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The Myth of Balance

If you're not living for Christ, your life is failing even if you're "winning."


I'm going to read from Matthew chapter 6 verses 24 through 34. These are the words of Jesus,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love
the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not
worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your
body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and
the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air;
they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your
heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than
they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field
grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even
Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is
how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and
tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe
you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, "What shall we
eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For
the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father
knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His
righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as
well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will
worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

This is the word of the Lord.

In 2002, an Australian television producer by the name of Peter Rees proposed a new idea for a television show. It would take pervasive, well-entrenched cultural beliefs, and scenes from movies—scenes that sort of are stuck, clichés in movies, rumors going around, or cultural adages—and it would test these things to see if they had any basis in reality. The television show is called Mythbusters. Now it is in its eighth full season. It's become an international success. The show's team goes out week after week to test these things that everybody seems to believe, and asks, "Is this myth busted, plausible, or confirmed." I was on a flight to Toronto and saw an episode or two of this show. In one episode they tested the myth of shooting a bullet into the water, because, as you know, the movies always show the bullets going way down in the water. Actually a bullet loses its force after about a foot and a half once it goes into the water. So they tested that idea (not with live persons, of course) with the warning: "Don't try this at home." I began to think about this idea of busting myths, and it strikes me that the Bible is all about busting myths. The Bible often takes beliefs that have become deeply rooted in our psyches, in our cultures, so that we begin to spout them, embrace them, and chase them, but we never ask, "Has this thing got any basis in reality?"

A classic groundbreaking book, that I'm sure probably isn't in the top of your reading pile, is Erich Auerbach's, Mimesis. He makes a claim in Mimesis that the Bible constitutes an absolute revolution in world literature. Up until the point of the Bible, all writing involved presenting the world the way we wish it was. When the Bible came along, It presented the world the way it really is. It busts the myths. When you think about the prophets, what are the prophets about? They come into mostly Israel, and Israel has bought into a bunch of cultural myths from the nations around them. Myths like this one: if you can control God—that's what idolatry is—it'll go better for you. Or the myth that if you had a little more stuff and money your life will be easy. Anyone ever bought into that deal? The Bible busts

Jesus came myth-busting, didn't he? "You've heard it said … But I say to you … " The things he says you've heard said, they're not complete lies, they're half-truths. You've heard it said you shouldn't murder. Well, that's a good thing. You've heard you shouldn't commit adultery. That's a good thing. So it's not that these are mythological things that he's busting. Instead, he's saying that to the extent that you've bought that as a whole truth, you've defined sin as something out there that you can judge rather than something in here that you need to fight. "So I say to you … " What's going on in your thought life, what's going on in your heart? That's where the real battle is being fought. Jesus came myth-busting because Jesus came as an enemy of the status quo, unless you haven't noticed. Regarding deeply established ways of thinking, acting, believing, and attitudes, Jesus often says, "Enough! You say you can't love a Samaritan, watch me. You say you can't sit down and eat with sinners. Come on, who's ordering the pizza? You say you can't touch lepers"—myth-busting. Taking the status quo and saying, "These things you've been telling yourself until you're hypnotized by them are all a bunch of hooey. Watch me."

Does Balance Need a "Myth-busting"?

So I thought, let's do some myth-busting today and find out if the concept of "balance" is "confirmed, plausible, or busted." I went and looked at the dictionary definition, and I didn't like any of them. So here's my definition of balance: It is a point of equilibrium between two or more countervailing forces. It does sound like dictionary definition, doesn't it? A point of equilibrium—it's neither going this way or that way—between two or more countervailing or opposing forces. So we've got forces wanting to push down or pull up or twist sideways, but our lives somehow find this perfect point where it all balances out. Aren't you out on the hunt for this thing called balance where your work, leisure, family, and all these things come into some lovely equal poise? You know, where it all floats around elegantly, delicately like a little mobile. These things never clash against one another and they perfectly weigh out against the other. Isn't everybody looking for that, balance? I hear it all the time. I often use those words: I'm just trying to live a balanced life. I think it's a myth.

Now obviously that exists in nature. When I go scuba diving, one of the things we attempt on the scuba dive—and my friends are much better at this than I am—is a thing called neutral buoyancy, and it's basically the magic of balance. Neutral buoyancy is when you get to whatever depth you're diving at and you've got two factors working—countervailing forces. You've got the weight of the water that wants to push you down to the bottom of the ocean and bury you. And you have the air that you've put into your vest, suit, and the air in your tank that wants to suck you up to the top and pop you up like a ball. You have to find the place of neutral buoyancy where the pressure pushing you down and the pressure pushing you up are perfectly balanced, and you float. So in nature these things exist. The problem is that we've moved from this reality in nature to this metaphor for our lives where I'm trying to find balance. Now, there are three reasons it is mythical. One is that it's impossible to sustain—not attain, but sustain. The second is third is that it's not even desirable—assuming you could achieve balance. And third, balance is not biblical.

