inclined to be super Christians than us.

  3. “unholy busyness.” I like that, Lisa! And your entire post is beautiful and true. Thank you!

  4. Lisa, all I can say, is “When is the book coming out?” Thanks for sharing this convicting, compelling piece…

    • Lee, thank you. I was preaching to myself on that one especially, but I’m always glad if it helps someone else too.

  5. Beautiful! I really needed to hear all of this, especially “we are to live protectively of and exclusively for what God calls us to do and who he calls us to be.”

  6. Dan Crawford says

    Thank you.

  7. Thanks for the wonderful meditation, Lisa. This is something that I desperately need to learn, difficult though that is.

    I was thinking about this topic in the context of Elijah hiding in a cave while on the run from Jezebel (I Kings). Confronted by God, Elijah complains about the injustice of something like this happening to one who has been so ZEALOUS for God. Then, of course, when God “shows up” it’s not in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the gentle whisper. It’s hard to hear that whisper amidst the busyness and dissipation of our frantic daily lives.

  8. I suppose my struggle lately has been figuring out where dissipation ends and sloth begins…and vice versa.

    I like how you put this. Maybe laziness and busyness are just two sides of the same coin, both ultimately rejections of the rest we have in Christ for a false hope of satisfaction. We either turn from our Sabbath rest in Jesus to the false promise of a worldly rest, or distract ourselves from Jesus’ call with the flurries of activity in our lives.

    • As the consummate procrastinator, I hear ya, Jacob. My need for rest often drifts into slothfulness. Good insight.

      • Robert F says

        I’m a big procrastinator, too. Maybe we could start an iMonk chapter of Procrastinators Anonymous:

        Hi, I’m Robert, and I’m a procrastinator.

        • Rick Ro. says

          Yes, let’s start that! Tomorrow, of course…

          • Robert F says


            I knew there was a joke in there somewhere, but I couldn’t get to it!

            Thanks, Rick Ro. I needed a good laugh.

    • Great point, Jacob. I am guilty of busying myself with one thing so as to put off doing another. Writers are famous for sharpening pencils.

  9. Excellent piece, Lisa. Sometimes when an article really stands out, I look to see what “category” they’ve been labeled. “Spiritual transformation” seems to fit perfectly!

    —> “Jesus did this in his own life. When his days grew long and the crowds pressed in constantly, he drew away to quiet places to talk to his Father.”

    However – and this is what marvels me about Jesus and what I believe truly sets him apart from us – we are told that even when he wanted to get away, the crowds followed, and he had compassion upon them and met with and ministered to them. I truly marvel at Christ’s obedience to the need at the moment. I could never do it, and often I don’t do it. I need my down time, my own time…

    • (I see that Robert F brought this up in an earlier comment. Good comments under that thread.)

  10. I blame the internet. Blogs are majorly dissipatory. None of us should be here.

    • I have to (partially) agree with you there. It’s true that blogs can be thought-provoking and helpful; this blog and the issues it has raised has contributed greatly to the shaping of my views on theology and the church (even though I’ve only been commenting for a few weeks, I have been a daily reader for over a year). But it gets to the point with me where, instead of reading blogs to get something out of them, I just read for entertainment, mindlessly clicking on various blog links simply to fill up space in my life.

  11. Christiane says

    thanks, LISA, your post is a blessing

    I knew there had to be something better out there for focusing than making up a pot of coffee and another to-do list, the stand-by’s of super-busy-ness in our crazy world.

    the still waters await us, if we will let ourselves be led . . . small steps, small steps
    . . . or if we can manage nothing more, just falling forward toward the direction of the ‘pure and endless light’ 🙂

  12. Patrick Kyle says

    This is an important aspect of the Christian life, especially when technology is speeding up the pace of life. I struggle with with the ‘tyranny of the urgent’. This post is an apt reminder. One of the best weapons I have found in my struggle is the word ‘no.’

  13. Beautifully written and right on time, Lisa.
    As someone who is currently being dissipated to death (at least, that’s how it feels), your post has definitely struck a chord in me. And when I’m caught inside the whirlwind — being pressed and crushed on every side by forces that are bigger and badder than I am — I have this bad habit of tightening my grasp on everything in a vain effort to hold it all together, while, at the same time, withdrawing into myself in an unhealthy way. I guess there’s some twisted thing in me that believes that if I let go and open up, then the entire structure of what I consider to be my life will come flying apart all at once. What ends up happening, however, is that chunks of my life get ripped away from me, piece by piece, while I try to hold even tighter to what remains.
    Maybe this collection of stuff I call my life needs to be razed to the ground. Maybe part of me has to be killed in this way before Christ can live in me more fully.
    Whatever needs to happen, I sure do wish it would happen quickly. Being slowly crushed and disassembled one piece at a time is no way to go.

  14. Oh, I know of what you speak! I am right there with you.