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).
Monasteries were known for their scheduled prayers throughout the day. Regular times of praying and meditating on the Word are spiritually nourishing. Under normal circumstances, we are packing lunches, rushing out the door, negotiating the commute to work, responding to emails... the list goes on. The opportunity to retreat to a holy huddle can be very enticing during the craziness of life! Indeed, there are benefits to retreating from the world for a time and learning again how to "be still and know" that he is God (Psalm 46:10). Although Christians shouldn’t return to the cloistered lifestyles of monasticism, we have been “forced” into monk-like living (for a time) with our current COVID-19 pandemic lock-down.
Since we have more time and more flexibility with our time, Christians ought to be capitalizing on the opportunities we have for prayer throughout the day. In a previous post, I mentioned following some of the prayer times used by monasteries for your own times of prayer and reflection.
In this post, I want to begin examining ways to keep our prayers fresh and focused.
Ways to pray
1) Reading Prayers
The Bible doesn’t provide an explicit blueprint on how we should pray. There are guides on what to pray, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, or the recorded prayers of so many Bible characters, especially the Apostle Paul. Such portions of Scripture are an essential and very helpful guide to praying. I hope to write more on this in my next Monk’s Guide post.
In this post, I want to reflect on ways we can pray throughout the day while working from home in lockdown. Besides scheduling times for prayer, we can also use tools to help us stay alert and engaged. One tool I use to start my day with an attitude of supplication is reading written prayers from church history. I use a book of collected prayers (see image below). While I am waiting for the kettle to boil for my morning cup of Joe, I pop open this book to the Morning Prayer of the day and prayerfully read the short poem. I often read the evening prayer before I go to bed at night. The written prayers help to focus my thoughts on crying out to God. Especially during my morning of pre-coffee grogginess.
I should note that there has been some controversy in the history of the church about “reading” prayers versus speaking “extemporaneous” prayers. The truth is I believe we can benefit from both sorts of praying. Both ways to pray can be Spirit-led and authentic or they can be dead, repetitive doggerel. I have heard “extemporaneous” prayers that really consist of several stock phrases memorized through repetition and strung together as though it's an off-the-cuff prayer. I have also heard very liberal congregations recite rich and theologically profound liturgical prayers and not mean a single word.
Evangelicals often balk at written prayers, yet they would also balk at extemporaneous preaching. Although congregations don't want their preacher to read his notes, they are thankful that he has prepared his message in advance. We also sing pre-written hymns in worship, so why wouldn't we be open to pre-written prayers?Whatever the case, I have been tremendously blessed by inspiring times of extemporanoues prayer and from times of prayerfully reading well-crafted prayers-of-old. In your own private mediations (as well as public worship), I believe there is a place for using both written prayers and extemporaneous prayers. I find that reading a prayer teaches me how to pray. These prayers often apply biblical and theological truths to real living. Reading and speaking aloud these prayers have a way of softening my heart and humbling my spirit before the Lord. During my personal devotions, I have also read from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Such prayers have helped train my heart and mind for extemporaneous praying. It is way of “priming the pump” of my own personal praise, pleas, and confessions before the Lord. These pre-written prayers have also taught me how to pray the Bible more effectively. In the next post, I will examine the best source of what to pray, and that is praying the Bible itself. Nevertheless, reading the written prayers of saints like Spurgeon, Calvin, and Luther are helpful aids in showing you how to speak to God in your daily circumstances.
