sustainability vs. balance

i’ve blogged some of my thoughts about our (misguided, i believe) cultural artifact of the pursuit of balance before (most completely in this 2-part article: part 1, part 2). but it came up again in a conversation with a youth worker recently, and i thought i’d add a bit.

a recap: we talk a lot about balance in the american church. we go so far as to claim it as a biblical value. entire books are filled with this notion; and it’s the centerpiece of many discipleship “programs”. i learned, and taught — for years, the navigator ‘wheel of discipleship’, which was all based on the notion that scripture, prayer, fellowship and witnessing need to be equal spokes in a wheel for a balanced life on the christian journey. with a ‘hub’ of christ, and a ‘tire’ of living it out, this all sounds — on the surface — good and logical. but that logical approach is the root of the problem: logic isn’t the root of the passionate life we’re offered, or called to live.

any time i talk or write about this, people push back that it’s only semantics; that, certainly, we need to watch for imbalances and compensate for them. but i simply don’t agree with that mental framing. the very metaphor of a balance is flawed when used to talk about a fulfilled life in the jesus way. balance, by its very definition, is about things being equal. even the navigator wheel is built on the metaphorical implication that those four spokes have to be equal lengths, that when one spoke is missing, the wheel collapses, and when one spoke is shorter than the other (this is where the balance metaphor breaks down, i think), we live a lopsided life.

but let’s be honest here — we all know those parts aren’t equal in the real world. and, i’m not sure they should be (in fact, i don’t think they should be). for example: for someone with a passion for and gift of intercession, i would expect that the prayer spoke would be longer than some of the others. of course, the other spokes should still be present — but that doesn’t mean they’re equal.

and, stepping out of the wheel, we usually use balance as a metaphor for how our time is spent. i agree with the notion that some forms of imbalance can be problematic (the youth pastor who thinks he needs to work 70 hours a week, causing his family life and his own soul to suffer). but the implicit inference of ‘equal parts’ doesn’t take into account so many truly biblical realities: my unique wiring, my personality, my passions and interests, my gifting.

bottom line: the way we talk about balance is an artifact of a modern, scientific approach to the christian life. it’s more about sameness than it is about passionate living; it’s a reflection of an assembly line approach to spirituality.

so, what’s a better metaphor?

i think sustainability is a substantially better metaphor, and has plenty of cultural connectedness these days. we talk about sustainable food, sustainable business approaches, and sustainable forestry. and we need to talk about the sustainable life, not the balanced life.

a sustainable life will look very different for me than it will for you, because of our god-given uniquenesses. my life would be completely unsustainable for my wife, for example, who is wired and gifted much differently than i am.

when we use sustainability as a metaphor for healthy christian living, we can identify those aspects that threaten sustainability or nurture sustainability. while some of the threats to sustainability are fairly universal, others are more personalized. same with those nurturing aspects. and sustainability provides space for seasons — when life is intensified or relaxed, as part of a rhythm that works over time.

so the questions to ask shift from ‘is everything equal in my life?’ to ‘is this way of living providing me, over time, the life i was designed for?’ and, if the answer to that question is no, then we take a deep look, in a prayer of examen sort of way, at those aspects that are life-stealing, moving toward those things that are live-giving. all of this, as i wrote in those earlier posts, needs to be tied off to our values.

– is the pace of my life sustainable? what will suffer if i maintain this pace?
– are the ways i use my time, energy and focus adding to sustainability or cancerous to sustainability?
– what aspects of the way i use my time, energy and focus nurture my life in a sustainable direction? how can i give those aspects more room to breathe?
– what aspects of the way i use my time, energy and focus bog me down or tear away at my desire to live sustainably? how i can rid myself, or at least decrease, those aspects?
– who can i ask to speak into this, with potentially painful honesty, about my life?
– where do i need the work of the holy spirit in my life to bring transformation that will align me with my unique god-intended way of living?

22 thoughts on “sustainability vs. balance”

  1. Marko – absolutely on the same page. Found myself leaving “balance” out of my evaluations awhile ago. But I find myself asking about sustainability all the time. Whether it’s in ministry, parenting, training for a marathon or coaching others it’s about sustainability. Sustainability is more of a reflection or a predicted outcome while balance is a controlled state of being.

  2. Yes! So good to hear someone talk about this. I’ve always thought that the word “balance” never really fit in living radically for Christ.

  3. I’ll be honest, I think I’m still caught in the balance paradigm, but have been recently realizing its many flaws that you rightfully point out. The teeter-totter balancing-act mentality has been failing me.

    You touched on it briefly, but I also am appreciating the concept of “rhythm” in my life, and I think it fits with sustainability better than balance. Rhythm has to do with movements, patterns, and a natural feeling–a vibe–that we strive for–and we can tell when the rhythm is somehow off. Maybe it stems from my love for playing drums, but life rhythms feel more in sync than balancing-act thinking.

  4. Interesting (and binary, teehee). I really love the idea that discipleship has to take into account each persons uniqueness. Though, when I first thought os sustainability, I thought of something that had to continue to be equal to or grow through time/future, not that it sustains us and our continuing growth in Christ. It’s probably not what you are saying. Cool example.

