Feeling Busy? Craig Denison Challenges Us to Live with Intention

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: Life is busy. Even during the pandemic there is a feeling of urgency and everything seems important. You say we need to live intentionally, what does that mean?

Craig Denison: Yeah, I experienced the same thing. Honestly in the pandemic I realized that the sort of core issue of busying myself and distracting myself away from what’s most important didn’t go away when travel went away, and when in-person meetings went away, and when so many things I used to think were just requirements went away, and were the reasons I was so busy. I think intentionality is just a different way to look at your life. To kind of take back control of your time and your energy, and to recognize that ultimately God has given us the authority and the ability to determine what we spend our life on. And obviously He guides us in that, and He leads us in that, but we still have to be a participant and have a yes, towards those things that we put our time and energy into.

And I find that unless I create some sort of system around the things that I believe matter most to me and matter most in life, then at the end of the day I can often feel like I spend a lot of energy and a lot of time doing a lot of things. But how do I know those things really ultimately achieved what matters most to me, the goals that I really want to have for my life. And intentionality helps us kind of take back control to seek those things that are most important.

RM: Your book has created a framework for us because Living Intentionally is not only something to read but it also has a workbook aspect, or areas where you respond to questions and fill in blanks to make it more personal, why is this so important?

CD: Yeah, my hope for the writing that I do is that it’s less informational and more transformational. My hope is that you’re not just getting informed intellectually about the opportunities that are available to you, but that everything that I do recognizes that God is here and He’s gone to really great lengths to make His presence, and His voice, and His will available to us. We have that in scripture, that scripture says that we are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. In the whole story, scripture tells us that God is not contained. That even if we go to the depths of hell or to the utmost steps of the Earth, that God is there, in the highest of heights that God is there as what Psalm 139 tells us. And so, my hope even with this book, is that I can recognize that and help the reader recognize that.

So at the end of every chapter where we kind of dive into these most important facets of life, at least I think areas like, spirituality, activity, relationships, media consumption. That at the end of every chapter, the real goal is that it guides you to a place of experience with God, a place of honest reflection. That’s not based on shame, but it’s based on grace and helps you uncover what you really want most out of life. And maybe even some ways, some practical steps you could take to be able to see those goals come to fruition.

RM: You say it’s important to designate a goal and then establish route to get there. Even though the goal may look different for each of us, what are some of the commonalities that we need to keep in mind?

CD: That’s a really great question. I think some of the commonalities is that so often our society values productivity, right? We value what we can see, what have you done for me? And I think one of the commonalities among all of our goals needs to be, recognizing that God flips that on its head and says “you are valuable before you do one thing for me.” That “you are loved before you do one thing for me.” And that life is a lot more about relationship than it is about being right or about producing anything visible that the world values. And so I think one of the most important aspects of any “rule of life” is the kind of system that I point to in living intentionally. One of the most important aspects of any rule of life is recognizing that we’re human beings more than we’re human doings, right?

And we need to be able to be the people of God, and be in relationship with God, and seek loving relationships with others. And often that looks active, right? Activity is such a vibrant and necessary part of faith in a relationship and, ultimately producing fruit for ourselves and God’s kingdom. But that needs to be birthed from a place of abiding, birthed from a place of identity, birthed from a place of setting aside the social or economic ladders. And seeking instead to make life really about relationship with God, or relationship with yourself in relationship with others.

RM: I think that’s an important distinction too, because being busy can be a positive thing. You can have soccer games to go to, and coffee dates with friends, or even a Bible study – essentially all of these things are good, but if they’re distracting you from other more important things, then it poses a problem. Where’s that line?

CD: Oh, it’s so good, yeah. I think it points to the story of Mary and Martha. Which I think is an often misunderstood story where Jesus says that Mary has chosen the one thing only that’s necessary, which is his feet. And it says the Martha is distracted by much serving. But you look, one of the most confusing parts of that passage is that all over scripture God tells us to serve, right? Like Jesus is the model of our serving. I think that key word is distracted, that Martha was actually distracted by her serving and I’m still guilty of this. I’m so guilty of maybe being timid or afraid of those things that really matter most in life and kind of busying myself to have this feeling of productivity. And that business can be actually distracting me from what matters most, or all of my activity can actually be birthed from a place of recognizing my inherent value, and can be birth from a place of that abiding connection. And therefore, can bear immense and natural fruit for others, and for myself, and for God’s kingdom. And so the serving and activity aspect, isn’t the wrong thing. It’s really, is it distracting us from the main thing or are we doing it instead, or if they’re going around the main thing. And I think once we establish that main thing that we can have it, we can exert all the energy we have every day, but let it be something that is actually fulfilling for us and ultimately bears fruit for the kingdom.

RM: Media Consumption is a chapter and wow, has this accelerated quickly in the past year. Share some of your thoughts and how we can navigate our online world.

CD: This is, I think one of the main reasons, I wanted to write “Living Intentionally” and speaking to a rule of life of kind of inviting us into this conversation about media consumption as a modern rule of life, because it’s so necessary to have a system for intentionality around that. You know, I wince every time I get that Sunday notification from my iPhone, that my screen report is available. You know, what percentage up or down from last week. I never really feel like I know exactly where I’m going to land with how much time I spent on my iPhone. Just as one of the ways I can consume media. And I think there’s some fascinating research out there about the impacts of social media on us, in our society, the impacts of new consumption in general. And this is not to say that all media is bad. My vocation is using modern media to help people connect with God in a meaningful way. And so I’m a big believer in actually the youth and the advancement of technology, even as an aspect of advancing God’s kingdom. But I think, even just draw a circle on social media for a second, and we can see that the reason that these social media apps are free is that we are their product, our attention is. And they’re selling our attention to the highest bidder through advertising. And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but the ways that they’ve accelerated their own bottom line, these companies are getting as much of our attention as possible.

