The Scarcity Trap

In yesterday's post I argued that scarcity is one of the if not the biggest obstacles facing ministry and spiritual formation efforts in our churches. Feeling depleted, run-down, tired, stressed and over-extended people find the way of Jesus too to exhausting to fit into their lives.

In that post I used the analysis of Brene Brown to describe this mindset of scarcity. In this post I want to describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap" by connecting some more things from Brown's book Daring Greatly with the analysis I give in The Slavery of Death.

What is the scarcity trap? Why are we so exhausted, tired and stressed out? Why can't we make room for ministry and spiritual formation in our lives?

The scarcity trap, as I'll describe it, is how our neurotic anxiety feeds into our basic anxiety.

Recall from The Slavery of Death that anxiety can manifest in one of two ways, basic and neurotic. Basic anxiety is fueled by worries about our physical and material well-being. Basic anxiety is triggered by feelings of scarcity--the feeling of "never enough"--in material or physical resources, like feeling tired or short of time or lacking in money to pay for important things.

As I've just described it, a lot of the scarcity problem in churches is associated with basic anxiety: feeling physically or materially depleted.

So a lot of our experience of scarcity is due to basic anxiety. And yet, one of the reasons we feel so over-extended and over-scheduled is due to our neurotic anxiety.

Neurotic anxiety is associated with our feelings of significance and self-worth. If basic anxiety is associated with materially or physically not having enough, neurotic anxiety is associated with the shame of not being enough. Neurotic anxiety is associated with what Brene Brown calls the "shame-based fear of being ordinary."

With these distinctions in mind we can describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap," how neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety.

So, back to the question: Why are we so busy and stressed out?

To be sure, a lot of our stress is due to real material scarcity. As we know, middle-class incomes have been stagnant for decades. In the meantime life has gotten more expensive, especially health care and college education. Consequently, people are working harder and harder for less and less. The scarcity here is real and the resultant basic anxiety is both legitimate and crushing.

However, a lot of our work-related stress and busyness is self-inflicted.

We want to be successful, to get ahead. Success, however that looks in your life and profession, is what fuels our self-esteem and makes us feel important. These accomplishments help us combat the shame-based fear of being ordinary. We can be a winner rather than a loser.

Why are we over-committed and addicted to busyness? Because saying Yes to everything makes us feel wanted, needed, important and vital.

In short, in our thirst for self-esteem--our drive to be noticed, needed or successful--we become over-committed and over-worked. Which causes us, at the end of the day, to become depleted and exhausted. The drive for success and significance, or the flight from shame and failure, exhausts us and runs us into the ground. Neurotic anxiety produces basic anxiety.

That is the scarcity trap, how our neurotic fears of failure and insignificance cause us to push harder and harder which, in turn, exhausts us.

The scarcity trap is how the shame-based fear of being ordinary tempts us into work and busyness depleting us of time, energy and resources.

The scarcity trap is how shame produces exhaustion.


For a final reflection on this topic see my follow-up post to this follow-up post: The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

11 thoughts on “The Scarcity Trap”

  1. So my answer, such as it is, is this: Brene Brown's Daring Greatly meets Walter Brueggemann's Sabbath as Resistance. My The Slavery of Death helps make that connection.

    We need shame-resilience to practice Sabbath-as-resistance. Why? Because Sabbath-as-resistence involes saying "No" in ways which exacerbate the neurotic anxiety associated with the ways we are chasing after self-esteem and social significance.

  2. Would you make a more explicit connection between neurotic anxiety and being depleted by ministry and service?


    Found this interesting and at least somewhat related.

  4. Saying yes to everything is a problem, but sometimes saying yes is not a choice, if you want a job. It seems as if nothing in this world is as black and white as we would like it to be.

  5. Ironically, I'm recovering from a virus probably brought on partly by various self-imposed and external pressures, but just wanted to mark my enthusiasm for this series. Your exploration of Brene's scarcity culture feels like a very helpful forward step in developing wider denial of death themes in a way that connects the theory to everyday felt experiences and makes these counter-cultural notions a little easier to convey to the uninitiated. Really looking forward to your continuing exegesis.

  6. Having just spent 4 days lying in bed doing barely anything because of a terrible cold, this post certainly resonates with me.

Leave a Reply