Love is Not a “To-Do” List

By Meryl Herr

August 7, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders, Rest

I love a to-do list. How about you? 

Do you use the latest and greatest app on your phone? Are you one of those productivity geniuses who can keep it all in their head? My friend used to write all of her to-dos on the back of her hand with a Sharpie. Me? I’ve tried the whole Getting Things Done system but now use a combination of sticky notes, Asana, and my Google calendar. (I know, I probably need an intervention.)

I love a to-do list so much that my brain likes to think everything in life–including following Jesus–needs to be broken down into smaller tasks so that they can be checked off. Do justice. Check. Love mercy. Check. Walk humbly before your God. Check. 

Okay, maybe I can’t check it all off because I’m an imperfect, finite human being. But even thinking about my life with Jesus as a to-do list is exhausting. It can lead to overwork—even burnout. And it’s not the way we’re to live or to love. That’s why I think it’s important to take our cues from Jesus—not only what he taught but how he lived. If we isolate the teachings of Jesus from his example, it’s easy to see how we can turn his commandments into items on a checklist. Let’s look at an example.

Learning from Jesus’ Teaching about Love

In Mark’s gospel, we read that some of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law asked Jesus several questions, and some of them were trying to “catch him” in his words to reduce his credibility and prove he was not the Son of God. One teacher asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28, NRSV). New Testament scholars point out that he wasn’t asking Jesus which commandment was most important. Rather, he was asking for a rabbi to summarize the teachings of the Scriptures, a common practice of the day. Mark records,

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 27:29-31, NRSV)

Jesus brought together two commandments about love to capture the essence of what it means to follow God. David E. Garland puts it this way: “God does not love only certain portions of us, but the whole person; therefore, we are to love God with our whole selves. God does not save us by fractions, and we are not to offer God a mere fraction of ourselves.” 

We’re to love God with our entire being. It’s about the whole, not the parts. But my brain that loves lists breaks it down into a matter of heart, soul, mind, strength, and neighbor. And the result is some anxious striving: all of me, trying to love all of God and all the people entrusted to my care, all the time. But Jesus didn’t intend for this to be a checklist. And he didn’t intend for this command to mean that every hour of the day should be fully devoted to acts of love toward God and neighbor. Sometimes we need to slow down to receive God’s love and to care for ourselves. We see this exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Learning from Jesus’ Life of Love

If anyone in the history of the human race ever had a mission that was both urgent and important, it was Jesus. When we read the Gospels, we may get the impression that the three years of Jesus’ ministry before his death were brimming with activity. We see him and his disciples traveling from city to city—often by foot or by boat. The ease of planes, trains, and automobiles was not part of the picture 2,000 years ago. And once they got wherever they were going, Jesus would teach on the hillsides or in the synagogues, heal the sick, and set the captives free. 

Yet Jesus, who loved God and neighbor perfectly, slowed down and took time to rest. In the Gospel of Mark, we see four different ways Jesus engaged in restorative practices that gave him the nourishment and strength to continue his work. 

Jesus Prayed

The Gospels don’t give us a precise timeline of Jesus’ ministry, but we get the sense that the earliest days beyond his baptism were busy. After his forty days in the wilderness, he began proclaiming the good news in Galilee; he called his first disciples; drove out an impure spirit; healed Simon’s mother-in-law; healed a whole host of people; and drove out many more demons.  

One morning, Mark records, Jesus got up very early “while it was still dark” and he “left the house and went off to a solitary place where he prayed” (Mark 2:35). We don’t know what he prayed. Perhaps he sat with God in silence, waiting to hear from his Father. Maybe he borrowed the language of the Psalms to pour out his heart before God. Regardless of what or how we prayed, Jesus took time to commune with God. 

Jesus could have been working. In fact, the disciples went looking for him because apparently, everyone else was looking for Jesus. He had more teaching, healing, and freeing to do. But at this moment, he prioritized prayer.

Jesus Slept

It’s easy to forget that the Savior of the world was fully human. God indwelled a body that hungered, thirsted, and tired. In Mark 4, we find Jesus and his disciples on a boat after a long day of teaching by the lake. “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” (Mark 4:37-38a). 

If you’ve heard this passage taught you know that the disciples’ final words in this story capture the main point: “Even the wind and the waves obey him!” Yet while we marvel at his authority over creation, let’s not overlook the fact that Jesus was a human as well—a human who had limits, a person who needed sleep

Jesus Rested

Jesus didn’t do his work alone; he equipped his disciples and sent them out “two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits” (Mark 6:7). He empowered them to preach the good news, heal the sick, drive out demons, and called them to engage in his ministry. It makes me think of a manager hiring a team of twelve, thoroughly training them, and then releasing them to do the work on their own.

And like a good manager, Jesus cared not only about the work the disciples did but also about their rest. Mark writes, 

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:30-31). 

Jesus modeled the importance of rest and invited his disciples into it. 

Jesus Feasted

Near the end of his life, we see Jesus stepping away from his regular tasks of ministry to eat with others. In Mark 14:3, we see him “reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper” where a woman would anoint his head with expensive perfume. A couple of days later, Jesus celebrated the Passover, sharing a meal with his closest friends. 

Feasting takes time. It’s not shoveling down fast food to save time so that you can hurry to the next thing. It’s lingering. It’s enjoying the company of others. It’s delighting in the bread and the cup. It is not rushed. 

Laying Down the List

We don’t need to overwork in our jobs or in our efforts to honor the commands of God. In Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, Dallas Willard reminds us that overwork is a serious spiritual and physical problem: 

In our current world this is a primary misuse of the body. It is now said that work is the new ‘drug of choice.’ Often this is associated with excessive competition and trying to beat others out in some area of our common life. Sometimes this is just a matter of wearing our body out in order to succeed—often in circumstances that we regard (perhaps rightly) as imposed upon us by others. It is still a misuse of the body and a failure to work things out with God. God never gives us too much to do. He long ago gave us these words: ‘It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows, for so he giveth his beloved sleep’ (Psalm 127:2, KJV).

What we see from Jesus’ life, work, and leadership is that it’s okay, even good, to slow down and rest. We can lay down our to-do list. Loving God and neighbor does not require our striving to the point of utter depletion. At the foundation of the world, God gave us the gift of rest in the form of a weekly Sabbath. And we can experience the delight of Sabbath rest in myriad ways through the course of our week. Yes, we can and should love God with every ounce of our being, but this good work must be balanced by good rest—rest for our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies.

Banner image by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash.

Meryl Herr

Director of Research and Resources

Dr. Meryl Herr is the Director of Research and Resources at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she designs and conducts research studies that add to the understanding of what helps marketplace leaders flourish. She also oversees the team’s efforts to convert research findings into r...

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