The Tyranny of the Urgent

Title: The Tyranny of the Urgent

Bible Book: Matthew 6 : 33

Author: Frank Page

Subject: Time; Priorities



For several weeks we have been looking at Terrorism in the Spiritual World. We began by looking at the enemies that we face. Those enemies are: the world, the flesh, and the devil. We spent time identifying how we must not love the world and how the world, as scripturally defined, is at war with God. We spent several weeks talking about the flesh, the internal struggle that we all face. We talked about he fact that it is a universal struggle and that there are two natures and two forces with which we all deal.

We spent three Sundays talking about the chief enemy, the devil. We spent time studying out of Ephesians, I Peter, as well as John 8, to see how the Scripture describes our enemy so that we might battle him more effectively.

Beginning today, we move into a new area. There are so many areas in which the evil one seeks to defeat us. Some of those areas are the church, the family, the work place, the pocketbook, etc. We also know that he deals with us on a personal level. Therefore, beginning today we are going to deal with some of the personal areas of warfare. The issue with which we shall deal today is the issue of life, how to deal with life, and how to deal with life with all of its anxieties and time pressures.

Have you ever wished for a thirty-hour day? Surely this extra time would relieve the tremendous pressure under which we live. Our lives leave a trail of unfinished tasks. Unanswered letters, unvisited friends, unwritten articles, and unread books haunt quiet moments when we stop to evaluate. We desperately need relief.

Would a thirty-hour day really solve the problem? Wouldn’t we soon be just as frustrated as we are now with our twenty-four allotment? A mother’s work is never finished, and neither is that of any student, teacher, minister, or anyone else we know. Nor will the passage of time help us catch up. Children grow in number and age to require more of our time. Greater experience in our jobs brings more exacting assignments. So we find ourselves working more and enjoying it less.

When we stop to evaluate, we realize that our dilemma goes deeper than shortage of time. It is basically the problem of priorities. Hard work does not hurt us. We all know what it is to go full speed for long hours, totally involved in an important task. The resulting weariness is matched by a sense of achievement and joy. Not hard work, but doubt and misgiving produce anxiety as we reviewamonth or year and become oppressed by the pile of unfinished tasks. We sense uneasily that we may have failed to do the important. We confess, quite apart from our sins, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

I recently received a book from Denise George, wife of my friend Timothy George. She is a prolific writer and a very good one. She wrote a new book entitled, "What Women Wish Pastors Knew." By the way, chapter 1 is, "Pastor, I am tired." Do you any of you identify with that statement? Several years ago I read a booklet entitled, “The Tyranny of the Urgent.” In it was this statement, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” It hit me hard. It often returns to haunt and rebuke me by raising the critical problem of priorities.

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today, or even this week. Extra hours of prayer and Bible study, a visit with that non-Christian friend, careful study of an important book . . . these projects can wait. But the urgent tasks call for instant action–endless demands pressure every hour and day.

A man’s home is no longer his castle. It is no longer a place away from urgent tasks because the telephone and e-mail breaches the walls with its demands. The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades. With a sense of loss we recall the important tasks pushed aside. We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent. Writer Ann Wells tells an interesting story in the Los Angeles Times. She tells of the time when her sister died and she and her brother-in-law did the sad task of going through her sister’s personal belongings. One of the things they found in a bottom drawer of her sister’s bureau was a wonderfully wrapped piece of clothing. It was a very exquisite, hand-made silk piece of ladies clothing. The price tag was still there with an astronomical figure upon it. The brother-in-law said, “She bought this when we went to New York at least eight or nine years ago. She never wore it, she was always saving it for a special occasion.” He then turned to me and said, “Don’t ever save anything for a special occasion. Every day you are alive is a special occasion.” She went on to talk about how that one sentence has changed her life. In other words, the important things of her life are becoming far more a part of her daily existence rather than just the urgent things of everyday life. She said, “Someday” and “one of these days” are losing their grip in her vocabulary. If it is worth seeing or hearing or doing, she wants to see and hear and do it now. She said, “I am trying very hard not to put off, hold back, or save anything that would add laughter and luster to my life”.


Is there any escape from this pattern of living? As Easter people, can we find help? The answer lies in the life of our Lord. On the night before He died, Jesus made an astonishing claim. In the great prayer of John 17 He said, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” (v. 4). Turn there with me. How could Jesus use the word “finished”? His three-year ministry seemed all too short. A prostitute at Simon’s banquet had found forgiveness and a new life. Yet others did not get to Him. For every ten withered muscles that had flexed into health, a hundred remained impotent. Yet on that last night, with many useful tasks undone and urgent human needs unmet, the Lord had peace. He knew He had finished God’s work.

The gospel records show that Jesus worked hard. After describing a busy day Mark writes, “That evening, at sundown, they brought to Him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered about the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:32-34).

On another occasion the demand of the ill and maimed caused Him to miss supper and to work so late that His disciples thought He was beside Himself (Mark 3:21). One day after a strenuous teaching session, Jesus and His disciples went out in a boat. Even a storm didn’t awaken Him (Mark 4:37, 38). What a picture of exhaustion.

Yet His life was never feverish. He had time for people. He could spend hours talking to one person, such as the Samaritan woman at the well. His life showed a wonderful balance, a sense of timing. When His brothers wanted Him to go to Judea, He replied, “My time has not yet come” (John 7:6). Jesus did not ruin His gifts by haste. There is hope!


What was the secret of Jesus’ work? We find a clue following Mark’s account of Jesus’ busy day. Mark observes that, “. . . in the morning, a great while before day, He rose and went out to a lonely place, and there He prayed” (Mark 1:35). Here is the secret of Jesus’ life and work for God: He prayerfully waited for His Father’s instructions and for the strength to follow them. Jesus was given no divinely-drawn blueprint. He discerned the Father’s will day by day in a life of prayer.

