“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” sounds, to any Christian, like a grand and noble calling. Jesus’s words can inspire visions of sacrifice, courage, and daring good works. We can lose ourselves daydreaming of future plans to love.
The daydream can vanish with surprising speed, however, when an actual neighbor asks for our help today. In the midst of our busyness, a friend in need texts, “Can you talk?” A church member asks for help to move a dresser. A coworker requests our feedback on a project. The driven among us find that such love disrupts our schedules, overturns our plans for the day, makes hash of our productivity, leaves our to-do lists half done. “Love your neighbor,” as it turns out, can feel like a frustratingly inconvenient command.
So, excuses multiply. “I’m just too busy.” “I helped last time.” “My work is too pressing.” “He reaches out too often.” These defenses are persuasive, plausible — and sometimes, certainly legitimate. Yet often, they reveal that we are taking our own work, however important it may be, too seriously.
If you dare, place your soul for a moment under this wise scalpel from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Nobody is too good for the lowest service. Those who worry about the loss of time entailed by such small, external acts of helpfulness are usually taking their own work too seriously. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. (Life Together, 76–77)
The words cut — especially those of us, like myself, who are prone to prioritize tasks over people, to see “real work” as the kind that can be checked off a list. Do we find, over and again, that we have no time to give “simple assistance in minor, external matters” (76)? Or that we give our assistance reluctantly, and then rush through the task while our attention is fixated on the task we left behind? If so, we are likely taking our work too seriously.
Strangely enough, Bonhoeffer goes on to observe, Christians can be particularly prone to this kind of sinful seriousness, often considering “their work so important and urgent that they do not want to let anything interrupt it” (77). Slowly, “God’s work” makes us negligent toward God’s commands. We are simply too occupied to look to others’ small and urgent interests (Philippians 2:3–4), too overbooked to spend a slow, unexpected hour listening to someone’s pain (James 1:19), too consumed by high and holy work to attend to the needs of the lowly (Romans 12:16).
In other words, we are too busy to be like Jesus.
Lord of Interruptions
We can say without controversy that no one’s work was more important than Jesus Christ’s. However significant our tasks may be, “save the world” exceeds them all. Nor was anyone more devoted to the mission he’d been given (John 4:34). Yet when approached by the multitudes with their “demands and requests,” no one was more gracious and patient.
Can you imagine how so many of us would have responded to the blind man shouting from the road (Mark 10:46–48)? Or to the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:25–34)? Or to the mothers bringing their children for a blessing (Mark 10:13–16)?
Never once do we see Jesus brush past someone with a hasty, “Not now.” Nor do we get the impression that he ever struggled to focus on the person in front of him — even when dozens of others clamored for his attention. Evidently, he did not see small acts of service as interruptions to his calling, but as part of his calling. “The Son of Man came . . . to serve” (Mark 10:45), and oh how he served.
We are not Jesus, of course. But we are being formed into his image. And as servants of the great Servant, he bids us to follow him (Mark 10:43–44).
Jesus, of course, would not advise us to tumble into the ditch on the other side of the road. The schedules of some are sealed seven times over, requiring multiple keys and elaborate knocks to gain entrance — and to such is Bonhoeffer’s counsel intended. But the schedules of others open with every “Do you mind . . . ?” or “Could you . . . ?” People such as these may need to hear the opposite advice and learn to take the tasks before them more seriously.
Jesus, for all his patience in the face of interruptions, knew how to turn down requests (Luke 4:42–43). Some need to realize that being a servant does not remove the word no from our vocabulary. Nor does it prevent us, in an always-available culture like our own, from going off the smartphone grid for parts of the day in order to give focused energy to our most important work and relationships.
More than that, there is a difference between small, everyday requests (the kind Bonhoeffer has in mind) and larger demands on our time. If as a general rule we should lean toward small interruptions and little requests, we should probably lean away from large or ongoing responsibilities — at least without stopping to count the cost (Luke 14:28).
Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer (and Jesus) still bids us toward a difficult balance: do not hold your daily plans with a vice grip, nor hand them to whoever will take them. That kind of balance comes not ultimately from pro-con lists (however helpful those can be) or any other productivity tool, but rather from a heart in tune with heaven’s priorities.
Hearts in Tune with Heaven
Once again, Jesus is our model. With so many demands and requests, and with such important work to do, how did he know when to embrace the unexpected and when to stay focused?
At the beginning of his ministry, after a long night of healing the sick and casting out demons in Capernaum, “the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them” (Luke 4:42). This time, however, Jesus said no: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).
Where did that kind of spiritual discernment come from? Luke tells us. When the crowd came to him, Jesus was in “a desolate place” (Luke 4:42) — and desolate places were Jesus’s favorite places to pray (Luke 5:16). The crowds came to him, in other words, while he was communing with his Father. And from that place of spiritual strength, he had the clarity to see that, this time, he must move on.
Those who anchor their hearts in heaven — not only once, but morning by morning — slowly grow in the same kind of wisdom. They have the discernment to see some requests as unhelpful distractions to the day’s work, and others as the holy interruptions that they are. In the latter case, they may still feel a pulse of selfishness pulling the other way. But by the grace of God, they will laugh at their momentary frustration, set efficiency aside, and seize the day’s interruptions as opportunities for love.