2) The Posture of Prayer
Another helpful tool to praying is to remember your body. In his excellent book on prayer, Letters of Malcolm, C.S. Lewis writes, “the body ought to pray as well as the soul. Body and soul are both better for it.” I don’t always pray on my knees, but I do find that the taking on a posture of prayer has often helped in times of particular weariness or distraction. Praying on your knees doesn’t make my prayers more holy or more acceptable to God. Only Jesus makes our prayers acceptable and pleasing to God. What this posture does is use our bodies to help our spirits pray. Pride is one of the great obstacles to prayer, and kneeling helps foster humility. We sometimes forget that we have bodies as well as souls. We need to be spiritually minded in our physical activities as much as being physically minded in our spiritual activities. In short, variety of postures can help us keep engaged, focused, and in the right frame of mind during times of daily prayers. Joe Rigney helpfully summarizes Lewis’s advice:
It should be no surprise that communing with our Creator requires the commitment of heart, mind, and soul. Such is the commandment given to us in both the Old and New Testment (see Matthew 22:37). Paul also speaks of offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). We know in practice that our physical weariness or appetities can have a tremendous impact on our spiritual experiences, so it should mean that how we use our bodies (eating well, sleeping well, exercising, etc) as well as our physical posture can also have positive impacts on our spiritual lives as well. Likewise, meditating and praying have a positive impact on our physical bodies. According to several studies done in “Blue Zones” (areas around the world with unusually long-living inhabitants), a key ingredient to health and longevity is regular times of prayer and meditation. Reading—another habit of monks—also prolongs life! Maybe those monks were on to something!
3) Praying on the Move: prayer walks
Another helpful aid to praying is going on a prayer walk. We are stuck in our homes, but that doesn't mean we can't go for a stroll in the neighbourhood and lift up our hearts and thoughts to God in prayer as we do so. Pastor and author Mike Wilkins writes that he developed a helpful habit of walking and praying early in his ministry. As he walked a neighbourhood block, he devoted each side of the rectangle to different topics of prayer. He notes, “A very significant thing about my ‘walking in prayer’ has always been that, for the entire event, I remained mentally alert.” Sitting in prayer, he writes, often leads to “drowsing in prayer.”
Make the most of your lock-down and carve out some times to pray throughout the day!
Next Monk's Guide post: What to pray... Praying God's words back to God!
 C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 21
 Rigney, Joe. “C.S. Lewis and the Role of the Physical Body in Prayer.” Crossway, April 23, 2018. https://www.crossway.org/articles/cs-lewis-and-the-role-of-the-physical-body-in-prayer/.
 Bavishi, A., Slade, M. D., & Levy, B. R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social science & medicine (1982), 164, 44–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.014
 Mike Wilkins, Four Forty-Four (London: Tellwell, 2018), 9.
Now that so many of us are working from home, the line between “work-work” and “home-work” is getting blurred. We find ourselves spending our days doing several domestic tasks amid our other responsibilities for our jobs. Work-at-home moms and dads are busy writing reports, responding to emails, and taking conference calls while making PB&J sandwiches, repairing the broken doorknobs, and fixing leaky taps. When does the workday end? Is there time for leisure and recreation? Unless you are a regular stay-at-home parent or homeschooling mom, this is all new territory.
In Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God, the 17th-century monk encourages us both to glorify God and know his presence while doing the most menial of tasks like mopping the floor or peeling potatoes!
Medieval monks spent a lot of their time labouring and serving, often at lowly and humble chores. Based on the monks’ talents and aptitudes, they were assigned jobs like washing, food preparation, cleaning, farming, scribing, carpentry, masonry, tending to the sick, etc. We can learn from our medieval brothers how to manage our responsibilities and how to glorify God in the small tasks of day-to-day living. In Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God, the 17th-century monk encourages us both to glorify God and know his presence while doing the most menial of tasks like mopping the floor or peeling potatoes!
One of the ways monks made the most of their time was augmenting their daily chores with the honing and development of other valuable skills. Since the collapse of Roman civilization, monks preserved and mastered expertise in a variety of areas. For example, monks practiced reading and writing, singing, book-binding, brewing beers, wine-making, medicine and herbology, gardening, engineering, carpentry, teaching, and a host of other activities. Although many monastic orders left little time for leisure, some of the jobs assigned to monks might be considered hobbies by today’s standards.
So what do hobbies have to do with the Christian faith? Recently during an online Q&A session for 2020 Together For the Gospel conference, Al Mohler spoke about needing a “theology of leisure” and how Christians can “glorify God with our hobbies.” Mohler’s statements may have shocked some Christians, especially dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals. How can hobbies advance the Kingdom of God? Why waste time on hobbies when we should be evangelizing? We need to be careful about how we “redeem the time” God has given to us (Ephesians 5:16). The Bible reminds us often how fleeting our lives are (see, for example, Psalm 90:12; 144:4; James 4:13-17; 1 Peter 1:24). But evangelism is not our primary function as Christians: glorifying God is. The classic catechism question—what is the chief end of man—is answered with “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Part of glorifying God—making his greatness known—is telling others about Jesus and the Good News. During this time of COVID-19 lockdown, there are new and exciting ways to share the gospel and evangelize (see, for example, the TGC article “10 Simple Ways to Evangelize During a Pandemic”) We also have more time with family, which means more opportunities to disciple your kids in Christ and lead your family in home worship.
