Anxious toil and unrealistic expectations

I feel like one lesson I’ve been learning over and over again throughout my pregnancy and now through motherhood is the difference between anxious toil and joyful service. By God’s grace, I am finally starting to relax and unwind because of a change of perspective…a change that could only come from Him.

Over the summer, Alex and I listened to a sermon called “Don’t eat the Bread of Anxious Toil” by John Piper [you can listen to it here:]. It was so convicting and encouraging for both of us, and it was based on Psalm 127 (verses 1 and 2 below):

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved [in his] sleep.”

The one point that Piper made that really stuck with me is that God can accomplish more for us while we sleep than we can accomplish for ourselves. So often I eat the bread of anxious toil, laboring in vain to complete my chores, tasks, and to-do lists, all the while laden with guilt for all the things I don’t get around to – from coffee dates with friends to cooking to folding laundry and making the bed.

It has been so freeing to be reminded (again!) that all of my striving and my consumption with “productivity” is just straight-up vanity. Even worse, it reveals the anxious motives of my heart, which means that my days are being driven more by fear than by faith…more by worry (about what is not getting done) than by worship.

As Rachel Jankovic articulates in her book “Fit to Burst”, this anxious cycle I so often find myself in comes down, in many ways, to unrealistic expectations.

“…my expectations were not aware of what my life is actually like. My expectations were ignoring – intentionally too – that…a mountain of laundry had been tamed. My expectations ignored that dinner was served. They pretended not to notice…all the dishes that had been done that day. They turned a blind eye to the baby that was (at that time) growing inside. My expectations were a seriously mean boss.
When you’re a mother and a homemaker, you are your own boss. The days are what you make of them. The tasks that need to get done are put on a list at your discretion…Making a list that you cannot accomplish does not make you a better housewife…

You set the standards for yourself based on some sort of mythical time when children didn’t get dirt under their fingernails. In this life, there is nothing for you but discouragement because, no matter what you do, you cannot conform your performance to your expectations. This would probably manifest in your life most often as you succumb to discontent, discouragement and despair. Or it may manifest itself by making you an absolutely no fun person to be around…Nobody wants to gather around with people who…see you as a task to be checked off.

It doesn’t matter what is on the table when the people around it aren’t at peace. It doesn’t matter how clean the house is if bitterness is growing…

[Our children] should see us setting realistic (but maybe difficult) goals and working hard toward them. They should see us being visionaries who are anchored firmly in reality. They should see us steadily plodding, faithfully working on things in a realistic way. They should see us laboring hard to make a beautiful life for them, while not losing sight of THEM in it.” (p. 29-31 Ch. 3 of “Fit to Burst”)

Having read this, and having lived for 1 month and 21 days as a Mommy to my sweet little Gracie, I now have a fresh resolve to set realistic expectations for myself…expectations that are grounded in the reality that is my life.

And what do I want that “reality” to be? I want my home to be peaceful and Christ-centered. I want it to be a joy-filled place where hearts can “sit down” and rest in the presence of an I’ve-already-done-it God. I want our home to be driven by a reliance on the love and grace of Christ, rather than being performance driven.

Yes, I want dresser drawers to be tidy, meals to be prepared, beds to be made, showers to be clean, clothes to be folded and our house to be well-organized. And that’s a good vision for me to have as a homemaker! But these things must not be prioritized at the expense of organized attitudes – hearts set on Christ.

Yes, I want to make a delicious variety of meals for my family that makes their mouths water and their tummies happy. But this must be done in the context of a home where the Bread of Life is the priority. Living a life of love that pleases Him must be central, even if that means having the occasional Kraft Dinner or hot dog meal in order to have time to biblically address the heart issues that may have arisen during the day.

So I have decided to put the bread of anxious toil on the compost heap. With the help of my loving Savior, I’ve let go of my unrealistic expectations and embraced a fresh vision of what my everyday reality should be as a wife, homemaker and mother. I know that it will be a constant fight against my flesh to keep this perspective and maintain the right priorities in my home. But I know even more certainly that the cross of Christ has made it possible for me to return to this place of peace and rest again and again, as I repent and run to Jesus.

Praise God for this indescribable gift! (Phil. 4:6-7)