Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves. This is CCEF’s podcast, “Where Life and Scripture Meet.” Welcome. I hope you enjoy today’s episode. Let me start us off with a question for you. How long does it take you to get out of bed in the morning? Why? And particularly, did that change for you over the course of 2020 and beyond? You’ll understand why I’m asking you this particular question shortly and we’re going to come back to it at the end.
So, let me start by telling you a little bit about a May 2021 New York Times article that our podcast team found and flagged as worth engaging. It was called, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” It’s by a Wharton professor and psychologist named Adam Grant. And it’s trying to capture the slide into subtle emotional unhealthiness that many people have experienced through the pandemic. And I think it will be helpful to spend a little time letting his thinking and his categories provoke us and drive us towards Scripture in an area that most of us have probably not thought much about.
So let me start by simply reading a slightly edited version of the opening couple of paragraphs of his article to establish the ground we want to cover. Grant says, “At first, I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with the vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t that excited about 2021. And instead of bouncing out of bed at 6:00 AM, I was lying there until 7:00 playing Words with Friends. It wasn’t burnout, we still had energy. It wasn’t depression, we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
Now that’s interesting, that just right onto something. I don’t know if you’ve been using the word languishing to describe yourself. I don’t know if you relate to the experiences he’s talking about but I suspect many of us do. And our first question when we hear some new idea about how to understand or orient lives should always be, “So what does God’s Word have to say about this?” Well, the Bible does use the word languish. It just doesn’t use it very much. In the NIV it shows up twice (Isaiah 24 and Jeremiah 14), the ESV tacks on a few more in Isaiah, one in Jeremiah, one in Hosea. The NASB gets all the way up to 11 instances.
But interestingly, the Bible really doesn’t use the word languishing the way that Adam Grant is here in the New York Times. Biblically speaking, languishing is always much more dire, much more severe, withering and desperate. I’ll give you an example: Jeremiah 14:2, which is in all of the translations, it’s about a drought and it says, “Judah mourns and her gates languish, her people lament on the ground and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.” So there’s a common core here between the way that Grant is using it and the way that Jeremiah is using it. There’s an inactivity and a sense of slow withering. But even though it’s technically there, we want to listen carefully. What is it that Grant is highlighting here in 2021 and where does Scripture speak into that?
And we’re actually going to find Scripture has a lot to say about it, but it’s not so much in the word languishing as in a variety of other places. So where does the Bible go with what Grant is calling languishing? Well, there’s a bunch of things and we have a theology of the heart that actually allows us to have an enormous amount of nuance and dexterity when we’re analyzing our emotions. So Scripture doesn’t just have one thing to say about this experience. It actually comes at it from a number of angles. Let me just throw a couple out there and I’ll move through these very quickly. We’re not trying to delve into any of them.
Think about the opening of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity, vanity. There’s nothing new under the sun.” No excitement for the future.
Think about Job and one admittedly small aspect of his suffering that he talks about is that time rolls along and it doesn’t bring any good change. The days slip away from you, but the uncomfortable moments seem to drag on forever. Chapter seven, verses four and six, “When I lie down I think, how long before I get up? The night drags on and I toss till dawn, my days are swifter than a Weaver’s shuttle and they come to an end without hope.” There’s this quick, quick days, slow moments.
Think about Proverbs. For example, 15:19, “The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns.” For the sluggard, for the one who’s struggling to be motivated about anything, everything is hard. Every step is a battle. I just don’t feel like doing any of it. And now of course, the word sluggard brings in a moral component here, doesn’t it? Right, it’s now challenging us to see this kind of weariness in moral categories. This is a temptation, this is not a good thing. It’s not simply describing a suffering the way that Job is here.
Think about weariness in Proverbs. Again, chapter 30 beginning of “I’m weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out.” And then he goes on to say, “Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom.” We might translate this into our vernacular by saying, I am just so life weary. It’s like, I can’t even think anymore.
Or take the wilderness imagery, right? Being dragged day by day through the wilderness: unrelenting scenery, life is hard. It’s not an abundant flourishing place. I feel tired. I feel hot. It’s dusty. It’s hard to find water. Tomorrow isn’t likely to be any different.
So bottom line, the Bible has a lot to say about the blah you’re feeling.
So what do we do about it?
Well, Grant suggests a few ideas, including getting into a focus of what he calls flow, which is basically getting into the zone on your work. He talks about finding small wins so you can kind of increase your sense of motivation through some little micro steps, talks about carving out dedicated time for thinking work, where you’re not just being pulled in a bunch of different directions by a bunch of distractions and in and of themselves, these are all completely fair, fine ideas. But Scripture offers us more than this, right? Let’s just take one theme. Let’s take one aspect of this. What might Scripture say, what does Scripture say to us? Literally when we are waking up in the morning and when we’re waking up in the morning with the experience of being in the wilderness. What does Scripture have to say to people waking up in the wilderness?
Well, let’s think for a moment. What is a biblical hope for people in the wilderness? A dry and weary land, where there is no water. What are we hoping for? Well, I would say the overwhelmingly most significant theme, the hope that comes vastly to the front, when we think about the wilderness is simply this. It is that God is with you. You are not alone in the wilderness. And that’s no consolation prize. It’s not like, well, the wilderness is really hard. It’s just going to be tough, but well, you know, at least God is with you and that’s, that’s got to be worth something, right? No, not at all. If God is with you, it changes everything about whatever situation you find yourself in. In particular, the people of Israel in the wilderness, here are some of the aspects of that, right? “God with you” meant a literal, visible pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. God was very interested in making it clear to a large group of people, “I am here. I am with you,” right?
