by Julia Sterne
November 26, 2012
7 min read
The other night Alastair and I went out with a friend to see a movie. On our walk to the theatre he asked us how our day had been. I said something about resting, eating brunch, and reminded him that we take Fridays off as our Sabbath. Within 5 seconds of saying this I blurted out that we also read and prayed and I did some laundry.
It was not such a strange comment from the outside looking in, but on the inside I began wondering why I felt the need to explain that I had accomplished more than resting. I felt an inner urge to prove I had been productive—even on my day off.
I was pondering this yesterday and realized I do this often. Daily I tell Alastair all the incredible and mundane tasks I have completed. I almost brag about finishing chores, going to the grocery, or even finishing a book. I like to feel productive, and I like him to know how productive I have been. This might sound harmless, maybe even admirable—but I assure you, it is not. There is something else going on: I need validation. I want admiration. I crave affirmation. These are normal desires in a healthy human being, but where we go to have these needs met is very rarely the appropriate outlet. I go to my to-do list. I weigh my worth and value on how much I have accomplished in a day. If there is even one thing left, I feel anxious, frustrated, and sometimes will push myself to finish the list even if I crossed off 99 other tasks.
Productivity is a cruel master. Her punishments of withholding affection are typically what await me at the end of a tiring day. Yet I still find myself striving for the simple pat on my back, the warmth of the words “good work”, the sense of pride that swells in my chest. I am good. I am useful. I am contributing.
But, how often do I actually feel productive?
To be honest, not often enough. I always want to be more productive. There is always more to do. I rarely have a quiet sense of satisfaction at the end of a day’s work. Like I said, productivity is a cruel master.
I drew a chart in my journal describing this “idol of productivity” and all the crap that comes with worshipping such an idol. On a less productive day (which is most days because she is never quite satisfied) I feel anxiety, pressure, a sense of worthlessness, drivenness, exhaustion, and I seek validation from everyone and everything. On a more productive day (which are few and far between) pride, a sense of validation based in my works, bragging.
I was determined to be productive even in the attempt to not be chained to production and results. Sheesh.
When I realized I am a very real victim of the idol of productivity I immediately set out to plan how I can uproot this idol, how I can cleanse my soul, how I can get rooted in scripture, and the list went on and on. I sat back and sighed. Then laughed. I was determined to be productive even in the attempt to not be chained to production and results. Sheesh. It is a sticky situation. I desperately want to be free of the need to be incessantly accomplishing tasks but it is so much the way my mind works that I could not even begin to understand how to stop the task making.
I got out my journal and laid on my couch and just closed my eyes. It was my first moment of surrender in a long time. Helpless, I seriously just laid on my couch for like an hour, clutching my journal—not even writing. I was committed to not turning this into some sort of “breaking free” to do list. So I was still with God and just prayed. I told him I hated this idol. I told him I knew better and that I did not want my validation to come from some sense of accomplishment but rather from him and him alone. I told him I cannot fix this one and that I needed his help. It was confession after confession.
During my couch time I realized in productivity I was trying to please myself, my own sense of “good” and “success”, rather than please God. My to do list became more important than biblical standards. I would get so busy, being busy, that I could not even hear God throughout my day, let alone have him interrupt my productivity.
Idols really do make a mess of our lives. And for what? They are never rewarding. They always suck our energy and time and leave us feeling worse off than we were before we turned to them. And we turn to them in exchange to turning to the One True God. He alone can answer the questions our hearts cry out: Am I worth anything? Am I lovable? Am I capable? Do you see me? Do I matter?
As I lay on the couch I felt such shame for turning to the idols of my heart rather than God. As I lay still I felt him pour out mercy and grace and love and peace. I am unworthy, but he loves me still, even when I chase idols. I imagined this great powerful king dethroning me but giving me more love and joy than any other thing in my entire imaginary kingdom. One word washed over me, “Abide”.
The greatest gift in the Garden was not the work given to Adam and Eve, but the presence of their loving Creator. I long for good work and productivity but even more I ache to be in the presence of my Lord, my Father, my King. I have misappropriated my gifts. Work is a good gift, but even better is the Giver.
I hope that “Abiding” does not get twisted into some sort of daily task. I hope my heart can be freed from the drive to produce, accomplish, do. My ability and efforts can be caught up so easily in a game of “Look what I have done!”. For me, and those of you who also struggle with this idol, I pray we can abide, for real, and trust more and more in what God has already done in us, for us, and what he will do through us. I pray the Spirit is at work and God gets the glory as we lean more into him, learning to follow his orders for the day rather than our own. I pray we become comfortable with being unproductive for the sake of crushing this idol’s hold on our hearts.
I pray we long for the day that God gets to say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”—not based on our own sense of accomplishment but on his (which is a totally different scale unmeasurable by human standards so don’t even try to chart out your earning of God’s praise). It is not what we do, but what he has done and will do. It is always first about his work.