The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
John Mark Comer © 2019 (Hodder and Staughton)
Review by Samuel Johns
“If you want to experience the life of Jesus, you have to adopt the lifestyle of Jesus” (p.82)
This catchy line by John Mark Comer – a pastor and writer from Portland, Oregon in the USA – echoes the sentiment of the psalmist in Psalm 91. We read, in the first two verses; “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’”.
John Mark Comer writes a stunning book in a conversational tone, that not only charts his own biographical journey – from almost burning out as a pastor of a mega-church of more than 7,000 congregants, to a shift to the slow lane of contemplative prayer, silence and solitude, and taking Sabbath seriously – but also helps us to face our own lives.
His book is reminiscent of the late Eugene Peterson, who wrote that all pastors and leaders in ministry should be led by three guiding principles – to be contemplative, unhurried, and apocalyptic, day in and day out (written in The Contemplative Pastor, 1989).
How can we get to the heart of this book, by John Mark Comer?
Let’s start with an introduction to the ‘ten symptoms’ of hurry sickness that John Mark Comer diagnoses, as endemic to modern culture (p.48). From there we will move on to the call to ‘eliminate hurry’, through four main spiritual practices and habits;
- Silence and Solitude
John Mark Comer describes life like a book. Look at the margins on the side of these pages. They’re likely taking up at least 20% of the total of the page, perhaps even 30%. Yet look at the margins in our lives. The buffer space that should allow for accidents and unintended interruptions, as well as spontaneity. He describes it this way – margin is “the space between our load and our limits” (p.91). yet often we leave no margin, or no buffer, and can wear ourselves thin, exhaust both ourselves and others, and even risk burning out.
How do we diagnose a lack of buffer? Comer gives us 10 symptoms of hurry sickness (p.48):
- Irritability – You get mad, frustrated, or just annoyed way too easily. Little, normal things irk you. People have to tiptoe around your ongoing low-grade negativity, if not anger. Word of advice from a fellow eggshell-expert: to self-diagnose don’t look at how you treat a colleague or neighbour; look at how you treat those closest to you: your spouse, children, roommate, etc.
- Hypersensitivity – All it takes is a minor comment to hurt your feelings, a grumpy email to set you off, or a little turn of events to throw you into an emotional funk and ruin your day. Minor things quickly escalate to major emotional events. Depending on your personality, this might show up as anger or nitpicky-ness or anxiety or depression or just tiredness. Point is, the ordinary problems of life this side of Eden have a disproportionate effect on your emotional wellbeing and relational grace. You can’t seem to roll with the punches.
- Restlessness – When you actually do try to slow down and rest, you can’t relax. You give Sabbath a try, and you hate it. You read Scripture but find it boring. You have quiet time with God but can’t focus your mind. You go to bed early but toss and turn with anxiety. You watch TV but simultaneously check your phone, fold laundry, and get into a spat on Twitter (okay, maybe you just answer an email). Your mind and body are hyped on the drug of speed, and when they don’t get the next dopamine fix, they shiver.
- Workaholism (or just nonstop activity) – You just don’t know when to stop. Or worse, you can’t stop. Another hour, another day, another week. Your drugs of choice are accomplishment and accumulation. These could show up as careerism or just as obsessive housecleaning and errand running. Result: you fall prey to “sunset fatigue”, whereby day’s end you have nothing left to give to your spouse, children, or loved ones. They get the grouchy, curt, overtired you, and it’s not pretty.
- Emotional numbness – You just don’t have the capacity to feel another’s pain. Or your own pain for that matter. Empathy is a rare feeling for you. You just don’t have the time for it. You live in this kind of constant fugue.
- Out-of-order priorities – You feel disconnected from your identity and calling. You’re always getting sucked into the tyranny of the urgent, not the important. Your life is reactive, not proactive. You’re busier than ever before yet still feel like you don’t have time for what really matters to you. Months often go by or years – or, God forbid, maybe it’s been decades – and you realize you still haven’t gotten around to all the things you said were the most important in your life.
- Lack of care for your body – You don’t have time for the basics: eight hours of sleep a night; daily exercise; healthy, home-cooked food; minimal stimulants; margin. You gain weight. Get sick multiples times a year. Regularly wake up tired. Don’t sleep well. Live off the four horsemen of the industrialised food apocalypse: caffeine, sugar, processed carbs, and alcohol.
- Escapist behaviours – When we’re too tired to do what’s actually life giving for our souls, we each turn to our distraction of choice: overeating, overdrinking, binge-watching Netflix, browsing social media, surfing the web, looking at porn – name your preferred cultural narcotics. Narcotics [can be] good, healthy even, on an occasional and short-term basis when they shield us from unnecessary pain; but when we abuse them to escape from reality, they eat us alive. You find yourself stuck in the negative feedback loop of socially acceptable addictions.
- Slippage of spiritual disciplines – If you’re anything like me, when you get overbusy, the things that are truly life giving for your soul are the first to go rather than your first go to – such as quiet time in the morning, Scripture, prayer, Sabbath, worship on Sunday, a meal with your community, and so on. Because in an ironic catch-22, the things that make for rest actually take a bit of emotional energy and self-discipline. When we get overbusy, we get overtired, and when we get overtired, we don’t have the energy or discipline to do what we need most for our souls. Repeat. The cycle beings to feed off its own energy. So instead of life with God, we settle for life with a Netflix subscription and a glass of cheap red wine. A very poor substitute. Not because time wasted on TV is the great Satan but because we rarely get done binge-watching anything (or posting to social media, or overeating Five Guys burgers and fries, etc.) and feel awake and alive from the soul outward, rested, refreshed, and ready for a new day. We delay the inevitable: an emotional crash. And as a consequence, we miss out on the life-giving sense of the with-ness of God.
