3 spiritual dangers of productivity

February 26, 2018

Being productive with one’s time is a topic I read and think about a great deal, and even enjoy doing so. If you’re anything like me, you care about productivity and leadership because of a desire to invest time and energy well. And yet, the simple and ironic truth is that you might be wasting your life—and doing so precisely because you’re obsessed with being productive.

What got me thinking about this reality was an excellent book I read last year by Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The book itself is not written from a Christian perspective or for a Christian audience, but it offers a number of insights that are deeply resonant with the Christian vision of reality and enormously helpful in evaluating how one is investing time and energy.

Newport’s central argument throughout the book is that, in a world that increasingly prioritizes the shallow, it is those who commit to deep work who succeed. Deep work requires time, sharp focus, and distraction-free concentration.

That’s great, you might say, but what does this have to do with productivity being spiritually dangerous? Here are three pitfalls that come to mind in light of this book:

1. The danger of wasting your life by never living your life.

Amidst all the products flooding the market on themes of productivity, there are many who spend far more time reading about productivity than actually being productive. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being interested in efficient systems and best practices, but some of us are like a man who has 10 hours to prepare for an important speech and proceeds to use nine of those hours trying to find the perfect index card for his speech notes. We’re often tempted, Newport writes, to “use busyness as a proxy for productivity.”

In this case, the man searching for those perfect index cards is convincing himself he’s working on his speech—“this is an important occasion, after all, so everything ought to be just right”—but in reality is hiding behind this far less consequential task to avoid the hard work of starting on the actual speech, or perhaps, for fear of failing at the speech itself.

Similarly, you might be the kind of person who spends more time reading about productivity than actually producing, or the kind of person that spends so much time setting up your lists and systems that you never actually have time to execute the tasks. What can be behind this in many instances is a subtle cowardice. Whatever the case, this passivity is something all of us who claim the name of Christ should resist. To be sure, it’s not that one has to lead a revolution to avoid wasting one’s life, but surely faithfulness requires more than frittering.

2. The danger of wasting your life by failing to prioritize your life.

A major temptation, Newport identifies, is the principle of least resistance, where workers “tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.” Answering the average batch of email, for example, is often easier than developing a ministry plan or cultivating a product launch. Yet you can have all the best methods to achieve “Inbox Zero” each day, but if all you do is answer email, then all you’re doing is reacting to other people’s needs, effectively putting your life at the whims of everyone else. That’s not to say that we’re not to serve others or that we ought to just ignore everything but our own priorities, but it is to say we ought not delude ourselves into thinking we’re getting things done if we’re not getting the most important things done.

Those “most important things” are different for every person, but for most it requires realizing and battling against what Newport calls the human urge to turn to the superficial. As those who are created in the image of God, we have deep-seated capacity and desire to do deep, meaningful work that reveals order, beauty, and serves our neighbor. Not only that, but the most important things in life are often the most challenging. As fallen creatures, then, we must battle against the urge to drift and the temptation to settle for the superficial by failing to keep the permanent things in view. The goal in productivity is and always must be effectiveness, not merely efficiency, especially if we’re to live in line with our God-given callings.

3. The danger of wasting your life by exhausting your energy.

Humans “need the support of a mind regularly released to leisure,” Newport writes. This sounds counterintuitive, perhaps, in a book about getting meaningful work accomplished, but underneath it is a truth of any Christian worldview: human beings are creatures, not machines. So, we must realize that being faithful with one’s life consists not just in leveraging your time but also your energy.

This means, on the one hand, in an age of hyper-connectivity we must find ways to check what Newport calls the constant “onslaught of small obligations.” In our slavishness to get things done, we can exhaust ourselves if we fail to develop habits and routines that allow our souls to breathe. On the other hand, though, if we want to pursue deep work, we also have to pursue deep rest. This isn’t to say, for example, that one should remove the TV from your home and go train for a marathon, but it is to say that there’s a reason why, after a night spent binge-watching Netflix, you don’t really feel rested. It’s because distraction doesn’t nourish the soul the way other “active” rest can: walking, reading, painting, meaningful conversation, etc. “Deep play” like this requires more effort, but it resonates with the kind of life those created in the image of God were designed to live.

I’m often reminded of the way Screwtape once boasted in his ability to lead a man to destruction not through “spectacular wickedness,” but rather, by gentle distraction. He tells the story of a man who once stood at the brink of eternity and came to a haunting realization: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” That’s the danger. And that’s why the gospel calls us not first to productivity but to faithfulness—showing us along the way what we “ought” all while giving us a kingdom promising all we’ve ever “liked” and infinitely more beyond it.

Daniel Patterson

Daniel Patterson is former Executive Vice President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Molly have been married since 2010, and together they have three children. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24