September 19, 2020

The Art Of Doing Nothing

Ok, I suppose 25 inches of snow in a week’s time will get some to slow down. Here in Oklahoma, it will get us to burrow underground not to be awakened until springtime. (And spring in Oklahoma usually starts in about mid-February, so I suppose it will be a short nap.) I wish I could just take a snow day. But I have two big edit projects to be completed. And I am about a month behind in my emails. And the piles of papers and books I keep telling myself I will put away has grown to where the FAA wants me to light it for incoming flights.

Of course there is that little web site called InternetMonk. Not to say that this site takes much of my time, unless you count the fact that I am writing this at midnight after working on other stuff since early morning. Being busy just comes naturally to me, I guess.

And it’s that natural me that gets in the way of the me that God wants me to be. So what do I do? It goes against so much of how I have been raised—by my parents, by the church, by society—to do nothing. Or to even do very little. I have been brought up to believe I am to “do.” Do more, and do it more often.

And isn’t that how the Christian life is presented to us?

  • Get serious with the Lord.
  • Get out and win souls for the Lord.
  • Read your Bible and pray more than you already are, because it’s not enough.
  • Be at church whenever the doors are open.
  • Did I mention small groups?

And then there is Sunday, which we mistakenly call the Sabbath. Whatever it is, we make it the busiest day of the week.

Lazy? Who has time to be lazy? Of course, there are the verses that speak to laziness. By my count, there are fourteen such verses in Proverbs alone, starting with “Go to the ant, you sluggard!” So, can it actually be right to think that laziness is a way to the Lord?

In Nikos Kazantzakis’s great novel Saint Francis, Francis of Assisi is lying sick and is attended by a wild-haired young man whom Francis calls Leo. Francis asks Leo how he came to find God.

“My route, Sior Francis—and don’t be surprised when you hear it—my route when I set out to find God … was  … laziness. Yes, laziness. If I wasn’t lazy, I would have gone the way of respectable, upstanding people. Like everyone else I would have studied a trade—cabinetmaker, weaver, mason—and opened a shop; I would have worked all day long, and where then would I have found time to search for God? I might as well have been looking for a needle in a haystack: that’s what I would have said to myself. All my mind and thoughts would have been occupied with how to earn my living, feed my children, how to keep the upper hand over my wife. With such worries, curse them, how could I have had the time, or the inclination, or the pure heart needed to think about the Almighty?

“But by the grace of God I was born lazy. To work, get married, have children, and make problems for myself were all too much trouble. I simply sat in the sun during winter and in the shade during summer, while at night, stretched out on my back on the roof of my house, I watched the moon and the stars. And when you watch the moon and the stars how can you expect your mind not to dwell on God? I couldn’t sleep anymore. Who made all that? I asked myself. And why? … Who made me, and why? Where can I find God so that I may ask him? … Piety requires laziness, you know. It requires leisure—and don’t listen to what others say. The laborer who lives from hand to mouth returns home each night exhausted and famished. He assaults his dinner, gobbles up his food lickety-split, then quarrels with his wife, beats his children without rhyme or reason simply because he’s tired and irritated, and afterward clenches his fist and sleeps. Waking up for a moment he finds his wife at his side, couples with her, clenches his fists once more, and plunges back into sleep … Where can he find time for God? But the man who is without work, children, and wife thinks about God, at first just out of curiosity, but later with anguish. Do not shake your head, Sior Francis. You asked and I answered. Forgive me.”

The route to God is laziness. That goes against everything I—and I daresay you—have ever learned. You can find all sorts of books and seminars on time management, but whoever heard of going to a conference to learn how to waste time? Where is the section on “learning to be a lie-about” at your local Borders and Noble? And since when did your pastor, or you if you are a pastor, preach about the virtues of laziness?

Why don’t you read to the end before you start your flame-thrower in the comment section. I’m almost done.

I would dismiss this whole idea and would have never brought it up except for a couple of things. First of all, look at the life of Jesus. By all appearances he was not a workaholic. The hardest work we see him doing, once his “ministry period” had begun, is walking. Yes, one of those occasions was walking on water, which is most likely harder than walking on dirt, but it is walking nonetheless. Jesus seemed to place a much higher priority on just hanging with his disciples. See the Mary v. Martha sibling show.

Second, what I have just said to you—that laziness is a route to knowing God—is so shocking to you that it actually has you thinking. If I had written about how we need to be about the business of the Kingdom because it’s the last days, you would have quit reading halfway through. But because this goes against everything you know, you are now thinking about it. It has your attention—and that is 90 percent of the battle. God so often does things upside-down by our accounts to get us to look his way.