- Isolation – You feel disconnected from God, others, and your own soul. On those rare times when you actually stop to pray (and by pray I don’t mean ask God for stuff; I mean sit with God in the quiet), you’re so stressed and distracted that your mind can’t settle down long enough to enjoy the Father’s company. Same with your friends: when you’re with them, you’re also with your phone or a million miles away in your mind, running down the to-do list. And even when you’re alone, you come face to face with the void that is your soul and immediately run back to the familiar groove of busyness and digital distraction.
Further to this, John Mark Comer reminds us that actions have consequences. We often neglect this fact, but reality is this clear. He lays out two options (option A and option B) for the sorts of consequences we can expect if either a) we ignore the signs of hurry and burnout and fail to practice our spiritual disciplines (option A) or rather b) we are aware of the signs of hurry sickness in our lives, and live by spiritual discipline to slow down (option B).
Option A – when we ignore the signs of hurry and forget our spiritual disciplines (p.137):
- We feel distant from God and end up living off somebody else’s spirituality, via a podcast feed or book or one-page devotional we read before we rush out the door to work
- We feel distant from ourselves. We lose sight of our identities and callings. We get sucked into the tyranny of the urgent, not the important
- We feel an undercurrent of anxiety that rarely, if ever, goes away. This sense that we’re always behind, always playing catch up, never done
- Then we get exhausted. We wake up, and our first thoughts are, Already? I can’t wait to go to bed… We lag through our days, our low-grade energy on loan from our stimulants of choice. Even when we catch up on our sleep, we feel a deeper kind of tired
- Then we turn to our escapes of choice. We run out of energy to do what’s actually life giving for our souls, say, prayer. And instead, we turn to the cheap fix – another glass of wine, a new show streaming online, our social media feeds, porn
- We become easy prey for the tempter. Just furthering our sense of distance from God and our souls
- Then emotional unhealth sets in. We start living from the surface of our lives, not the core. We’re reactionary. The smallest thing is a trigger – a throwaway line from the boss, a snide comment from a co-worker, a suggestion from a spouse or roommate – it doesn’t take much. We lose our tempers. Bark at our kids. Get defensive. Sulk. Feel angry or sad, often both.
Option B – when we are aware of the signs of hurry sickness in our lives, and live by spiritual discipline to slow down (p.138):
- We find our quiet places – a park down the street, a reading nook at home, a morning routine that begins before the little ones are awake – and we “come away”
- We take our time. Maybe it’s not a full hour, but we’re there long enough to decompress from all the noise and traffic and stress and nonstop stimulation of modern society. Sometimes all we need is a few minutes. Other times, an hour isn’t enough. Other times, we gratefully take what time we can get.
- We slow down. Breathe. Come back to the present
- We start to feel. At first, we feel the whole gamut of human emotions – not just joy and gratitude and celebration and restfulness but also sadness and doubt and anger and anxiety. Usually, I feel all the lousy emotions first. That’s just how it goes
- We face the good, the bad, and the ugly in our own hearts. Our worry. Our depression. Our hope. Our desire for God; our lack of desire for God. Our sense of God’s presence; our sense of his absence. Our fantasies; our realities. All the lies we believe; the truth we come home to. Our motivations. Our addictions. The coping mechanisms we reach for just to make it through the week. All this is exposed & painfully so. But rather than leaking out on those we love most, it’s exposed in the safe place of the Father’s love
- In our ears we sense his voice cut through the cacophony of all the other voices, which slowly fade to the deafening roar of silence. In that silence we hear God speak his love over us. Speak our identities and callings into being. We get his perspective on life and our humble, good places in it.
Helpfully, John Mark Comer provides a frame for our experiences of life, that we can plot on a spectrum from restfulness to relentlessness (p.149):
Finally, John Mark Comer ends with a wonderful image of the decalogue – or the Ten Commandments – taken from Exodus 20. When God presents Moses with these commandments, we’re liable to only hear the “do not” this and “do not” that commands. Yet in reality, Comer reminds us, the majority of the text has a radically different focus. Two thirds of the bulk of the Scriptures on the Commandments have to do with either worship or rest.
Firstly, we’re warned of idolatry, and called not to make images or idols (a question of imagination and loyal, exclusive commitment to the God of Abraham). Secondly, we are called to rest and to ‘remember the Sabbath’. Incidentally, we don’t work in order to rest (at the end of the week). Rather, the call is to rest well on the Sabbath (at the start of the week) in order to work well during the remainder of the week, for the praise and glory of the Father.
If we take this point from John Mark Comer and convert the number of characters per commandment into a percentage of the whole, it’s astounding to see the emphasis. Below is what the Decalogue looks like, in pictorial and visual form:
This book is an easy-to-read and highly intuitive – yet counter-cultural – text on how we can rest in God. It reminds us of the words of the prophet Isaiah, towards the end of his book – in chapter 64, he writes: “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (vv 3-4).
**** Readability (4/5): easy and accessible language, written in a conversational tone
**** Application (4/5): we all deal with the busyness of life in the modern world, so we can all apply it
*** General Appeal (3/5): written from an American standpoint, yet to a broader audience too
** Commitment (2/5): Weekend read or major commitment? A short weekend read, with large font
*** Challenge (3/5): a good, fun read, with plenty of personal challenge and rebuke, as well as reflection
**** Recommendation (4/5): read it, live it, and pass it on!