The fruitfulness of an ‘unproductive’ life


man holding grapesSome of us might be productive and others not, but we are all called to bear fruit; fruitfulness is a true quality of love’.

Henri Nouwen

I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit- fruit that will last…’

John 15:16.

Derek writes:

I wonder whether you’ve ever had this experience. You’re having a quiet and reflective moment. It’s part musing and part prayer. Into that slightly vacant space a thought seems to come from nowhere. You think-’ Wow- where did that come from?’

It was a few years ago and I was walking on the local common. Out of the blue came the phrase: ‘It’s fruitfulness I’m looking for not merely productivity’. I wasn’t thinking about such things- it was just suddenly there, in my mind.

I was working as a financial controller at the time. I had deadlines to meet, accounts to produce and reports to file. The financial health of the whole enterprise depended on me being productive, efficient and successful at my job.

I was being productive but was I being fruitful?

The danger of being merely productive

Our culture is obsessed with productivity, results, success and achievement. We are valued on our ability to produce; in fact practically everything nowadays can be reduced to a product: not simply cars, houses, books and art but also having influential friends, sexual performance and educational qualifications.

And of course we have social media where we can let the everyone know just how wonderful our jobs, homes, friends and exam results all are…

Now, being productive is no bad thing. The great danger, however, is the suggestion that we are what we make or achieve. Productivity can never give us a deep sense of belonging or significance. If it becomes the main focus of our lives it can result in anxiety and depression, as we may never fully silence the nagging doubt that we could have done more or suppress the feeling that we are a failure after all. Focusing on being productive in the eyes of the world can also make us extremely vulnerable to rejection and criticism.

 Living an ‘unproductive’ life

Nearly a year ago I resigned from my job and, due to family circumstances, I have not been in a position to find paid employment since. I spend between 60 to 80 hours a week looking after our 2 small children and helping my wife keep everything from descending into chaos.

Although I have been prevented by my circumstances from being ‘productively employed’ I believe that God is far more interested in whether I am becoming more fruitful.

In the Gospel of John chapter 15 Jesus points to a number of things that indicate fruitfulness: obedience, increasing joy, growing in love, friendship with God and prayerfulness.

Maybe the key metaphor for fruitfulness is found in this phrase that Jesus uses: ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you’. ‘Home’, writes Henri Nouwen, ‘is where we can laugh or cry, embrace and dance, sleep long and dream quietly, eat, read, play, watch the fire, listen to music and be with a friend’. Fruitfulness flows out of making ourselves at home with God.

There are many people in the world like myself whose activity does not show up on GDP figures and who are not regarded as ‘economically productive’. Many are parents, carers, or are unemployed; some are too ill, too old or too young to work.

In God’s economy, however, what matters is fruitfulness and it is here, at home with our Father, that we find our true identity and deepest security.


Going for fruit

This morning I spent an hour or so in my garden. It’s spring and my raspberries, blackcurrants, cherry and apple trees all need attention if I’m going to see a good crop in a few months time. So it was in with the manure and out with the weeds.

Here are a few things we could pay attention to if we want to see more fruitfulness, especially if we’re going through a ‘non-productive’ period:

  • Creating rhythms.

Finding a healthy rhythm to our days and weeks. Practicing the ancient discipline of ‘keeping the hours’ and having intentional breaks throughout the day to focus on God can be richly rewarding. Setting aside 24 hours each week for Sabbath is also essential for our spiritual and emotional health. (For more details I’d recommend ‘Emotionally Healthy Spirituality’ by Peter Scazarro or ‘Present Perfect’ by Greg Boyd)

  • The discipline of celebration

Finding creative ways to build ‘celebratory spaces’ into every day. Being intentional about joy is a Christian duty. I’m sure the possibilities are endless but celebration might include: prayers of thanks, songs, expressing gratitude, writing cards, creating art, presenting gifts; maybe creating family rituals and ceremonies for special events, successes and failures.

  • Discover God is unexpected places

Become more at home with God’s presence in the everyday and especially in the natural world. John Muir said; ‘God’s love is manifest in the landscape as in a face’. We don’t have to wait until we get to church to experience God; every created thing is full of his presence and power. It can be tremendously exciting to be surprised by God at any moment of the day. I’d recommend John Ortberg’s ‘God is closer than you think’ for an accessible introduction to this. 

  • Say goodbye to driven-ness

Work on losing any sense of driven-ness and finding a healthy pace to each day. In my work-a-day life I often felt a compulsion to use every spare minute productively. Even in cycling to work I’d always be looking for the fastest route and the shortest cuts. This driven-ness leads to anxiety and a failure to really engage with others or live in the present moment. Lets use any gift of space God gives us to drive out driven-ness!

  • Connect daily with a real person

Build genuine human contact into each day. When you’re not going out of the house to work, meeting people (who you’re not caring for) may be difficult. Online contact doesn’t really give you the depth of connection you need to flourish. Even if it’s just a coffee, try and meet a real person in a real way every day.

I will concede, however, that telephone or Skype may be the only option for many of us when the intensity of the demands on our time make meeting flesh and blood impossible!


Becoming a so-called ‘non-productive’ member of society, even for a short time, is an invitation from God to focus on fruitfulness. Jesus speaks of pruning us so we can be even more fruitful. Removing us from positions of status and influence can be a painful pruning but the intention is for us to find our true identity and calling in the ‘house of our father’. This is the place from which all true fruitfulness and maturity in love flows.