And that means they’ve created these fairly addictive algorithms, that are really good at mining for our attention and keeping it. And I found that to be true. I actually made the decision myself to get off social media about three years ago. And I can’t tell you, for me, they were winning every day. I was not strong enough to fight the battle against the algorithm. My wife, actually is really gifted at social media. She actually meaningfully connects with people, and shares things and has a lot of meaningful relationships through social media, in addition to the other ways that she develops relationships. And so it’s been good for her, but for me, intentionality was just drawing a black and white decision.

But overall, I had to just say, is social media good or bad for me? Is it better for me or worse for me? I think it is worse than it is better. And so I cut it out of my life, and it’s been an incredible gift to me to have that mental and emotional space back in my day. In addition to intentionality around other media consumption, the most practical thing that I could offer is try to just set a timer or limit. There’s some great apps for that. But I do this, my phone tells me when it’s time to go to bed and I’m going to fight it every night because we’re down the rabbit hole of Netflix, watching our favorite show. But for me, I love to rewatch like “The Office” and “Parks and Rec,” over and over and over again much to my wife’s chagrin and in dismay.

But for me, it’s like hard when nine o’clock rolls around to not watch another episode of The Office. But it’s a great reminder I’ve set for myself. I’m going to get in bed at nine because my kids are going to wake up early and I want to have some time to read and get away from the screens to get a good night’s sleep. So I can wake up and remember I’m a full adult before my kids are awake, which is a positive experience for me. And so I think the most practical aspect is to recognize that there’s a lot of intentionality needed here, because companies are really good at mining for attention, and maybe set a series of timers to remind you of how much time you actually want to spend on these platforms. So you can make the decision and go into something else with your day.

RM: We can follow everything you say, and even hit goals, but without tying it to our faith it’s destined to fail. Why is the relationship piece so crucial?

CD: I think that’s a phenomenal question. I think for me, it’s multiple levels. One is on an understanding level. I think that so many aspects of the way that God has told us what matters in his kingdom, and the way that he’s really created this world, and in order to get the most sense, the growing sense of abundant life, what that really looks like. I think it’s totally, in so many ways, very different than the world that we live in. And so having an aspect of faith actually gives us a greater understanding of what matters in life. And unless we have that understanding of what matters in life, I don’t think we’re going to set the right system for intentionality, that’s going to produce the most amount of fruit in our life. And then even beyond setting rules, and systems, and ways that we want to be intentional with our life.

It’s so hard to stick to those without the power of the Holy spirit in our lives. For me, unless I spend dedicated time every morning, even just 15 minutes, setting my eyes and my attention, my heart on the reality of God, and what He says matters, and checking in with myself in that place of relationship with God, to just see how I’m doing, and what I’m struggling with, and you know what it feels like it’s going to distract me for the day. Unless I have that dedicated time to start my days with God every single day, I find myself just caught up in the fast moving current of this world I’m looking for a monetary gain and success. And I’m going to every meeting looking for affirmation from my peers, or from my readers and listeners, as opposed to going into my day already having experienced affirmation and recognizing that I’m valuable before I do a thing.

And no matter whether I succeed or fail in the world’s eyes, I’m valuable and loved. So I can go into all of those things actually with something loving to offer, as opposed to trying to get something loving back in return. That totally changes everything for me. And it changes the way I live the system of intentionality on a daily basis. Let alone the ability for God to kind of pull on my heartstrings throughout the day as the Holy spirit does, to kind of talk me down a path that I might not have understood or thought was the right one.

But I have this sense, I think the Spirits telling me I really need to actually pay attention to this. And that becomes something so meaningful. That is something I would have missed. You know, part of the book is I speak to this value of allowing for spontaneity in the day, which I think is so critical with any system for intentionality. So, those three aspects of understanding and having the power from the Holy spirit to start your day and then throughout the day, to be able to actually live out the system intentionality, I think makes faith the critical component to any system for intentionality.

RM: Outside of your book, you created a place where people can go in order to have help when it comes structuring their day or spending time with God. Share what we can find at First15.org.

CD: So spending time alone with God, radically transformed my life years ago, at a real low point in my life, where I really didn’t know what matters most. And I was trying to find that in a lot of different things, I got to a low point. I just reached out to God and I sensed him, pulling me to that place of one-on-one connection with him. And as I started finding and keeping that rhythm of waking up and spending time alone with God, it really radically transformed every part of my life. And so in 2015, I had the chance to create this guide to help other people finally keep that rhythm in a meaningful way called First15, birthed out of my own experience to help people start their day in worship and reading and prayer. We launched a simple website in 2015.

I almost pulled the plug on it because I was like, no one’s going to want to read this. Normally daily devotionals are like the total compilation of someone’s best life of work writing, and they just kind of take the best of and put it in a book. And I’m like, this is the first thing I really ever done writing besides like music and term papers. It’s like, what am I doing? Creating a daily devotional? But my wife as she often does, just kind of encouraged me to pray and God doesn’t usually speak to me this way, but I really sensed as I prayed, I felt like He said straight to my heart, “Craig, if you write this I’ll bring my people to it.”

I felt what He said very clearly, and in that first year we had like a million people visit our website. We’re donor-funded because we want to eliminate any barrier, including costs from people getting alone with God. And so we still launched, had donors fund an app, and now we have a podcast, and an email subscription where we consistently, every month have, more than a million-and-a-half people that use First15 as their resource for spending consistent, meaningful time alone with God – which blows my mind. But it’s been so cool to see the transformation that takes place. As people see this desire to meet with God, actually come to fruition through this platform of First15.org

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