He would give them direction for that day. They would follow the cloud. And if the cloud stopped, they stopped. If the cloud went on, they would go on. He gave them guidance. Now it was a guidance that took them on a very circuitous route through the wilderness. They did not take a straight line from Egypt to Canaan, getting there as quickly as possible. This was not an efficient trip, saving on gas mileage and taking all the shortcuts to get there as quickly as possible. God had more in mind than that, but it wasn’t an aimless wandering with no purpose to it. God didn’t get lost on his way from where he wanted the people to go. Actually every day and every step and every move was designed for their good.
And so another aspect of God being with you, is if he’s with you, you’re going to see that he is there. There’s going to be direction for your day. And there’s actually this promise. The journey itself will shape you. Life is not just about getting stuff done and being more effective at work or having better conversations with your friends or advancing ministry with your church. There is a promise that the journey itself will be this good shaping thing. And then on top of that, there’s a promise of care. God said, I will take you through this. I will give you manna. I will give you quail. I will give you water. Your sandals will not wear out, which I understand not to mean that somehow everyone’s sandals were magical, but rather that there would be enough provision for people to have sandals. They would be able to have the things they needed as they walked through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, which, oh, by the way, the presence of “God with you” ultimately is “I am taking you somewhere better than you can imagine.”
I’m taking you to a land flowing with milk and honey, right? So, what is your hope in the wilderness? Your hope in the wilderness is: God is actually here with me. And if he’s here, if he is up to his good purposes, if I can trust him, whichever direction the cloud might go today and however far we get and however efficient or inefficient, it might seem, if I can know the journey through the wilderness with him is utterly, utterly secure and is utterly hopeful that wherever that path is taking me, he’s going to care for me along the way. He’s going to shape me through the process. And he’s going to end me somewhere that I want to be even more than I can imagine. If that’s true, that changes everything about the genuine and real distress, right? You really are in the wilderness.
So let’s come all the way back to our opening question.
What’s it like for you, getting up in the morning? How long does it take you to get out of bed when you first wake up? I’ll share my own experience. I decided a while back, I was just going to give myself five minutes to just sit in bed when I woke up. I hate waking up. I’m trying to become more of a morning person. I’m not by nature. It’s just hard. Those first couple minutes of the day. I feel like all I want in the world is to go back to sleep, and that’s on a good day. It’s hard to get out of bed for me. So I said, you know what? I’m just giving myself five minutes every day. All I have to do, my only responsibility in the whole world is to sit in my bed and just stare at the wall and try to slowly accept the fact that I’m awake and I need to be awake for a bit.
And then I also have a little thing I started to do where I check my to-do list but only check the part where I put stuff that says, “Hey, you need to think about this, this morning.” And I’m trying to keep that list as short as possible. So it would not be an exaggeration to say that I wake up pretty much every morning feeling uninspired. But I would agree with Grant, I’d say it has gotten harder. The chances of me turning my five minutes into 10, the chances of me starting to pull up an email or two, or maybe even my chess app and just doing anything to sort of postpone stepping into the day. I would say that temptation has indeed grown and the lack of motivation to get out of bed has probably changed at least a little bit, although it was already pretty strong before.
I certainly didn’t need a pandemic to struggle getting out of bed. So what if, what if tomorrow, what if instead of sitting there and hating the fact that I’m awake and just leaving it there, what if I were to focus on the fact that the Lord is with me in the wilderness? In particular, I’m thinking for myself, what if before I got out of bed, as I’m sitting there in those five minutes, what if I, number one, took comfort that I really am in the wilderness? This world is broken and fallen. It really is hard. There really is a validity to the fact that it is hard to face a day on this planet, in this life with all the weariness that comes with that.
So what if I, what if I reminded myself I’m actually in the wilderness? This isn’t just laziness, although, believe me, there can easily be that slipping into the picture too. The sluggard is not an unknown image for me. But, secondly, what if I then also reminded myself God has said he’ll be with me. Whether this day is an easy straight line and I get lots done, or whether it feels totally inefficient and I get to night and I feel like I’m behind where I started. Ultimately, that doesn’t change anything about the fact that God said, “I will go with you.” And all those promises that were there for the people of Israel, of care and of being shaped by the journey and going somewhere good, those are all promises that have been magnified to me in Christ. Now, would I like a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud going through the day, you know, I think I would, it’s easy to imagine that I might, although it actually might get a little stressful.
But think about the fact that that pillar of fire, well, the Holy Spirit descended as a tongue of fire on the heads of the apostles at Pentecost, that fire is living inside of me. All of those of us who know Christ, we actually have the pillar of fire in our hearts saying, “I will guide you. I will be with you. I will bring energy to you. I will walk with you every step.” That is pretty cool. And I would like to think about such things in the morning. I’d like my five minutes to start to be filled with the reminder that God is with me in the wilderness. And that makes all the difference.
So, what was it like getting out of bed this morning for you? Are you still in bed right now, as you listened to this? What would be different about your day tomorrow if you woke up and remembered that you were in the wilderness? And that it’s okay to feel weary and that God himself says he will be with you on whatever adventure your day may bring.