In this short chat, I discuss the poet George Herbert and a couple of his concrete poems. Concrete poetry is a form of poetry where the words on the page are shaped to align with the meaning of the poem. We also take a close look at my own concrete poem, "A Cruciform King," as we consider this interplay between the arrangement of words and the meaning conveyed by the poem. "A Cruciform King" and other poems are published in my book Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life released by H&E Publishers (2020). Here's the link to order!
In this short chat, I discuss the history and importance of words, particularly the Word of God. I also show a few old copies of the Scriptures that I have in my study and I read a 14-line poem about Christ, the Incarnated Word. This poem (and others) are published in my book Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life released by H&E Publishers in the Autumn 2020. Here's the link to order!
A big shout out to Malcolm Guite, the true master of these sorts of delightful library chats. His poetry and his video chats are the inspiration for the work that I am attempting to do here. Check out his series called "A Spell in the Library". They're truly brilliant!
Christians have a tendency to divide secular and sacred concerns; in fact, everything belongs to the Lord. “All that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours,” writes the author of Chronicles. “Yours is the kingdom, O Lord and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chron 29:11). All aspects of creation—“all that is in the heavens and in the earth”—belong to God. So what does the Lordship of Christ mean for the world of arts and creativity? Should Christians ignore or shun the arts? Embrace or utilize the arts? Appreciate and enjoy the arts? I wrote this article--"Glorifying God through Arts & Culture"--to help us answer this question: what are Christians supposed to do with the arts? Published in edited form for TGC Canada, this article was originally published as the introduction to my book, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts.
I just received in the mail the proof copy of my new book of poems. Hot off the press and fresh from my publisher! I get to proofread this copy looking for any remaining errors, typos, or layout problems... My book, "Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life," will be available this Fall 2020. Pre-order discount available now!
One of the most published and widely recognized books of all time is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Since its first appearance in 1678, the impact of Bunyan’s masterpiece on the Church of Jesus Christ is incalculable. The famous 19th century poet preacher C. H. Spurgeon read The Pilgrim’s Progress over one hundred times during his lifetime, and he regularly encouraged saints to read and re-read it. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, called The Pilgrim’s Progress “a book that has astonished the whole world.” Even the famous twentieth century agnostic playwright, George Bernard Shaw, stated that Bunyan’s novel greatly influenced him (he had portions of it read at his funeral), and Shaw believed it surpassed the works of William Shakespeare in quality, form and style.
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory, meaning that the characters, settings and events in the book hold symbolic significance beyond the story itself. The story represents a Christian’s journey of faith by following the adventures of a redeemed pilgrim, who was once named “Graceless” but who now bears the name “Christian.” Like all who call on the name of the Lord, Christian is fleeing his hometown (named “The City of Destruction”) and he is heading toward the wonderful City of God. Along the “narrow” way, he encounters many temptations, many foes of his faith, and many faithful friends, each symbolizing the real challenges all Christians face and the real help God gives his people as they seek to live according to the Way.
Although it is a work of marvellous fiction, The Pilgrim’s Progress is biblically saturated: there are over two hundred direct quotations from the Bible, as well as countless paraphrases, references and allusions. About Bunyan’s biblical richness, Spurgeon states, “Why, this man [Bunyan] is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere, and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows through him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.”
One of the great strengths of Bunyan’s book is its ability to convey complicated theological truths in a clear and simple way. C.S. Lewis praises Bunyan’s unencumbered style of writing: “the light is sharp; it never comes through stained glass.” In other words, Bunyan preaches without being “preachy;” he exposes human sin and foolishness without a “holier-than-thou” disposition. Nevertheless, there is no “tickling of ears” here: sin is squarely addressed as loathsome to God, and Bunyan’s characters—who bear names reflecting their wickedness and folly—are clearly condemned. The difference is that Bunyan gives us warnings in a sincere, compassionate and humble manner. He writes with the heart of a pastor who lovingly cares for his flock.
Beyond its richness in theological truths and spiritual applications, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a superb story—that is, entertaining, engaging and exciting. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of Literature at Wheaton College, notes that “the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals.”
Similar to life itself, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress contains moments of electrifying adventure, deep despair, great delight, gripping sadness and enjoyable humour. Woven into the fabric of his story, Bunyan beautifully entwines the spiritual, psychological and physical aspects of the human and Christian experience; with biblical insight into the heart of humanity, Bunyan portrays an admonishing, encouraging and instructive narrative of what it means to be a real Christian in this world. Pick it up, read it, enjoy it and learn from it!
See below for a poem I wrote about reading The Pilgrim's Progress, as well as a and video chat about various editions of the book.
