I really am pleased with the growing interest among believers in our church to break out of their spiritual ruts. I am glad if I can help any Christian climb out of a ditch of stagnation.
The great difficulty with stagnation is that the things that are holding us back have usually become invisible to us, either because we see them as normal and natural, or because the force of habit has rendered them so familiar as to be barely noticeable. Your situation is one of these, which means you must allow me to back up a little, and give you some context.
You have always been a conscientious person. I remember when you were in school, and then later in varsity, you were fastidious about studying, being present for every meeting, practice, or event. You appeared to have a horror of putting a foot wrong, and worked hard to always do what was required. This approach to life has mostly brought you the commendation of your parents, teachers and superiors. Being conscientious has seemed to you to be almost synonymous with obedience to God and holiness.
I knew then that when marriage and motherhood came, the same conscientiousness would be hard at work: to be a biblical wife, to have a godly and beautiful home, and to be the (near) perfect mother. And, it appears, I have not been wrong. But you find yourself with the same spiritual stagnation reported by others who possess not even a fraction of your conscientiousness. How can this be?
The answer will require great meekness and trust for you to accept. It will be hard for you to not react negatively. Try to remember that man’s anger does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). Here is the heart of the matter: conscientiousness often becomes protective defensiveness against commitment to Christ. It is the thoroughness with which you attack every task that can lead you to fend off the very prompts and demands of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s what I mean. A conscientious young mother soon becomes aware of all she must do: regular feeding times, scheduled nap times, play time and all sorts of other activities and moments she knows will be part of the healthy development of her children. On top of this, she must keep her home, make meals for herself and her husband, keep the home clean and running, run errands, and try to keep herself looking half decent. Her husband has needs, as do the older children, if they’re present. As she tries to balance all this, the church adds to her list by expecting attendance at several services, which is difficult enough, but now she must bring often tired and fussy children and sit through services where she can barely catch a phrase or two while trying to keep the children quiet and occupied.
The more conscientious she is, the more determined she is to do it all, and do it perfectly. But the wear and tear soon begins. Fatigue, sleep deprivation, and the mental weariness of being with small children all day begins to wear on her. She cannot do it all, she concludes, but she cannot blame her lack of conscientiousness. So she begins to look outside of herself for the fault. Often this lands on her husband for not supporting her in ways she finds helpful. Perhaps it will land on extended family, if present. And sooner or later, it will land on the church: too many services, the absence of children’s programs, the absence of a nursery, the length of the sermons. Soon, her posture becomes defensive, and even combative. Her conscientiousness now becomes protective: protecting nap times by skipping church, protecting schedules by staying at home to preserve the children’s routine, protecting against tired fussiness by deciding that the church schedule is too busy.
That might seem like a temporary pragmatism. But the protectiveness doesn’t end when the children are somewhat older. It merely shifts from nap times to play dates, from sleep schedules to sports days, from room time to exam studies. And if homeschooling gets thrown in, the protectiveness is even more independent, and more insistent. Whole Sundays become ‘family days’ off from church to supposedly recover from the rigour of week-day life.
Of course, every family has both the right and responsibility to figure out the schedule and workload that is their unique calling, given their particular children, and their health, aptitudes, and needs. There is no problem, in principle, with a couple (with the husband taking oversight) choosing to drop certain things from their schedule. The problem is a kind of child-centred prioritisation of the family that eventually borders on, if not crosses into, plain old idolatry of the family. And the problem is that this family-centrism is usually driven not by the directed leadership of a spiritually mature husband, but by the aggressive conscientiousness of a single-minded Mother Bear. Sadly, too many husbands would rather have a truce at home through submission to their wives than the overall spiritual health of their homes, and such health comes at the very costly price of shepherding their wives through much emotional turmoil.
Susan, the only way out of this is to begin by repenting of anger towards God. The demands of a busy life are meant to pressure you. The pressure is what brings sin out of hearts, so that we may flee from it and grow in Christ. The pressure is what forces us to deeply examine our priorities. The pressure is what calls us to a deeper discipline of our time. None of this should be regarded as evil, abnormal, or something that has gone terribly wrong. God never meant your life to run on cruise control. Don’t get angry that it feels overwhelming. We seldom grow unless we are overwhelmed.
Next, determine that you will not see your commitments to Christ as hostile to family life. Stop seeing church attendance as an intrusion upon family time. Stop seeing the services as time-deductions on the Sunday you could have to yourself. Stop seeing the body of Christ as merely a means to your family’s ends. See your physical family and the family of Christ as overlapping families, complementary, not competitive.
Third, discuss with your husband what your priorities are: what is essential, what is important, and what is dispensable. Ask him for his thoughts on how to reach those priorities during this busy season. Trust that God gave him to you to provide insights and reason that balances your own. Submit to God by following your husband’s lead, even if you feel alarmed. Report to him where and why you feel overwhelmed. Assist him if his own spiritual commitment is lagging. Decide what is truthfully an act of loving sacrifice to Christ (costly but still cheerfully given), and what is simply out of reach. Then, next year, do this all again, because this will be a moving target as your family grows.
Christ alone sees your motives, knows your abilities, and knows what you are capable of. He is perfectly fair, but you also cannot hide anything from him. So make your commitments, and then rest in your conscience that the Lord knows best, even if man misunderstands (Rom 14:10-13). I am your shepherd, not your judge. The fear of man is a trap, but trusting in the Lord’s knowledge of you is always safe (Prov 29:25).
Susan, this may sound odd, but surrender even your conscientiousness to Christ. Consecrate your perfectionism to Him, and be willing to let Him control it. Place it at His disposal. Unless conscientiousness is under the lordship of Christ, it becomes a vicious, and tyrannical master, heedless to the voice of Christ. In His hands, it will be a blessedly useful trait.
Your friend and pastor,