But we also have more time for hobbies.
Activities like gardening, photography, poetry, playing an instrument, learning a second language, sewing, wood-working, painting, drawing, blogging, composing, and cooking (just to name a few). How can our hobbies glorify God?
To help answer that question, I turn to young David on the run from King Saul. I have often wondered what David did in the Cave of Adullam or in the wilderness. What did he do with the extra time he had while in forced “isolation” and “social distancing” as King Saul relentlessly hunted him? One thing is for sure: he wrote poems. We wouldn’t usually call the psalms of David a product of mere “hobby,” but that is what they were. The lyrics that appear in the Book of Psalms are uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the skill of writing poems is perhaps talent that David honed while passing the time as a shepherd to his father’s sheep. Like playing the harp, poetry was one of the ways David used his gifts. Often the Lord uses our gifts and abilities not only for our enjoyment but also as a means to bless and minister to others. For example, the guitar or piano hobbyist ends up accompanying worship music; the poet hobbyist becomes a hymn writer; the hobby baker ends up blessing others with hospitality; the dabbler in languages becomes a missionary or translator… These sorts of applications aren’t needed to justify hobbies, but who knows what the Lord will do with the gifts, talents, and skills honed while practicing a hobby?
Devaluing seemingly “unspiritual work” often leads us to the wrong idea that there is a separation between “church life” and “everyday life.” In truth, there’s just life. We live every moment “coram Deo,” that is, before the face of God.
Even in more focused ways, the Lord using our hobbies to teach us to be patient, or more loving, or humble, or sacrificial. He may use our hobbies to draw us closer to him, as Brother Lawrence writes: “God has many ways of drawing us to Himself.”
Perhaps most importantly, using our gifts and abilities well glorifies the One who made you. You are not a cosmic fluke, but a carefully designed person made in the image of God. God created you with unique and individual gifts and abilities. He did not bless you with artistic skills, for example, to not use or hone that skill! Working at your hobbies is really about stewarding the gifts—and now time—that God has given to you.
The point is, don't underestimate hobbies. It’s an unbiblical view that “God’s business” is limited to evangelism, Sunday school, and sermons. As essential as these activities are, our God is much bigger than that. Devaluing seemingly “unspiritual work” often leads us to the wrong idea that there is a separation between “church life” and “everyday life.” In truth, there’s just life. We live every moment “coram Deo,” that is, before the face of God.
I recently heard this quotation from Charles Simeon, who writes that “there are but two lessons for Christians to learn: the one is, to enjoy God in everything; the other is, to enjoy everything in God.” Take some time, fellows monks, and develop an enjoyable skill and talent that has been collecting dust on the shelves of your minds and hearts. Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.
 The Shorter Catechism: A Baptist Version (New Jersey: Simpson Publishing, 1991), 1.
 Paul Worcester writes, “The gospel can’t be quarantined”—see article link here.
 See my previous blog post, “The Art of Worship at Home” (link here)
 Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 57
When we think of monasteries, we think of medieval monks cloistered away from society and living in silence amidst a formidable fortress of solitude. Historically, that certainly was true in many cases. In an effort to live holy and pure lives, many monastic orders retreat from the world, and even from each other. In a Benedictine monastery, for example, monks were not permitted to speak, even at the dinner table… and not even to ask someone to pass the butter! “Monks should cultivate silence at all times,” writes St. Benedict. There’s a belief that wrong behaviour can be easily addressed by limiting our behaviour. Although we could probably learn to say fewer words (and so get into less trouble), such external restrictions lead to legalism and deny the powerful work of the Spirit in a believer’s life.
In fact, the Spirit often uses our interactions with others to teach us how to be more like Jesus. For example, you never realize how proud you are until someone offends you! You never realize how little patience you have until someone exasperates you! We not only need those offensive and trying people but we ought to thank God for them!