Video notes: Readers who are less familiar with the King James Version of the Bible may have difficulty with the original seventeenth-century English edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are, however, many updated and revised versions of The Pilgrim’s Progress available today. My recommended edition is The Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English revised by L. Edward Hazelbaker—“sensitively revised for the 21st century reader”—which includes explanatory notes, a timeline and a study guide.
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 5.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Comprising the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 75.
 E.E. Stokes, “Bernard Shaw's Debt to John Bunyan,” The Shaw Review 8, no. 2 (1965), 42–51, www.jstor.org/stable/40682054.
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 6.
 C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 148.
 Leland Ryken, Christian Guides to the Classics: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 13.
Our God reveals himself in Genesis as a Creator. We also learn that we, too, are made in his image and we have the ability and desire to be creative. This is why we see artistic creations in every time and place in history. Yet Francis Schaeffer observes that Christians “have tended to relegate art to the very fringe of life… The rest of human life we feel is more important. Despite our constant talk about the lordship of Christ, we have narrowed its scope to a very small area of reality” (Art in the Bible). Many Christians ask whether time and energy should be invested in enjoying and creating works of art. What does the gospel have to do with the arts?
Whether we fully understand it or not, art matters. We see this in the increasing value of fine art at auctions and the cultural place art holds in museums and art galleries; but we also see the importance of art in historic and contemporary iconoclasm. The impulse to destroy of artistic images and monuments for political or ideological reasons ironically testifies to the enduring significance human beings place on art. In times of great cultural and ideological shifts, works of art have been targeted and destroyed and new art put in its place. Whether demolishing statues of royal predecessors in Ancient Egypt, plastering over church icons in Muslim conquered regions, or shattering stained-glass windows during the Reformation; in more recent times, iconoclasm is seen in the destruction of monuments dedicated to dictators and newly labeled social pariahs.
The reason is because art is a language. Art speaks to our emotions as well as our minds; it moves us holistically. Art also reveals what a given time, place, or culture values most. If you want to get a pulse of the prevailing worldviews of a culture, look at the art they create and the art they destroy. Francis Schaeffer, the great 20th-century apologist devoted a great deal of time and energy seeking to understand the world of the arts because he believed it clearly shows the shifting values that shapes our current cultural context. If Christ is calling his church to be “salt and light” in this time and in this place, then Christians ought to know where this culture came from and where it is going. Art is one of the best ways to see these broad stroke shifts and changes.
If interested in finding out more, join me for an online seminar Christ & Culture on July 10, 2020. I will be delivering two sessions. The first session is called Francis Schaeffer: The Gospel & the Arts, and it's designed to challenge Christians to not only see the value and beauty of the arts, but also to become more art literate to that we can effectively engage our world with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.
The second session asks the question “How Should We Then Live?” We live in unsettled and uncertain times. Fundamental truths about God and humanity are now viewed as offensive at best or hate speech at worst. Disagreement is often viewed as harmful and “truth” has been relegated to the subjective realm of personal experiences. How do we engage our current culture, which is not only opposed to God’s truth but also isn’t interested in what is true at all? To help us answer this question, we will consider the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer, as he challenges us to live authentic, gospel transformed lives before a watching world.
Friday July 10, 2020
7:30 pm: Francis Schaeffer: The Gospel & the Arts | Q&A
9:00 pm: Francis Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live? | Q&A
I am pleased to announce the release of a new book of poems called Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life through H&E Publishing.
My poetry explores the span of a human life through the lens of faith in Jesus Christ. Although you may not be a fan of poetry, the poems are written to be clear and accessible, as well as “beautiful and thought-provoking” (Malcolm Guite, poet and chaplain at Cambridge University). English professor and author Karen Swallow Prior recommends Undiminished Returns “to all who wish to expand or even just begin their understanding and appreciation of poetry.” The poetry is meant to be reflective and devotional. Author and English professor, Leland Ryken, observes that the short poems collected in the book “are devotional poems of the highest order, meeting the essential criteria of fixing a reader’s thoughts on the spiritual life and (as John Milton put it) setting the affections in right tune.” Andrew Roycroft, poet, blogger, and pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Northern Ireland, describes Undiminished Returns as “a deeply satisfying collection of poems—formally, psychologically, and spiritually.” The collection of new poems are written for our time, as Professor of English and Humanities, Doug Sikkema, notes: “in an age of irony, Johnston’s direct, sincere voice provides one healing word after another.”
My book is entering the final stages of publication, but my publisher has released a special pre-order 42% discount on the book. You can order the book with shipping and tax for just $15.79 Cdn).
Here is the pre-order link.
Please feel free to share this link widely with those who you think might benefit from my book. See below for more endorsements of the book.
