Work and idleness - Proverbs 26:13-16
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Work and Idleness
People often forget that Christianity began as a working man’s faith. For most of his adult life, Jesus of Nazareth worked as carpenter shaving wood, laying floors and hanging doors. The first followers he drew were men who rose before dawn in order to drag rough, smelly fishing nets through the waters of Galilee in order to earn a living. Even the greatest intellect of all, the apostle Paul, was a tent maker. The Christian faith dignified work.
Maybe you don’t realise how revolutionary that was. For the ancient Greeks there was a hard and fast distinction between manual labour, which was mainly for the slave class, and mental labour for the ruling class. Plato and Aristotle advocated that the majority of men should do the heavy lifting to allow the privileged minority of men, like them, to enjoy the heavy thinking.
The historian Kenneth Scott Latourette put it like this: ‘Christianity undercut slavery by giving dignity to work, no matter how seemingly menial that might be. Traditionally, labour which might be performed by slaves was despised as degrading to the freeman. But Christian teaching said that all should work and that labour should be done as to God and in the sight of God. Work became a Christian duty.’
As we shall see, the Bible’s concern is not so much what work we do (provided it is not unethical) but that we work and how we work. And by work it doesn’t mean ‘paid’ word. And in order to help us think through how we should work we are going to turn to the Book of Proverbs.
But before we do that I want to lay down three principles about work taken from the Bible as a whole of which Proverbs is a part.
Work and the Word
The first thing to say is that the biblical grounds for us being workers is that God is a worker. Summarising Genesis 1 the fourth commandment reminds us that ‘In six days the Lord made the universe and on the seventh day rested (that is took up operational control of the universe he set up). Get that? The God we worship is no idler as well as being no idol for he is the eternal fount of adventurous activity and creative energy. And Jesus reminds us in John 5 that he is still at work (5:17). And as God’s image bearers we were made for work too. In Genesis 1:28 we are called to intelligently subdue the world, that is bring it into line with God’s intended purpose- harnessing resources, harvesting plants and so on; and in Genesis 2, Adam is called to care for the garden in which he has been placed, naming the animals which some have seen as a basis for science in classification. So by being God’s fellow workers, we reflect his image to the world.
The second thing to say is that work is good but due to sin is damaged, subject to futility and frustration. Adam was working the ground before he sinned, but after he sinned God made it clear that work from now one would have a twist, it would be by the ‘sweat of his brow’ he would work. That is a fitting punishment for what he had done. He had gone against the grain of God’s law when he ate the forbidden fruit and so every time he set to work he would find himself going against the grain of nature, if I can put it like that, work itself being a perpetual reminder that all is not well between the creature and the Creator, it was meant to be better than this. By the way, this is also a check against turning work into an idol, the activity whereby we try to gain a sense of ultimate significance and satisfaction from what we do. While we will gain some significance from working- a sense of achievement - we will never get ultimate significance, because the work will never be perfect, there will always be one more house to build, one more essay to write, one more bridge to construct- and so we will always feel to some extent frustrated. That is how it is meant to be in a fallen world (Rom. 8:20-22).
Thirdly, work is part of worship. Worship isn’t just what we do on a Sunday; it is what we do with the rest of our lives the rest of the week. The picture of Adam in the garden is that of a King-priest who is meant to offer all that he is and does to God as a sacrifice of thanksgiving (which is what Abel did properly and Cain did unthinkingly). This is something taken up by the apostle Paul, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,…..It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’ (Col.3:23-24). Now there is a motivator! Remember that when you have to hand in your next assignment, remember that when you clean the house, remember that when you empty the bins- in reality if you are a Christian you are doing it for the Lord, so act like it! This is not make-believe.
Given that we should work, it is all part and parcel of what it means to be a human being; why should we work?
Three reasons can be given.
We work for the glory of God (worship); the good of others (service) and the growth of our character (sanctification).
How to work
So how do we go about it? This is where Proverbs comes to our help.
