Urgent or Important?
Have you ever come to the end of a work week and thought to yourself, “Wow, this was a busy week, but what did I actually accomplish?” You remember doing a lot—rushing to and from work, sending what feels like hundreds of emails, crossing off tiny to-do lists, attending countless meetings—you just can’t remember what you did. This is often the confusion that greets me on Friday evenings when I reflect on my past week.
Every week I strive to work diligently unto the Lord, faithfully stewarding every day, task, and responsibility entrusted to me. But in the midst of the constant doing, my mind often becomes clouded and overwhelmed. During these times, I’m usually panicked by the same four same thoughts: (1) I have too much to do, (2) I don’t have enough time to do it all, (3) I don’t know what to do first, and (4) Everything is urgent and must be done now.
These anxious thoughts are the third phase in an endless cycle of feeling pressure to perform, and then cutting out crucial elements in my day, such as meditating on Scripture, prayer, spending quality time with family and friends, and engaging in true rest. This cycle also leads me to believe the lie that if I just had a little more time, I could get everything done and feel accomplished.
This is what the late Charles E. Hummel would define as the “tyranny of the urgent.” In his book of the same name, Hummel explains that time is not the problem or the solution to this way of living. It’s much deeper than time; it is “a problem of priorities.” Humans often struggle to discern between what is urgent and what is truly important. Important things like daily devotions, quality time with your spouse or children, emotional health, and physical well-being are easily pushed aside for urgent, though less important tasks. “Endless demands pressure every waking hour.”
For example, imagine you are at home having dinner with your family. Halfway through the meal, your phone rings and you see that your boss is calling. You have several large projects going on at work and want to please him, so you leave the table and take the call. In that split-second decision, you’ve pushed aside being present with your family and allowed the “urgent need” of work to take priority.
The truly important things in life can be so quickly overshadowed by “urgent needs.” According to Hummel, this is where we “realize that we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.” But how do we end this cycle? How do we break free from the tyranny?
First and foremost, we look to the example of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Throughout the gospels, we see countless examples of Jesus’s ability to discern between the urgent and the important. When Jesus received word from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days. By the time Jesus reached the grave, Lazarus had been dead for four days (John 11). Hummel explains that “the urgent [human] need was to prevent the death of the beloved brother. But the important thing from God’s point of view was to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Second, we pray. Hummel explains that Jesus “prayerfully waited for his Father’s instructions.” In Mark 1:35, we see Jesus rise early in the morning to pray. In Mark 6:46, we see Jesus leave his disciples and the crowds that followed him in order to be alone on a mountain and pray. At Gethsemane, just before Jesus was betrayed, he goes off on his own and prays three separate times. Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus, the Son of God, the third person of the Trinity, God in flesh, spent time on his own seeking the Father in prayer? What does that say about our need to set aside time for prayer?
Third, we meditate on God’s Word. Jesus promised us in John 8:31, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” When we meditate on Scripture, we are reminded again and again of what is truly important.
Friends, so many things in life appear urgent and demand our time and attention, but how many of them are truly important?
There is hope, and his name is Jesus. Look to him, pray, and immerse yourself in his Word.