Click here for a sampling of the poems included in Undiminished Returns.
Praise for Undiminished Returns
"I am often asked how to read poetry and what poetry to read. I will recommend Undiminished Returns to all who wish to expand or even just begin their understanding and appreciation of poetry. By including an educational introduction and selections from history’s great poets, this collection of original poems—written in a variety of forms and about significant themes—is a veritable course in poetry. Even more, the verses within form a beautiful, poetic exploration of a soul in pilgrimage." KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
"What does it mean to believe and be haunted by doubt? Or to doubt yet be haunted by belief? Johnston’s poems, evidence of a life steeped in words and the Word, give voice to a secular condition ill-at-ease with our freedom and autonomy from God. In an age of irony, Johnston’s direct, sincere voice provides one healing word after another." DOUG SIKKEMA, regular contributor to Comment magazine and assistant Professor of English and Core Humanities at Redeemer University
"It is in the very nature of poetry that it offers undiminished returns. You can return to the same poem over and over and find that it is richer and has more to offer on each return, indeed one poem, in the midst of such returns, often generates another. So it is with this fine collection from Jeremy W. Johnston; he has returned us to the classic form of the sonnet and taken inspiration from the likes of George Herbert and Christina Rossetti, and in doing so he has crafted a collection of beautiful and thought-provoking new poetry. This return to formal verse is not a repetition but a renewal." MALCOLM GUITE, poet, musician, Chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge, and the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including Sounding the Seasons, After Prayer, and Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Undiminished Returns is a deeply satisfying collection of poems—formally, psychologically, and spiritually. Charting the pilgrim path with candour and with a cadence and rhythm which capture the spirit as well as the body of being a believer, Jeremy W. Johnston opens up the private world of deeply held faith in a way which is at once unaffectedly personal, and touchingly universal. There are echoes here of Herbert, Bunyan, and Hopkins, all flowing into an original voice whose range can convey to us the grandeur of God, the sorrow of sin, and the fearful beauty of salvation in Christ Jesus. These are poems to turn the heart heavenwards, pieces which both capture what is easily seen, and highlight what is easily missed in Christian spirituality. These poems are a joy to read, and will be returned to again and again for their lyricism, thoughtfulness, and God-glorifying focus." ANDREW ROYCROFT, poet, blogger at thinkingpastorally.com, and pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Northern Ireland
"This book is all that a book should be, starting with its marvelous title. Johnston’s poems are devotional poems of the highest order, meeting the essential criteria of fixing a reader’s thoughts on the spiritual life and (as Milton put it) setting the affections in right tune. A particular strength of the collection as a whole is its arrangement of the Christian life according to a chronological principle, tracing life in Christ from its beginning to its consummation. The book offers additional riches as well. The personal reflections at the beginning and close of the book are engaging and instructive. The quotations from famous Christian writers that are scattered as epigraphs throughout the book are priceless. The book sparkles with a sense of authorial attentiveness to every detail." LELAND RYKEN, professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, literary editor of the ESV Bible, and the author / editor of over fifty books, including The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts and The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasure of Classic Devotional Poems
The Apostle Paul is known for his elongated prose and brilliant rhetoric. He also is known for quoting poetry and surprisingly embedding his own poetry in a few of his letters. Some great examples are Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Timothy 1:17, 3:16, 6:15-16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13.
This morning my pastor, Hagop Tchobanian, preached an excellent message on the first part of Phillippians 2. In this portion of Scripture, Paul includes a creedal-like poem in Philippians 2:6-11. Below is a sonnet I wrote that aims to convey the paradox presented in this Pauline poem, that Jesus Christ is both God and Man. It is called, “Divine Paradox: After Philippians 2:6–11.”
Last week, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020) passed away. We rejoice in the fact that Ravi is with his saviour in glory, yet we still grieve our loss. Death hurts even though death is common to us all. The writer of Ecclesiastes bluntly states, “For the living know that they will die,” and there’s “a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2; 9:5).
Death is a major theme in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Some scholars argue that he wrote this play shortly after the death of his own son Hamnet at age 11. It is no surprise that the play Hamlet wrestles with the bewildering and unsettling reality of death and the loss of loved ones. One of the earliest scenes in the play has Hamlet speaking with his mother and uncle about the death of his father. Hamlet’s mother questions Hamlet’s persistent mourning for his father, telling him not to “seek for thy father in the dust. Thou knowest ’tis common. All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity” (I.ii.72-74). Hamlet’s uncle chastises him for his “stubbornness” and “obstinate condolement,” stating that “you must know, your father lost a father. That father lost, lost his…” (I.ii.91-92, 95-96). The argument is simple: death happens to all of us. It is normal, and it is natural. Get over it.
