The Business of Busyness: Prioritising and Posterioritising

Last week I received an email which, after a long, kind preamble saying “sorry to bother you, I know you must be incredibly busy…” etc, asked if I would pray for something that is going on in the author’s life. It made me wonder… and a quick word-search for ‘busy’ in my emails verified what I suspected. I get a lot of emails with preambles like that.

The phrase “I know how busy you are…” tends to evoke two reactions in me, often in quick succession.

Firstly, pride. I think “Yes, I am busy. I’m glad you noticed!” And then given we’ve agreed on the premise of my packed schedule, whenever I agree to do whatever favour they are asking of me, I know I’ll look like the most generous person on earth.

But that initial reaction is usually swiftly followed by a second one, guilt. What is is that I have projected about myself that means people think the way to get me to do something is through flattery? Or do I really give off the impression through the things I say and the way I act, that I really might be too busy to help a friend? Too busy to pray? I mean, if that’s the case, I need to go and delete the word ‘Pastor’ from my social media profile right away…

Speaking of social media, I recently read this tweet from Andy Crouch:

As usual, this is spot on! Saying ‘no’ is a necessary practice to cultivate, in order to say ‘yes’ to a greater value or vision for life.

The management consultant Peter Drucker used to say that it is not good enough to simply set priorities; we must also set ‘posteriorities’. Not just things that come at the top of our list but also at the bottom. Things we decide not to do for the sake of doing the things we ought to, or truly want to, do.

I love that. And it’s a question I ask myself often. In order to prioritise one thing, what am I going to have to posterioritise? In order to say ‘yes’ to what God is asking of me, what am I going to have to say ‘no’ to?

Resisting busyness is a tricky business. It requires hard work, good boundaries, and a regular checking of our hearts. On the one hand, the person who resists busyness may be misunderstood by others who consider them lazy. On the other hand, I have no doubt that some have latched onto the ‘ruthless elimination of hurry’ principle not because they’re genuinely busy and know they ought not to be, but because they want a theological justification for a slower-paced life! We need to know our own temptations, and work through them honestly, and whilst the temptation to complexify our lives may be a real one for many (most?) of us, there is an equal an opposite temptation to opt for an easy life.

As always, Jesus is a supreme example of this – and if you’re interested, you may want to check out this old talk I gave on Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus worked hard. He rushed around, worked late into the evening, and got tired. But at the same time, he didn’t do everything that was asked of him. On occasions, crowds sought him out, and he moved on to a different village. I’m sure there were moments when people misunderstood him, talked about him behind his back and complained “why didn’t Jesus stay in my village? Why didn’t he meet my needs instead of moving on?” I’m sure there were opportunities where people tried to guilt trip him or impose their agenda on him, but whilst remaining incredibly servant-hearted, Jesus also remained focussed. He knew that to prioritise the Kingdom of God he had to posterioritise other competing Kingdoms.

In his brilliant book Crazy Busy, (which has the added bonus of being very short, giving little excuse for genuinely busy people) Kevin DeYoung puts it like this:

Jesus didn’t do it all. Jesus didn’t meet every need. He left people waiting in line to be healed. He left one town to preach in another. He hid away to pray. He got tired. He never interacted with the vast majority of people on the planet. He spent thirty years in training and only three years in ministry. He did not try to do it all. And yet he did everything God asked him to do.

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

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