  5. “a sustainable life will look very different for me than it will for you, because of our god-given uniquenesses. my life would be completely unsustainable for my wife, for example, who is wired and gifted much differently than i am.”

    I think that statement is key to this discussion… It’s about recognizing that every student has unique gifts and passions, and nurturing those in discipleship.

    I’d love to see a youth ministry discipleship model that doesn’t necessarily have a formula or a step-by-step process, but jumps on the personal nature of each believer (student), and develops their God-given characteristics.

  6. @ Sam, this reminds me a lot of what Dan Pink was saying in Drive. The need for autonomous self-finding (my words not his) is evident for sustained, motivated growth. I have been using several of these techniques tied to Eph. 2:10 for about 4 years now. I have never seen as much fruit as I have in these past four years. Helping teens see themselves from their Creator’s perspective and know that there is a design in it has been huge for my group.

  7. Intriguing idea. I was never a fan of the Navigators. Their ways always looked to me more like engineering than Christianity. I got nothing against engineering, mind you, just don’t like equating it with love for Jesus.

    Sustainability still looks very American to me, though. It assumes, for example, that you have control over the variables. I don’t think very many people have as much control as they think. In fact, I’m not sure I know anyone who has as much control as he or she thinks.

    My second problem is that it looks too self-centered to me. Where is it written that one of my goals should be to live “the life i was designed for”? In my view, driving goals should not be about what I want, they should be about doing good. Sometimes doing good means dying, on purpose, or sacrificing the life I was designed for.

    At any rate, I mean no disrespect to you, man. You got a good brain. Everybody should be listening to you. I just think you need to keep working on this one. It’s not done yet, in my opinion.

  8. @daryl — no disrespect taken at all, man — good thoughts. i’m intrigued — and thinking — about your first reservation (that this still seems very “american”). gonna have to think about that one some more.

    on the 2nd thought — i suppose i wasn’t all that clear on that one, but i think we’re actually in agreement. my working assumption is that ‘the life i was designed for’ often has very little to do with ‘what i want’, but much more about living into my unique design, gifting, experiences, brokenness, passion, and calling for the benefit of the kingdom of god (or, partnering with the ongoing creation/restoration work of god in the world).

  9. I’m smellin’ what you’re steppin’ in. Sustainability paints a picture of each activity feeding into the next. Balance makes it seem as though our ministry, family & soul care activities are in conflict. It may seem that way at times (because there’s only so many hours in a day) but in truth being skilled at soul care should make us better at ministry and vice versa.

    Good thoughts.

  10. I’m coming late to this convo, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

    I too struggle with the word balance, I use the term in my 7 Marks Of A Wise Person, model for wisdom formation because I haven’t found a much better word. (and granted, my present place in the wisdom journey is a tad scientific and modernistic :) )

    Balance to me doesn’t mean stasis, but inner resolve. The idea is that if my inner life is balanced, events in the exterior world while challenging, don’t throw me. (Which would result in sustainability) Paul said, “I’ve learned to be content in all things, whether rich or poor, slave or free” (matlock paraphrase). I don’t like the word “content” here either, but I think he is referring to inner resolve.

    I guess what I don’t like about the Nav Wheel O’ Balance, is that I’m not sure those practices yield a life of inner resolve…

  11. Just finished reading the first 3 chapters of “Surfing the Edge of Chaos”, a business book I’m reading for my Missional Leadership masters class that suggests this idea that balance (which they term as “equilibrium”) is problematic and leads to stagnation instead of innovation in business. As soon as I started reading it, I was reminded of the prior conversations on this blog about the hazards of balance, and was thus pleasantly surprised to find the conversation reignited when I stopped by.

  12. One more thing that occurs to me: We need to remember that “balance” and “sustainability” in this context are metaphors. Metaphors break down when pushed too far. So we must not push them too far, or we’ll just kill all our metaphors and have none left.

    If I lose my balance and start to fall over, I don’t say, “I’m losing my sustainability,” I say, “I’m losing my balance,” because that is the right application of the concept. And if I start to run a marathon at a sprint, onlookers don’t say, “his running is out of balance,” they say, “he won’t be able to sustain that pace,” because that is the right application of the concept. But no reasonable person would say, “Hey, wait a minute, he’s not out of balance, he’s just running at an unsustainable pace. Somebody tricked us — there’s no such thing as balance!”

    It does no good to toss out a metaphor for failing us on some level, because all metaphors do that. Just as important is the question: Is anybody abusing it? If so, the fault is with the abuse, not the analogue. The distinction makes all the difference.

  13. Daryl – I agree 100%, which is why I called them metaphors throughout the post. My point was that balance isn’t the best metaphor for discipleship, or for the full Christian like. Balance is a great metaphor for other things.

  14. And I agree that balance may very well not be the best metaphor for discipleship. I just think it’s easier to argue that the wheel sucks.

  15. Okay… I’m maybe I’m pushing the boundaries of the metaphor, but here is one that encompasses both balance and sustainability :)

  16. from my reading today in “Surfing the Edge of Chaos”:
    “”As long as one operates in the middle of things,” states science writer William Thompson, “one can never really know the nature in which one moves.”

Leave a Reply