As common as death is, however, it never seems natural or normal for death to be in the world. As human beings, we feel as though we were meant to live forever and never to experience the death of loved ones. If it were natural, then death would feel the same as thirst or hunger, merely natural bodily functions. Yet death is abnormal. The Bible is clear that we were made to live forever; death entered the world as a consequence of turning away from our Creator (Genesis 3:19). Paul writes in Romans, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Sin and death are our biggest problems in life. We were meant to be holy, alive, and in fellowship with our God.
C.S. Lewis observes in his classic book, Mere Christianity, that “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We have a desire to live forever, to be good, to be known, and to be loved. Sin and death stand as obstacles to our fundamental desire as human beings. This is because we were made for another world.
Our culture seems to be diminishing death as an enemy. Celebrations of life have replaced funerals. Assisted suicide is considered medical treatment for terminal illnesses and ageing. Abortion is celebrated as a hallmark of freedom. Death is part of the natural “circle of life,” the answer for death given by Elton John and Disney. Treating death as a normal step in life may offer a superficial anesthetic to the pain of loss, but it isn’t helpful in the long run. The Bible says that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Christian knows that death isn't right, and the Christian knows that only God can deal with death.
The poem I wrote, “not natural, not normal,” is about death and what Jesus does about it. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Amen!
Creation itself begins as words. In Genesis, God speaks the universe into being (or sings, as C.S. Lewis might have imagined it). With his words, God brings form, function, and meaning into creation. Out of the empty void came all things as God imagined it. The universe, we are told, is “without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Then God speaks: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3 – 4). God’s creativity involved sorting and differentiating one thing from the other. When God created Heaven and Earth, he created order out of chaos.
We are now commissioned to continue the creative process, cultivating the world and making new beauty (Genesis 1:26 – 28). Since we are made in the image of God, we also have a desire to create in the way God himself creates; this does not mean we can create ex nihilo—out of nothing—but it does mean we have been made with the desire to move our surroundings from chaos to order. God’s commission to Adam to name all of the creatures God made is humanity’s first way of ordering the environment and sorting out what is what. It is also humanity’s first creative act (Genesis 2:19). Adam invents the names himself.
Since the beginning, understanding our world through words has been central to our creative and cultural mandate as humans made in the image of God. It should be no surprise, then, to see that poetry has always been a process of creating order out of chaos. Making sense in a seemingly senseless world has a long history in the annals of literature. From Homer’s The Iliad, written as Ancient Greece exited its own dark age, to Virgil’s The Aeneid, which helped usher in “Pax Romana,” to the great period of English poetry as “maker of meaning amid chaos” born in the crucible of WWI. During that frenzied and unstable condition of the trenches, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, sought to make sense of the horrors of war and convey these experiences to the English-speaking world. Although WWI was not the “war to end all wars” as was hoped for, it is John McCrae’s Great War poem, “In Flanders Field,” that still resonates with us as we attempt to come to terms with all occurrences of modern war and conflict in countries around the world.
A biblical example of a poet seeking to make sense of his world in the midst of chaos is young David while on the run from King Saul. Fleeing for his life and trying to survive in the unforgiving wilderness as an outcast and outlaw, David hid in the Cave of Adullam and he wrote poems. Many of the poems David wrote appear in the Book of Psalms. Although the Holy Spirit uniquely inspires these psalms, David’s skill of writing poetry was a talent that he likely honed while passing the time as an isolated shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep. Like playing the harp, poetic prayer was one of the ways David used his gifts to manage the challenges of his life. We still turn to the psalms in our present times of challenges and difficulty, to read them, meditate on them, and pray those words back to God.
Poetry is born out of chaos, and it brings us comfort when we are surrounded by the chaos of life. This is why poetry is the oldest form of human writing and has dominated the literary world for millennia, with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s Fairie Queen, Milton’s Paradise Lost—just to name a few. This is also why poetic hymns have meant so much to the church, especially in times of persecution, and why the poetry of Negro spirituals grew out of the trauma of race-based slavery in the United States.
We live in chaotic and unsettled times again. Such times require poets and hymn writers to help us see God’s plan and purpose written into the fabric of our current culture. Poetry reminds us there is still beauty in times of disorder. Poetry also reminds us of the power of words, especially that of prayer and God’s word. We need to continue the creation mandate to cultivate order and beauty amidst the chaos and ugliness of our surroundings. Like David and so many others in times of uncertainty, we need poets to hunker down and write words of comfort. We need poets to once again point us to the Great Poet himself, the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
 C.S. Lewis describes the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. In the chapters called “The Fight at the Lamp-post” and “The Founding of Narnia,” Aslan is heard and seen singing the world beyond the wardrobe into existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s voice sounded like “the most beautiful,” “harmonious” and “triumphant” music ever heard when he spoke the universe into being.
