Do you have a to-do list? Do you even like to-do lists?
I write to-do lists because it helps get the buzz out of my head—a swirling confusion of many things yet to do. And they help ease a lurking dread that, if I don’t write them down, I will forget something important or urgent or boringly mundane.
Although preventing my head from exploding is an honourable goal, I often immediately regret writing a to-do list. Too soon it becomes a severe taskmaster that rules my priorities and conscience, and it seems only to expand rather than reduce. As soon as I begin ticking things off the list, any sense of achievement is fleeting; inevitably, I think of something else that should be added to the list. Before I forget it. And so it goes and so it grows.
I’m sure other people do far better with their to-do lists. In fact, I have friends who know how to give each item the correct priority and attend to each one methodically and efficiently. I imagine them reaching the end with a satisfied smile and putting their feet up to enjoy an impeccably brewed beverage.
Real or imaginary, perfecters of to-do lists also haunt me as I limp towards the never-end of my list. I dread the next list I will inevitably create and my hastily-made beverage gets cold, forgotten.
My never-ending to-do lists are really Magic Pudding lists—they never, never run out. And occasionally, I find one languishing at the bottom of a pile of papers and books, mute testament to my inability either to complete it or to throw it away.
I will probably have an unfinished to-do list on the day I die. But I’m trying to figure out whether that will matter.
What matters: Common sense tells me that on the day I go to be with the Lord it really won’t matter whether I’ve put out the bins, washed the dishes, backed-up my laptop or changed my haircut appointment. And common sense assures me that if the Lord calls me home before I’ve paid the plumber, returned a borrowed DVD, completed my tax return or finished this sentence, then three of these four things can be achieved by others after I’ve gone. And an incomplete sentence really doesn’t …
So why do I keep writing to-do lists when they torment me so much? I think my reasons are almost sane. I write them because they give me a vague sense of direction, provide evidence of work done and help me pretend that I have things under control. And, very occasionally, to-do lists help me to face up to the things I’d rather avoid, so that I actually get them done.
It goes deeper, though, down through the stratum of daily struggles to the bedrock of basic human need. As I begin ticking off the items on my to-do lists, I’m glad to be completing each task; but more than that, each tick takes me closer to my ultimate objective—the end of the list. While the end represents some measure of achievement, for me it also represents an opportunity to stop striving. To put my feet up. You see, the end of each list represents rest.
But, sometimes I get so tired, so ragged-weary, so care-worn-out, that the prospect of rest is like a mirage hovering on the distant horizon, tantalising and elusive. Work is never done—really done. The floors always need sweeping, the papers always need sorting and the lawn always needs trimming. Whether I write lists or not, there is always more to do.
And even if I reach the end of a to-do list, my enjoyment of rest is always tempered by the knowledge that it’s only temporary. Transitory. Impermanent. No matter how much I might strive for the satisfaction of tasks completed and the relief of rest enjoyed, tasks have no enduring value and rest has no long-term effect. Like the world I live in, they do not last and they will one day pass away.
The rest I need: So where is the comfort and meaning in the midst of this? Well, here is where Jesus’ words sing to my heart —the heart that longs for satisfaction and rest:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matt 11:28-30).
What a paradox! Jesus invites me to come to him in my weariness and receive rest, but it’s not the ‘putting my feet up’ kind of rest that I crave. It’s the ‘take my yoke upon you and learn from me’ kind of rest. He knows that I’m worn out and falling-down tired. And yet, he also knows that what I need far more than physical rest is rest for my soul.
Being yoked to him, like a team of labouring oxen, is a strange but simple image that helps me to remember how blessed I am to trust in a humble and gentle Saviour. He knew what it was like to work—the labour, the sweat, the frustration of work in our imperfect world. He knew what it was like to be tempted—the danger, the inner conflict, how it feels to be tempted. He knew what it was like to be powerless—the fear, the agony, how it feels to be vulnerable.
But even though he is the King of Glory, Jesus did not complain when he worked, he did not protest when tempted, and he did not retaliate when unjustly sentenced to death. Rather, in all things he submitted to his Father’s will—his yoke—even when his soul was in anguish and he was forsaken.
As I follow this Saviour and find my rest in him, his yoke directs me and he lightens my load. It’s still work, but I do not have to accomplish it alone. I still have a to-do list, but it has one single-minded priority and purpose—to live and work in tandem with him. For him. I still get worn down, but I know he is with me and he will ensure that I reach heaven and the ultimate rest—being with him forever.
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