Seven Lessons for Productivity
Ninety months ago, we started a little podcast called Ask Pastor John. And today we reach episode 1,500. Incredible. This is only possible with the support and engagement of many listeners around the globe — your prayers, your listens, your emails, your suggestions, and your continued financial support. Thank you so much. And when you mix all the play counts together — from various podcast players, the APJ app, plays from the website, and all the YouTube plays — we are quickly closing in on two hundred million episode plays all time. That baffles me.
It’s especially remarkable because, as some of you know, we designed this podcast to cover us in 2013 when Pastor John was in Knoxville for a year. We wanted a way for his voice to remain close to DG. It worked. And we planned to end it with episode 400. But episode 400 was basically our launch. That epic episode really propelled a growing momentum that has grown year after year ever since.
So, Pastor John, here we are — ninety months later. Let’s step back and ponder this. Talk to us about work, especially how you work. People look at your ministry and say you’ve written a lot, spoken a lot, accomplished a lot. What have you learned about your own personal productivity? Do you have any wisdom about productivity or creativity you want to share with us at this APJ milestone?
Well, I have thoughts. I’ll let you and others judge whether it’s wisdom or not.
Productivity Takes a Village
You know as well as I do, Tony, that podcasts like this don’t come into existence merely because of one person. It wouldn’t exist without you curating the questions, mastering the systems, editing the episodes, serving them up to Desiring God. And it wouldn’t exist without the team of computer experts at Desiring God and the spreading experts. I think the first lesson, the first piece of wisdom, perhaps, that any productive person needs to learn is that no man is an island.
We are part of a body, and “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). And if I let myself go down that road even further, I hear the apostle Paul ringing in my ears: “What do you have, Piper, that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though it were not a gift?” (see 1 Corinthians 4:7). And then I hear him say, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul is just so eager not to take any credit for his productivity as an apostle.
And if I keep walking down that path, I realize that I’ve got a wife who has been spectacularly supportive for 52 years, never complaining. I pause here, Tony, to think, “Now, are you exaggerating, Piper?” My memory is flawed, so everybody should take this with a grain of salt. But to my memory, I do not recall Noël Piper ever getting in my face, gently or angrily, about my studying, writing, and speaking like I do. So, I can’t imagine what life would be like without her.
“God is the great Creator-Maker, and he created humans in his image as secondary creator-makers.”
But I have been recently pondering, especially since this milestone was approaching, and looking back over fifty or sixty years, wondering, How did that happen? How did books and sermons and lessons and classes and Ask Pastor John episodes come into being? I’ve got a few thoughts that might encourage others who are on the way with me toward heaven, and they want to be fruitful and productive as they go, and not waste their lives. So, here are a few thoughts.
1. Know why you are here.
Get a clear vision for why everything exists, including yourself. Few things have been more helpful to me than realizing what Jonathan Edwards would call the end for which God created the world, including the end for which he created me. I used to carry around in my wallet a piece of paper that basically said, “You exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.” Never, never, never, never forget it. Carry it in your wallet. If not, in your conscious head all the time. Know why you are on this planet. That’s number one.
2. Embrace your role as a sub-creator.
It’s been powerfully animating to me to realize that, as a human being, I am destined to be a maker. Now, I got this insight in college when I read Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker. God is the great Creator-Maker, and he created humans in his image as secondary creator-makers. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And we’ll see how that’s making and creating in just a minute.
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” — good doing, good making (Ephesians 2:10). And I’m not talking just about artists and writers; I’m talking about every single human being. The Greek word poieō means “do” or “make.” Now, why would that be? And Greek isn’t the only language that’s true in. There are numerous languages in which do and make are the same word. Why would that be? And I suspect it’s because all doing is to make something different than it was — all of it.
“I take a little chop every day at something, and the tree is going to fall.”
So, we are all creators, makers, in some sense. Every time we act, every time we do anything, we make something into something else — some situation into something different than it was: a rocky field into a garden, a stick into a spear, a room into a home, a cow into a steak, flour and sugar and fruit into an apple pie, snow into a snowman, sounds into melody, fire into lamps and heaters and locomotion, eleven men into a football team, and on and on and on. We’re all makers.
And that truth has settled into me in such a way as to make me find tremendous pleasure in creating things — in my case, mainly with words: sermons, articles, books, poems, Ask Pastor John episodes. And if you would ask my wife, she’d say, “Yeah, not just words, but messes in rooms.” Piper has a low tolerance level for chaos. I really do; I don’t like it. Anywhere I find it, I’m on it. As soon as I see chaos in thought, or chaos in a room, or chaos in the way the grass is growing or the weeds are spreading, I am on it. I don’t like to leave the world the way it is. It ought to be a better place: more beautiful, more orderly, more wonderfully fruitful.
So, I love to compose things — things that have a beginning and a middle and an end, and coherence, and beauty. I have a love affair with being a maker that started a long time ago. And I think it has to do with being human.
3. Discover the difference between sloth and rest.
We need to discover and embrace, with zeal, the difference between sloth and rest, laziness and leisure. I wrote a poem about seven years ago called “Pilgrim’s Conflict with Sloth.” You can listen to the whole thing at Desiring God. Sloth, personified, tries to lure me — John Piper, as I stop being a pastor and move full time with Desiring God — with the half-truth that Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Let me read you a little excerpt from that poem, how I answered Sloth, because this is so crucial that people make the difference between sloth and rest. Here’s what I said:
As my God lives,
I’ll tell you, Sloth: he gives his rest
Under a yoke — his sweet bequest,
Blood-bought, and suited to the back
Of every weary saint. The knack
Of all our plowing: Jesus makes
The weighty burden light, and takes
The yoke-beams in his hand, and lifts
And carries us. Our works are gifts.
