Does God Want Us to Manage Ourselves Well?
I would argue that the call to be productive (Genesis 1:28) also implies the need to learn how to be productive. Yet, this is a slightly different question from the first, because one could presumably say “Yes, God wants us to be productive, but he doesn’t want us to fiddle with things like workflow systems and productivity tips and tools.”
The Importance of Intentionality
But what we see in the Scriptures is that productivity doesn’t come apart from our deliberate intentionality. We are called to be intentional in the way we live our lives. Note again, for example, Ephesians 5:15-17, the core New Testament passage on productivity:
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. [Emphasis added.]
We are not to breeze blindly through life, taking whatever comes. We are to “look carefully” how we walk. You don’t just walk through a store with your eyes closed, buying whatever you touch, and expect it to turn into a wardrobe. And neither should you do that with your life. Likewise, we are to “make the most” of the time. The time doesn’t make the most of itself; we are to take deliberate action to take back the time from poor uses and turn it to good uses.
Further, a concern for good use of our time is an important characteristic of the Christian that the Bible expects us to have. Consider Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” I like how the New American Standard Bible puts this: “Teach us to number our days, that we may present to you a heart of wisdom.” In other words, even our growth in wisdom and our ability to manage ourselves is something we do for God, and to present to him.
We saw in the previous chapter that a concern for time management should actually lead us right up to God. What we see here is that love for God should also lead us to be concerned with time management. As Peter O’Brien has said, “those who are wise will have a right attitude toward time.”
An Affirmation of Personal Effectiveness
The Scriptures, interestingly, get even more concrete on the issue of personal effectiveness. Notice how in Ephesians 5:15 Paul placed walking as “wise” people in parallel with “making the most of the time.” We are to walk “not as unwise but as wise, making the most of the time.”
Paul isn’t simply saying here that the wise make the most of their time (though he certainly is saying that). He is actually connecting his exhortation to the central OT theme of wisdom.
As most commentators point out, Paul is referring us here to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament as central to aiding us in discerning the Lord’s will for our actions and making the most of our time: “Paul commends to the believers the vast Old Testament teaching about wisdom, especially as represented by the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. There they can find ethical insight into God’s will.”
In addition to pointing us to the wisdom literature generally, his exhortation here connects up with several specific passages. One of those passages is Proverbs 6:6-8, where we are also told to “be wise”:
Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.
In other words, Paul’s command that we walk “as wise” people hooks up with Proverbs 6:6, where we see that managing yourself well—like the ant—is an essential component of wisdom.
What we see here is that in commanding us to walk as wise people, Paul is not simply commanding us to be wise in spiritual things (though that is there; cf. Proverbs 11:30). He is also calling us to be wise in relation to how to live in this world—and, specifically, to be wise in how to lead and manage ourselves, just like the ant.
Knowing how to get the right things done—how to be personally effective, leading and managing ourselves well—is indeed biblical, spiritual, and honoring to the Lord. It is not unspiritual to think about the concrete details of how to get things done; rather, this is a significant component of true Christian wisdom.
Productivity and Discipleship
What we see here is that there is no distinction between learning how to be productive and learning how to live the Christian life altogether, for both are about how we are to live in this world for the glory of God.
The way we go about doing our email, handling appointments, running meetings, attending class, running the kids to where they need to go are not something distinct from the everyday life of sanctification that God calls us to, but are themselves a fundamental part of it. We are to “be wise” in them just as we are to be wise in the things like directly pertain to salvation; and, indeed, the way we go about them is an expression of our Christ-likeness and sanctification.
Thinking Christianly About Productivity
It makes sense for there to be a Christian perspective on prayer. But on getting things done? How can that even be?
The brief answer is that, as Christians, our faith changes our motives and foundations, but not necessarily the methods we use.
For example, a Christian doctor and non-Christian doctor will likely go about heart surgery in the same way, using the best practices of the field and their training. Both will also seek the good of the patient, rather their own ends. But the Christian has an additional motive— loving God and seeking to serve him. This is a difference that is fundamental, but which can’t necessarily be seen.
That’s not always the only difference—sometimes there are variations in our methods (for example, the Christian doctor will likely pray before the surgery)—but it is the main difference.
The other change our faith makes is that it puts our work on a different foundation. We look to God for power to do all we do, including our work, and act not out of a desire to gain his acceptance but because we already have it in Christ.
With the specific issue of productivity, then, we will likely utilize the same best practices as non-Christians in things like processing workflow and getting our email inboxes to zero. But when it comes to the motive and foundation of our productivity, the gospel brings in some radical transformations.
Matt Perman formerly served as the senior director of strategy at Desiring God Ministries in Minneapolis, MN, and is a frequent speaker on the topics of leadership and productivity from a God-centered perspective. He has an MDiv from Southern Theological Seminary and a Project Management Professional certification from the Project Management Institute. Matt regularly blogs at What’s Best Next and contributes to a number of other online publications as well. He lives in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @mattperman.
(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman available on Zondervan. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.)