At Work & Economics 101 & Theology 101

The Liberating Effects of Scarcity

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Wonder Woman by Kate Harris is my favorite book in the Barna Group’s Frames series. In the book, Harris cites a statistic with which I and a lot of women resonate:

72 percent of women say they are overwhelmed by stress.

I’m suspicious of the remaining 28 percent.

Women living in a world noisy with conflicting directives to excel in their career, be a doting wife and super mom, invest in their communities, and develop their personal potential will inevitably experience some confusion about their calling and identity.

Some time ago, I wrote an open letter to millennial women explaining how, given the effects of scarcity, it’s not possible to do it all. We’re often told that we need to achieve balance, but in such a complex world with such diverse responsibilities, I tend to chuckle at the term.

In Wonder Woman, Harris posits that instead of searching for balance we should aspire to find coherence in our vocations and stewardship. I agree with this for several reasons.

1. Balance implies a constantly maintained equilibrium.

We can’t find balance in a broken, complex world. Our roles are constantly changing, and we are constantly anticipating or adapting to change.

In a 2010 TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg points out that women are likely to start planning for major life changes well before they occur. This might be a marriage or a child or a career change. This is not a bad thing. We should be fully engaged in our world.

However, it’s unrealistic to expect that the ratio we settle on in one instance will remain true in all situations. A “balanced” life may look terribly unbalanced in favor of an area of pressing need.

2. Coherence embraces limitations dictated by a scarce world.

We’re constrained by resources, time, energy, and others’ schedules. If we seek coherency, we seek to live in light of the needs that we can and should meet.

I’m constantly adjusting between meeting my children’s needs, my responsibilities at work, my role as a wife, my involvement at church, and a myriad of other things. Sometimes this means that I will stay late at work or work from home. Sometimes I choose to go to one of my children’s activities instead of baking a cake for a church function. Scarcity is a very real factor in our hectic lives.

3. Coherence in our vocations allows us to fully live out the narrative for which God has written and is writing specifically for us. 

Vocation and identity cannot be fully understood until they are examined in the light of both our creation by a creative God and the incarnation. We are designed to steward well the resources we are given, and we are called to do this in light of Christ’s work, but constrained by a world limited by brokenness and sin. And we are called to do this in a way that is unique to each of us.

In economics, this is called comparative advantage. We’re each created with certain talents, and we are each called to live our lives in such a way as to allow those talents to glorify God. As I wrote previously, this concept can be difficult to internalize. On the one hand, it’s easy to accept that we’re supposed to excel at something. On the other, it means,

You can’t be anything you want to be—because you are inherently limited. It also means that you probably won’t be the best in the world. That’s ok too. God didn’t promise that we would be the best in the world, but he did promise that we can be the best that he created us to be, and that is fulfilling.

Coherence is messy in ways that balance is not. A life well-aligned is one that keeps in perspective the greater story for which we have been created. This requires humility and perception because it means that we must accept that we cannot – and should not – do everything. This also means that we are now free to pursue true excellence in the things we are called to achieve, and it requires us to be creative with our resources.

It’s inevitable that we will struggle with stress in some measure. But I believe that if we were to take Harris’s advice, seek coherence over balance, and remember that God allows us to live in a constrained world for a reason, we might see more than 28 percent of us freed from stress.

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