The Discipline of Irresponsibility

Share this:

One area in my life where I am hearing new truth reflects my sense of personal responsibility in all walks of life. Being overly responsible has been an issue for me for years. I thought I had resolved the problem years ago when I decided that I just needed “keep going on when the going gets tough.” How wrong I was! My compulsive responsibility and the reality of my life are shouting at me as I age.

I love helping people. I love solving problems. I love being seen as a responsible person. I have always been responsible—for myself, for others, for the world. I read the Bible to see what I should be doing. I listen to others to see what they need. I keep up with the news to see if there are any international responsibilities I need to attend to. I am, truthfully, rather proud of my ability to be responsible. Letting go of my assumptions about responsibility seems like a violation of my faith journey. And letting go means facing my fear that I might become a couch potato. It also means admitting the pride driving my choices about how to be responsible.

But now that my body is aging, I am getting very tired of the burden of my compulsive responsibility. My aging body is calling into question my familiar assumptions about the value I place on what I accomplish. Questioning these assumptions has led me to the throne of God in prayer. Sometimes when someone asks me to do something, I think, There is no way I can do that! Quietly and gently, God’s Spirit often whispers to my spirit, You don’t have to do it all. In all honestly, even standing at the throne of grace, I often resist, Oh, God, you don’t understand. I do have to do it all.

Last summer, I decided to practice the “discipline of irresponsibility.” (I made up that discipline under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.) I could see signs in my life of compulsively saying yes to requests for help. I admitted to myself that I was finding validation in being available to meet any need I sniffed out—in my family, my community, and my church. It was untenable for me to think of not being responsible. Who would I be if I didn’t meet the needs I thought other people had? The Spirit suggested to me that I try.

I decided, with God’s grace, that if a request came my way when I knew I was too tired to go, or too overloaded to find the brain space to respond, I would look at that overload as an invitation from God to say no to the request. I found out that this is very hard for me to do! It means that sometimes I am lying on the sofa reading a book when I should (in my mind) be out meeting a need. It means asking what will bring me health and peace rather than asking my default question: What do I think needs to be done here? Or the question I can hardly admit: What can I do to impress God and other people?

An amazing thing happened on the way to the sofa. I did not become a couch potato. Instead, I discovered that my compulsive need to be responsible is not always the Word of the Lord, or even the expectations of those I loved. Through the discipline of irresponsibility, I discovered the joy of love. It was as though God had prepared loving things for me to do and I did them better after spending time on the sofa. Then I remembered that God had, in fact, prepared good works for me—good works for my young adult years, good works for midlife, and now good works for my senior years. “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). When I compulsively rushed out to do whatever I thought “needed” to be done, or when I insisted that I should still do the good works of my younger years, I probably missed some of the works prepared for me.

It brings me joy that I am still growing. To me, that makes getting older worth the costs of aging.

Alice Fryling

is a spiritual director and author. Her books on relationships, spiritual formation, and spiritual direction have sold over half a million copies and are published in over ten languages. She and her husband, Bob, are parents of two daughters and grandparents of two grandsons and two granddaughters. They live in Monument, Colorado. Learn more about Alice Fryling at

2 thoughts on “The Discipline of Irresponsibility”

  1. Alice’s book is on the table by my sofa, and it is ministering deeply. I am so much like this article. Hoping to get a book club together to go through it with other “autumn pilgrims.” Recommending to our Boomer Pastor.

  2. I like your term “autumn pilgrim”, Michelle! I too have Alice’s book and have read the first chapter (rather than put it under the tree) and really enjoy it. I bought an extra copy to place under our Senior Living Christmas tree for our Library. We may be able to gather a group to read it together in this senior community.


Leave a Comment