I’m not sure who first coined the terms, but Chuck Swindoll has spoken and wrote about the tyranny of the urgent. Stephen Covey in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discussed the same ideas under the labels of urgent and important.
Essentially, our lives are made up of years, each of which has a set number of days. Each day has a set number of hours, and each hour has a set number of minutes. We cannot create more time. In the time we have, we tend to focus on the things that are urgent. After all, they seem pressing—crisis arise, deadlines loom, reports must be filed, emails and texts must be answered, someone is coming over and the messy house must be cleaned… it goes on and on and on and on.
And while some of these things might be important, many are not as important as they seem in the moment and some end up not being important at all. Yet when we are distracted by the cries of the urgent, we can miss what is really important.
Well before Swindoll and Covey, we see these realities at play in the lives of two sisters, Mary and Martha. At the end of Luke 10, Jesus stopped in a village on his way to Jerusalem and went to the house of his friends. While there,
Mary sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was worrying over the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” (10:39-40)
We sympathize with Martha. We’ve been there—a crisis of the moment and no one else seems willing to lend a hand. Martha wanted to be hospitable, which is a good thing. She wanted to make sure that all her guests were well taken care of. And besides, Jesus was there—the Lord, the Great Teacher, the greatest guest you could have. Things needed done. And there was Mary, just sitting at his feet listening when she could have been setting the table or helping with the bread.
Bothered by the pressure of the urgent, Martha interrupted Jesus to complain. Surely this would force Mary to help.
But that’s not how Jesus answered. Instead, “My dear Martha, you are so upset over all these details! There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it—and I won’t take it away from her” (10:41-42). In other words, when you have Jesus teaching in your house dinner and chores can wait.
Jesus’ aimed to focus Martha back to the important: him.
On the one hand, the Bible is filled with passages warning against laziness and sloth. We are to be hard and honest workers at our jobs, acting as if Jesus is our direct supervisor on site and we’re aiming to honor and please him. We need rest. We need to take care of our families. But the most important thing in life is Jesus himself.
After all, he is life. If we don’t have time in our day for him (time for prayer, time for praise, time to sit at his feet—as we read his word), then we are busier than God intends for us to be and we need to rethink and reorder what we do. And this becomes a matter of trust.
Yes, the urgent threatens, but God knows every detail. God is also the one who created time and days and weeks. He is the one who told us to do all our work in 6 days and rest on the 7th. He is the one who has all our days counted and numbered (Psalm 139:16). He is the God in control of time. He is not pressed by the urgent.
So let us not let things distract us from what really matters. Trust Jesus, spend time with him, and let him order the priorities of your life and the time of your days.