By Nathan Hart
For a moment there, we all slowed down. Social events were canceled, workplaces were empty, Google calendars and the Merritt Parkway: clear. During those months last year, I heard people say things like, “Wow, for the first time in a long time, I’m enjoying my garden,” or, “Maybe my family was overscheduled.” I personally took long walks through the neighborhood and noticed the magnificent beauty of flowering trees. And I made some vows that when the pandemic is over, I won’t be as busy as I was before.
But now, my calendar is as jammed as the parkway, and the flowering trees are a blur of color out the passenger window of my car as I rush to my next appointment.
In many ways, the fact that we’re all active again is a good thing. It means economic activity is coming back and much-needed community connection is happening. I’m so grateful! But also, I am finding myself unable to say no to the unending stream of opportunities to get out, do more, meet up, make plans, and race from thing to thing. The work never seems finished.
Didn’t I feel more peaceful and content when I wasn’t this busy? Now I feel frantic and anxious. I sense God speaking to me through Psalm 127: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.” That’s a vivid image. Eating the bread of anxious toil. It’s like the time my family had traveled on a red eye flight from Alaska. We arrived at JFK hungry, tired, and grumpy. (My children call it “hangry.”) When we stopped into an airport shop to grab a snack, a canister of Pringles proved too tempting. We bought one and promptly consumed every chip and crumb in it. “Once you pop you can’t stop!” Around thirty minutes later, we all felt just as hangry as we were before, totally unsatisfied by the empty calories we had excitedly shoved into our mouths.
The Psalmist didn’t know about Pringles, obviously, but I think he had something similar in mind when he used the phrase “eating the bread of anxious toil.” When we rise up early and go to bed late, with jam-packed hours in between, it’s ultimately unsatisfying. Anxious work doesn’t lead to rest but to more anxiety. It’s like consuming empty calories hoping to be filled.
What we really need is something that truly satisfies. How do we get it? God speaks to me through another psalm: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:1). In this psalm, I am reminded that my belly (and my calendar) can be full while my soul longs for more. My soul’s satisfaction is not usually found in long hours but long walks, in prayerful reflection on who God is and what he has done for me.
An unhurried stroll through the neighborhood reveals beautiful trees and flowers that I did not create. Someone else made those. Someone created the deep, rich red of a Japanese Maple tree, the fresh scent of honeysuckles, the tickly feel of recently cut grass between the toes. None of my labors could ever achieve these miracles. They are beyond me.
In the same way, the most important “work” necessary for our souls has already been accomplished by someone else. Jesus did it for us. He “accomplished the work that the Father gave him to do.” (John 17:4). One of the last things he said before dying on the cross was “It is finished.” (John 19:30). What exactly did Jesus finish? He finished the most important job ever, which is to save our souls from the power of sin. Because of his finished work, we can finally experience “rest for our souls.” (Matthew 11:29).
Like gazing upon the miraculous beauty of wildflowers and knowing we did nothing to accomplish it, we can behold the love of God through the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Only there can our souls find rest. Instead of eating the bread of anxious toil, we are satisfied by living water from “a cistern that we did not build” (Deuteronomy 6:11).
What I am saying is that busyness can be a symptom of a deep spiritual problem. When we forget God’s love we anxiously work to be loved, but when we remember God and all that he has accomplished for us, beyond us, and in us, we can take a break; we can rest. We can go for the long walk. We can slow down because our souls are satisfied in the love of God.