Busyness, Revisited

Let’s try this again. Apparently a previous post on this topic was unclear and subject to misinterpretation.

A few years ago I told single dudes at Coram Deo, “If you’re single, you aren’t busy.” Clearly, that was a form of mild hyperbole for the sake of making a point. Some of the single guys took offense. After all, we have many unmarried men at Coram Deo who are med students, law students, etc. They are busting their chops studying and trying to survive the pressure-cooker of post-graduate work. So they wondered: isn’t it true that I’m busy? Answer: it depends on how you understand busyness.

Certainly, there is a sense in which all students – especially grad students – are busy. They are involved in a time-consuming endeavor that requires sustained mental energy and often lots and lots of hard work. But I am arguing for a different understanding of the word busy.

Most of us think of “busyness” strictly in terms of hours devoted to a specific job, role, or task. Instead, think of busyness as the amount of autonomy you have in the use of your time. When you are single, you are in control of your schedule. You have complete freedom to decide what to devote your time to. The decision of when to study, when to sleep, when to eat, is yours and yours alone. But once you enter into marriage, you’re no longer autonomous in your time management. And when you have kids, things really change. Even your “free time” is devoted first and foremost to the other human beings who depend on you. Which means you play a lot less golf and a lot more peek-a-boo. Your kids begin to determine when you sleep and eat – which aids in the process of dying to oneself.

This is one reason why we’re always urging single men at Coram Deo to “take a wife!” Not simply because marriage is good; but because marriage and child-rearing is sanctifying. Marriage kills selfishness. Every man, by nature, is self-absorbed. We are kingdom-builders, and we want to be left alone to pursue whatever “kingdom” we happen to be building (work, hobbies, athletics, financial stability, home improvement). Being a husband and a father is one of God’s primary means to bring us to the end of ourselves so that we truly know what it means to live for others – to lay down our lives so that others might thrive. Sadly, some men never die to themselves and end up abandoning their families once marriage/child-rearing gets in the way of their agenda. But by God’s grace, those with soft hearts toward God learn that “taking up your cross and following” often means dying to little things like free time and hobbies.

I think this is one reason why the qualifications for eldership require that a man “manage his own household well” (1 Tim 3:4). Learning to live for others as a husband and father is a prerequisite to laying down your life for others as you “shepherd the flock of God” (Acts 20:28). The Bible assumes that fatherhood is an important training ground for spiritual leadership. This doesn’t mean single men can’t grow in these same ways and serve as elders; but it does mean that it’s the exception and not the rule.

Recently married dudes and new fathers: your comments welcome on whether what I’m saying is true in your experience.


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  1. When I was single, I worked at a church. At least once a week – usually twice, I would have 12-14 hour days in addition to the other three or four days worked that week. This does not mention the unwritten obligations to maintaining an appropriate profile regarding church involvement as a staff meeting (men’s ministry, recovery groups, etc.). It was easy to fill my days with ministry from daybreak until dark (and more) without even thinking about it.

    BUT, despite all of the labor and effort I was expending for the kingdom, when I got home, my time was mine. Sure, perhaps I had some roommate obligations, such as loading the dishwasher, to handle, but largely I chose how to spend my off hours. TV, Taco Bell, X-Box, etc. My roommate had no reason to expect my fidelity, attention, care, or service beyond what the bond of Christian brotherhood demanded. We had not said vows to each other, nor would we have.

    I agree with what you’re saying. I now serve God in a different position – as a teacher in a Christian school. My time is arguably equally scheduled as it was in church work, once you factor in class time, conferences, discipline, lesson planning, grading, and extracurricular activities. However, I am now married. When I get home, no level of exhaustion or need to blow of steam permits me to ignore the vows or promises I have made to my wife.

    I probably COULD take lightly my responsibilities as a husband, but it wouldn’t last long. I would either have to resume my role as husband or forfeit it.

    While I have not likely filled many more hours of my day, I have filled them better. Moreover, my needs and desires have become more secondary in planning my day since getting married. This makes it easier, when the rare moment of free time presents itself, to consider others when I have work off or my wife is away.

    Certainly, I have much to learn, but marriage has definitely changed the way I use my time.

  2. ok, i am gonna drop a few quick thoughts on this one…

    after spending 5 years in college pursuing an engineering degree while playing a sport for the university, i can confidently say i am not nearly as busy now (married) as i was during those years. From your post you say:

    “When you are single, you are in control of your schedule. You have complete freedom to decide what to devote your time to. The decision of when to study, when to sleep, when to eat, is yours and yours alone.”

