I love efficiency. By nature it is the virtue I value most in myself. I have a collection of time management books I come back to each year. I love life hacks, shortcuts, any tips that promote efficiency. I just love to do.
In preparation for a seminar on productivity, I turned to the Bible, to root my thinking in what God says. And although there is some mention of productivity, for example in Proverbs 6 the instruction to be like the hard-working ant, rather than being lazy, time and time again I kept coming up against these rather disturbing passages…
Psalm 127 Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves.
John 15v5 I [Jesus] am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
I read stories like the Exodus from Egypt in Exodus 14v13-14, where Moses is commanded: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
I thought back to our previous church and wondered, really who were the most “efficient” people in our church? I actually believe it may have been frail old Daphne Morrison in her 90s, who just loved to pray.
True efficiency is not found in me building, but in humbling myself, praying and asking that the Lord would use me to build his house.
The irony is that even the bestselling secular authors, would agree that “If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every rung you climb gets you to the wrong place faster” (Stephen Covey). They just can’t see that their ladder is not leaning against God’s wall and so ultimately their plans will come to nothing. Leo Tolstoy, one of the most successful authors of all time had to face up to this, famously asking the question: ‘What meaning has my life that the inevitability of death does not destroy?’
A better word than efficiency, productivity or even effectiveness is the Bible word ‘fruitful.’ This carries with it the image of being in the vine, being unable to do anything away from the vine. That vine is Christ, and to him we look for what true fruitfulness entails.
Fruitfulness starts at the cross, where we repent of building a life away from God and lay down our tools. Mark 1v35-39 gives us some helpful insights into how Jesus perfectly fulfilled the mission he had come to do.
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
We can pick out four things Jesus did: prayer, handling distraction wisely, articulating his mission, doing it. We’ll go through each in turn.
Notice that Jesus didn’t decide to pray because he had a spare hour. He didn’t havetime to pray, he got up early to maketime to pray. He didn’t havethe space to pray – presumably staying in a house with others – he founda suitable place. Mark notes he went out to a solitary place. True productivity starts with making the time and space to be able to pray in an undistracted, unhurried way.
The implication by the way he got up with such clarity as to his mission is that Jesus was praying about his work, asking God to lead and direct him to do his will, and keep him from the temptation of being distracted by less important things.
History gives us some great role models of what his looks like in practice. Martin Luther, the great reformer wrote to a friend: “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
Or take Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission. As a result of his prayerful efforts, over 800 missionaries went to China, and there are now an estimated 150 million Christians in China. His ministry was entirely built upon prayer. He wrote: “Do not have your concert first, and then tune your instrument afterwards. Begin the day with the Word of God and prayer, and get first of all into harmony with Him.” “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” “There are three stages to every great work of God; first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.”
2. Handle distractions wisely
As soon as he got up, Jesus was faced with excited disciples, keen to set his agenda. To be truly fruitful, we need to realise that as soon as we get up from our knees we will face similar distraction. What we need to realise when we face distraction that time is like space. You can only fit a certain amount of stuff in it. Think of a wardrobe. There gets to a point where it’s full. If you say yes to the new jumper you say no to the jeans. It won’t all fit. Likewise saying yes to the distractions is saying no to what you had planned.
a) The distraction of good things.
It’s not necessarily wrong to say no to distraction. Jesus allowed himself to be distracted by people, he would be going somewhere and end up sitting with a blind beggar. I’m not saying we just brush people aside because they are not on our to do list. But I am saying we are to beware of those things we know we do not need to be doing right now. In saying yes to that we say no to the other promises we’ve made.
b) The distraction of the earthly over the heavenly.
