In our sermons on the themes of Proverbs, we have so far considered the sexual life, marriage, money, and speech, certainly key dimensions of any human life as you will immediately recognize. Manage these wisely and well and much happiness and good must come; manage them poorly and they will cause untold harm and sorrow. Proverbs majors on the major issues of life and so it does with our subject this evening: the importance of working hard, of being industrious, on the one hand, and the sin and unwisdom of laziness, of indolence, on the other. Some of Proverbs’ most memorable teaching is devoted to this subject.
Go the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief, officer, or ruler
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. [6:6-11]
There is something very typical about this teaching. You can find it in Aesop’s Fables, you can find it Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, and you can find it in the teaching of responsible parents all over the world today. There is nothing distinctly Christian about it, though, of course, as we made a point of emphasizing in introducing the book of Proverbs, the larger context of the teaching of the book, its motivation, its spirit, and its end or goal is distinctively Christian. Or, perhaps we should say, when non-Christians commend the importance of industry and hard work, they are in fact borrowing Christian capital, little as they may realize it.
By that I mean that there is a sense in which we ought to relish the typical nature of this teaching. What you have in the Bible, as well as an account of the history of redemption and a summons to holiness of life, is an explanation of the world and of human existence. The Bible is a book of truth about the way things are and always will be while this world endures. It is precisely this measure of confidence that people can have about the nature of human life that enables wise people to be reliable prophets of the future, at least in a broad way. There were plenty of people, as you know, who knew and who said that an economy based on inflated home values and unsecured or inadequately secured debt was bound to be punished for it sooner or later. To base a country’s economic life on the assumption that house prices always rise and never fall is foolish and will sooner rather than later be proved to be so. Why is that? Because that is how the world works; how God made it to work. Lies sooner or later pay a wage in the world created by the God of truth.
“Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe.” [F. Buechner in Plantinga, Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be, 116]
That is, again and again in the Bible we find teaching that is not really first a description of how life ought to be, but of how life is. This is one of the things that make the Bible such a wonderfully satisfying book. You read it and you understand the world, everyone’s world, your own and that of every other human being. The Bible is an open window on reality!
What you find in so much of human life is a protest against reality. People want the world to behave differently than it does. There is much of this in physical science, there is much in politics, and there is much of it in the social sciences. The problem is very often conceived in modern life in terms of conforming reality to the wishes of men. That is why there is so much futility in human endeavors to make the world better. Wisdom requires us rather to conform our desires to reality, not the other way round. Wisdom requires us to accept the limitations imposed upon us by reality and live accordingly. So much of modern social and political thought is utopian to one degree or another: a better world lies just around the corner for us to create with this initiative or this program or this social change. The fact that we never seem to turn the corner hardly seems to matter. The fact is, however, we are creatures, only that; and we have been placed in God’s world, a world that works in a certain way according to certain principles the reach of which we cannot escape. All human beings share this world and so there is a reality common to us all and a measure of wisdom that can be common to us all as well.
Listen to this from Karl Barth. I don’t ordinarily quote Barth in my sermons, but this is particularly well said.
“What is the obviously outstanding feature of world history? … [It] is the all-conquering monotony – the monotony of the pride in which man has obviously always lived to his own detriment and that of his neighbor, from hoary antiquity and through the ebb and flow of his later progress and recession both as a whole and in detail, the pride in which he still lives…and will most certainly continue to do so till the end of time…. History…constantly re-enacts the little scene in the Garden of Eden.” [CD IV/I, 505-508]
And, of course, part of that scene is the desire on the part of Adam and Eve to have something for nothing rather than to undertake the effort that God had summoned them to invest in obedience and service. Ever since man has been looking for the piece of fruit, the shortcut that would make the hard work of a consecrated life somehow unnecessary. But find it they have not nor will they ever find it.
So if Proverbs’ teaching about hard work proves to be teaching that is widely understood by many people around the world, teaching that one can find in the moral instruction of other religions and philosophies of life, that is only as it should be and as we should expect it to be.