 See, for example, Psalm 13; 35; 52; 54; 57; 59; 63; 64; 108; 142.
Over the last ten years or so, one of my pastors, Benno Kurvits, has been a tremendous support to me and my writing. He carefully reads my quarterly arts column that I write for Barnabas magazine, often commenting on the ideas I present, asking further questions, and keeping me sharp. He has also read and reviewed my book All Things New and frequently comments on my blog. The proverbs tells us that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17). I thank God for Benno and his unique ministry to me as a writer seeking to serve the church and glorify God with my pen. Having a supportive writing community is essential for developing the writing craft as well as for encouraging writers to keep writing. Throughout literary history, there have been little pockets of writers who offer mutual support, criticism, and encouragement. One of the most famous group is the “Inklings,” which included well-known writers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among others.
That being said, I want to give a shout-out to my friend and fellow wordsmith, Benno Kurvits. I am pleased to say that he has recently launched his author’s webpage and blog. It’s well designed, informative, and a good way to keep up with the work Benno is currently doing as a writer. I recommend you take a look at it and subscribe to his monthly newsletters.
I have also included below a review of his book Outrun the Bear: Reflections on the Intersection of Sports and God (Winnipeg: Word Alive Press, 2019). The review was written by my wife Laurie and appeared in Barnabas (Summer 2019).
Outrun the Bear by Benno Kurvits (Book Review by Laurie Johnston)
After the collapse of the Roman empire, many monasteries became hubs of productivity. They would provide skilled labourers, education, food, medical care, and other useful aids to surrounding villages and settlements. They also amassed considerable wealth. Monks aren’t the only productive ones. Historians often speak of the “Protestant work ethic” being a driving force for Western economic growth over the last 500 years. Is there anything wrong with Christians pursuing productivity and trying to be good stewards with the time, resources, and opportunities God provides?
Although I am not always as productive as I would like to be, I confess that I am a productivity nut. I get antsy if I am not doing or making or creating something. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. What I have learned, however, is that I am in danger of making productivity into an idol. Being productive is what a lot of people aspire for in our culture, but it is also rare to identify this as a sin. In this blog post, I explore the dark side of pursuing productivity, showing that if you’re not careful, you can easily slip into Productivity Idolatry.
Being Unproductive is a Problem
Most of us recognize that being unproductive and lazy are wrong. With YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, emails, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, Netflix, there are so many diversions in life that distract us from getting things done. Unless you are being intentional with your time, the Internet quickly becomes a “black hole” for your energy, focus, and productivity. Not that the Internet is entirely to blame.
A number of years ago (when MySpace was still a fledgling idea), I read a newspaper column cleverly titled “Idle Worship.” The article discussed our culture’s penchant for worshipping leisure and idolizing idleness. Too often we live for the weekend, for entertainment, and for vacations. Although rest is important, we were made to work. Before the “Fall” in Genesis, Adam and Eve had things to do. God placed Adam and Eve in a garden that needed to be tended and cultivated. Work is good for us. The challenge is that our work is often frustrated; this is because sin entered the world and work became much harder. God tells Adam
“cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17 – 19)
Because work is hard, we are prone to shirk our duties and avoid difficult tasks. But the Bible is clear: being lazy is a sin (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; 1 Timothy 5:13). It should be no surprise that the book of Proverbs frequently scolds the sluggard. The master in Jesus’s “parable of the talents” condemns the timid and lazy servant. One of the seven deadly sins identified by the medieval church is slothfulness. In other words, being unproductive is a great temptation and struggle for human beings. This is why our culture longs for self-help books on being more productive. One of the best is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Christian writers have also tackled the topic, such as Tim Challies’ Do More Better. We also are prone to slipping into overworking, and this is also addressed by Christian authors like Kevin DeYoung (Crazy Busy) and David Murray (Reset).
Poorly managing the time, gifts, and resources God has given to us is a stewardship issue, whether you are being lazy or you are burning yourself out. Either way, we need to confess and repent of these sins. In this blog post, however, I am not going to address the problems with being unproductive or the consequences of being overworked. Here’s the point: pursuing productivity isn’t necessarily a righteous antidote for poor stewardship of time, resources, and abilities.
