God wants you to waste your time

Our worth doesn’t depend on our productivity.

What are you looking for? Jesus asks this question of his disciples, those who propose to fall in line behind him. It’s a question we might ask more than we do. New Year’s resolutions are a way to enter this question through the backdoor: Do we hope to be stronger, healthier, or just thinner? Do we want to pursue a virtuous life or just get our exterior act together?

For some of us, time may be running out to make the necessary changes. I became eligible for Medicare last year: More decades are behind me than ahead of me. So what am I looking for from my time in this world, and what’s the best way to pursue it?

Discernment, the name of this soul-searching decision-making process, isn’t merely a New Year’s activity. The church has long recommended a nightly examination of conscience to stay in touch with who we are becoming at the deepest level of our being. Contemplative prayer is another way to sit and listen as “heart speaks to heart”: as your heart rests against the heart of God and seeks to imitate the divine rhythm. Some of us may have the means to go on an annual retreat for a weekend, a week, or longer. You may attend occasional days of recollection offered at spiritual centers. Or you may prefer to go camping and make it into a kind of pilgrimage into the presence of God in creation.

Depending on the stage of life where you happen to be perched, some discernment methods will be more accessible or attractive. When I started my career in church work, I had neither the time nor the money for retreats. But I could take long solitary walks through the city, and I did, gradually shrugging off all the busyness in my head until the “small, still voice” that saints and prophets hear could finally make itself understood.


Please don’t imagine I rank up there with saints and prophets. I didn’t always empty my brain or attain inner stillness even after hours and miles of walking. What Buddhist teachers call “monkey mind” is my natural state: thoughts swinging from vine to vine through a jungle of trivia both practical and pointless. I’m a planner and a worrier. I go from making a mental note to buy a new toothbrush to wondering if this ache in my jaw is something serious to deciding I should see a bone specialist—and to update my will, just in case.

These days, I have more time—or perhaps choose to make more time—to sit still and “waste time with God,” as an old spiritual director used to recommend in my more frantic periods. Back then, wasting time sounded to me like sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. I couldn’t imagine doing that or that God would actually waste time with me, though God has all of eternity to dispose of. Surely God has more vital things to do in the universe than hang out with me while my monkey mind leaps from tree to tree thinking about family and work and what’s for supper tonight.

Family, work, and supper remain concerning. But in the Medicare years, I’ve finally accepted that I’m not as essential to the machinery of the cosmos as I once believed. As a writer, I would get anxious when a moment of genius visited me in the supermarket and I had no means with which to record the insight before it was lost forever. An older and wiser writer assured me that visitations of genius have very little to do with writing, and no phrase is so perfect that losing it will do the universe any harm.

So I’ve managed to make friends with stillness and no longer confuse doing nothing with laziness. “Wasting time with God” is a down payment on eternity after all, a temporal trust walk that suggests we believe God will supply all the time we need to get all that’s needed done.


Hoarding our mortal time as so precious that we can’t waste it on God in stillness is an indication that we don’t really believe all the stuff we pretend to profess. Which is why, on those many occasions in which I find myself standing in the middle of a room, torn between separately screaming tasks and unsure which direction to move, I sometimes hear an inner voice shout: “Sit down!” And I do. The busier you are, the more nothing you need to be doing. This is the only wisdom I have to impart on the subject of discernment: Do more nothing.

We’re so persuaded that being productive is the justification of our existence. No surprise there: From the beginning, everything in our experience tells us this is so. Parents demand that we do our chores or clean up our rooms. In our formative years, teachers and tests and mounds of homework stare us in the face. Years of education are followed by decades in the workforce. Now parents ourselves, we raise children while struggling to keep up with housework, errands, meal preparation. Getting stuff done is why we are here—isn’t it?

Then comes the question: But what if we’re getting the wrong stuff done? What if the most important stuff languishes while we do another load of laundry and boil another pot of rice? This is the moment when that question of Jesus to would-be disciples might invade our thoughts: What are you looking for? It’s the discernment question, the one that tells us where to aim this journey of ours and to course correct if need be. To course correct as needed, more likely. Because it seems we’re always drifting off into some random territory while fixated on doing the laundry or making the rice.

Monks learn that it’s possible to chop wood and carry water and do so prayerfully. They don’t have to stop and say formal prayers—though in fact they choose to pause for prayer at many hours of the day and do it with full presence and mindfulness, as if it were a new encounter each time. Which it is. Some of us like to say our work is our prayer, and that’s not entirely wrong—so long as we don’t substitute wood-chopping and water-carrying for the real thing.


Our work can become prayer only after the spirit of prayer invades our bones and takes over the jungle of our thoughts. It’s only after sitting in stillness, leaning into the holy presence as the beloved disciple leans into Jesus at the Last Supper, with mortal heart beating against divine heart, learning the divine rhythm in our whole being, that we can dare to make the claim that what we do the rest of our time is an incarnation of prayer.

What are you and I looking for? What are our lives about? It’s certainly good to have clean clothes and regular meals, to make a living and pay bills. For believers, life includes saying prayers and going to church, sharing our resources with others in need. But that’s just the tiniest bit of what it means to follow Jesus. Discipleship fundamentally involves being a healing presence for the sick, lonely, and sorrowful. Being summoned to show compassion, to forgive offenses, to insist on justice.

We’re here to love, bring peace, inspire hope, share joy, and make captives free. If that doesn’t sound like what we’re doing, now’s a good time to sit awhile and discern the path we’re on.

Read more Testaments from Alice Camille:


This article also appears in the January 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 1, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/John Tuesday


About the author

Alice Camille

Alice Camille is the author of Working Toward Sainthood (Twenty-Third Publications) and other titles available at www.alicecamille.com.

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