In Proverbs and in life poverty is caused by one of three things, though in Proverbs the emphasis falls on the last two. Poverty is caused by catastrophe – drought, war, earthquake – or it may be caused by tyranny or oppression, the evil of other men, or it may be caused by idleness. Poverty is not caused by a lack of resources available in the world as one nowadays often hears. The cause of poverty is never that the earth God has given us is not good enough or does not supply us with adequate resources. The fact is the Bible teaches us to believe that God has given men a surplus if only they will lay claim to it. Have you thought about this? Prosperity can be achieved working but six days out of the seven. A few months of work in tilling and sowing can produce a harvest adequate to feed us for twelve months. There will be enough to care for widows and orphans as well. We are never poor because God has not adequately provided for us. Even today there is no place on earth where human ingenuity and industry cannot render a people prosperous if only corrupt government or human foolishness and greed have not intervened to destroy potential or are not intervening to prevent many people from sharing in the harvest of blessing that God has provided for them. Think about some of the most benighted places on earth today – Yemen, Somalia – those places were once very prosperous countries.
What is more, in the case of Proverbs’ teaching about work and industry, we are talking both about obedience to the law of God and about what we would nowadays call character. Unlike much of what Proverbs teaches us about the sexual life or the right attitude toward money, finer points of Christian living than are covered in the commandments of the Law, here we actually have a commandment that expressly addresses the subject. Not only is a life of work implied in the 8th commandment against theft and the 10th against covetousness, but the 4th commandment is devoted to the obligation of men to be workers. We can sometimes forget that the 4th commandment, requiring the keeping of the Sabbath day, expressly requires us to work on the other six days. This rhythm of work and rest is found everywhere in the Bible. The Bible is not opposed to rest or to play, but it requires them to be given a place after work. We were put here in this world, even Adam before the fall, to work, to be a steward of the world, to bring from it by work all of the great blessing that God has placed within it for our welfare and our enjoyment. It is because we must work and work hard that the day of rest becomes so important. The Bible doesn’t say work five days, but six and in a culture which expects two days off from work Christians should be careful to be sure that they don’t treat Saturday as simply another day of rest or play and not in fact a day for other kinds of work to be done. There is always enough work to be done if only one is willing: work at home, work for others, whatever. Fathers, your children, your sons especially, need to see you as a hardworking man.
So to work is to obey the Law of God and, as with all obedience, it ought not to be feigned or half-hearted, but be willing and unqualified, something we do enthusiastically. We ought to be hard workers six days of the week and take our day of rest as seriously on the seventh. Attitudinally, therefore, we are to be workers. It is to be our way of life to work hard. So a disposition toward industry, a discomfort with the idea that we are not using our time fruitfully, that we are being lazy or self-indulgent is more than obedience; it is part of a godly character, an attitude, a viewpoint on life, that ought to be characteristic of God’s people, not only according to Proverbs, but according to the rest of the Bible. It was the Apostle Paul, if you remember, who put the point most bluntly of all:
“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work…” [2 Thess. 3:10]
That is, there is nothing in the Christian faith that can ever be thought to undermine the importance of a life of hard work, of faithful work, of industry and perseverance in responsibility. In any case the wisdom of industry and the unwisdom of idleness are sufficiently important to Proverbs’ conception of skillful living for the point to be repeated many times throughout the book.
“Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” [12:11]
“The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” [12:24]
“Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.” [12:27]
“The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” [13:4]
“The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns…” [15:19]
“Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” [18:9]
“Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.” [19:15]
“The sluggard buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth.” [19:24]
“The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing.” [20:4]
“Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes and you will have plenty of bread.” [20:13]
“The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets.” [22:13]
“Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” [22:29]
“Prepare your work outside; get everything ready of yourself in the field, and after that build your house.” [24:27]
“I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” [24:30-34; very similar to 6:6-11]
“The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!’ As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth. The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.” [26:13-16; similar to 22:13]
And of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 we read:
“She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household…” [v. 15]
“She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.” [v. 27]
Taking all of this together, we may note some characteristic emphases:
- The idler or sluggard, the lazy man or woman always seeks the easier path, the path of least resistance. That is why bed and sleep figure so largely in these proverbs. It is always easier simply to stay in bed. There is the implicit recognition then that hard work requires effort to control the will; it requires initiative, discipline, and sacrifice. It is easier to be lazy, a fact that should not be ignored. The discipline of hard work needs to be instilled in children and then consciously practiced through life precisely because it is contrary to our tendency to prefer the easy way. Remember the steps that Charles Simeon took to discipline himself to get out of bed early in the morning: first vowing to give half a crown to his cleaning lady whenever he was late getting out of bed; and then, when he found himself staying in bed and excusing himself because, after all, she needed the money, vowing to throw a gold crown in the River Cam every time he was late out of bed. Simeon knew the value of money and that last vow did the trick! But even a holy man, a godly man, a serious Christian man found that hard work required of him a certain discipline and the taking of steps.
- The idler or sluggard is inclined to be blind to consequences, even when they are pointed out to him. Like many other character flaws, once allowed a place, they are hard to eliminate. There will always be a reason not to do what one should and to do it with not as much effort and dedication as ought to be given to it. “There is a lion in the street” refers to the world of excuses – often perfectly pathetic excuses – people can find to avoid or postpone hard work. I have heard many of these excuses through the years and have learned the truth of this teaching of Proverbs: idleness easily becomes a habit and habits are hard to break. We’ve watched this among a few, thankfully very few, of our young people in this church who have grown up to be idlers and as much as we cajoled and urged them and as much as we punished them and as much as we exhorted them, we found it impossible to create in them a real love for hard world. Hard work is a virtue best instilled early in life, parents, because it is very difficult to turn a lazy person into a hard worker later on in life. This is a matter of great importance, even more so in our day when institutionalized idleness is now so easily caught by young people. No culture has ever made idleness, useless activity not directed to any important end or goal so much a part of life for young people as Western culture has. A boy who spends hours playing video games is very likely to grow up to be a man who does not meet his responsibilities in life because those responsibilities cannot be met in the time one has left when he has sated himself at play.
- Laziness always catches up with a person sooner or later. A student can pay little attention in class, skip the reading assignments, and take perfunctory notes, and he or she will suffer nothing until it comes time to take the examination. But by then it is too late to learn what should have been learned throughout the semester. A really effective teacher prevents this by whatever particular step or device he has chosen to use. I once had a class with the philosopher, Gordon Clark, in the January inter-term at Covenant Theological Seminary. Dr. Clark’s way of preventing this from happening in his classes was to intimidate, that’s a weak word, to terrorize his students. I remember on the first day of class he handed out a reading list. I thought that was interesting, something for my file. If I ever wanted to know what Gordon Clark thought were the most important things to read about religious epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, I’d always have his list. He didn’t say anything about what we were supposed to do with that list, but the next day in class he began with the first name on his class list s and said, “Mr. Baker,” (or whatever the man’s name was who was first on the list) “did you read Augustine’s De Magistro last night?” And Mr. Baker, of course, said, “No Sir, I didn’t.” “Did you read The First Meditation of Descartes?” “No Sir, I didn’t.” Of course everybody in the class and Dr. Clark knew this fellow hadn’t read a thing last night. But he went right down the list – work after work after work – “Did you read this one, did you read this one?” to which the student had in ever increasing embarrassment to say, “No, I didn’t read that either.” All the rest of us were sitting there praying, “Lord, if you’ll just keep him from calling on me I will serve you for the rest of my life.” But I have never been as prepared for a class as I was for that one for the remainder of its course.