I know this firsthand. In my day job, I work as a full time teacher in a demanding independent school. I also teach part-time at a community college. I write a column on the arts. I blog, I write poetry, and I am currently writing two books. I have four children and we home school our two youngest daughters. I oversee the Audio Visual ministry at my church and I’m involved with teaching and preaching. I am also involved with other ministry tasks, such as discipleship and speaking at other churches and conferences. So what’s wrong with all that?
Here’s the big problem: productivity can easily become idolatry. Idolatry can come in many forms: careers, family, possessions—anything that usurps God’s rightful place in our lives. Timothy Keller defines idolatry simply as “turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.” Taking a good thing—like productivity—and turning it into your ultimate purpose for your life is idolatry. You are validating your existence through how efficient, or busy, or productive you are. In his book Counterfeit Gods, Keller further describes an idol as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.”
Productivity idolatry can slip beneath the radar. For one thing, it is not obvious that you are sinning, especially when you are productive at work, at school, at home, or in your church. These are good things. We know being a sluggard is bad, so being hardworking seems justified, no matter how focused you are on being productive. Because it’s a “good thing” it’s harder to recognize it when it becomes an ultimate thing. Another reason why productivity idolatry goes unnoticed is that it’s rarely about pride or seeking the praise of others. Truly productive people do a lot of work unseen. Self-promotion hinders productivity. But here’s the snare. Just because you aren’t fueling your pride with your productivity doesn’t mean you aren’t sinning.
Taking a good thing—like productivity—and turning it into your ultimate purpose for your life is idolatry. You are validating your existence through how efficient, or busy, or productive you are.
Seven Signs of Productivity Idolatry
How do you know when a good thing—productivity—has become an ultimate thing? Here are seven signs that you may be idolizing productivity in your life.
1) Inflexibility with the unexpected: Is your time so full that you are thrown into a tizzy when something unscheduled happens or there’s a setback to your productivity? The Apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit, among which is peace and patience (Galatians 5:22). The fruit of idolatry is anxiety, frustration, bitterness, and unrighteous anger. Few people enjoy hiccups to their plans. But if your idol is productivity, then even the slightest inconvenience or impediment to your plans will send you into a tailspin.
2) Impatience with others: Are you annoyed when others seem to take “advantage” of your time? If you have set aside a couple of hours to do a project with someone, and they are late, or cancel last minute, or “slough it off” entirely… does this disproportionately rankle your feathers? Are you struggling to love your neighbour? Productivity can make you very impatient with people you might deem to be less productive. You may grumble when others don’t pull their weight. I confess that my family has felt the brunt of this, either by me having high expectations for what they ought to be doing or hearing me gripe about others. God has called you to love your neighbours; productivity idolatry is another obstacle to your ability to obey God in this.
3) Obsessive multitasking: Do you “multitask” while you are doing seemingly non-productive tasks? I admit that while watching a cartoon that my daughter wants me to see, I have surreptitiously responded to emails on my smartphone… I am not being honest with her nor am I honouring her time with me. It's debateable whether people can truly multitask anyway. Most research seems to suggest that you either do all the tasks poorly or you are really doing only one thing while pretending to do something else. Either way, spending time with my daughter is getting the short-shrift. If productivity has usurped God's place in your life, it has also usurped the place of other important people in your life.
4) Avoiding regular responsibilities: Are you shirking your boring or mundane tasks for more interesting or fulfilling productivity tasks? Are you often annoyed by the ordinary tasks of helping out at home, at school, at church, or at work? I confess that I have often struggled with marking student essays or making burgers for the family supper when I would rather write or blog or do research for a project. We are seeking to be productive for our own gratification, which is a hallmark of idolatry. What other responsibilites are you shirking? Do you struggle to pray, or do you sacrifice all other needs—family, friends, responsibilities—for the god of your idolatry? If nothing else matters except being productive, then you have a problem with idolatry.
5) Penchant for control: Productivity obsessed people desire control. The most important thing is to be productive, so the temptation to overemphasize “quality control” is a sign of productivity idolatry. We should want to do things well, but not at the expense of love or ministry to others. We need to remember that even our best efforts fall short of the glory of God. If you are reluctant to allow others to do things differently than you would have done, you may be slipping into idolatry. Productivity has become an ultimate thing in your life.
6) Productivity tunnel-vision: Do you neglect your health or times of leisure? Do you neglect exercise? Do you work over lunchbreak? Working hard is a very important concept in the Bible, but so is recreation and rest. Think of Jesus’ short three year ministry. He spent time preaching, performing miracles, disciple making, and teaching—all productive stuff. But he also spent a lot of time reclining at dinner tables, travelling with his disciples, retreating alone to pray, and even sleeping! Author Paul Heintzman observes that Adam and Eve’s first full day in the universe was a day of rest. Resting is an important need often overlooked in the Christian life. This topic is worth a post on its own.
