It’s basic, really, but every item on your to do list can be any combination of urgent and important. Just because a task is urgent—Dancing with the Stars is on television right now—doesn’t mean it’s important.
The problem is urgent tasks have a way of making themselves seem important, when in fact, they have no lasting significance. Mowing the yard, while urgent, is probably not all that important. In a few days, the grass will be tall again. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mow your yard; there are consequences to not mowing, like unwanted bugs, scorn of neighbors, lower property value.
But in a time-deprived culture like ours, often the important stuff gets neglected because the urgent items scream at us all day long. What kind of tasks am I talking about? Which ones are important?
Things like exercise, prayer, reading to your kids. These things we always mean to do, but there just doesn’t ever seem to be enough time to do them. That's because when an item doesn't present itself as urgent, it requires us to intentionally and proactively make it a priority. Otherwise the task will sit patiently in the corner, undone.
And I am the chief offender in this regard.
I struggle with living proactively when it requires so much less work simply to react to the urgent tasks. I walk past the laundry room and see mountains of soiled clothing that needs washing. I cringe at the sight of the lawn growing past its boundaries, creeping onto the sidewalk. But when I submit to these tasks, I am forfeiting precious time I could be using to focus on things that have lasting impact, like learning something new or deepening relationships.
Imagine having a spotless house, but being mentally and spiritually devoid. Is it worth it? Reminds me of the following verse: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Mark 8:36). Earthly things are ephemeral, but the soul endures forever.
How to Let the Urgent Go
Author Stephen Covey wasn’t the first to bring to light these differences. In the New Testament we get a glimpse of this pervasive struggle. When Jesus entered the home of sisters Martha and Mary, Martha took great pains to act as a gracious host, serving her guests. But her sister, entranced by Jesus, sat at his feet, soaking in every word. Expecting help from her sister, Martha became angry when it didn’t come and complained to Jesus. The Lord responded, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk. 10:41-42).
Mary chose the important over the urgent. While Martha was serving food and drink, Mary was consuming spiritual food that could “not be taken away from her.” Eating food leaves you hungry again in a few hours. But consuming the bread of life satisfies for eternity. That’s the difference between urgent and important. Jesus said, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Whether or not Mary had heard Jesus speak those words, she knew them to be true in her heart.
So are you living like Mary or Martha? Most days I feel like a Martha. Laundry, bills, haircuts, shopping. But sitting at Jesus’ feet? Aint nobody got time for that! There are things to do!
If you get anxious or overwhelmed about urgent tasks on your list, remember what Jesus said, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ ... But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:31, 33).
Prioritize the important, and the rest will follow. Think Mary, not Martha.
And if you'd like help making a habit of prayer and reading the Word, you might be interested in a guide I created for just that purpose. It's called How to Establish a Habit of Daily Quiet Time with God.
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