    I am not too sure if that is even correct. I dont think i was ever really in control of my schedule during college. To succeed, i had to attend class, labs, study halls, and i had to show up to practices, games, workouts, meetings…etc. That was a no brainer. Sure I could have decided to do none of those things, but that would have resulted in no scholarship, and no degree…resulting in debt that i would have had to carry into a relationship with my current wife.

    I have been married for about 9 months and can agree that the true test of selflessness occurs when you are living (or trying to live) for someone else’s happyness and well-being.

    I think that maybe the statement “if you are single, you are not busy”, should simply be dismissed without regard to any further clarification.


  3. I am not a recently married dude, or a new father, or even a man, for that matter, but this debate has bugged me for a while, so I’d like to weigh in from the
    “for what it’s worth department.” Bob, I agree with your assertion that married life and parenting bring you to the end of yourself in a way that singleness generally doesn’t, and therefore gives the opportunity for some serious sanctification.

    I think the issue with this argument is with the word “busy,” and I respectfully disagree with your use of it. While I understand your point, what you seem to be doing is redefining the word. Language matters, and if you have to define your use of busy with another word (autonomy) for your argument to hold water, I’d submit you should just use autonomy, or the like, instead. When you say single dudes aren’t truly busy, I have an issue with that statement, because I know it to be untrue in many cases. However, if you say single dudes don’t understand what it means to be unselfish and have a wife and family dependent on you every hour of the day, and therefore don’t get the sanctification that comes with it, then I wholeheartedly agree.

    I certainly don’t mean this to be nitpicky, and it may not even be my argument to jump into. But this is how I see this whole thing: words matter, and I think the debate here is more about the use of a word rather than the concept itself.

  4. Fair argument, Suz. I would argue that I’m not redefining the word busy; I’m just bringing out another aspect of its meaning that our current cultural dialogue doesn’t often consider.

  5. I agree with the statement that marriage/children brings added “busyiness”, i.e. less control over one’s schedule, but I disagree that that is always preferable. Isn’t that the same reason why Paul argued FOR singleness – that the extra time & attention of single life allowed him to be devoted to the Lord & his church in a way that married people could not?
    Marriage is good, and does sanctify in a way that singleness does not. But singleness can also be a good and sanctify in a way that marriage does not. And the church should honor and value both.

    I Cor 7: 27-28 “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.”
    I Cor 7: 32-34 “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit.”

  6. I would counter-argue to all the students and single folks out there. . . . . .you are the one who is dictating how busy you are. You are the one choosing to take classes, take the path a certain advisor/professor prescribes, and choosing to overachieve, keep late studying hours, etc. . . . . If you don’t think those things were your choice, than that probably says some things about your personality type(some good things, probably), more than your level of busyness.

    When you are married with kids (I have 4) being a biblical husband/father makes some of those decisions for you. Yes, it was my choice to have as many kids as I have (hopefully more to come), but the level of choice is much lower than a single person (or a married person with no kids). The Bible is laying the decisions clearly before you as a father, is what I’m trying to say.

    So, no one’s calling singleness ‘worse’ or ‘not as important” or anything. I’m grateful for the 1 Corinthians 7 references above. It’s just fundamentally different, and by definition, less busy, because you are making the decisions to be as busy as you are.

    One thing that hasn’t been discussed here is the non-objective nature of schedule/busyness/hours/etc. . . . . Even Bob would admit that his definition is not better or worse than other worthy definitions. So, that enters in as well. In fact, if you’re a single person who is insanely busy, I would guess that you’ll probably be an insanely busy father/mother because that’s your makeup. That’s how you interact with the time given to you in a given week.

  7. I had commented on this post earlier, before Bob’s revision. Just wondering what he’d say about the following scripture reference:

    Deut 24:5 (ESV) “When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken.”

    As far as I can tell there was no corresponding law granting freedom from military service to, e.g., fathers with young children. Would this suggest that newlyweds should be considered “busier” than others according to Bob’s definition, but the same not applying to those in later phases of married life? (Given that there’s pretty much always existed occupations which involve spouses being separated for long periods of time – in addition to the military, you could think of seamen, for example). Could one differentiate thought (‘anxious’ in I Cor 7: 32-34 that Kathy quoted?) versus physical presence and interaction?