I heard a story about a young boy who was taking the violin and was taken by his father to hear Itzhak Perlman in concert. They bought the kind of ticket that allowed those who possessed it to go to the back of the concert hall after the concert to meet the great musician. This boy said to Mr. Perlman, “I would give anything to be able to play the way you play.” To which Perlman replied, “Would you really give anything?” The boy said, “Yes, I would.” “Would you give fourteen hours every day?” “Oh!” said the boy. Most everything that is really worthwhile, everything that is truly a great reward in human life, everything you really wish for comes to those who work hard for it. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t work hard, it is almost a certainty that you will live without the satisfaction of those wonderful rewards.
- Hard work provides both earthly reward (success) and a spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment not to be compared with another hour in bed. Wisdom is reckoning with consequences both good and bad. We’ve noticed that in the teachings of Proverbs already over and over again. The Bible is never embarrassed to make this connection between work and prosperity, between individual effort and individual success. I was struck reading recently that early on in the settlement of Plymouth the pilgrim settlers learned the same lesson that the Soviet Union had to learn the hard way: collectivism in labor and ownership does not and will not produce nearly as impressive results. Communal farming at Plymouth, which was the plan at first, had yielded meager results and the people were starving, but when, out of necessity, individual settlers were given control over specific parcels of ground and the right to the production of their fields, harvests immediately increased in quality and quantity. Why? Because people worked harder when their work was tied directly to the results. If people would work as hard for the communal farm as for their own, Soviet agriculture might have prospered instead of failed, but hard work was key and communism did not produce an ethic of personal industry. One of the abiding and undeniable facts of life is the connection between industry and prosperity, between hard work and reward, the latter a reason for and goad to the former.
“Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” [12:11]
“Work,” Luther famously observed, “is holy, the hidden mask behind which the hidden God gives us what we need.” And the holiness of work and so of hard work, industry, is found everywhere in the Bible. The place of work as an instrument of trust in the Lord is everywhere in the Bible. The old adage “laborare est orare,” “to work is to pray” is an expression of that theology of life. If the Lord has summoned you to work so as to enjoy the full measure of his blessing, if he has promised to reward your industry, then to work for a believer is to trust the Lord, to count on his provision to be given in the way in which he has promised to give it. We know, of course, that this is not the whole story. A hard-working Christian can be thrown into prison for his loyalty to Christ, or can suffer some ailment that makes it impossible to work, but, as a generality, and Proverbs deals with what is ordinarily the case, the Lord blesses us and provides for us and grants us prosperity through industry, through hard work. You cannot find a lazy man or woman among the saints whose lives and examples are commended to us in Holy Scripture. Jesus was a very hard-working man and has left us an example that we should follow in his steps. So was the Apostle Paul, a man who wore himself out in the cause of the gospel.
Those, of course, were men of genius and extraordinary public gifts. But even genius does not make hard work unnecessary. Geniuses are typically very hard workers because while they can see the great use to which their genius, their gifts can be put, hard work is still required to exploit them. Indeed, the more you learn of the great writers, the great inventors, the great political leaders, the great military men, the more you appreciate the phenomenal amount of work they invested in their achievements. I read recently that Ernest Hemmingway would quote the Latin proverb ars celere artem est, “It is an art to hide your art.” What he meant by that was, “Don’t let them see how much work you put into this manuscript, how many times you went over it, how many words and phrases you changed again and again and again until you had it just the right way. Let them think it just came off your pen that way.” I’m reading a new biography of the 19th century Scot Presbyterian, man of letters, and editor of the influential British Weekly, Robertson Nicoll. It was once said of him that “he edited five papers with his right hand and contributed to as many more with his left; that he was not a man but an army of men, directed by one cool controlling brain.” [Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard, 89]
But in life industry is as valuable in the case of the plodder, which most of us are. Let’s be honest. We may not have great gifts, but most of what is accomplished in the world is accomplished by people who set themselves to accomplish a piece of useful work and then keep at it until it is done. In fact, it is interesting and important that while the Romans and the Greeks despised manual labor and consigned such work in largest part to slaves, among the Jews there was no such contempt for working with one’s hands.