First, work for the glory of God. This is the importance of what we can call ‘mindfulness’, bearing in mind what we are doing and who we are doing it for. Proverbs tells us that ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.’ If we detach any part of life of life from the God who gave it, any part of our knowledge and skill which he has gifted us with, then we deny him his glory and his worship and we reduce the meaning of what we know and what we achieve because we lose its larger significance in God’s grand scheme of things. Without the bigger picture into which we place our lives and our work, then everything at the end of the day ends up being self-serving. Sure, others may benefit from what we do, but with God out of the picture someone has to take his place-namely us, so we work to get the promotion or the fame which makes us feel good or the job so we can get more money to spend which in turn enhances our sense of well -being- so we become what we wear, what we drive, where we live. But once we see God as the be all and end all in Jesus Christ, we find we are drawing on all our gifts, energies and opportunities he has given to be returned back to him where it belongs with praise’ saying Lord this is for you!’
I just love the way Dorothy L. Sayers speaks such good common sense into the Christian view of what should be expected of workers. Written during the Second World War she says, ‘In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation [i.e. that all work is a calling]….The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to Church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes on him is that he should make good tables. Church by all means, and descent forms of amusement, certainly- but what use is all that if in the very nature of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table-legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made heaven and earth.’ If you are a student you should be the best student on you course, not necessarily in terms of grades but in your diligence and the standard of work which you are producing as an offering to God. Similarly if you are a salesman, a builder, a teacher, a homemaker or whatever it may be- central to your claim to being a Christian is that you work first and foremost for the Lord Jesus and the quality of your work should reflect that.
Secondly, work for the good of others. Here proverbs is crucial as they are given for ‘attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair.’ (1:2-3)
Proverbs has some sharp words to say to those who would seek to take advantage of others at work, ‘One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys (Prov. 18:9). One of the chief purposes of work is to build up the community, to ensure its safety and prosperity. Those who are slack or dishonest invariably weaken and damage the firm, the economy and the society. They betray trust and hold others in contempt, thinking they can freewheel on the back of others. They may not steal money from their work but they may steal time- using the firms time and means for private emails and conversations for example. That is in effect robbing people and the more that do that, the more the work and productivity suffers.
Thirdly, work is for our growth as people. Another writer of wisdom, Ecclesiastes says, ‘People can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.’ (Ecc. 2:24). Job satisfaction is desirable but not essential in work- the fact is most people living on this planet are working simply to live and job satisfaction is a luxury mainly for those living in the West.
But such satisfaction as it is in work does not come without putting in some work.
You see, those who ‘fear God’ are to approach their work in certain ways.
First, they are to work energetically. Wisdom looks to nature for an example to imitate- the ant, ‘Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest.’ (14:23) There is no such things a couch potato ant and there should not be a couch potato Christian. God has given us only a relatively short time here on earth to make of it what we will and there is no re-run. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, had a credo in this regard and he lived it, ‘Make all you can, save all you can, and give away all you can.’ The ant doesn’t need anyone to watch over him to ensure he is busy doing what he should be doing, neither should the Christian- if you have been given a task to perform, then perform it with all the might God gives you.
This stands in contrast to the lazy, ‘As a door turns on its hinges, so the sluggard turns on his bed’ (26:4). You can’t get him up in the morning- or the afternoon for that matter. But not to worry he always has an excuse no matter how off the wall it may sound, ‘A sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!’- He would wish! That would provide the ideal excuse for staying indoors playing on his X-box to all hours in the morning. Can you imagine him meeting the Lord Jesus on judgement day and being asked, ‘What did you do with your life which was so precious I gave mine for it?’ ‘Well, I managed to get beyond level 10 of Halo Wars’. That is bound to impress! But there is not only the laziness of the body but laziness of the mind. Wisdom is all about getting the mind shaped and filled by and with God’s Truth. Could I ask how your reading of Christian books is going these days are is it a matter of allowing the mind to become soggy with whatever you happen to be watching on TV or surfing on the internet?
