Call it the tie that binds our working lives across a spectrum of vocations and industries: the anxiety of unfinished work. No matter what your daily work is, it’s likely you’re staring at stacks and piles of work at the end of your day—after a day of working really hard. Whether those stacks and piles are physical, virtual, digital, or mental, the volume of tasks that one faces in their work can create a tremendous amount of anxiety. The tie that binds us can hold us in mental or emotional bondage—we feel bound by what is unfinished, what needs to be done. There is no freedom in our work because of the unfinished work we have.
Email makes this worse. Inbox zero is either a rare feat or an impossible dream. When email becomes a substitute for relationship—whether personal or professional—there’s the added stress of responding to electronic messages that cannot replace the substance of personal conversation.
Every vocation has high seasons of intensity and, as Nassim Taleb says, stressors are important for our personal growth. But chronic stressors that take over our mental and spiritual lives quickly bring adverse effects to personal health and relationships. Knowing how to use stress to our advantage means facing anxiety head-on and approaching unfinished work in a different way.
Facing My Unfinished Work as Pastor
In seminary I heard this statement dozens of times—a pastor will always have more work to do at the end of each day. Ten years of serving in the local church and I can say that is definitely true. I’m not bored, that’s for sure.
But in some circles, the implied message for pastors given this reality has been to respond to the numerous needs and do your best with the random patterns of ministry. Yet this approach doesn’t require practicing the presence of God; instead it encourages pastors to become ‘quivering masses of availability,’ as Stanley Hauerwas puts it.
In the three years since I became a senior pastor, I’ve seen that my attitude and approach to the unfinished nature of my work is essential to longetivity in my vocation.
Practicing Sabbath is essential, but one day of rest isn’t the only answer. A rule of life is an indispensable tool given numerous needs, but it doesn’t eliminate every unfinished task. There’s a place for growing in organizational skillsand that’s been a vital part of confronting the anxiety of unfinished work, but it won’t save me from my battle with work anxiety.
Anxiety is an invisible, inner battle. There’s no way of eradicating anxiety; in fact, seeking that imagined possibility only makes anxiety increase. Here the teaching of the desert fathers and clinical psychology agree with one another: let anxiety be present and don’t give into its threats. The desert fathers called anxiety ‘the demon of fear.’ The best way to ‘let the anxiety be’ is by turning to the power of Jesus, praying His Name. Faced with the anxiety of endless lists in my mind, I simply call on the power of Jesus’ Name. I am a servant, not a savior. Unfinished work becomes my friend to help me grow in humility and trust, reminding me I’m never meant to be a savior.
I suspect one way our ancient Enemy seeks to subvert good leaders, good works, and good vision is by tempting men and women to chase down every unfinished task until they’re worn out. If the Enemy cannot defeat you through vices, he’ll aim for your virtues regarding daily work. Burnout is one of his favorite ways of attacking leaders. If you ground your identity in Christ rather than your vocation, the Christ who lives within you begins to overcome the Enemy and his demon of fear. You’re free to work and dream, knowing your work isn’t your salvation.
Vision, Growth, and Unfinished Work
Reinhold Neibuhr famously said, ‘Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.’ I think of Neibuhr’s wisdom often, especially when I think about the vision, dreams, and hopes I have for the church I serve. When a church or organization experiences a season of growth, embracing unfinished work is essential. Growth is exciting, but it becomes burdensome when completing projects and tasks become more important than living healthy, fulfilling lives.
As I’ve grown as a pastor, I’ve learned that my vision and hopes for ministry cannot be accomplished in a month or even a year. That begins to put into perspective how I approach a single day or week. Patience is essential. Focus is essential. Integration of long-term vision with day-to-day activities is essential. But I cannot bring vision into reality through my effort. The way God brings vision into reality has always been a mystery.
The Biblical Wisdom of Going to Sleep
As I’m learning how to overcome anxiety with unfinished work, I’m learning to trust Jesus’ wisdom about daily work. One of the most important parables for my vocational life is Jesus’ story of a farmer sowing seeds.
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4.26–29, ESV)
A farmer sows seeds—this is his task. Then he goes to sleep. The marvel of harvesting that labor is a mystery—‘he knows not how.’ This is very different than the nights I spend ruminating about accomplishing the tasks on my to-do list. Finding the peace to sleep when troubled with work anxiety can only come through releasing the results to God alone.
The Only Finished Works
In the biblical vision of completed work, three truths shape our understanding of truly finished work. God finishes his work of creation at the end of six days. Jesus completes the work of atonement when he cries ‘it is finished’ from the cross. The Holy Spirit will complete the work of new creation at the end of time. Meditating on God’scompleting works, not our own, is the first step in overcoming the anxiety of unfinished work. All our works are ‘begun, continued, and ended’ in the Triune God.
At Apostles, we conclude our service with a brief Kenyan liturgy of the cross before we are sent into mission. Perhaps this is the only way to enter, continue, and conclude the mission God has given us.
Leader: All our problems?
All: We send to the cross of Christ
All our difficulties?
We send to the cross of Christ
All the devil’s works?
We send to the cross of Christ
All our hopes?
We set on the risen Christ.
And perhaps this is the best way to begin and end the day, each day and every day, regardless of what work remains when you go to sleep.