Optimizing Life, Profaning the Sabbath

The Sabbath was Made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath

Delighted to have this post from Derrick Bledsoe:

There are few things more stressful to me than the sudden realization that I have forgotten something meaningful. If a special meeting, a sensitive phone call, or a research paper submission were an iceberg, then I am absolutely not going to make a tasteless Titanic joke (but I think you get the point). Forgetting about an important meeting or assignment is literally something I have nightmares about. Maybe it’s because I struggle with performancism, or maybe it’s because I have always been mentally scattered.

As a little boy I remember riding my bike up and down my street with explicit instruction to go no further than the last house on the corner. As the day expired, my dad came to bring me inside, and it was then, in my last moments of the evening, that I made my pitch: “Can I go all the way around the block, just ONCE?” I was denied, not to my surprise. After some bargaining, however, I managed to get permission for one more ride down the street.

I respected my dad, and I honestly had every intention of compliance. I was grateful for one last traverse down the street before the ensuing tedium of “bedtime” began. But in that last great adventure for the day, my mind wandered, and before I knew it, I was rounding the last corner after making my way completely around the block. My now (reasonably) incensed father awaited me. I had no grand defense. “I forgot” was the best I could muster. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.

As an adult, I began to finally address my inability to keep up with tasks and deadlines. I tried everything: day planners, alarms, apps, to-do lists, sticky notes, charts, and any other trick you could learn from the litany of productivity and organizational literature I had accumulated. I wanted to be in control of my schedule and succeed in my endeavors, and I knew that in order for that to happen, I needed to be more organized.

Enter: The journey to life optimization.

Self-help books that focus on productivity and organizational practices have long been a staple in bookstores in America. Stephen Covey and S. J. Scott are among the many notable gurus of life optimization. Even in the last decade or so, the church has adopted the pursuit of productivity–essentially just baptized it–and begun teaching it as doctrine. I’ve read many of the books. They usually advocate for organizational tactics as a means to move the kingdom of God forward. They will teach you how to make a mission statement for your life. They will remind you that the lazy will suffer because they don’t get things done (Prov 24:30-34), and that if you love Jesus, you will do all things as to the Lord (Col 3:23). Truly, it’s inspiring to the zealot in me.

I spent years trying to overcome that imaginative and forgetful little boy inside of me. I wanted never again to disappoint someone because of my inability to stay focused. I needed a mental action plan and I learned a lot of practices in a short span of time that I began to implement in my life. What I learned, most of all, is that the race to becoming more productive and efficient is just that; a race. A tiring, miserable, and unsustainable race.

And it’s not just an individual race, either. David Gelles wrote about corporate productivity in an article in the New York Times called “Are Companies More Productive in a Pandemic?” He discussed the efficiency of at-home employees during the COVID-19 outbreak, and concluded that most companies have continued with pre-pandemic levels of productivity (some of them with even greater levels of productivity). It sounds awesome until you read the part about how all of this newfound productivity potentially leads not only to individual burn-out, but to isolation and mental health problems to boot. All of it comes with a cost. To borrow from Robert Heinlein, the pursuit of the more productive you, whether it be in your personal life or in the corporate world, is a harsh mistress.

The driving ideology behind life optimization is that by controlling and improving every aspect of your life, you will be able to do your work more efficiently, and in return you will have more of your time to allocate to new projects and tasks. Quicker work equals more work. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to utilize your time more efficiently. The problem, of course, is that the pursuit of productivity eventually becomes a means to justification. “If I can just do a little more, it will finally be enough.” Except, it’s never enough. It’s a mirage. You end up focusing on what you could have done more of, if you were only a little more organized. It’s a race with no actual finish line. You can always be better and accomplish more.

I was reminded this week of Jesus’ words in Mark 2. Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because His disciples have been plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. They say to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath” (v. 24)? And after appealing to the actions of King David, He says something profound to them in verses 27 and 28:

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath, a day of relief and restoration, had somehow become a means of justified religious productivity. It was meant to impart order to the week, not demand it. It was meant to provide respite from the heavy burdens of life, not become a burden itself. It was meant to serve, not be served. The Sabbath was supposed to be the anti-productivity initiative. Productivity says, “You can do more if you work more efficiently.” The Sabbath says, “Jesus has done enough and is enough.” And the interesting part is, when given a choice between the two, Christians often seem to prefer the work of the kingdom over the actual King.

But that brings me full circle. There are few things more stressful to me than the sudden realization that I have forgotten something meaningful. Productivity, as dangerous as it can be, stands to benefit me in many ways. But, like the Sabbath, it can be viewed in an unhealthy manner and, in turn, yield spiritually toxic results. So I must confess: I believe that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath; I also can’t help but wonder if He is the Lord of Productivity, too. What I mean is, optimization can be a powerful ally with the right goal in mind. Efficiency for the sake of getting more done is a never-ending cycle that cannot satisfy, but efficiency for the sake of having more time at the feet of Jesus may just be the kind of life optimization I’m truly in need of. We do not live to work, but something and someone else altogether.