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  • Pr Lionel Neo (CPC)

Squeezed for Time

Stuck in a rut of our making

I often get to speak to young people from a variety of backgrounds, and procrastination is a common problem they face across the board. As I look back to the time when I was a teen (yes it wasn’t too long ago), I am often struck by how anxious I felt about ‘tomorrow’ (upcoming exams, projects, deadlines), and how inadequate I felt facing it.

Most of us really want to do better and accomplish more, and we make all kinds of promises to be more self-disciplined, so that we can meet the challenges ahead. But we often fall into a cycle of procrastination, distracting ourselves with social media, streaming media, handphone games and so on. And though it may take our mind off ‘the stress’ for a moment, it only makes us feel lousy about ourselves at the end of the day, and perhaps even more jaded about facing the future.

Live under the Father’s care

Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, spoke about an issue that deeply afflicts modern society – worry. To Jesus, worry is not merely a negative state of mind that should be lifted by ‘chillax-ing’. Worry about our material possessions is a sign of the littleness of our faith (Matthew 6:30). Specifically, it is a lack of faith in God our heavenly Father, who truly values us (verse 26) and cares for our needs (verse 30).

Instead of even worrying about our daily necessities, what we eat or wear (and I’m sure to that, Jesus will also include our grades or popularity), we are told to “seek first the kingdom of God” (verse 33).

In short, worry is often a sign of a deeper misalignment in our lives, that we: 1) Are fearful of the future because we lack faith in who God is 2) Have our priorities misplaced by putting earthly needs and wants above God’s kingdom

Jesus concludes in chapter 6 - Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Now, that sounds very depressing, but actually Jesus is giving very practical advice about procrastination, which I will show is closely tied to worry. In fact, we shall unpack how so much of our patterns of living is an exercise in futility (see also verse 27), and there are much better ways to face the future.

Why we procrastinate

This TedTalk gives great insight into procrastination:

To sum up it up, we often think that we procrastinate because we are lazy, and therefore we need to be harder on ourselves. However, the opposite is often true. The talk suggests that many people procrastinate because they care too much. They fear failure (people tend to procrastinate tasks that evoke “dread, incompetence, and insecurity”), therefore they ‘flee’ from it, as one might from a looming threat, by avoiding it.

People who have “difficulty regulating their emotions”, and “who struggle with low self-esteem” tend to procrastinate a lot more. And I would say most young people (through no fault of their own), fall into one or two of these categories.

The talk suggests 2 broad ways to tackle procrastination:

a) address and reduce these negative emotions about the task ahead (It’s not so scary after all!)

b) breaking the scary task into smaller manageable components (I can really handle it!)

The way out of procrastination

It looks like the latest findings from psychology and what Jesus proposes are remarkably consonant.

For a), the TedTalk suggests that we examine our negative emotions by uncovering the underlying concerns that drive it, and address them by practicing self-compassion.

The teaching of Jesus grounds us on a deeper reality. In Jesus’s earlier teaching about worry, people often suffer from worry because they derive their value and worth from the things of the world. Their identity is grounded on something transient, something that can diminished over time (moth and rust destroy), something that can be lost to factors out of our control (thieves break in and steal).

But all Christians must return to the true source of our value – that we are beloved children of God. What grounds our identity and security is not that we are the top 25 percentile of our cohort, nor getting the in-demand internship – but because God, the Creator of heaven and earth, loves us and assures us of His care.

For b), what Jesus actually teaches about facing today’s trouble, instead of being stuck on fear of tomorrow, is hugely relevant to us all who procrastinate. It is a call to focus on our daily mission with courage and confidence. This does not mean that we neglect planning ahead at all; instead, this mindset helps us rightly order our lives. Author Louie Giglio shared on his book ‘Winning the war on worry’ these words: “Planning focuses on the present and on what is in your hands today, while occasionally looking ahead to factor in what is to come. But worry is fixated on our tomorrow.”

When faced with finishing full-sized cake, we do not finish it by attempting to shove it fully into our mouths. We eat it one spoonful at a time. Many of us feel that our challenges ahead are too big to ‘swallow’, whether it’s the A Math syllabus, or some group project which makes up 50% of our results.

Practically speaking, we are not fixated on the seemingly overwhelming future (‘I must master the whole Physics syllabus before the O levels’). We are freed to focus instead on the day and its own trouble (‘I will learn 1/3 of the chapter on Momentum and practice 5 questions on it’). We will find that God gives us daily grace to help us meet our daily challenges, for that is how we grow in our dependence on Him.

We should find practical ways to break looming scary tasks into day-by-day bite sized chunks. And we should not be too ambitious about doing too many things at once – life is a marathon, not a sprint. Let us also remember to rest, and to spend time with our family, and especially friends - they too need God’s grace. They are not competitors, but on adventurers on the same journey as us.

The way back to the Father

As we hear the words of Jesus afresh, we learn that God can touch every part of our lives and redeem it, including something as ‘earthly’ as our studies, even something as ‘uncool’ as our stress and insecurity.

Let us remember that we are valued by God the Father, and secure in Jesus, and whatever troubles may come (and yes, we will face troubles), He has our best interest at heart. May we continue to dream big, especially in terms of seeking God’s kingdom here on earth. Don’t let the pressures of our schoolwork reduce us to survival mode only. And finally, keep depending on God for His daily grace to meet our daily needs.

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