Efficiency Makes A Poor Goal For Life

Thomas Merton was once asked to diagnose the leading spiritual disease of our time.

Merton’s answer? “Efficiency.”


“From the monastery to the Pentagon, the place has to run…and there is little time or energy left over after that to do anything.” We can’t know how right Merton is because the affliction obscures the cure. Efficiency is its own god and justification.

“What do you want?” we ask indignantly. “IN-efficiency?”

No, of course not, but the question is asked rhetorically when it really begs for another, and that other question is this: “Efficiency in the service of what?” You may climb the ladder well and safely and quickly. But if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, you’ve lost efficiency and maybe everything else as well.

Merton’s point is that we always try to do something and do it well but we have no time for feeding the soul, for solitude, for real leisure, for deep friendship. Getting things done is the only goal. Because we can do more faster, and better, and at will we imagine we are in a good place. But any good that neglects the soul eventually leads to ruin. For man cannot live without God, and efficiency is a poorest of substitutes, not least because it masquerades so well.

We can, and do, pursue countless wrongs with great effort and efficiency. That is, we feed our spirit the pearls of efficiency. But our soul is not made for that. The pearls for the soul are goodness, understanding, God Himself, truth. The soul wants to know we are loving the good. Seeking the good may produce efficiency but it is secondary. When efficiency is imagined to be the cause of good, or worse, goodness itself, our soul will starve.

When we neglect the gods of efficiency, progress, success, and getting things done we take a painful path, full of misunderstandings and feelings of failure. But this is because we have the wrong goal in mind, the wrong god. Love God first, and efficiency will follow. Make efficiency the goal and lose all else along the way. It is more than I know, but I think it is right.

–Randy Huff raised his sons in Roanoke 2010-2015, where he used to also serve as dean of students at a Christian school. He now lives and pastors a church in North Pole, Alaska.



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