By this means He warded off the urgent and accomplished the important. Lazarus’ death illustrates this principle.What could have been more important than the urgent message from Mary and Martha, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3)?

John records the Lord’s response in these paradoxical words, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (vs. 5-6). What was the urgent need? Obviously to prevent the death of this beloved brother. But the important thing from God’s point of view was to raise Lazarus from the dead. So Lazarus was allowed to die. Later Jesus revived him as the sign of His magnificent claim, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he die, yet shall he live” (v. 25).

We may wonder why our Lord’s ministry was so short, why it could not have lasted another five or ten years, why so many hurting people were left in their misery. Scripture gives no answer to these questions, and we leave them in the mystery of God’s purposes.

We do know that Jesus’ prayerful waiting for God’s instructions freed Him from the tyranny of the urgent. It gave Him a sense of direction, set a steady pace, and enabled Him to do every task God assigned. And on the last night He could say, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.”


Freedom from the tyranny of the urgent is found in the example and promise of our Lord. At the end of a vigorous debate with the Pharisees in Jerusalem, Jesus said to those who believed in Him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin . . . So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31, 32, 34, 36).

Many of us have experienced Christ’s deliverance from the penalty of sin. Are we letting Him free us from the tyranny of the urgent? He points the way: “If you continue in my word.” This is the way to freedom. Through prayerful meditation on God’s Word we gain His perspective.

When we fail to wait prayerfully for God’s guidance and strength we are saying, with our actions if not our lips, that we do not need Him. How much of our service is characterized by “going it alone”?

The opposite of such independence is prayer in which we acknowledge our need of God’s instruction and supply. Concerning a dependent relationship with God, Donald Baillie says, “Jesus lived His life in complete dependence upon God, as we all ought to live our lives. But such dependence does not destroy human personality. Man is never so truly and fully personal as when he is living in complete dependence upon God. This is how personality comes into its own. This is humanity at its most personal.”

Prayerful waiting on God is indispensable to effective service. Like the time-out in a football game, it enables us to catch our breath and fix new strategy. As we wait for directions the Lord frees us from the tyranny of the urgent. He shows us the truth about Himself, ourselves, and our tasks. He impresses on our minds the assignments He wants us to undertake. The need itself is not the call. The call must come from the God who knows our limitations. “The Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). It is not God who loads us until we bend or crack with an ulcer, nervous breakdown, heart attack, or stroke. These come from our inner compulsions coupled with the pressure of circumstances.


The modern businessperson recognizes this principle of taking time out for evaluation. When Greenwalt was president of DuPont, he said, “One minute spent in planning saves three or four minutes in execution.” Many salesmen have revolutionized their business and multiplied their profits by setting aside Friday afternoon to plan carefully the major activities for the coming week.

If an executive is too busy to stop and plan, he may find himself replaced by another man who takes time to plan. If the Christian is too busy to stop, take spiritual inventory, and receive his assignments from God, he becomes a slave to the tyranny of the urgent. He may work day and night to achieve much that seems significant to himself and others, but he will not finish the work God has for him to do.

A quiet time of meditation and prayer at the start of a day refocuses our relationship with God. Recommit yourself to His will as you think of the hours that follow.

In these unhurried moments list in order of priority the tasks to be done, taking into account commitments already made. A competent general always draws up his battle plan before he engages the enemy; he does not postpone basic decisions until the firing starts. But he is also prepared to change his plans if an emergency demands it. So try to implement the plans you have made before the day’s battle against the clock begins. But be open to any emergency interruption or unexpected person who may call.

You may also find it necessary to resist the temptation to accept an engagement when the invitation first comes over the telephone. No matter how clear the calendar may look at the moment, ask for a day or two to pray for guidance before committing yourself. Surprisingly the engagement often appears less imperative after the pleading voice has become silent. If you can withstand the urgency of the initial moment, you will be in a better position to weigh the cost and discern whether the task is God’s will for you.

In addition to your daily quiet time, set aside one hour a week for spiritual inventory. Write an evaluation of the past, record anything God may be teaching you, and plan objectives for the future. Also try to reserve most of one day each month for a similar inventory of longer range. Often you will fail. Ironically, the busier you get the more you need this time of inventory, but the less you seem to be able to take it. You become like the fanatic, who when unsure of his direction, doubles his speed. And frenetic service for God can become an escape from God. But when you prayerfully take inventory and plan your days, it provides fresh perspective on your work. Remember to prioritize your life after the admonition of Matthew 6:33 which says, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”


Over the years the greatest continuing struggle in the Christian life is the effort to make adequate time for daily waiting on God, weekly inventory, and monthly planning.

Since this time for receiving marching orders is so important, Satan will do everything he can to squeeze it out. Yet we know from experience that only by this means can we escape the tyranny of the urgent. This is how Jesus succeeded. He did not finish all the urgent tasks in Palestine or all the things He would have liked to do, but He did finish the work which God gave Him to do. The only alternative to frustration is to be sure that we are doing what God wants. Nothing substitutes for knowing that this day, this hour, in this place we are doing the will of the Father. Then and only then can we think of all the other unfinished tasks with equanimity and leave them with God.

What could give us greater joy than being sure that we have finished the work God gave us to do? The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ makes this fulfillment possible. He has promised deliverance from sin and the power to serve God in the tasks of His choice. The way is clear. If we continue in the word of our Lord, we are truly His disciples. And He will free us from the tyranny of the urgent, free us to do the important, which is the will of God.

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