I confess that I skipped many breakfasts and lunches in order to maximize my output. I rarely watch TV or watch films. I often put leisure reading on hold while reading other books for a productivity purpose, whether I’m teaching the book, or I researching for a writing project. I need to ask myself whether I am sacrificing myself on the altar of productivity? If so, then I need to confess my idolatry.
7) No Satisfaction: Idols offer us only destruction and misery. If you aren’t really satisfied—no matter how hard you work or how productive you are—then this is a sign of productivity idolatry. God declares in Jeremiah 2:13, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” The idol of productivity is yet another broken cistern offering no refreshment or satisfaction. So, after toiling away, you say “Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). God is the only source of true and lasting satisfaction (Psalm 107:9; Isaiah 58:11).
We are seeking to be productive for our own gratification, which is a hallmark of idolatry. Do you struggle to pray, or do you sacrifice all other needs—family, friends, responsibilities—for the god of your idolatry? If nothing else matters except being productive, then you have a problem with idolatry.
What’s the solution?
Step one… Repent, confess, and turn to God. Find your joy, purpose, and life in him alone (Acts 3:18 - 19). Step two, seek to focus on fewer things that are excellent. Doing fewer tasks will result in better quality work. This means you will need to share the load with others, whether at work, at home, or at church. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Allow others to exercise their gifts by taking on some of the productivity tasks you've been hoarding! Thirdly, cry out to God, asking “What would you have me do, O Lord?” Be led by the Spirit, not by your desire to be satisfied by your productivity. You will discover that a lot of things that filled your day really aren't necessary or God-honouring. Fourthly… Go for a walk in the woods. Enjoy a game of chess with your daughter. Read a good book for fun. Spend two hours sitting on the deck listening to your wife. In other words, make time for rest. Be intentionally unproductive! Most importantly, “my dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).
Many monastic orders had a "no talking" rule. One of the reasons for this was to curb complaining. Stand by a 21st century watercooler or hang out in the parking lot outside an office building and you will quickly learn that complaining is still a problem. Even church parking lots after Sunday service can be a hotbed of complaining. Human beings complain. The Bible is full of complaining people. A monastic gag order doesn't solve the heart of the problem, which (ironically) is our own hearts! So, as scary as it sounds, the best person to complain to is the only one who can change our hearts. In this blog post, I talk about why we need to complain more... to God!
Why we should always bring our complaints to God
My pastor recently preached on Psalm 13, a psalm of lament. Lamentation prayers are helpful to teach us how to navigate difficulties in life; the lamenting psalmist brings his complaint to God and implores the Lord to take action on his behalf. My pastor noted that one-third of the inspired psalms are in a “minor key.” It is astonishing how few of our hymns and prayers are laments. Clearly, God is showing us that we need to lament more! Oddly as it may sound, we are exhorted to learn how to complain to God.
I have been reflecting this week on why we struggle to bring our complaints to God. One reason is that we know that much of our complaints are often rooted in wrong motives! We complain to ourselves or others because we think we deserve better, or we feel undervalued, or we feel some people aren’t doing their share, or we are envious of what others have. We complain to our friends, co-workers, spouses about our friends, co-workers, and spouses to justify ourselves in the eyes of others. We may even complain about chores or extra work to get out of certain responsibilities. Such complaints are rooted in a sinful mindset. Should we bring these complaints to God?
Wrong motives, right prayer
The answer is yes. Even these sorts of unfounded complaints should be brought to God. Here’s why: when we bring to God what’s bothering us, such complaints will inevitably become confessions! We begin to see all of our circumstances in light of God’s will for our lives. Praying to God is a powerful way to change our prayers and change our perspectives. Always, always, always go to God. Don’t reserve time with God for so-called “holy” prayers on “holy” topics. It is Christ who makes our prayers holy (Ephesians 2:18); it is the Spirit who interprets our groaning (Romans 8:26 – 27), and it is the Father who answers our prayers according to his good will and purpose (1 John 5:14). Complain to God and see what God does. He will answer your prayer by first changing you, the complainer.
Complain to God and see what God does. He will answer your prayer by first changing you, the complainer.
