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What If There Is No Such Thing as 'Biblical' Productivity?

January 5th, 2024 | 11 min read

By Brady Bowman

I have a confession to make: I’m not a very productive person. I never finish my to-do list. I read at what I assume is an average pace. I browse too indiscriminately online when I should be doing other things. I only listen to podcasts on 1x speed. I too-readily engage in conversations that don’t have any obvious bearing on my immediate obligations or spheres of influence. I take my dog, Lewis, on a walk each night, usually for 20-30 minutes, and do nothing other than stare at my surroundings, greet neighbors, or pick up Lewis’ poop. (I’m not a monster.) Like many of you, I sometimes feel intense pressure to be productive, which is only intensified by my awareness that I have more gadgets and tools to aid me in my productivity, and more knowledge at my fingertips, than any prior generation of humans in history—all of which causes me to feel even more pressure and anxiety and, therefore, to be even less productive. And the vicious cycle goes on and on. 

Lest my intentionally provocative title lead you astray, I should clarify at this point: I’m not anti-productivity. Obviously, our culture is awash in lingo about efficiency, productivity, maximizing, achieving, and so on. I don’t have any qualms with the productivity genre per se. I certainly don’t have any problems with wanting to be productive, properly understood. I like getting things done as much as the next guy (but maybe not as much as David Allen). I certainly enjoy settling into periods of intense focus known as “deep work.” I love achieving flow, managing my time, and implementing my atomic habits to overcome any and every obstacle to success—hoorah!

But…

I’m less of a fan of biblical productivity, and this for two main reasons. Certainly, I have benefitted from authors who have written on productivity from a distinctly Christian vantage point. Works that come immediately to mind include Tim Challies’ Do More Better, Brandon Crowe’s Every Day Matters, and Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next. I’ve read and profited from each of these. Many of their insights I’ve sought to implement in my own life. However, I’ve become skeptical that biblical productivity is a helpful or necessary genre.

The first reason—this one more narrow and limited—that I’ve grown tired of this approach is that it typically involves a superficial engagement with Scripture. When we approach the Bible looking for guidance on productivity, we are bringing all sorts of modern concerns and contemporary categories about efficiency and time management and scheduling and technology to the text. Bringing these things to the text doesn’t mean that we will necessarily distort the meaning of Scripture, but the danger is at least present. Instead of listening intently to see the animating concerns of the biblical authors (as well as the assumptions that underlie their explicit statements), we quickly bypass that admittedly slow and difficult process in favor of quoting a few ‘proof-texts’ that allow us to get on with talking about what we’re really interested in. 

This phenomenon is not limited to productivity. You see it regularly when someone writes about a “Christian approach” to leadership, or business, or any number of other topics. My main concern here is basically with how Scripture ends up functioning in these works. Some verses are quoted early in the book or article that seem to bear some vague relationship with the topic at hand. These bits of Scripture, often abstracted from their context, are deployed to give the entire work a certain biblical feel that seems to lend authority to the author’s arguments. But, it’s actually counterproductive to use Scripture in this way. If what you really want to talk about is workflow, organization, scheduling, technological tools, or whatever, then talk about those things. You don’t need to quote a few verses from Proverbs on working diligently, paint a picture of the apostle Paul’s tireless work ethic, or reproduce Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30). Since the productivity stuff you are wanting to talk about is so far removed from the animating concerns of these passages, you are likely to mislead your readers about how those texts can be straightforwardly applied to their productivity.

To give one particularly egregious example of this: Consider Rick Warren’s article for Church Growth Magazine entitled “Paul’s Strategy for Time Management.” Early in the piece, Warren says that “the Bible tells us that time management can be taught” and then proceeds to quote Psalm 90:12 as proof. (“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”) Even a cursory reading of Psalm 90 would suggest that Moses is encouraging God’s people to consider their frailty and ephemerality in light of God’s constancy and eternality. It is more about a pervasive awareness of our creatureliness than about how we might manage blocks of time or get tasks done. Warren then proceeds to work through “four steps from Paul to help you manage your time and make your life more effective,” steps which are ostensibly drawn from Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:15-17: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Of course, Psalm 90 and Ephesians 5 do tell us something about how God’s people ought to conduct themselves in this world and how a life of wisdom will entail making good use of our time. But, whatever guidance these texts offer us, they must be equally applicable to ancient agrarian societies and modern technological ones. When these verses are quickly abstracted from their surrounding soil and put to work in a discussion around efficiency and time management, it is highly unlikely that the original force and intention of those texts will be heard, understood, and deeply meditated upon. And while Warren’s article might be especially cringe-worthy in how these modern concerns overwhelm the text, I don’t think it’s all that different from others that fall in the biblical productivity genre. As theologian Richard Hooker observed centuries ago, when we appeal to Scripture on a topic that it doesn’t clearly address in order to fortify our own arguments, we actually undermine the Bible’s authority, at least in the eyes of others, regarding those things that it does clearly speak to.

The second reason that my enthusiasm for biblical productivity has cooled—this reason more significant and fundamental—is that the “productivity mindset” seems to me, at least in some ways, deeply incongruent with the Bible’s vision of reality. To say it more simply, to adopt an outlook dominated by speed and efficiency and productivity is to adopt a perspective that is alien to the writers of Scripture. That, I acknowledge, is a provocative way of framing things, so let me fill out what I mean.

