The God of Efficiency

I’m nearing the end of the first year of my Ph.D. in IEOR, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, and I still don’t have a good explanation for what exactly IEOR is. But if I had to describe it in one word, I would say ‘efficiency’. IEOR is about optimizing traffic conditions, optimizing distribution of patient care, optimizing robustness and efficiency of energy networks. IEOR is about maximizing revenue and minimizing risk using prices, options and derivatives. I’ve essentially spent the past two semesters being trained on how to help people be more Type A.

Maybe part of the reason that I like my department so much is that for me, efficiency is a way of life. This morning, I left my apartment at 11:28am for my 11:40am class, because I knew that it would take me 2 minutes to take out the trash and 10 minutes to get to class. As a Princeton alumna and a resident of New York City, I am also surrounded people for whom efficiency is admirable and desirable, something to be striven for. Think of ‘New York time’ and ‘Princeton time’, two phenomena which stem from the same desire for efficiency. Why waste time by being early? I could do so much with those 5 extra minutes. In such an environment, it’s easy to get caught up in the mindset that to be the best and achieve the most, we must be the most efficient.

But in the weeks leading up to Easter, I’ve been meditating on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and have found myself wondering more and more: Does God call us to be efficient?

It is pretty clear that God calls us to not be lazy. Proverbs and the epistles are full of admonitions against laziness and sloth:

Proverbs 10:4- A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
Proverbs 12:24- The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.
Proverbs 13:4- The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.
Ephesians 5:15-16a- Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time.
Colossians 4:5- Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.

Reading such verses, it is obvious that wisdom, diligence and good time management are all part and parcel of being good stewards of the time and resources that God has given us. And it’s tempting to say, well, efficiency must be good, because it is diligence and stewardship at its best. But the more I think about my own reasons for valuing efficiency, the more I believe that there are many lies and false hopes underlying our desire for efficiency. Perhaps we equate increased efficiency with increased effectiveness, and believe that by being more efficient, we can achieve or contribute more. Perhaps we rely on increased efficiency to improve our standard of living, or to push us higher up the ladder of success. Perhaps we think that being as efficient as possible, doing the best that we can, minimizes the risk of things going wrong, or exonerates us from blame if they do go awry. In all these cases, the danger is that the more we chase after efficiency, the further we slide down the slippery slope of self-reliance and self-justification.

Before we answer the question of whether we should be efficient, it is prudent to consider whether God was efficient. And if we look closely at the narrative of the bible, we see that God often works in surprisingly inefficient ways. God chose to bless the world slowly, generation by generation, through the offspring of one man. He patiently and faithfully brought an imperfect chosen people through cycles of idolatry and ungratefulness. He took the time to live as a human, to suffer as a human and die as a human, in order to bring to full completion His work of justification. God also works in our lives in an often frustratingly-slow pace. He doesn’t just snap His fingers and transform our hearts and minds. Rather, He sanctifies and renews us through cycle after messy cycle of sin, repentance and forgiveness. He doesn’t just reveal himself and His plan of salvation to us in irrefutable ways. Rather, He uses people to shine His light and love and convey His gospel.

When reading the parable of the lost sheep, I used to think to myself, ‘How inefficient, to spend all that time looking for one measly sheep.!’ Or, ‘What a waste of time, to sweep the house searching for one lost silver coin.’ But I was missing the point. What God values above efficiency, above far-reaching evangelism, above widespread service, is people. For God, the salvation of even one of His lost children is the most joyous thing in the world.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
— 2 Peter 3:8-9

So does God call us to be efficient? My short answer would be… sometimes. But He always calls us to love Him and to love people. And sometimes that means we need to be a little more inefficient.

Let me end by sharing some good advice that I’ve been given on what this might look like for a student or academic, and briefly describe how each is playing out in my life as a Ph.D student.