  8. Instead of contradicting young men who are seeking to fulfill their calling in work outside of the church, why not encourage them to keep at it for the glory of God? The church is one part of life, not the center of everything. God cares about medicine, law, art and everything else we can lawfully give our hand to.

    Perhaps your admonishment to singles betrays your own distorted view of God’s kingdom, not so much their understanding of responsibility. When asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow, Martin Luther said, “I would plant a tree”. Now there is a man who has his priorities straight.

  9. Wanted to post on the first one, but I got tied up with stuff.

    Most of the time, Bob has to preach to the majority. As a single dude that goes to his church, this stuff hits me square in the nose every time. I am not busy. Granted, I am done with school for now and just have work to worry about. But most of us single dudes really are not busy. Especially in terms of autonomy, as Bob is talking about. For example, last Tuesday, my buddy Micah called me up to see if I wanted to go to Brazenhead. It was that or…watch my new Macgyver boxed set. Married dudes…would I have the option of doing either if I was married with kids? Especially when he called 20 mins before he wanted to meet?

    Like I said, my situation is a bit different than someone who is in med school. But I think as single dudes, we need to honestly ask ourselves: Am I the exception or the rule? Are there exceptions? Yes. Do you fit into one? Probably not. If I am trying to excuse this and say “Well, he’s not talking to me,” then I have missed the point entirely.

  10. Good point, Pat. That’s one of those things that probably changes a lot for married guys. Even if it’s during a time when 100 hours of my week are strictly scheduled (certainly not the case for me now 🙂 ), I can still decide to go out with other single friends or whatever I want at a moments notice during the other 68.
    I think for me that kind of autonomy has often led to an undisciplined, selfish lifestyle that I hope I will be able to change when I get married.

    Aside from that, I wonder if there’s a good test for the gift of singleness there. If you plan ahead well and live as if you didn’t have that autonomy, maybe you have that gift.

  11. I would have to join the ranks of the single guys who took offense at your comment. I’m a doctor–I work an average of 70-80 hours a week, am regularly in the hospital for 30+ hours straight, and get about 4 days a month off. When I come home I eat, study, sleep, and follow-up the results of tests and consults I ordered in the hospital from my laptop. I study so I don’t kill my patients or fail to give them the current standard of care–I can’t choose not to study if I want to remain a physician. I also have a responsibility to my students to teach them well and with accurate information. I’d like to think that qualifies as busy both from the actual definition of the word and your new definition of lack of autonomy. So I guess I’m not completely clear on what your point is. If it’s that I’ll be busier (and/or less selfish) when I’m married compared to now, obviously that’s true. If it’s that other individuals are busier than I am (and/or less selfish) simply by virtue of their being married then I find that quite offensive and I think it’s obvious that that is false. And I know plenty of single young men, some of whom never even went beyond high school who I would consider as busy or busier than I am. But we could all swap tales til we turn blue in the face of married couples we know who are lazy and singles we know who are busy, and vice versa, it doesn’t really prove anything.

    I hope very much that I will marry someday–I’d like nothing better than to “take a wife” as you put it. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as picking up my dry cleaning. I trust that God will provide when He sees fit, and in the meantime will use my singleness for His glory. Your post however, while perhaps not intentionally (and perhaps I am just misreading it–it certainly wouldn’t be the first time) seems to take the self-aggrandizing position of “you kids don’t even know what it’s like to be busy”, and I find that naive and frankly a bit annoying. It seems unnecessarily strife-inducing.

  12. question for those that are offended: are you offended because you think this is false and you want to respect the peer-review process of the internet or are you offended because your pride is hurt and your self-righteousness is being challenged? This is something I asked myself when I first reacted to a similar claim. I found that I had turned ‘busyness’ into an idol. Instead of finding my worth, identity, and purpose in the gospel, I was trusting in an identity I felt I had created and had to sustain with ‘busy’.

  13. Other Chris,

    Your disagreement is fair and well-voiced and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. As you say, we could all swap stories about single and/or married people who are busy or not busy and that wouldn’t really prove anything. As Patrick points out, the post is by nature a generalization and doesn’t say everything that could be said.

    As I wrote, there is a sense in which you are certainly busy as a doctor. There is another sense in which you are not nearly as busy as you will be when you are a doctor with a wife and a family, because you will have even less autonomy then than you do now.

