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The Idol of Productivity

What Is An Idol?

Productivity is an idol. In the biblical sense, an idol is something that people worship or center their lives around other than God. In America, we have many idols: individualism, wealth, work (to name a few). We look up to those values. We strive for them. We can orient our whole lives around these ideals.

In the pop culture sense, idols are people that we look up to or associate with success. There is an entire reality TV show named “American Idol” where singers compete for stardom. “Roger Federer or Serena Williams is my tennis idol,” someone might say.

Subconsciously or not, we all have aspirations and driving forces in our lives that influence our actions. We all have goals and desires. Is it to be successful? To be seen as someone who is a hard worker and not lazy? To be independent, to be liked, to be famous, to be financially well-off? Our idols can end up defining or driving the way we live our lives. Recognizing and naming our idols is important to understanding why we are living our lives the way that we do.

What Is Productivity?

A quick dictionary definition reveals productivity as “the quality, state, or fact of being able to generate, create, enhance, or bring forth goods and services.” Productivity is the focus of defining yourself as the output of what you can produce. Part of the effect of living in a highly capitalistic society is that we sometimes end up defining ourselves by the “good” or “services” we provide to the world.

The first question a lot of people ask you in the Bay Area is, “what do you do for work?” We like to label people by their current job or role. “Oh, she’s a software engineer” or “I’m a teacher.” Family, hobbies, and interests are all secondary questions. Even in elementary school growing up, the expected answer to the common question, “who do you want to be in the future?” is often a career path (an astronaut, a firefighter, a doctor, a professional basketball player), and not the type of person you want to be (“I want to be someone who takes care of my family,” “I want to be kind and generous,” or “I want to be a decision-maker and leader.”) We end up seeing and defining ourselves as what we produce.

Nowadays, the most common response to the question, “how are you?” is usually some variation of “I’ve been busy.” Our minds go straight to “what did I do this week?” rather than “how am I this week?” Why can’t we get our minds to think on tracks more related to our emotions and outlook rather than where we spent our time? For example, both “I’ve been having a hard time with my family relationships” or “I’ve been enjoying my friends and hobbies” seem like deeper, more authentic responses compared to an automatic “it’s been a busy week.” Busy with what? Busy with doing, no doubt: work, chores, to-dos, upkeeping relationships, and a number of other things. “I’m busy” doesn’t even describe an emotion, but rather a state of being. Our responses show us that we often define and see ourselves merely as what we do or produce.

Why Productivity Is An Idol

Productivity isn’t necessarily “evil” or “good.” But as I’ve come to discover, it’s important to identify and put productivity into perspective along with other things in my life. As a Christian, productivity becomes an idol when it becomes more important to me than loving God. I define “loving God” as loving others, loving God’s creation, and loving what Jesus’ death on the cross represents and how that changes our life perspective.

I recently did a “fast” from writing because I realized that, in my fervor and motivation to write (which are good things on their own), my desire to be “productive in my writing” ended up being more important to me than say, having quality time with my wife, or making space for prayer and reading. I felt like I was being less present to my wife in the evenings. Doing research and learning about marketing replaced my priority for Scripture in the morning. I had less time at night for things like journaling or relaxing. With my mind focused on being “productive” all day, I just had less capacity to think about others in my life. I didn’t have the energy to be intentionally grateful or appreciative at the end of the day. I wasn’t willing to admit it, but in a way, my writing had become more important to me than other areas of my life.

When I began to think intentionally about my unconscious desire for productivity, I started to realize that it actually had a big impact on me, my sense of fulfillment and happiness, and even my relationships with others.

Why Christians Should Think About Productivity

If we don’t intentionally name and call out productivity as a value that we aspire towards and idolize, Christians run the risk of having their desire to “produce” override their identity as a Christian.

When you consider the root of the word, “Christians” are people who have decided they want to make Christ (Jesus) the center of their lives. They choose to define their identity through him. They choose to see others and the world differently because of him. Consider the Gospel of John, where the author curiously chooses the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as the way to introduce and identify himself as (if the author is, presumably, the apostle John, the son of Zebedee). Here’s a snippet from Chapter 20, when Mary announces that Jesus’ body has disappeared from the tomb, and Peter and John run to the tomb:

So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 

John 20:2-4

First of all, I like this passage because it’s kind of a hilarious flex that the author records that this other disciple (himself) was able to outrun Peter. But more to the point above, it is the bolded phrase that is interesting. Disregarding “Simon Peter and myself” as the obvious choice (perhaps it was a scribe?), the qualifier to this other disciple could just as easily have been a proper noun (“Simon Peter and John“) or even his relationship to Simon Peter (“Simon Peter and the other disciple, another one of the Twelve.”) Instead, the author chooses to describe this other disciple in reference to Jesus: “Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved.” John is not referred to by his name, his nationality or ethnicity as a Jew, or even by his family lineage. Rather, he chooses to identify and be known in reference to Christ (“my identity is that I am loved by Jesus”).