The things we shouldn’t be doing are often shiny, they promise reward – everyone will love you. That’s what the disciples were offering. But Jesus knew that what he should be doing though it was harder, was of eternal significance. We’ve all been there on Bible study night. The pull of the earthly is so strong, but the heavenly though harder is of eternal significance. This is especially true of evangelistic outreach. It’s so hard to do but eternally rewarding. We’ll be tempted by distractions to change our mind about bringing a friend along to the evangelistic talk. But we need to realise that that decision may have eternal significance.
c) The distraction of what ‘everyone’ wants. In the Bible the way to destruction is described as broad, a highway. It’s easier because everyone is going that way. Jesus could have so easily gone along with the disciples and carried on healing in that town. But he chose the narrow path of preaching the gospel to those who have not heard. Praise the Lord that he didn’t give in to the distraction of going along with what men wanted him to do but stuck to his path which took him to the cross. A decision so much harder than going along with what everyone else is doing, but of such incredible eternal significance.
d) The distraction of the person next to us. In John 21v20-22 this is example of distraction is recorded: Peter and John – Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return,what is that to you? You must follow me.”
We can easily get caught up comparing ourselves, judging others or feeling inferior. God has made us who we are, and given us work to do. What he has called others to do is not our business and can be a distraction.
e) The distraction of what is ineffective and unproductive – Titus 3 – Titus was distracted by quarrels and genealogies. Things that were not achieving gospel goals. We should evaluate what we are doing and stop wasting our time on things that aren’t achieving gospel goals – eg should we be providing a meal after church? Let’s keep on evaluating the effectiveness of that and whether we could be using our time more effectively to achieve gospel goals.
f) The distraction of doing in place of being in line with God’s heart. Jesus warns the ‘busy’ Pharisees in Matthew 15v8: “These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. The language is even stronger in Amos 5v21-24: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;your assemblies are a stench to me…23 Away with the noise of your songs!I will not listen to the music of your harps.24 But let justice roll on like a river,righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
We must beware of doing in place of being. Sometimes the reason we allow ourselves to get busy is because we don’t want to face up to the fact that our heart is out of line with God’s. We don’t actually want to be building his house, we’re rather be building our own.
3. Articulate your mission
I often find myself in the kitchen prodding my kids to help out: “Don’t just stand there, do something!” When it comes to being fruitful, it would be more appropriate to say: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
What should we be doing? It’s helpful not to just do whatever is in front of us, but stand and stop for a moment to articulate what we should be doing.
Jesus articulates his mission after he has prayed, saying: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
He is wonderfully clear what his mission is.
There are many places we could go to define the mission of a human, eg Gen 1v28 – ruling and reigning over God’s creation, 2v15 – tending and watching over the garden, Quoeleth concludes in Ecc 12v13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. We can be more specific for a Christian as we look at Matt 28v16-20 to go to all nations and make disciples, Philippians 1v20 – that Christ would be exalted in our bodies.
I want us to focus for a moment on Revelation5v10, which I’ve found helpfully encapsulates the other references. In it, Jesus’ followers are described as “priestly kings”: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Rev 5v10
Jesus was thePriest, theKing, who through his death and resurrection he makes us to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God and reign on the earth. Priests, under our great high Priest Jesus – bringing people to God, kings under our perfect King, tending and watching over the patch of the garden God has given to us.
Articulate your individual mission
In Proverbs 31v10-30 we are given a detailed description of how someone might live out this priestly-kingly care in a day to day setting. If you were to look at the verses you can pick out her role as wife, mother, caring for her servants, profitable trading, care for the poor, managing her home, a wider role in the city with her husband, faithfully instructing and underpinning it all fearing God. In a similar way, we can articulate the specific roles, and responsibilities God has given us in our family, church, workplace and community as well as any specific gifts and passions he has given us to build his kingdom.
You might find it helpful to chart them on a wheel, then rate how happy you are with the amount of time you are devoting to each.
“So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.”
Jesus was faithful to his mission.
We owe everything to the fact that Jesus prayed, that Jesus would not allow himself to be distracted, that Jesus knew why he had come and that he was faithful to that mission. Luke 9v51 tells us: “as the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Resolutely speaks of resolve, decision, choice, determination, focus. He would not allow himself to be distracted from faithfully doing what he had come to do. To die on the cross to pay for our failure to rule and reign under God in his creation. To rise again to make us into a kingdom and priests to reign on the earth in him. He is the vine; we are the branches. If we remain in him and he in us, we will bear much fruit; apart from him we can do nothing.