I love motivational posters. You know the ones; there’s a photograph of a mountain or an eagle above a single word like “Teamwork” or “Discipline.” I find these posters humorous because they’re usually found in spaces that are completely incongruous with the scenes they depict. Whenever I come across motivational posters in the hallways of a school or office building, I can’t help but imagine what the people who put them up must have been thinking as they hung them there. I like to think their minds were filled with visions of people pausing before the poster and suddenly being swept away from their beige surroundings bathed in fluorescent light, enraptured by the perfect marriage of stock image and cliché before them. Then, inspired, they return to their desks, ready to take on the world!
While it’s easy to poke fun at motivational posters or other cheesy attempts to inspire, the fact that artwork like this adorns the walls of schools and office buildings is proof that everyone knows how important motivation is for productivity. However, people need much more than a poster to motivate them to excellence.
Everyone is driven by something. We sometimes describe certain people as motivated and others as unmotivated, but strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as an unmotivated person. The difference is just in what is motivating him or her. You might call your unshaven, Netflix-bingeing, unemployed brother-in-law unambitious, and you might be right. But he’s not unmotivated. More likely, the reason he’s not working is that he’s more motivated by a desire for comfort than for cash. You can make judgments about the quality of that motivation, but it is a motivation nonetheless.
We all face slumps in our productivity from time to time, so how do we motivate ourselves to keep going even when it’s hard? If you search the productivity world for help on the issue of motivation, you’ll find information on topics like self-discipline, habits, and various psychological theories that all promise to help you develop a more productive drive. The problem, of course, is that secular productivity gurus would have us focus on the wrong kinds of rewards to keep us motivated.
The Reward of Riches
Most productivity books are geared toward businesspeople. Whether it’s getting a promotion, building a million-dollar business, or retiring early, the promise of secular productivity is a life of financial prosperity. Money is assumed to be the apparent incentive for being productive. But this motivation presents a problem for Christians because the Scriptures warn us that love of money is dangerous. “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:9–10). We can’t let the reward of riches be the motivation for our productivity.
The Promise of Peace
The second common motivation for productivity is the promise of peace. Maybe you’re looking at productivity not primarily for wealth but for control. Life is chaotic, and you feel that if you could just get a bit more organized, you would finally find some peace. You may tell yourself that you aren’t as bad as those people who want to get rich so they can live a lavish lifestyle. No, you just want enough to be financially free so you don’t have to work. You want productivity to earn you time, not money.
Indeed, productivity often does lessen feelings of stress and worry. A well-ordered life tends to lead to less anxiety as we become better at keeping our commitments. But if believers hold up peace as our main motive for being productive, we may overlook the peace we already have through faith in Jesus Christ. Even peace can become an idolatrous motivation for productivity.
The Praise of People
A third bad motivation for productivity is the praise of men. Perhaps you aren’t seeking riches or peace, you just want others to notice your accomplishments. This is a pernicious motivation because it can look so much like faithfulness. For example, consider the guy who always stays late to help clean up after events at church or the woman who shows up before her boss to work each day. Those are good things in and of themselves, but if the reason for those productive efforts is just to look good to others, that’s a problem. When you do a good thing with a bad motive, you are doing a bad thing.
This motivation is sadly very common in ministry contexts. When you aren’t working hard for a paycheck, it’s easy to think that your motives must be pure. Deep down, however, the force driving you to be productive isn’t a desire for God’s commendation but for people to look at your tireless effort and say, “What a great person!” This is the motivation that drives empty religion; this was the motivation of the Pharisees! If you get organized, set goals, manage your tasks, and work hard just so people will think highly of you, you’ve missed the mark. The purpose of productivity is the glory of God, not your own glory. The praise of people is yet another bad motivation for productivity.
The Lure of Legacy
The fourth bad motivation for productivity is the lure of legacy. This motivation is just the praise of men in a more palatable form. Some people are motivated not by concern about money, peace, or what others around them will think but instead by a desire to leave a legacy. This sounds much nobler than being productive for the praise of men, but the lure of legacy is just a similar motivation in a time machine.
Of course, we all want to be thought well of after we’re dead and gone, and legacy is not wholly a bad thing. But the lure of legacy must not be the chief motivation of a Christian. We cannot be motivated to productivity by the hope that others will make a positive assessment of our life when we’re gone. Instead, we need to be motivated by how God will assess our life.
Productivity that pleases God is one that is motivated by eternal reward. We were wired for reward, but the danger in undiscerningly reading productivity literature is that we might trade the God-designed motivation of eternal reward for the paltry incentive of temporal reward. If we really believe that our treasure is in heaven, then our work, productivity, and the motivation that fuels us should reflect that truth.
No one who strives to be productive for God’s glory in pursuit of eternal reward will be disappointed. So let us press on. And when we come to the end of our lives, may we be able to say with John Calvin, “It is my happiness that I have served Him who never fails to reward His servants to the full extent of His promise.”1
1 – Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions, and Eternity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2003), 123.
REAGAN ROSE is the founder of Redeeming Productivity, a media ministry focused on a biblical approach to personal productivity. Reagan has a Master of Divinity from The Master’s Seminary and lives in Michigan with his wife, Kim, and their two children.