Fresh Starts When Right Becomes Routine | January 2013 Article
Lying on his bed with his ears plugged by earbuds from an iPod containing 1,200 songs, a 14-year-old boy stares like a zombie at a television with 147 channels. He holds the controller, playing one of more than 30 games in a video game system exceeding 60 levels throughout four different worlds. His iPhone lying beside him beeps yet again as he receives his 94th text of the day, while the glow from his 27-inch iMac computer reveals dozens of unread entries from more than 350 Facebook friends. His mother finally opens the door after knocking three times and asks how he is doing.
His response? “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do.”
Adults can feel like this, as well, but for different reasons. A man gets up every day at the same time and goes to the same job. Wives do the same laundry and fix many of the same meals for the same people. Husbands and wives say, “I love you,” to the same person they’ve said it to for 25 years. They slip into bed at night with the same person as the last 9,125 nights. Children get up and go to the same classroom. Home school children can end up with the same teacher for every class for years. A prospective musician practices the same piece hundreds of times in preparation for a recital. Church members sing words to songs they’ve repeated countless times and listen to the same voice preach hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Christians read verses they’ve heard quoted and preached in more services than they can remember.
We call these routines. All are good and necessary parts of basic life. Routines like these provide the foundation for some of life’s richest blessings. Without them, much of what we value could not exist. What happens, though, when right becomes routine? Boring? Mundane? I spend an increasing amount of time talking to people who are bored and uninterested in the lives they live, all the while living in a culture with more access to stimulation than possibly any other time in human history. The vast majority of these people would profess to know Christ.
Boredom seems such a dreaded word these days. Many have a mindset that believes their personal boredom is evidence that someone else isn’t doing his job. Teens think their parents are responsible for keeping their lives stimulating. Students think their teachers are not doing their jobs if math turns mundane. Employees complain to their employers if their work happens to get tedious. Husbands and wives sometimes blame each other if the marriage excitement slacks off a bit. Any more, being bored is treated as a violation of our constitutional rights.
If boredom isn’t dealt with properly, it can lead to some pretty serious decisions. The seriousness becomes most grave when the activity that brought boredom is a right and necessary routine. People can turn into zombies who walk around uninterested in the most important part of their lives, disconnected from the people who need them the most. Worse, they walk out of lives that most would call wonderful simply because it doesn’t register high enough on their Richter scale of excitement. T. H. Wright called boredom the “fatal surrender of initiative” or the “malady of not wanting.” Richard Winter described boredom as the active desire not to do the things that are available. It is a serious condition for a people called to be salt and light.
Are you bored with any parts of your life right now? Do you have a desire not to do the routines that are your responsibility at this point in life? Are there some important areas you are so tired of that you look for a way out? Is it possible that you simply feel stuck in some mundane existence that isn’t quite what you expected?
I would like to encourage you to consider a fresh start, while also cautioning you about fresh starts. There are two ways to look at a fresh start. The first involves what is far too typical today and that is injecting more stimulation. The other is to revive the meaning of some important routine that has lost its appeal.
First is the caution. It almost seems an automatic solution to add more stimulation as a fresh start. Have you noticed that everything demands stimulation these days? Restaurants that sell bland food don’t stay in business. The packaging for food, especially to kids, has to be entertaining. If a company wants to sell more, it doesn’t have to change the product, just give the packaging an exciting makeover. I was amused recently to see that a shampoo bottle included the words “New Look!!” in bold, bright letters. What was amusing was that the new look was referring to the bottle, not the consumer’s hair. Sports have gone through the stimulation makeover by going extreme. Colleges know the most stimulating uniforms have a huge impact on high school recruits. Video games are growing exponentially in violence and variety. Television is the king of stimulation and demonstrates that once you start down the path of stimulation, you create an endless thirst for more. I experienced this a few nights ago when my wife, Lisa, and I were looking for a particular football game on TV at the hotel where we were staying. One channel had a young lady sitting in a swing singing a fairly beautiful song. Moments later the camera panned back and the swing was lowered into a tank of water that huge snakes were being poured into. We guessed the idea was seeing if she could keep singing under those conditions. Beautiful singing is boring. Now we want to see if someone can do this in a snake-infested pool. Is there an area of our culture untouched by unbridled stimulation?
