John and Christine (not their real names) are a successful couple. She is an ascending attorney and he is a respected physician in his community. Their kids are (usually) well-behaved, do well in school and involved in the kinds of activities that will make them well-rounded. Their family is always at church and takes their faith seriously.
But there’s more to their story. John and Christine both work long hours, so they don’t get much quality time with each other or their kids, except on the weekends when they’re already exhausted. Christine is trying to write a book on the side. And they take their kids to multiple musical and sports-related practices throughout the week. They’re just plain tired, with little time to relax, be spontaneous, or ‘just be’.
It may not surprise you to hear that they’re in counseling. (When their schedules allow for it).
If you were their counselor, what would you tell them? How would you give them – and by extension, yourself – hope to have sanity again?
No Easy Answers
It’s not as simple as saying, ‘just do less’. Both of their jobs require (at least) a full-time commitment. They’re clearly gifted for, and enjoy, them. Their kids generally like their activities. They’re gaining valuable skills that will not only build their resumes, but their character, too.
At the same time, people like John and Christine make me uncomfortable. I’m not going to do a simplistic or full analysis here, but I do want to bring up something I believe they’re missing. Something many of us are missing, too.
It’s not hard to understand, but it’s oh-so-hard to live out. Bottom line: whenever we choose to do one thing, we choose not to do everything else. We’re making a trade-off. You really can’t have it all.
A few days ago, for example, we hosted a family birthday party for my youngest son. When my wife and I sat down to prioritize the 5-6 hours we had before people arrived, I had big plans of cleaning the house and then moving on to next steps in our bathroom renovation project. My wife, though, ever the realist, suggested we do what we have to do first (clean, shop for food, cook) and then see if there’s time leftover.
Reluctantly, I agreed to go with her idea and make a trade-off. I would sacrifice what I wanted to do most (the reno) for what we really needed to do (cook, clean, shop). It hurt more than I expected it would, in all honesty. I really – really – wanted to do both.
Why It’s So Incredibly Hard
So, what’s going on? Why is it so hard to choose one thing and not another?
One is simply that we live in a fallen world. We’re going to die. Our work isn’t going to last forever, even if it outlives us. So we feel this pressure to ‘do it all’, to fit in as much as we can to make our mark on the world and people around us before time runs out.
As Genesis 1-3 points out, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were supposed to live forever, with all the time in the world to pursue work and relationships that matter. Part of our struggle is grappling with a world that’s deeply broken.
Another is that we’re trying to prove ourselves through our accomplishments. Especially at work, but we do this to our kids too when we push them to achieve in ways that are unbalanced. If we feel the need to constantly prove ourselves, it’s very hard to say ‘no’ without diminishing our value.
No doubt more can be said here, but that’s a good starting point. The real question is, how can we start to make trade-offs and live lives with more balance and sanity?
5 Ways We Can Start Making Trade-Offs
Here are 5 ideas. I hope you’ll take some time to think about these in the context of your own life.
1. Accept your limitations. We ‘know’ that the world – and we – are broken, but honestly we resent it and want everything to go perfectly. The Fall means we need to expect frustration, brokenness and… make lots of trade-offs. Are you really willing?
2. Trust God’s sovereignty. God is a King – a sovereign – and the bible teaches that he’s in complete control. ‘All things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). So God is in charge of our limitations, too; he knows we can’t do everything and doesn’t expect us to. That means we can do less and still be at peace.
3. Find your value in Jesus, not your accomplishments. It’s so natural to find our identity in what we do, and, how well we do it in comparison to others. While we’re called to, ‘whatever [we] do, work at it with all [our] heart, as working for the Lord’ (Colossians 3:24), our efforts and their outcomes were never meant to give us our worth. When we find our value in God and his love for us, it becomes easier to let some things go and make trade-offs.
4. Remember Jesus’s example. Jesus is God, but during his time on earth he invested in only 12 men, and among them, focused on just 3.
5. Rely on others. God has placed limits on our time and talents so that we’ll depend on others and allow them to use their gifts. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:7, ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’. When we say ‘no’ to something we’re not great at, we allow others to say ‘yes’ and make their highest contribution.
These aren’t silver bullets, but applying them to our lives will help us to have more reasonable expectations and choose the things God is calling us to do.
Let’s live it out: Why do you find making trade-offs so hard? Identify one thing you can start saying ‘no’ to and how that would give you more time for the people and priorities that matter most.