A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

The True Cost of Overcommitment

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If, as my mother is fond of saying, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness, mine is fairly classically American: My vision is grand, and I’ve got a lot of energy and efficiency. (If you identify with this, Dave Harvey’s book Rescuing Ambition
has a lot of great thoughts about what God can do through our big dreams!)

Add to this my passionate spiritual drive to Make a Difference and my geographical location teeming with need, and…I tend to chronically struggle with overcommitment. Not the kind where you’re committing to things you can’t do; more the kind where you’re running around with your arms pinwheeling and your hair on fire. Or your knuckles graze the ground in fatigue in the evenings. Historically this has found me at various levels of holistic burnout.

Slowly God’s been peeling back other layers of this well-meaning habit’s effect on my family—even though a lot of my commitments are even for their sake, really trying to love them well. This crested last year, when my husband and I were on the path to adopting our fifth. As I wrote in this post, we wanted to live a God-sized life. Not a stupid life, of course (!). But one that could only be explained by Him; one that left us trusting not in what we could handle, but in the size of our God and His dreams for us.

Yet as we walked through those doors—prayerfully, carefully—it became apparent to my husband (took me a little longer) that we were consistently limited on time, resources, and energy. And a fifth child, however heroic and meaningful and gospel-centered that ministry would be—and is for so many families!—living life to the limits of our margin could have untold effects on our home. So the act of faith we chose was, instead, that God had this plan for some other blessed family.

Yeah, it’s easy to look at the fun or unnecessary aspects of our life and think, I could just do less of that if I took on this one wonderful thing. And maybe you’re the kind of person who could! But in my own life, when I’m honest, that’s not where the toll is subtracted from. It’s subtracted from my sunny mood with my kids, my graciousness, my diligence and vigilance in their lives, my energy to love on friends or my husband. It means that I win less of my children’s hearts, which is critical when it comes to gaining passport into their lives  (this related blog post on intentional Christian parents’ blindspots is highly recommended, and helped me understand this concept).

Basically, it means that I love less well and with less joy.

My husband, quite gently and with much wisdom and compassion, put it this way: “I want you to know that sometimes your overcommitment affects how the Gospel is played out in our home.”

Ouch. But Yep. It’s a version of Luke 9:25: For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?

Matt Perman, author of the crackerjack new book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, aptly conveys,

Efficiency exists so that you can serve others better, not sacrifice them to efficiency. ….True productivity is not first about efficiency–doing things right and doing them quickly–but effectiveness–doing the right things. (p. 49)

And I love this:

It is easy to unwittingly fall into the trap of basing our day-to-day peace of mind on our productivity…This is a law-based approach to the Christian live. Instead, we are to act from peace, not for peace. Ultimate peace of mind comes through faith… (p. 122, boldface added)

Truth is, overcommitment also erodes a rich inner life, walking with God (and simply listening rather than always talking or learning in my personal times with Him). You’ve probably experienced that when you go on vacation, it takes a few days to unwind before you can really enjoy the vacation. For me, time with God can be like that. It’s not “Here’s your thirty minutes, Lord. Now go! Talk to me!” I need time to listen, converse, think. And this time is when He feeds my soul. It allows me something nourishing to give others, rather than the love-equivalent of microwaving my leftovers for them.

Having enough time to love well generally means loving not just broadly, but deeply. Hurry, even when it is thorough, can rob me–and my relationships–of so much joy in each other, and a lot more.

I don’t want to let my schedule, my efficiency, steal some of Christ being worked out in my home.

So–I’d love your comments on this. Can I hear your thoughts on overcommitment?

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post, been waiting for something that sort of ‘rubs the salt in the wound’ for me, ouch. I have been struggling with the idea of taking on lots of private architectural work in my free time with the plan of supplement my income and give to friends like helping a pastor friend pay for his rent. Now as i have learnt over time and from your blog post, some times the intention for overcommitment is good but the cost is immense, at times even colossal as i will explain. One, the work accumulates due to its secondary nature and i end up not finishing on time, thus loosing trust of the clients, not to mention the demotivation i get when clients don’t pay. Second it ‘encroaches’ on my saturday evenings when am supposed to be preparing for sunday school teaching. Third, it drains a lot of energy from me that at times i hardly get time to pay attention to the simple things that matter the most, like listening in on mum over the weekends when she is bothered by something or going over the same bible story several times with my two and half year old nephew. Lastly, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”-Mathew 11:30, John Piper explains this verse using two christian life styles, one who wakes up in the morning and carries a huge bag of his burdens for the day and toils to please God and another who simply acknowledges his need for a helper and asks God to help him carry his day’s burden. I choose the former.

    • Love that ending thought, Brian! Such a subtle, and yet eternal, difference between the two–i.e. living under law or under grace. Thanks so much for your words.

  2. Elaine Viergever

    May 20, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Janel, it is good to be reading your blog! I used to love your newsletters! It is so easy to become overcommited, and you are right that there is not time to just sit and listen to God! That has been so hard for me most of my life because I am so task-oriented! With over-commitment, everything that really matters suffers–relationship with children and with God! Thanks for sharing on this to cause me to examine my time with God.

  3. Elaine, it’s so great to hear from you! I am, as you can tell, also incredibly task-oriented (even in my relationships sometimes–!). Grateful for your encouragement and your thoughts!

  4. Oh friend! We’ve been walking this road for the past few months. I’m saying no to things for similar reasons and walking away can be so very hard. When I am forced to sit it seems so small, what I’ve been given, these moments so mundane and unimportant. It is easy to say that motherhood is the most important job but to truly exist in each of those moments takes constant “walking with the Spirit”. Our choices have been hard but they have been directed by God so that we live these moments with our children and those closest to us. We are capable of many noble and worthwhile things but God’s values are often radically different than ours. Love you from the midwest dear friend! -Sunday

    • Sunday, I so identify with “When I am forced to sit it seems so small”–and was just thinking through that concept again that I (errantly) thought I’d been effectively taught about four years ago :). You’re right. God’s values are often radically different. Thanks so much for your perspective and warm words!!

  5. wyominggirlcoastiewife

    June 10, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    Hopped over here from We are THAT family–and this hit me hard! I’ve been living the life of overcommitment for the past year for much of the same reasons as you! (pretty sure we’d be fabulous friends as I’m a busy, freelancing, volunteering, to-much-good-on-my-plate mom too) God has really been convicting me about it lately–how I’ve been focusing so much on “useless things” and striving really for my own selfish pursuits, all neatly packaged up in loving my family and serving Him. I’m trying hard to take steps back into balance this summer, but boy is it a lot harder than it seems like it should be! Thank you for the encouragement that I’m not alone, and the reminder that it’s worth it to fight for that balance!

    • Man, it does sound like we’d be great friends! I feel like I’m constantly fighting this temptation even now, too. My husband is great to hold me accountable, but sometimes my appetite for “significance” is a little more ravenous than I’d like to admit. Thanks for encouraging me today, too, and reminding me of truth I continually need.

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