Finally, I think for some of us, ok, maybe most of us, there is a bit of relief in the idea that it is ok to be lazy now and then. That perhaps taking a Sunday to stay at home and do the crossword puzzle, or to not do your Bible study one morning but instead grab a good book and head to your favorite coffee shop, or to walk in the shoes of St. Peter and just go fishing for the day is a good idea. Could you do it? If not, what keeps you back? Are you too busy to be lazy?


  1. Hey Jeff: this is so good. To me, the substance of your article is so good…but, isn’t there another word that could be used than “lazy”? I can’t think of another one right now but lazy seems to imply irresponsibility in the face of a needed action. Now don’t ask me to define “needed” right now either, I’m still on my first cup of coffee. I just don’t see “lazy” in your last paragraph. I see the word “sabbath” in what you wrote, especially the last paragraph, good stuff. Maybe sabbath is the word for me instead.

  2. I like this one so much, I’m leaving work right now! 😀

    It’s very, very, very (ad infinitum) difficult to hear anyone speaking to you, much less listen to that person, while you are trying to do something else at the same time. We have to stop what we are doing, look at that person, and pay attention. Americans in general are too addicted to busy-ness, and that has spilled over into the church. Remember — “BE STILL and know that I am God.”

  3. As a corrective to “the protestant work ethic” (and I was raised RC, so it’s just as much there), this is a great post. It’s an extreme, even hyperbole filled position, but it’s good to hear in the cacophony we call the evangelical circus. Programs, programs, get yer red hot programs…….

    There is a place for rest, and a place for working your buns off. Wise folk know the diff.


    • Does the protestant work ethic need correcting?

      The term was coined by German sociologist Max Weber, and he was talking about a balanced and healthy kind of productive vigor. He wasn’t talking about contemporary busy-ness. It is a while since I read “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” but I’m pretty sure that Weber would say that leisure is worth having.

      • I’ve never understood the “protestent” part of the work ethic. How do we explain the Japanese?

        • Good point.

          When Weber was writing, Japan wasn’t as respected as it is now, though it should have been. Japan beat Russia in an industrial war the same year Weber’s book came out.

          Today, the business school explanation says that the Japanese learned their work habits from Edwards Deming.

      • Thanks, Andy. I’m not a “business” guy, and my use of the term is probably skewed and not historically accurate. I use it in the vernacular (and maybe overly stereotypic) sense one get’s in many churches that doing, doing, doing is the measure of “bearing fruit” or having a blessed ministry, or seeing GOD”s favor. The road to success is hard work, and if you want GREATER success, well then, pony up the increase in harder church efforts. That’s my frame of reference for the comment. And as I said, I’m sure this could happen in a WIDE variety of churches , both sides of the Tiber.

    • lets call it practicing the precents.

  4. There is a popular book, How to Have a Mary Heart in a Martha World by Joanna Weaver, but I think in some church circles, a more popular title would be How to Have a Mary Heart with a Martha Work Ethic.

    • That.’s good, Mr. Poet! That is how we would rename it, isn’t it!

      I know Joanna. She is a good woman, and she seems to me to be resting at the feet of Jesus in spite of all that goes on around her.

  5. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    As someone who just intentionally overslept by a couple of hours… I approve this message 🙂

  6. This post reminded me of Moltmann’s book “Theology of Play”

  7. On Sunday’s I’m at the church at 6:15 to help the pastor run bulletins and prayer list, then we practice our songs for guitar for our 8:15 service. Then eat a small something, then attempt to teach SS to 3 or 4 bored kids, then usually stick around for the 11:00 service, go home and veg the rest of the day. I don’t plan any work or tasks on Sunday after the morning stuff. No grass mowing, no car washing, no going out to eat. Maybe a book, a willing cats ears to scratch and rest.

  8. Jeff’s post reminds me of an evening meal I once had in Paris. My wife and I rushed in to a small cafe to have a meal so we would have enough energy for our next activity. The cafe was crowded so they put us at a group table. At the table an older local Frenchman shared how he valued the relaxing time of fellowship and dining each evening. He said “it” was a beautiful thing.

    It was hard to sit patiently and listen to such ridiculous conversation when there is so much to see and do.