A lot of non-Christians (and Christians, too) seem to miss the fundamental root of what “Christian” is supposed to mean. A Christian is identified by someone who has an inward change of heart, not necessarily outward change of action or deed. We would do well to remember that a person who identifies as Christian is not morally superior to the person who is not Christian. Being Christian does not equal being more kind or compassionate or put-together than someone who is not Christian. Christians are merely people who believe that Jesus was Christ and profess that Jesus is their Savior. (CS Lewis expands on this idea halfway through the preface of Mere Christianity). By that definition, it actually follows that Christians, on average, should be more crabby and unkind and susceptible to things like addiction and immoral behavior compared to someone else (not that they should stay that way)! Let’s remember, Jesus came for the sinners, not for the righteous. Christians are the ones who desperately need Christ in their lives, and are willing to admit it.

So at the end of the day, a Christian’s primary duty is to be loved by God. Productivity has a way of skewing this thinking. It makes Christians believe their role is to dispense love and good deeds to the world, rather than acknowledging and receiving God’s love in their lives. When Christians starting thinking about themselves as the output of their work, even in a Christian or spiritualized sense, they start associating being a Christian as someone who serves their church most faithfully. Or that in order to be a “good” Christian, they need to be “good” at loving others. Or that “loving God” somehow equates to “being devoted to Scripture and prayer.”

Our society celebrates and emphasizes productivity. While there are certainly positive and negative aspects to the notion of being productive, the important thing is to consider how it affects your outlook on other aspects in your life. Is it taking over your sense of self-worth in your work? Does it affect the way you plan social events with friends and family? How is it tied to your own motivation and sense of identity?

The Positive Effects of Productivity

One of our first introductions to God in the Bible is God as a Creator. There is something inherently good about the act of creation and the concept of work, so productivity certainly isn’t ALL bad. “God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” In Genesis, it’s clear that God was productive, and he passes that on to the humans made in his image.

There is a lot of imagery in the New Testament around “bearing fruit.” Jesus wanted his disciples to be known by the way they loved one another. In Proverbs 6 there is a comparison of the “sluggard” against ants, who know how to work during the summer in order to store food for the winter.

There is nothing bad about desiring to produce. Work is meaningful and something that God gave us to be enjoy in conjunction with patterns of rest. If we are made in God’s image, and God was a Creator, then we are also creators: we think, we dream, we can act on our desires, we can help with the flourishing of the world and others.

There is nothing bad about taking a good, hard look at your own habits and trying to figure out where you can improve. We are meant to grow and become more mature. The important thing is to know what you are optimizing when you are seeking improvement. Our society prizes efficiency, quickness, and profit. What does it mean to optimize for gratitude, generosity, or love for others?

There is nothing bad about taking action when it comes to demonstrating your faith. The New Testament has a lot to say about both faith and works. Jesus represents God coming to humanity, but he still calls us to respond, to act on our faith. We are not just the product of our actions and output, but actions speak louder than words when it comes to a life of faith.

The Negative Effects of Productivity

Too much emphasis on productivity leads to some negative effects as well, including guilt in not doing enough, expectation of payoff or reward, or an unhealthy focus on the future and not the present.

For myself, any time I start to use the words “ought to,” “should to,” or “need to,” instead of the words “get to,” “able to,” or “freedom to,” it’s usually driven by an unhealthy emphasis on productivity. I’m focused on doing and producing, and if I’m not doing that, then I feel lazy, or subpar, or just wondering if I’m wasting my time. Productivity has a dangerous edge to it when you begin comparing yourself to others. You feel like you could always be “doing more.”

Productivity also drags people into a reward-oriented mindset. They believe that if they work hard and put in the effort, then they can expect to see change. People also begin assuming they are the ones responsible for their own salvation. “If only I worked harder” or “if only I were better at achieving my goals” becomes a trap that focuses on themselves as individuals and not on receiving help from God or from others.

Finally, overblown productivity can also lead to an unhealthy focus on the future and not the present. Everything becomes about the outcome. It’s not about the journey any longer, or the process, but the end result. The saddest picture of this is when people are so focused on the future that they forget to enjoy and live life in the present. In the parable of the rich man in Luke 12, there is a man who accumulates wealth and always seeks to build bigger and bigger barns. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” People can become so focused on the goal that the joy of life is lost on the way there. This happens on a smaller-scale, too. With my writing, I want to balance enjoying it for the product at the end, but also enjoying the process along the way.

Assessing if Productivity Is Becoming an Idol

Whether its pressure from media, family, or society-at-large, we have a culture that celebrates, even idolizes, the notion of productivity. Doing more is always seen as better than doing less. We are envious of our friends who have a long list of accomplishments under their name. We joke about who gets the least amount of sleep. We all wish that we had more hours in a day in order to do the things we want to do.

Do you resonate with any of those scenarios? Have you thought about the effects of constantly aiming for productivity, whether good or bad?

I’ve been wrestling a lot with the notion that I don’t feel fulfilled or satisfied unless I feel like I’m being “productive” in some way. Maybe my definition for what counts as productive needs to change. Or I need to more properly separate my identity and self-worth from what I manage to produce, or how I spend my time. There are genuine benefits to striving for greater productivity, but also plenty of detrimental effects. My hope is that I can learn and assess how the desire for productivity ends up impacting other important parts of my life, such as relationships and church.

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