    I ask all commenters please not to turn this into a single vs. married debate. Remember: the statement “If you’re single, you’re not busy,” was “a form of mild hyperbole for the sake of making a point” – the point being what Patrick and Micah have already said. Singleness has a level of autonomy attached to it that marriage does not.

    For those who feel compelled to defend their level of busyness, it’s worth asking: are you finding righteousness in being busy? Micah’s point is well taken. In our culture “being busy” is the source of much worth, value, and identity. If the contention that “you are not as busy as you think” causes you immediately to defend how busy you ARE, it’s worth asking the question what righteousness you are deriving from your busyness.

  14. I find this post to be challenging, and the author is speaking in love. From my perspective as a single woman with a professional career that also entails a demanding schedule at times, God has put on my heart what His priorites are for me. My time is precious to me, but I was obedient to the call to serve in an inner city youth ministry. God has really blessed me and this ministry has brought such joy into my life. How? Because it has brought me closer to Him. There are many challenges in ministry work, and a lot of it is dying to self. I’ve been blessed to work along side many passionate followers of Christ who believe Serving is a big priority in the Christian walk. Classes, bible studies, and church are also priorities, but being servant hearted is a big part of what God calls us to do in our walk.

  15. Just wanted to add a verse from Mark 4 that God laid on my heart just yesterday:

    Listen carefully to what I am saying—and be wary of the shrewd advice that tells you how to get ahead in the world on your own. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity. Stinginess impoverishes.” Mark 4:24-25

  16. Agreed. I am a single guy, and too well I know that I AM THE BIG BOSS! However this does not easily lend itself to humility or gratitude or love… Thanks for your wisdom.

  17. “One thing that hasn’t been discussed here is the non-objective nature of schedule/busyness/hours/etc. . . . . Even Bob would admit that his definition is not better or worse than other worthy definitions.”

    Okay, by this point in the discussion (based especially on the original post and Bob’s reply to Other Chris) it has emerged that Bob’s definition of “busy” bascially means “people who are married.” In that sense, yes, I muse agree: people who are single (i.e. not married) are not busy (i.e. not married).

    “For those who feel compelled to defend their level of busyness, it’s worth asking: are you finding righteousness in being busy? Micah’s point is well taken. In our culture ‘being busy’ is the source of much worth, value, and identity. If the contention that “you are not as busy as you think” causes you immediately to defend how busy you ARE, it’s worth asking the question what righteousness you are deriving from your busyness.”

    This of course raises another interesting question: what is the benefit of defining single people as “not busy?” Clearly from the post Bob thinks that being married is a preferable state to being single (if only based on his counsel to “take a wife”)…I think I’d be safe in inferring that he also believes that being busy is a preferable state (in some sense, at least, from a certain subjective point of view) than being not-busy.

    It would then appear that Bob was the first person in this discussion to derive a certain amount of personal value from the state of busyness. Why, then, is he surprised when single guys become defensive?

    I’ll close out with a quote from Other Chris:

    “I hope very much that I will marry someday–I’d like nothing better than to “take a wife” as you put it. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as picking up my dry cleaning.”

    Well, the Benjaminites in Judges basically did that, but I certainly don’t think that Bob is recommending that 🙂

    Of course, to make an outrageous generalization: speaking from experience at Christian university, I must admit that the soulful guitar-playing ministry majors had an easier time in the wife quest than nerdy computer-lab dwellers like me did. 🙂

    Just saying.


  18. I’m just visiting here, so I don’t expect a lot of attention on this. Elizabeth’s quote of Mark4 :24-25 looks like nothing I have ever seen before in the common Engligh translations. I was just wondering what translation you are using.

  19. Suz is right Bob. Pick a better word!

    For arguments sake though…it was a brilliant word choice. I mean we’re all writing back right?

    You’re definitely dead nuts on the perspective of singlehood vs. marriage….although I’d encourage you to encourage single men to be MEN and first READY to take a wife before they set themselves up for royally screwing up the sacred institution. Far too many boys taking making girls wives with all the wrong motivations and no true covenant commitment. THAT BEING SAID…single doods…”brace yourself for battle, gird your loins and be men!”

  20. Absolutely, positively RIGHT ON!!! I’ve been married for 8.5 years, and have two kids. Family will sanctify your management of time and energy like nothing else!!!! Keep it coming…

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