If we buy into this answer to avert boredom, it will come at a price. If you’re bored with your church, find one more exciting. If another church is not an option, write the pastor a note explaining that he really should use more media and stories to keep you awake. If the hymns are dull and lifeless, push for music with a more modern flair to it. Apply more technology and “digitality” and there will be new life in no time. How about marriage? If your mate of 5 or 20 or 40 years just doesn’t do for you what he or she used to, find another who is fresh and new. Surely, three marriages each lasting 10 years are more exciting than one marriage that lasts 30 years. Men bored with their jobs will uproot a family from their church, school, and friends, just to have more stimulating work.
A fresh start that involves ditching the old for something new, just because it is new, will start a vicious cycle. What would you say if I told you that stimulation doesn’t solve boredom, it actually creates it? The rise in boredom in our culture actually correlates with an increase in stimulation. Think of it like a callus on the skin. When some part of the skin experiences too much stimulation or friction, the body comes to the rescue and builds additional layers of skin. This skin has little ability to feel once the layers grow over. The layers grew thicker because of the stimulation; therefore, it will also take even more stimulation before the affected area can feel anything.
This will turn out to be dangerous to Christian families and New Testament churches to the extent that they buy into this way of fixing the mundane. How many families would be bored out of their minds if the television were not on every night for stimulation? Turn it off and watch most families sit in silence and stare at each other, if they are not fussing and fighting. Mega churches are doing some of the craziest things because they found the ways they inherited boring and have, instead, given the consumers what they wanted—more stimulating Christianity. Many independent Baptist churches are simply on the service road next to the same highway, unwilling to admit that they prefer fresh starts by stimulation to the challenge of this next way of fixing boredom.
Another way to deal with boredom is revival. This way involves going back to the root cause of any activity and renewing a passion for its very reason for existence. It is easy to stray from the whys of ministry. Too many Christians have either forgotten or never known the why of what they do. Everything God says has a purpose and we need to know what that purpose is. This gets tough upon realizing that technology has conditioned us for instant gratification, which God is not obligated to honor. When we lose sight of these timeless reasons for what we do, instant gratification takes over and we start to measure by feelings more than by faithfulness. Have we forgotten that faithfulness ultimately produces much deeper and more gratifying feelings than feelings without faithfulness? We will never get enough of that which cannot truly satisfy.
Paul didn’t propose stimulation as the solution to Christian boredom. He proposed remaining steadfast and unmovable by remembering a key factor—your labor would not be in vain before the Lord (I Cor. 15:58). He told the Galatian church the key to fending off weariness was to remember that God has a due season (Gal. 6:9). Injecting some stimulus wouldn’t produce the same result. He said the way to avoid becoming slothful in ministry was not by a makeover, but by going back to the truth that it would be completely unrighteous of Him if He forgot your work and labor of love in His name (Heb. 6:10-12).
Most of the time what we need is a fresh vision of past truth. Neither Lisa nor I is the same “configuration” we were 28 years ago. The pressures of ministry and children have changed us in many ways. How is it possible for our marriage to be richer when there really isn’t anything new to do or know about each other? We have to constantly go back to a time when we chose to love each other and make some promises based on what God said about marriage. No amount of stimulation can satisfy as much as that. I confess to feeling the same way about church services. Apply this to the singing of hymns. If your congregation doesn’t like them, you can either revive their heart towards hymns or kill them off and find something more stimulating. Apply this to preaching. If the folks don’t like straight Bible preaching, you have the choice of leading a revival of the power of preaching or you can add stimulation. You’ll get what you pay for.
We ought never oppose new just because it is new. But, we ought to be wise and honest enough to admit when we are using new as stimulation simply because we can’t seem to revive the existing. When right becomes routine, we can sometimes use a fresh start. When the routine is truly right, the right fresh start will always prioritize revival over stimulation.