Petty problems? No problem
Another reason we don’t complain to God is that we think that the things that bother us are too small or too petty for God. We feel we should be complaining to God about important matters like our unsaved friends, family, or neighbours; we should be complaining about the evil in our world, or the persecuted church, or the lack of glory and praise given to God. Yes, we should be crying out to God for these things! But we need to remember that we are still growing in the faith, still being sanctified, still being made more like Christ day-by-day. We end up spending ten minutes in prayer for “spiritual concerns” and then spend the rest of the day worrying and complaining about the things that bother us. Here’s the key: when we are open to complaining to God about everything on our hearts and minds, we begin to learn to lament for the things that really matter. A child will bring her small problem to her mother, maybe a misplaced toy or mismatched sock. To a child, these seem like weighty matters. To a mom who is juggling 101 things, these concerns are like a “grain of sand.” Still, the mother will gently and kindly respond, assisting where she can but also teaching the little girl to “see the big picture” and not get “worked up” about the small setbacks in life. As the child grows, she learns this lesson and becomes mature. But the way the little girl started to learn this lesson was by complaining to her mom and then listening to how her mom responded. How much more can we learn from the Lord?
To a big God, there are no small problems
Even to adults, what seems big to us, isn’t really big. Take a grain of fine sand, which is 1/8 of a millimetre (0.125 mm). Compare that to a grain of table salt, which is 1/3 of a millimetre (0.333 mm). Salt is twice as big as a fine grain of sand, yet to us, both are small. Sometimes specific problems seem twice as big as other daily woes, and therefore, more “worthy” of bringing to God. In truth, all of our issues are small compared to God. We need to bring all of our complaints to God, big or small! When we bring our problems to him, we begin to learn that our God is much bigger than we ever imagined. All of our difficulties and setbacks are small compared to him! Yet—and here’s the most astonishing part—he is big enough to care about the little things. Our big God is sustaining the universe—planets held in orbit, stars kept ablaze, comets guided through space—as well as watching the lowly sparrow in a beech tree and clothing the blooming lily in a meadow (Matthew 6:25 - 34). He is so big that nothing is too small! Sorting out grains of sand from salt is too much for us, yet God numbers each grain of sand, each star in the universe, and each hair on our head (Ecclesiastes 1:2; Psalm 147:4; Luke 12:7). There is comfort in this glimpse of divine perspective. Our Abba Father has infinitely broad shoulders, so he can handle our biggest or smallest woes.
Remember that God, like a loving parent, also knows how small we are and how big our problems seem to us. Remember that the incarnated Jesus came to earth with a cosmic mission to bring salvation to the world and all human history. And yet, he took time to chat with a woman at the well, to heal a leper, to raise a man from the dead, to turn water into wine, to feed a crowd of hungry listeners. There are no topics of genuine prayer that God deems not worthy of his time. True, we need to continue growing in our understanding of prayer and how to pray. But to believe there are unworthy complaints is an idea that comes from a wrong view of the world, as though God separates things into “worthy” spiritual matters and “unworthy” earthly matters. Complain to God. See how much bigger he is compared to your biggest or smallest problem, your most spiritual or earthly concern.
Remember that God, like a loving parent, also knows how small we are and how big our problems seem to us.
Complain because God cares about you
Peter tells us to cast our cares on God because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). He cares for you! He cares about your struggles with your co-workers, and your debit card that stopped working, and the unexpected brake repair, and the cold snap that wiped out your spring tulips. As you “complain to God,” the Spirit will work in your heart. You will be less preoccupied with these matters because they are cast on his infinitely broad shoulders. You will begin to care more and more about the things that should matter more and more to you. He knows what you need and he knows what is bothering you. Prayer is really about changing us, encouraging us, and awakening us to God and his purposes in our life. Through these sorts of prayer, the reality of Romans 8:28 begins to sink in, and we can say with confidence that "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
Complain for the Glory of God?
When we are complaining to God, we are truly being honest with him and with our feelings of frustration and despair. In Jeremiah 12:1, the prophet writes, “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you.” When difficulty comes, we are often at a loss. We don’t understand why things are happening as they are. When we come to God with our frustrations, we are declaring that only he knows the answers, that only he acts righteously, that only he has the power to make things better. In short, our complaints to God bring glory to him. Such is the case for how so many lamentation psalms end. The complaint isn’t necessarily resolved, but God is exulted and the complainer is transformed. David writes,
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5 – 6).
"In Pursuit of Excellence" Here is an excerpt from a two-part guest blog I wrote for H&E Publishing in Peterborough, Ontario (Feb 19, 2020 and May 4, 2020).
God is exceedingly excellent in every way. His character is excellent, his Word is excellent—everything he does is excellent! Surely this is why the Psalmist calls us to “praise him according to his excellent greatness” (Psalm 150:2). But if God is excellent, and Christians are called to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1), doesn’t that mean we should strive to be excellent at everything we do? At first glance this might seem like a terrifying thought; after all, most of us certainly aren’t excellent at everything. It shouldn’t be terrifying, however, when we realize that the pursuit of excellence is ultimately about using the gifts and opportunities God has already given to us.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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