Part of the problem is that this view of reality—this “productivity mindset”—is so widespread and so deeply ingrained in the modern psyche that most of us take it for granted and cannot imagine viewing the world differently. There is, of course, a complex history that has led us to this point, which includes (among many others) the scientific revolution and the rise of modern science, the industrial revolution, the development of ever-more sophisticated technologies, and so on. Jacques Ellul was broadly correct when he argued that modern societies now have an overwhelming preoccupation with technique—with constantly looking to find more efficient means and methods for production. L. M. Sacasas summarizes Ellul’s notion of technique as “the imperative to optimize all areas of human experience for efficiency.”

I don’t know about you, but I feel that imperative. That sentence perfectly encapsulates the orienting outlook of our society. Many of us feel an intense pressure to optimize every aspect of life, and not just our professional lives. Every aspect of human experience must be optimized. Sacasas continues, “The focus drifts toward a consideration of methods, procedures, techniques, and tools and away from a discussion of the goals that ought to be pursued.” We constantly tinker and improve our methods and tools, yet we are so harried and busy with this process that we are led away from any discussion about ultimate goods or the substantive ends we ought to be pursuing.

In order for this mindset to be plausible, more and more aspects of human existence must be quantified and subjected to rational means of analysis. For me to be more efficient and more productive (since that is an unquestioned good), I need to be able to assign some value to every action I perform. Then, I can run a ‘cost-benefit’ analysis to see if I’m spending my time on truly effective and worthwhile things. Moreover, I can time all of my activities throughout the day to see where my time is going and to ensure that I’m allocating my time wisely and effectively.

But does this outlook, as I’ve described it, fit with what we find in the pages of Scripture? If a key aspect of reading Scripture is, in Jim Hamilton’s words, “understanding and embracing the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors,” do our modern categories of productivity and efficiency help us or hinder us in that pursuit?[1] Are these ways of viewing reality adequate to the ways that Scripture itself depicts God’s world? My wager is that, as often as not, the desire for speed and optimization causes us to overlook aspects of the created order, or other people, or ourselves that our ancestors were more aware of and sensitive to. 

Consider, for instance, how Jesus lived and carried himself in the Gospels. Would Christians in other times and places than our own read through the Gospels and conclude that Jesus placed a premium on things like speedefficiency, and being productive? If not, it might be instructive to consider why that is. Part of an answer, it seems to me, would include how Jesus’ bodily presence focused his attention and clarified his obligations. For us, we spend so much time online that our attention is not necessarily directed to what is nearest to us spatially. Thanks to our smartphones, we are potentially anywhere, and thus our choices for how to direct our time and attention multiply exponentially.

Or, we might choose to reflect on Scripture’s depiction of human grief and lamentation. The Bible contains many Psalms of lament and even an entire book entitled “Lamentations.” The book of Job describes Job’s three friends who, upon hearing of the devastation that had befallen him, sat with him in his suffering for a week (Job 2:11-13). Romans 12:15 commands us to “weep with those who weep.” But, is there anything less productive than grief or sadness? If you’ve ever struggled with even a mild bout of depression, you know how unproductive it can be—at least, in terms of tasks completed and quantifiable outcomes. We could add to this all the highly inefficient work of caring for human persons—whether for infants, for those with various disabilities, for the elderly and infirm. The productivity mindset might resonate with Type-A high achievers and knowledge workers, but it doesn’t always map as easily on to the experience of the sick, the suffering, and the overlooked.

As I said at the outset, I’m not suggesting that all talk of productivity and efficiency is completely wrong-headed. My aim is more modest: namely, to question the usefulness of biblical productivity as a genre, particularly since such an approach seems to force everything into its mold. My main objection to the productivity mindset—the incessant push toward optimization—is how it tends to flatten all human experience, which is so richly depicted in Scripture, into a very reduced register. 

I’ll conclude with an anecdote and let you judge its relevance. In recent years, I’ve noticed an uptick in prayer requests for “better time management” or some similar request. There’s nothing wrong in principle with this request. I certainly need the Lord’s help to “redeem the time.” But I find it telling that such requests have multiplied in a society like ours. It would seem that many Christians believe that time management is an important part of Christian discipleship, that they are struggling to make good use of their time, and that they feel a good bit of anxiety over all this. Perhaps the answer really is as simple as these Christians need to pray and then implement some productivity tips and tricks to better steward their time.

However, it may be the case that running faster on the hamster wheel will not solve the problem. Perhaps what these Christians need is not to try harder—to do more better—but to have their minds and hearts and imaginations renewed by Scripture. It could be that they need their entire perspective reframed and reshaped. Maybe they need to look at some ants or to consider the lilies. It could be that they would be most helped by directing their gaze off of themselves and on to someone in close proximity who needs their care and presence. Or, maybe they just need to go for a walk. If so, they might cross paths with me and Lewis.

Footnotes

[1] See James M. Hamilton, Typology-Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns: How Old Testament Expectations Are Fulfilled in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 27.

Brady Bowman

Brady Bowman is a church planter in his hometown of Austin, TX. He and his wife, Kristyn, have two daughters.