Balance Is Impossible.

Why is it impossible to sustain? Well, when we actually think of balance, underneath it is a static image. It is suspended animation. Literally, animation means life. It's suspended life. Life gets kind of suspended, freeze-framed for a moment. So here is the thing. We can attain that momentarily, for little moments, but it actually takes more exertion to maintain balance than not to maintain balance. For instance, think of two women balancing on the head of the other. How long do you think they can pull that one off for? And it is so fragile. So even if you attain balance for awhile, just a little puff of wind is going to blow it over. For that reason alone, we should stop chasing the myth of balance.

Do you have in your head what I call the "if-only," and the "as-soon-as clauses?" The "if only I had more money," or "if only this person wasn't in my life,' or "if only I didn't have this job," or "if only I lived in that house." Or we also say things like "As soon as I'm done with this season of my life," or "as soon as these three weeks go by and this crazy time is over." Do you have if-only and as-soon-as clauses in your head? If you don't, we would like to do a brain scan because that's how we live our life—if-only, as-soon-as, if-only, as-soon-as. I would say most of the things in our lives derive their life from this myth of balance. If-only and as-soon-as derive their authority from this sense of something like "in three weeks my life will become easy." Has that ever happened? I've said before but I always say to people, "You know, this next couple of weeks are crazy but it starts to loosen up." How long am I going to perpetuate this delusion that my life is somehow going to get balanced? It's so fragile.

Balance Is not Desirable.

The second thing is that balance is not even desirable. Listen to what John Ortberg writes in his book, The Life You've Always Wanted:

The paradigm of balance simply doesn't capture the sense of compelling urgency worthy of human devotion. It is largely a middle-class pursuit. [Ouch!] It lacks a notion that my life is to be given to something larger than myself. It lacks a call to sacrifice and self-denial, the wild, risky, costly, adventurous abandon of following Jesus. Ask hungry children in Somalia if they want to help you achieve balance, and you'll discover that they're hoping for something more from you. And I believe that deep down you are hoping for something more for you.

So even if we could attain it would you want to attain it? The paradigm of balance simply doesn't capture the sense of compelling urgency worthy of human devotion.

Balance Is not Biblical.

But the most damning critique of this is it is not biblical. Can you think of one person in Scripture who lived a balanced life? When you think of King David, do you think, Oh, there's a man who has got it all in this nice little mobile? I mean, whether that guy is living in caves or he's ruling the kingdom, he is a man after God's own heart, and when he loses sight of that life he goes off the rails real quick. This is a man in hot pursuit of something and it doesn't entail balance. Think of Anna in the Gospel of Luke. This woman who is in her 80s is at the temple praying day and night. What would our culture say to Anna? "Get a balanced life." But she's in hot pursuit of something bigger than that. "Nehemiah, come down from the wall, you've got to get some balance in your life." "No, for twelve years I'm going to bust my chops getting this thing done that God's called me to do." The Apostle Paul, does he strike you as somebody living a balanced life?

John Ortberg imagines a Time Management Consultant sitting down with the Apostle Paul. The TMC says, "Paul, if you look at this time chart, I think you'll agree with me that your spiritual life is doing pretty well but vocationally your tent making has seriously fallen off. This has led to some downsizing in your financial portfolio. Let's take a look at the time log I asked you to keep since our last meeting." This is what Paul answers:

Five times I have received the forty lashes minus one, three times I was beaten with rods, once I received a stoning, three times I was shipwrecked, for a day and night I was adrift at sea, on frequent journeys and danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters, in toil and hardship through many sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

Then Ortberg writes, "It's hard for me to imagine what the TMC says to all of this."

Pursue Magnificent Obsession.

Forget balance, go for magnificent obsession. Live your life gloriously lopsided. Balance is mostly a middle-class pursuit. It's not a Christ follower's pursuit. So what I want to close by giving you three profoundly biblical truths that actually transcend the quest for balance, and interestingly will make your life a lot more balanced.

The need for focus
First is, you need to have a focus. The focus is substantially true for everybody: "Seek first the kingdom of God," Jesus says, "and his righteousness." Don't seek the money thing; don't seek the housing thing. All the things that the pagans chase after, God already knows you need. Make your focus the kingdom of God and his righteousness. When we look at the biblical people mentioned above—David, Anna, Nehemiah, the Apostle Paul—the one thing we can say is that they weren't living lives that we would call balanced; but they were very sharply, crisply focused. Paul says, "This one thing I do, forgetting what is behind and pressing on (or straining) toward what is ahead. I press on to take hold of the goal, to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." I am in hot pursuit of the kingdom of God and everything I do is bent to the task of the kingdom of God.