  9. Actually, I first learned about this when my children were pre-schoolers. A psychologist came to talk to the parents, and his emphasis was on making sure our children had, what he called “stew around time”–that is, time with nothing planned. It was so freeing; I never again felt like we had to fill up their time, or keep up with our friends’ kids activities, etc.
    Plus, it freed me to do that; I learned over time, to just not be busy–for if I was busy, how can I hear what God had to say. I kept TV and radio off, played music occasionally (my kids still hold that against me, that I didn’t play enough music for them, and I think they are possibly correct on that score) and, to this day, I remind my children that there’s too much ‘noise’ in our world. I tried o preach and practice: “be still, and know that I am God.” Psa. 46:10 Boy, do the people at church, small group, sunday school, bible study, etc., think I’m ‘lazy’ to use your term…but, honestly, I believe I am busy and doing and learning what and where God wants me to be and do.
    Just about everyone who comes into our home likes and comments on my framed saying: Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God — Ralph Waldo Emerson
    Yes, that is my daily reminder.
    And, yes, imonk helps this immensely:) thank you once again, all of you for your time and efforts!

  10. Oh good, so I am not a failure for being a college graduate with no job–and having had one but quit because it was taking its toll on me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 60 hours a week at less than minimum wage and no overtime…sure, money is money, but God is God and I couldn’t stand clenching my fist while I slept anymore. I like looking at the stars. I will work when it is time to work; I will go where the Spirit leads. I am a much happier servant volunteering to make sack lunches for the poor, elderly, and homeless twice a week than I am mucking stalls for peanuts. Thank you for this post, Jeff.

  11. Good post, if with a little hyperbole to make the point. Seriously though, I have not once heard a sermon simply on the need for and benefit of rest in the life of faith. Not one.

    Rest gets occasional mention as a break from the real work, but that’s about it. When we have a society that’s chronically overscheduled, overworked and overstressed, I think the idea of rest as a good in itself and as a means of pleasing and finding God is desperately needed.

    I’ve lived in an eastern culture and can tell you that there’s a marked difference in ideas about rest and what constitutes laziness, and in my experience it’s much healthier and more in line with what’s in the Bible than what I’ve seen in American culture.

  12. From Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.”

    Relax, Jeff. Chill out.

  13. Doesn’t the Lord say “I was found by those that did not seek me?”

  14. Interesting post. However, I have to disagree with the comment about Jesus. As the son of a skilled craftsman he would have grown up doing the same laborious building and construction work as Joseph, and was likely the main source of support of his family between the time that Joseph died and Jesus’ ministry began. It seems much more plausible that Jesus was a very hard worker. However, your point about his ministry does deserve mention: if he was a hard worker before becoming an itinerant prophet-preacher, it would have made the shift in vocation seem even more dramatic.

    We don’t know how often Jesus was preaching or teaching, but keep in mind they didn’t have PA systems back then: teaching day in and day out while shouting loudly enough to be heard in open public places was probably quite exhausting! But I think it’s clear that regardless, Jesus knew the value of taking a break and resting, too.

  15. That cartoon is great! Thanks for making me laugh out loud. And the post hits the American church nail right on its busy little head.

  16. I, too, approve this message. There is nothing better than coming home from work, changing into comfy clothes, lying on my bed and doing nothing for at least 30 minutes.

  17. great! I had been stressing over a writing project so much that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
    The creative just wasn’t happening, though. Suddenly the thought came to me, “I am waiting.”
    Immediately the Lord’s peace flooded my entire being. Since then, I can get things done. As far as the writing project, the time limit was my own, and I will just have to adjust it to the Lord’s timing.
    It’s a great feeling to let go and really believe that He is in control.

  18. Jeff, I loved the post. I’m an engineer who specializes in efficiency and process improvements. Generally, when people say I’m lazy, I just tell them I’m efficient. 🙂

    True story. I felt led to put together a men’s ministry in our church and invited all the men to let me know what days were good for them. Monday was the majority winner – for everyone including the Sr. Pastor and Youth Pastor. No, Mondays are their days off. I bit my tongue (still have the blood to prove it) and thought, “Sundays are MY day off…”

    Needless to say, I’m in congregational detox or a “spiritual timeout” at the moment. 4 Sunday services since September 2008. It’s time to find community again for me. Just asking God to lead.

  19. Wow, somebody else who knows that Sunday is not the Sabbath. Sometimes it’s nice to feel lazy and not alone.

  20. Ah….validated at last!

  21. Maybe the concept of laziness has more to do with who the work is being done for and whether the work is necessary. I have worked places where there were always people who looked as busy as beavers but never really did anything and those who were more content and less busy who seemed to be there at the end of the day when things came together….not to judge but just an analogy.

  22. poop

  23. pee

  24. i am bob dole