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).
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.