Secondly, go about your work thoughtfully- ‘Put your outdoor work in order and get your fields ready; after that, build your house’ (14:27). Here is the importance of putting first things first: a steady source of income before comfort and rest. We can apply it to student days and to the early years of a career. Invest in the future, lay good foundations, don’t live a life-style that is not true to your real position and don’t chase fantasies. Another proverb says: ‘Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies lack judgment.’ (Prov. 12:11) There are a lot of people chasing fantasies today. The ‘fields’ have no glamour and image is everything and so people live beyond their means for the sake of projecting an image which bears no relation to reality. This is not a curb on ambition, (although we need to think through what we are being ambitious about and why), but it is a call to be thoughtful. Jesus says the same about those who are thinking of following him, a wise person works out in advance what he has before he starts building a tower (Lk. 14:28ff). On a fundamental level let me ask: how organised are you in your work? Do you make lists and cross them off? Do you have a diary or the equivalent and do you use it? Do you set attainable goals for yourself and do you try to meet them or is it just a matter of ambling from one crisis deadline to another? If you aim at nothing that is precisely what you will hit- nothing!
Thirdly, work honestly. The temptation to take short cuts in work or not being truthful to make progress in your career is ever present. That is the voice of Ms Folly. But succumbing to it will not go unnoticed by God, ‘A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapour and a deadly snare.’ (Prov. 21:6); ‘A false witness will not go unpunished, and a liar will not escape’ (Prov. 19:5). Whereas Wisdom says, ‘I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips.’ (Prov. 8:6–7). The lazy person will be about lying to themselves and to others and the long term results will be disastrous, ‘I went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observe and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber; a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.’ (Prov. 24:30-34).
The impression given is one of waste – a wasted life. Surely you don’t want that? One writer puts it like this (R.L. Alden), ‘In a sense he [the lazy person] robs himself by wasting away his time, talents and earning power. Precious hours, important opportunities, and years of productivity are squandered because he lacks enthusiasm and initiative.’ Did you notice all those ‘littles’? He is not a particularly bad man as bad men go. He is not about to go out to commit great crimes because for a start you have to have energy for great crimes- all this person’s ‘get up and go’ ‘got up and went’! He didn’t get where he is here by any one great, dramatic, defiant, act. He has only ever wanted a little more of this and a little more of that and to be left alone for a little while to have it. And the result is a wasted life. And one way this can come to us today is by way of distraction- we have our attention so easily pulled away from what we should be focusing on in our work. When someone like Maggie Jackson can write a book entitled, ‘Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age’ and John Freeman a book with the title, ‘The Tyranny of the E-mail’ you know that Houston has more than a problem! In the US in 2013 a survey was published of temptations people were willing to admit experiencing. Here are the results: procrastinating (putting off doing things)- 60%; worrying- 60%; eating too much- 55% but then we have the newcomer- spending too much time on various forms of media-44%. David Wells explains the problem and how it is effecting our work in this way, ‘Our life is now punctuated by incessant computer pings, mobile phone jungles and beeps of one kind or another…in the work place one-third say that they are unable to think about their work as they skip from task to task. Attention shifts, on average, every three minutes. Actually the problem is also compounded by the fact that people keep interrupting themselves! It is a world of virtual meetings and romances, of texts of bullet points, of instant decision making and lost rules.’
There is a reason why we respond to the pings and the beeps- they release in our brain a substance called dopamine-the same chemical you get when you drink alcohol and it gives us a high, it makes you feel good. The more pings we get, the more ‘likes’ on Facebook, the more this feel good drug is released. But then comes the sting, in order to get the same high after a time you need more stimulation, so you will need to go to your mobile phone more and more and each time you a ratcheting it up. By opening ourselves to this we are turning ourselves into techno- addicts- especially our young people. The other side of this is an increased anxiety if you don’t get the calls coming through or the ‘likes’ on Facebook. So what will you do, contact as many people as you can to get some response. Can you see how destructive as well as time consuming that is going to be? So you want to get some work completed or listen to a sermon right through- switch of your mobile phone, don’t bring your computer games to church, don’t have your e-mail’s open when you are working on your computer- use your mobile phone less and do something humans have been doing for thousands of years- talk to people.
So here is the thing: working in whatever capacity is one of the greatest gifts that God gives because he is sharing with you something of his own nature and purpose. When you are working for his glory, other people’s good then you are also benefiting yourself because you are in some measure being God-like. Wasting your time by not working or shirking your work is also wasting your life and you will have to give an account to God for it one day. Work to live and work for the Lord, but don’t make the mistake of living for work.
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