The need for a center
Then find a center, and for all of us it's the same—Christ and him crucified and him glorified. The center, Paul says it this way: "For me to live is Christ." Or he says in Galatians: "The life I live I no longer live myself but by faith in the Son of God who died for me and loves me." Here is something I want to be absolutely clear about: It will look different for every person in terms of how you live and play out that focus. If your kids are really young, Jesus says the kingdom of God is right there. And during that season of life you are called to pour into your kids. Now when your kids get to a certain age and you're still using the family ticket to justify not being involved in things bigger than yourself, you're doing your kids a huge disservice. It's a huge disservice when you're teaching your kids it's all about them and your family and not about others. So when they're young, the kingdom is right there. When they get to a certain age, you get them focused on the kingdom things in their neighborhood, church, and beyond. But you discern—your life has to be focused on the kingdom, and it has to be rooted in Jesus Christ. Here's the thing: If you are not a kingdom person and not a Christ-centered person, your life is failing even if you're winning.

Think about the two sons in the parable Jesus tells—the prodigal son and the frugal son. The prodigal son goes out, hell-bent for leather. I mean, he takes everything he's got and squanders it every which way. His life is failing. The other son stays home and does his duty. Every day he gets up and milks cows, plows fields, and whatever other duties he has to do. But because neither of them have the focus of the kingdom and a centeredness in the life of God, their lives are both failing. So here's the one thing I want you to get out of this sermon today: you have to choose your focus in this life, whether it will be the kingdom of God or something else, whether it will be rooted in Jesus Christ or something else. If you don't have that center in Christ and his kingdom, you'll fail even if you win. And if you do that, even if you're not winning in worldly terms, you are winning in the things that matter most.

The need for a rhythm
But the other thing—you need a focus, you need a center—and then you need a rhythm. This is where it gets somewhat personalized. Rhythm is the motion and the pace required to effectively and efficiently go after your goal. If you are climbing, do you use the same rhythm as if you are swimming? It's a real question, not rhetorical. Why? You would fall off the mountain and you'd drown in the water. They require different rhythms, motions, and paces to effectively and efficiently go after your goal. If you're throwing pottery, do you use the same rhythm as if you're skiing? No. You'll fall down the mountain or you'll make a real mess. Your clay will scatter through the room. You see, the rhythm required is based on the particular goal at this moment, as you have this focus, if you live at the center.

And here's how I want to illustrate it: Jesus. Jesus was focused on the kingdom. Jesus' life was rooted in the presence of God, the reality of the Spirit with him and for him, and Jesus had a rhythm. Have you ever thought about Jesus' 30 years before his last 3? What was he doing? He worked as a carpenter. Do you think he was kingdom focused as a carpenter or did he become kingdom focused at age 30? Do you think we was doing his own thing up until he was 30? I mean, he was kingdom focused. We don't have a text that says so, but it's hard to think otherwise, right? Here is a man totally saying, I am living the Matthew 6:33 life that I am not worrying about all this other stuff even though I'm working, sawing planks, cleaning them, and sanding them. My focus is the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Do you think he was God-centered, Spirit-filled before he got into his ministry? Absolutely. Do you think his rhythm in the first 30 years of life was the same as his rhythm in the last 3? Somewhat different. We don't see any of that in the Gospels because the rhythm shifted as he now, focused on the kingdom, centered in the presence of God, began to live in a different season.

But here's the interesting thing we see as we look at Jesus according to the three years recorded in the Gospels. He's got three years to save all humanity. Does he ever seem busy? Does he ever seem in a hurry? I mean, other people are in a hurry for him. For example, consider that man crying at the roadside, that blind man: "Jesus, help." And it says in Matthew's gospel, "Those who led the way"—that's a loaded phrase—"told him to be quiet." And Jesus said, "I want to talk to him." Because he's moving in the rhythms of the kingdom, focused, centered, and knows what the Lord requires of him, he knows how to move with the rhythms of grace. He's not in a hurry; he's not too busy.

So here are the two primary questions that you need to ask yourself: Am I focused on the kingdom of God? Am I centered in the person of Jesus Christ? Because finding a rhythm for life—and that's what you need to do to not be worn out and all of those sorts of things—is anchored to those two realities. If you don't have those two things established, you're not going to get life right anyhow. The reality is if you're living for the kingdom, centered in Jesus Christ, you'll find your rhythm and it will be good.

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Does Balance Need a "Myth-busting"?

II. Balance Is Impossible.

III. Balance Is not Desirable.

IV. Balance Is not Biblical.

V. Pursue Magnificent Obsession

  1. The need for focus
  2. The need for a center
  3. The need for a rhythm