  1. Take a weekly Sabbath.
    Princetonians tend to be rather proud of their ability to work hard and play hard. As a grad student and researcher, my natural impulse is to maximize my efficiency as a student by spending every free moment either understanding all the materials relevant to my coursework, or working on a problem related to my research until I find a solution. I still haven’t found the courage to take a Sabbath, but God is slowly teaching me to trust, rest and find my worth in Him, and to be at peace even when I don’t understand anything or haven’t managed to prove anything.
  2. Publish good quality work.
    In the academic world, efficient research paper production is a highly coveted skill. Many both live by and fear the need to ‘publish or perish’. I have recently been convicted of my desire to publish an unpolished paper as quickly as possible, in order to check off another item on my ‘to-do’ list and to further prove my worth. At some stage, I plan to think more carefully through what it looks like to engage in publishing and academic discourse as a Christian.
  3. Teach students, not subjects.
    Teaching in a university setting is time-consuming, tiring and offers very few tangible rewards. When teaching a large class, it is tempting to ‘make efficient use of my time’ by conveying the material in the most efficient way possible, setting office hours for the most inconvenient time possible and leaving it up to the students to learn things on their own. God is teaching me to see all my students as individual people with individual needs, and to respond to them accordingly. This has meant answering emails at inconvenient hours, meeting up for coffee chats or bringing them step by step through a difficult homework problem. I’m still working through how I can be a better teacher, and how I can better show grace to my students.
  4. Be Interruptible.
    I have a strong tendency to be ‘in the zone’ when I am studying or thinking about a problem, because it means I get through to a resolution more quickly and efficiently. I also like to plan my days out and fill them with small schedules and goals, so that I can make the most of my time. God is teaching me to let go of control of my time and to let my eyes and ears be attuned to people or things that He is calling me to.
  5. Sit in the Pit.
    As a (fake) engineer, I have a bit of a ‘fix-it’ mentality. When people come to me with problems, my first instinct is to offer them advice on how to solve their problems. At a recent church retreat, Abe Cho of Redeemer spoke on how God does not always call us to immediately fix our problems and become joyful and righteous before Him, and gave us permission to be vulnerable, honest and emotional before God. Drawing from the Psalms and Job, he demonstrated to us that sometimes we are not called to give nice, pat, efficient answers about God to those who are suffering, not called to fix their problem or to fix them, but rather to mourn with them in sackcloth and ashes and trust that God will deliver. This was a great retreat. I will probably have a lot to say about it in a later post.

Each of these is worth a separate blog entry, and I plan to revisit them in later posts. In the meantime, I hope that we can all go out and be a little more inefficient! Who needs efficiency when we have all of eternity?

Irene graduated from Princeton in 2013 with an A.B. in mathematics. She is currently in the first year of her Ph.D. in IEOR (equivalent to ORFE) at Columbia University, where she spends her time exploring the structure of graphs, pondering how to serve God in the academy and pretending that she knows how to be an engineer.

7 thoughts on “The God of Efficiency”

  1. I struggle with a lot of this all the time. Pretty much all of it resonates with me as wrestle daily with my work, my desire to please God, and yet realizing I don’t have everything under my control. Resting in God’s hands is often the hardest part. And sometimes, it requires me to be ‘inefficient’ here and there. Sabbath is one of the most mysterious paradoxes for Type-A’s!

  2. WOW. Thanks for writing this. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think the pitfalls of valuing efficiency is especially apparent in medicine, where there is now very little human care.

  3. I don’t often read this blog bc I’m occupied with stuff like ESPN, but here’s a dismal scientist take on things.

    I think “Does God call us to be efficient” sort of introduces a false dichotomy between “efficiency” and godliness. I think the key issue is more that the world (and usually by extension that of our professions and communities) defines efficiency in a way which is not the same as God defines efficiency. God wants you to love people as well as have a career, and maybe the most efficient way to love people well means being highly interruptible, for example.

    1. @ryanshyu I totally agree with you, and did not mean to set up efficiency and godliness as opposing or dichotomous concepts. I do think, though, that even when we have a good grasp of ‘Kingdom efficiency’, it’s dangerous to pursue that in place of pursuing God and God alone.
      I mean almost every idol starts out as a good thing that is taken in the wrong direction, and so perhaps a better question would not be ‘does God call us to be efficient’ but rather ‘how does God call us to be efficient’. But that is a question best asked by those who aren’t driven by a need to be efficient in the first place.

  4. Mm. yes! To all that’s been said above.

    And to add on to @ryanshyu’s point, I think God’s effectively promising us that his way is the most efficient way, understanding efficiency comprehensively; and so when we narrow our understanding of efficiency to a small spectrum of life (monetary gain, experiential satisfaction, work productivity, spiritual harvest, etc.) instead of obeying God, following the life-rhythms he’s ordained for us, and seeking out his will in our lives, we end up thinking we’re being efficient when we’re actually being massively inefficient in Kingdom terms.

  5. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on efficiency. In my opinion, efficiency (as much as I value it ) is a human concept. The Creator God is in the business of making order out of chaos. He is not bound by time or space where our concept of efficiency is important. I believe that that God values our attempts at efficiency as a way that we try to imitate His ordering of His Creation. With that being said, efficiency for efficiency’s sake is futile; but the pursuit of efficiency as a way to honor God will be rewarded.

  6. I am so happy to find this today. It struck me recently that, while I’ve mastered living an efficient life, I am not experiencing the results from it I expected…the frustration is deep and real. Reflecting on God’s extravagant waste of His time and His Son to redeem His world is changing my mind about what effective living means to Him. Thank you. This article is helping me heal.

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