"The temptation to avoid others so that you can live a perfect and holy life is what makes monastic living so appealing to so many."
The temptation to avoid others so that you can live a perfect and holy life is what makes monastic living so appealing to so many. Human beings are always striving for an ideal world—a heaven on earth—and unfortunately, Christians are no exception. Just like medieval monks, modern Christians tend to retreat from the challenging demands of staying connected with fellow believers, especially those “difficult to love” saints in their local church. The current crisis has certainly exasperated this tendency toward isolation. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, however, to not neglect meeting “together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
We are tempted to turn to our favourite online preachers or authors, and campout in social media echo-chambers. We may even focus on our own spiritual growth—which is valuable and essential; however, God has not only called us to be devoted to him but also to love our neighbours.
During this COVID-19 crisis, as many Christians are unable to meet with their congregations or even interact with their family or neighbours, be sure that you are still connecting with the saints. Pick up the phone, chat via texting, send an email, use one of the many online video chats (Google Hangouts, Skype, Google Duo, Zoom, Webex, just to name a few free applications). You need to body of Christ to help you be more like Christ, and the body needs you to help them become more like Christ too.
So fellow COVID-19 monks, don’t be a recluse! Be sure to “break the silence” from time to time, and reach out (virtually) to fellow saints, friends, family, missionaries, pastors, neighbours… especially those who are on their own. “As iron sharpens iron,” the Proverb declares, “so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
For more on the importance of staying connected to the body of Christ, here’s a link to a sermon I preached at Rosedale Baptist Church call “Why Your Church Matters” on Ephesians 4:1-16.
 Benedict, and Timothy Fry. The Rule of St. Benedict in English. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018.
A Series of Blogs on Surviving and Thriving During Coronavirus Lockdown
Although there are many negative and tragic consequences of the present COVID-19 pandemic, there are also many unexpected benefits. Now that I am working from home, for example, I have opportunities to see my family more during lunch breaks, snack time, and quick trips to the loo. I also have fewer distractions and more time on my hands. There’s no commute to work, no digressive chats by the water cooler, no hunting down staplers or office supplies, no neckties or polished dress shoes. Even after work, we have more time: stadiums, theatres, museums, malls have all been shuttered. What to do with the time given to us?
I’m not saying we need to start chanting in Latin, wearing robes and sandals around the house, shaving the tops of our heads, or remaining silent at the dinner table… Nor am I saying we need to retreat from the world and try to create heaven on earth sanctuary. Such are the dangers and pitfuls of historical monasticism. Instead, like the monks, we can carve out daily times for prayer, meditation, and fasting throughout the day. Like Jesus, who retreated to the wilderness for prayer and fasting, we too have a chance to “retreat” for the refreshment of our souls and we, also, can pray ardently for the greatness of God to be made known to our lost world (Matthew 4:1; Luke 5:16).
A Modern Monk’s Call to Prayer
While working from home, I find it easy to lose track of time and to work, and work, and work. I also find that there is an explosion of good distractions on social media... seminars, articles, blogs, videos, sermons… So we need to schedule times to pray and to take breaks. Taking scheduled breaks, in fact, is essential to be truly productive. To help with this, I have preset alarms on my phone roughly matched to a handful of monastic prayer times. The alerts on my phone are choral voices singing Latin prayers written during the Middle Ages; I also have one alarm set as church bells… but that’s just me! Do what works for you. I set a pre-break alarm to give myself a five-minute window to finish up tasks before taking a 20- or 30-minute break. I also keep a notepad nearby to jot down “to do” tasks that I don’t want to forget when I get back to work after my break for prayer or rest. Also, note by writing things down, this enables you to forget about whatever you’re working on while taking a prayer or rest break. It’s also important to get up and move away from your work area to a different location.
In the next couple of blog posts, I will write about ways to maximize the new monastic lifestyle, I’ll examine aids to prayer, and I will discuss fasting, which John Piper calls “the handmaid of faith.” In the meantime, here are the traditional times of prayer in a monastery. I don’t do Matins (too early), but I do Prime, Terce, Sext, and None. I slightly alter the times to suit my schedule, responsibilities, and commitments.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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