Living an Unhurried Life

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Not long after moving to Chicago, I called a wise friend to ask for some spiritual direction. I described the pace at which things tend to move in my current setting. I told him about the rhythms of our family life and about the present condition of my heart, as best I could discern it. What did I need to do, I asked him, to be spiritually healthy?

Long pause.

“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” he said at last. Another long pause.

Okay, I’ve written that one down,” I told him, a little impatiently.

“That’s a good one. Now what else is there?” I had many things to do, and this was a long-distance conversation, so I was anxious to cram as many units of spiritual wisdom into the least amount of time possible.

Another long pause.

“There is nothing else,” he said.

He is the wisest spiritual mentor I have known. And while he doesn’t know every detail about every grain of sin in my life, he knows quite a bit. And from an immense quiver of spiritual sagacity, he drew only one arrow. “There is nothing else, ” he said. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

Imagine for a moment that someone gave you this prescription, with the warning that your life depends on it. Consider the possibility that perhaps your life does depend on it. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. Hurry can destroy our souls. Hurry can keep us from living well. As Car Jung wrote, “Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil.”

Again and again, as we pursue spiritual life, we must do battle with hurry. For many of us the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.

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Meyer Friedman defines hurry sickness as “above all, a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time, frequently in the face of opposition, real or imagined, from other persons.” Hurry will keep us consumed by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” as Jesus put it, and prevent his way from taking root in our hearts.

Jesus was quite aware of this kind of problem in his day. He repeatedly withdrew from crowds and activities. He taught his followers to do likewise. When the disciples returned, their adrenaline pumping, from a busy time of ministry, Jesus told them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Mark explains that “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” That could be the motto for some people today. Some people imagine this to be a good thing that perhaps God will reward one day: “What a life you had! You were even too busy to eat. Well done!”.

But Mark did not mean this statement as a commendation. Jesus urged his disciples to take time out. Following Jesus cannot be done at a sprint. If we want to follow someone, we can’t go faster than the one who is leading.

We must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. This does not mean we will never be busy. Jesus often had much to do, but he never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between him and his Father. He never did it in a way that interfered with his ability to give love when love was called for. He observed a regular practice of withdrawing from activity for the sake of solitude and prayer. Jesus was often busy, but never hurried.

Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went to the wilderness for an extended period of fasting and prayer. He also went into solitude when he heard of the death of John the Baptist, when he was going to choose his disciples, after he had been involved in healing a leper, and after his followers had engaged in ministry. This pattern continued into the final days of his life, when again he withdrew into the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane to pray. He ended his ministry, as he began it, with the practice of solitude.

Jesus taught his followers to do the same. And as he said to them, “Come away to a deserted place,” he says to us still. Wise followers of Christ’s way have always understood the necessity and benefit of solitude. It is, to quote an old phrase, the “furnace of transformation.” What makes solitude so important? Solitude is the one place where we can gain freedom from the forces of society that will otherwise relentlessly mold us.

Solitude requires relentless perseverance. I find that unless I pull my calendar out and write down well in advance the times when I am committed to times of solitude, it won’t happen.

I find it helpful to think about solitude in two categories. We need brief periods of solitude on a regular basis — preferably each day, even at intervals during the day. But we also need, at great intervals, extended periods of solitude — half a day, a day, or a few days. I try to withdraw for a day once a month or so, and sometime during the year I try to have a retreat for a couple of days. Retreat centers designed for such experiences are becoming more and more common, although any place where you can be undisturbed suffices.

There are too many people who spend their days going from one task to another. It is time to enter training for another way to live. We must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives.

Excerpt from The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg

Copyright © 1997, 2002 by John Ortberg, published by Zondervan, used with permission.

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