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The Great Temptation of Productivity

November 11, 2016


We move and have our being in a material world, a world that in many ways can be estimated, codified and measured. We do certain things with the hope and expectation of being able to tally up tangible results. We seek education and skills in order to procure a rewarding or meaningful job. We work hard so we can give our loved ones good lives. We seek to realize our dreams so we can catapult society beyond the wondrous heights achieved by all those before us. We act in order to produce: to create a visible good to which we can attribute value. In placing such heavy stock in the results and value of our actions, we are able to validate not only what we do, but who we are.

Naturally, such an aim—to instill meaningful change and effect through our actions—is noble and good. We were created to tend to the garden of human flourishing—to use our gifts, abilities and circumstances to bring about God’s kingdom. Let us recall the parable of the talents, where the servant who buried his single talent is condemned for having squandered his responsibility to act, multiply, create. 

Though in the form of the material, we are also made of the immaterial—we possess an eternal soul created and gifted to us by God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elucidates the unification of these two aspects—body and soul—to form a single, inimitable nature:

“The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” – CCC, 365

As a result, we are called to love and incur positive change toward both aspects of man’s single nature. We are called to offer our neighbor a coat as well as pray for his soul. We are called to offer up our suffering for others as well as our time and presence. Doing good to one, the body, results in good to the other, the soul. And vice versa because, again, both aspects are united to form a single nature. However, if we attempt to live a life of grace rooted in the faulty paradigm of the world—the hobbled mindset that places excessive value on material results—we can undermine the work God means to do through us.

And so, what can happen when we transpose this secular conditioning concerned with a hefty “return on investment” with the way of life God calls us to? Well, it can diminish our ministry efforts and other works of love because if we don’t see the fruit we had hoped for—or if spot only stark barrenness—we can be tempted toward frustration, apathy, despair. We can wonder to ourselves, why are there not only so few workers in the Father’s vineyard, but why does even this minority produce such little fruit?

St. Francis de Sales speaks of the insidious and pervasive temptation to strive toward grand acts of faith at the expense of more humble nods of love. We can be lured by the idea of some grand ministry which is destined to fail, all the while neglecting that which is right in front of us. We can envision our plans and efforts of evangelization converting an entire nation back to God, all while ignoring stranger in front of us beset by loneliness and alienation.

“Sometimes we are tempted to do some great work we can never achieve and fail to do a lesser work that was easily within our grasp…We need to be careful about swallowing more food than we can digest.” – Treatise on the Love of God

Such incisive wisdom holds true for our prayer lives as well. Do we believe saying one Hail Mary with a full and undivided heart is less valuable than rattling off a dozen rosaries as we’re driving to work, distracted and hardly aware of what we’re saying (let alone actually meditating on the mysteries)? I know this can be challenging for me. I may concede that a short prayer of the heart is always more valuable than a verbose one of the lips, but there remains always something inside me contending that more is better. Perhaps this is especially difficult for Americans and those of us weaned on a capitalistic worldview. If we can’t verify the return on investment of our actions, then are we making a poor investment of our time, presence, love?

If we becomes stalled by such a mentality, our prayers and acts can cease to serve God and others, and instead serve an insatiable ego, a ballooned sense of justice or obligation. Are we spending time with God in prayer or with others to widen our capacity for love? Or are we doing it because we have these “spend time with God” and “serve others” obligations hanging over us that we would like to scratch off of our agenda so we can get on with our day? So we can feel like we were “productive?”

When it comes to the work of God we must eschew an unhealthy expectation of seeing visible fruit—the heavy yoke of seeking productivity for its own sake. 

Our Holy Father hasn’t shied away from speaking about the temptation to worship results either. He calls us out with loving but barbed words in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel:

“Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.” 

Pope Francis goes on to speak about the need to embrace the idea of “initiating processes” as opposed to “possessing spaces”: 

“It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time…Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating process rather than possessing spaces.”

This intriguing concept affirms that we’re called to allow for a the potential of something great to manifest through the hand of God instead of “possessing space” and, as a result, boxing out God’s grace. We are, in a sense, off the hook when it comes to producing the actual fruit. We listen to God and do as he says in removing obstacles to his grace in the world, enabling grace to move and operate more freely and fully. By simply responding we are released from being responsible for the results. We become productive because God is productive through us, not because of what does or does not result. If we love, and we see no visible fruit, we are not responsible. God is the one who possesses the “space” and ensures fruitfulness.

It goes without saying that we still must use our reason, intellect, will and all of our faculties to respond to God’s grace. If we feel God’s spirit leading us to form a ministry to help those who suffer with mental illness and in doing so we fail to actually help anyone, we have to make sure we’re truly doing what we can with our material means. Have we used our expertise or the expertise of others to develop and establish such a ministry? Have we done all we can to spread the word and make it accessible for those we wish to serve? Have we prayed to God for guidance, light and resolve to withstand the likely hardships?

If we use all of the material and immaterial means we have at our disposal to bring about God’s will, he will often affirm our efforts in subtle ways to rejuvenate us along our journey of faith. To be sure, we will witness much fruit and many miracles in our lives. Yet, we labor for God not because we expect to see results; we labor because we love him and others.

This leads us to the profound, wonderfully mysterious truth that all our acts of love—regardless of magnitude or visible results—are fruitful in the eyes of God. Nothing is ever wasted. Every act of love plays a role within the economy of grace. The Catholic psychoanalyst, Karl Stern, speaks about the Law of the Conservation of Charity, for which he credits Thérèse of Lisieux:

“Nothing which is directed either toward or away from God can ever be lost…there is an inestimable preciousness…in every hidden movement of the soul.”

And if every hidden movement of the soul made in the direction toward love of God is inestimable, then we are relieved of the endless and exhausting role of proving the fruitfulness of our efforts to ourselves, others, the world, or anyone else who has taken the place of God. We aren’t called to see clearly how everything we do plays within the intricate web of God’s providential cosmic landscape. As it turns out, drawing closer to God doesn’t necessarily give us a better view of the ball game. In some cases, the effects of our love become even more hidden from view. The efficacy of our prayers and deeds born of love will never be fully comprehended on this side of existence. Instead, should the darkness deepen, God will ask us to lift our lanterns of faith so that they may shine all the more brilliantly.