And Jesus is the giver. Grace
Bought and powers every pace,
And every enterprise. Sloth, we
Were made, and made again, to be
Co-makers with the Maker of
The world — to see the world above
And then to make the world below
More beautiful, to learn, to know,
And then to make, to shape, adorn,
Compose, produce, and turn a thorn
Into an etching tool — to write, to say
What never has been said that way,
To sing, to draw, to paint, to build,
To stitch and weave until we’ve filled
The world with truth. For this God spoke,
And Jesus died. This is our yoke.
Our happy yoke. You will not take
My work. Sloth, we were made to make.
I know, Tony, and everybody who’s listening knows, that there is a place — an absolutely crucial place — for rest and leisure. The Sabbath principle holds. We must know the difference between sloth and rest, laziness and leisure. That’s number three.
4. Make peace with imperfection.
If we’re going to do our work faithfully and abundantly — when I say abundantly, I have in mind 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Do lots of it. We must not be paralyzed by perfection and infinity. I pulled this article out of my files that I put away in 1970. I pulled it out, and I reread it. The historian Arnold Toynbee said, “All human work is imperfect, because human nature is; and this intrinsic imperfection of human affairs cannot be overcome by procrastination.”
That is awesome. That insight is just so incredibly fruitful. So many people fail to be productive because they stare imperfection — which is inevitable — in the face, and they say, “Well, I’ll just wait another day,” as if waiting another day is going to make the likelihood of their imperfection go away. That’s an amazing and wonderful and fruitful insight.
And then he said something very practical. He said, “Without realizing it, I had pitted myself against infinity. To extricate myself, I developed a way for my own banning infinity. Instead of going on and on, acquiring knowledge ad infinitum” — oh my goodness, what a temptation that is in getting ready for Ask Pastor John episodes, right? Every question should have a book written on it. Every question could require days and days researching. Well, what am I going to do? So, he said, “I started to do something with the knowledge that I already possessed, and this active use of knowledge gave direction for the future to my acquisition of knowledge.”
And I think one of the main reasons that I have been as productive as I have is that I made peace decades ago with imperfection and finitude. I have no illusions, Tony, that I will say the last word about anything. My job, while I live, is to speak the truth as I see it in God’s word as well as I can say it, and let God do what he wants to with that imperfection.
5. Act promptly.
This I have heard from Arnold Toynbee, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jonathan Edwards, and others; namely, act promptly as soon as you feel that your mind is ripe for taking action. In other words, seminal ideas, far-reaching fruitful thoughts, come to us at night, while we’re reading, meditating, praying, walking, playing, and if you don’t capture those in some way, in writing, you’ll almost certainly lose them. So, find a way to, as Toynbee says, “act promptly when your mind is ripe with insight.”
6. Chop a little each day.
Two more, briefly, and these two relate especially to Ask Pastor John and the fact that we’re at 1,500 when we thought, “Oh, 400 would be crazy.” We need to be deeply persuaded that steady, small chops with a good, sharp axe will almost certainly, after a few hundred blows, bring down a very big tree.
“At every stage, pray with all your heart, ‘O God, make the next season of my life the most fruitful season ever.’”
I told Noël last night, “Did you know that we’re at 1,500 Ask Pastor John episodes?” And she laughed and said, “Just like reading 15 minutes a day.” Because she remembered the fact that, for many seasons of my life, being a slow reader, I’ve said, “Okay, I’m going to read a huge novel. I’m going to do it at 15 minutes a day.” And I still do things like that. I take a little chop every day at something, and the tree is going to fall. You pick up a good axe, and you take regular chops, you will make good progress.
If you have to see a tree fall every time you pick up an axe, you will spend your life on little projects. There are great trees worth turning into beautiful houses that can only be brought down by a thousand small, faithful chops.
When I was 23 years old at seminary in 1970, Geoffrey Bromiley was my church history professor. He translated all ten huge complex volumes of Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament into the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament — ten big blue volumes, full of Greek and Hebrew and French and German. And oh my goodness, he’s a church history professor. And I asked him, “Would you write an essay for our student magazine on how you work?” And he wrote this sentence: “It might be of interest to note that two-and-a-half hours per day mean two-and-a-half pages of TWNT per day, twelve-and-a-half pages per week, and five hundred sixty per year — a steady average, which makes possible a fairly rapid publication.” “Fairly rapid” means probably one volume every two years, like twenty years for the whole project. What a lesson for a 23-year-old like me! Just keep chopping. Keep chopping at whatever worthy task you have.
7. Get excited for what’s ahead.
Finally, Tony, I think we should say to everybody, let your motto be the principle of the apostle Paul: forgetting what lies behind, pressing forward to the goal (Philippians 3:13–14). In other words, never get to the point in your life where you are more contented with what you have already done than you are excited with what is yet to be done. At every stage, 24, 44, 64, 74, 84, pray with all your heart, “O God, make the next season of my life the most fruitful season ever for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all people.”
So, it’s been a good run, Tony; 1,500 is a good run. But now we start the beginning of the second 1,500. “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15).
Amen. I know I speak for a lot of people when I say thank you, Pastor John, for investing so much of your life and thought into the hundreds of hours of your time represented in these 1,500 episodes. And if the incoming questions are any indication, we will have plenty to talk about until episode 3,000.
I don’t doubt that we will run out of questions. I do doubt that we will run out of life sooner or later. But the Lord governs that.
He sure does. Thank you, Pastor John!