Contempt for certain sorts of work is pagan not Christian. Rabbi Judah, in the second century, is quoted as saying, “He who does not teach his own son a trade, teaches him to be a thief.” [Cited in Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 138] Jesus had a trade; Paul had a trade; Peter and John had trades, all of them different by the way. Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6:3), Paul a tentmaker (though the term found in Acts 18:3 could refer to a leather-worker), and Peter and John were fishermen. It is surely interesting that the principal figures of the New Testament history were tradesmen who had to work hard to make a living. A great many Christians since have drawn encouragement from the fact that Jesus and his Apostles, by and large, belonged to what we would nowadays call “the working class” not the professional class.
The entire grand panoply of achievement that we observe everywhere we look in our world: the extraordinary productivity of modern agriculture, the remarkable technological transformation of our world, the obliteration of boundaries in commerce and financial enterprise is simply staggering. You take this for granted, but those of who are old enough to realize how rapidly and profoundly the world has changed, even in our own lifetime, realize what staggering achievements these are. Nowadays we can eat grapes twelve months of the year, unheard of just a generation ago. We produce more food from less land and in measures that would stagger the imagination of our forefathers, most of whom were farmers. You remember, I’m sure, those days not so long ago when if you traveled to Europe, you had to calculate the amount of money you would require on your trip and get that amount in travelers checks before you left home. Nowadays, you need no money in your pocket because you can put your card in an ATM anywhere in the world (Asia, Australia, Africa – as we discovered last Spring – Europe, Russia) and get as much of the local currency as you may require. And if you want to call your children in another part of the world, you have only to ring them up on your cell phone as you are whizzing down the interstate. These stupendous advances in human productivity are certainly not redemption, they do not portend peace with God, but they are dramatic demonstrations – demonstrations we take far too much for granted – of the extraordinary fruitfulness of the human mind and of the earth God has given us when these things are exploited by hard working human beings.
May I say as an aside that it is under Christianity that the people of the world – all people, rich and poor alike – have prospered the most. Buddhism, with its eschatology of annihilation, has no future orientation to teach people to provide for future generations; Hinduism’s inflexible cast system cannot reward the hard worker with a greater measure of prosperity; and Islam seeks to impose the limitations of a seventh century culture on a modern economy, thus frustrating the enterprise of the hard-working. But in Christian cultures, resting as they do on the doctrines that this world is God’s gift to man and his stewardship and that man himself has been made in the image of the creative and working God, both creativity and enterprise have been fostered and richly rewarded.
Do these advances and does this prosperity come with their own problems? To be sure. The corrupting power of human sin can spoil the very best things and does. But no one should minimize the extraordinary things that human beings achieve when they put their minds to something and work hard. And if that is true for human beings in general, how much more for the children of the heavenly father, whose work is offered in gratitude to God and in a desire to serve him.
We Christians can fear an emphasis on hard work because it may seem to undermine a proper Christian dependence on God’s grace. If we make a point of teaching our children to work so as to achieve, will they continue to believe that at bottom they must receive their salvation and all of God’s blessings as gifts freely given to them and not as their own achievements? Can we insist on our children learning the connection between labor and prosperity while still giving all glory to God for a salvation they did not and could not earn?
The answer to that question should be crystal clear in every Christian’s mind. In the Bible there is never a conflict between faith and work, between receiving and achieving. “I can do all things,” Paul said, “through Christ who strengthens me.” God made us to work and he saves us to restore us to that life of meaningful and holy work that he made for us. Work is not the curse, as some have thought. Adam was a worker before sin entered the world. Pristine and sinless life was a hard-working life. The curse has made work toilsome but work itself is not the curse any more than marriage or family or the Sabbath – the other institutions of pre-fall human life – are the curse. And so everywhere in the Bible and in Christian history, faith has made workers of men and women. That is as it ought to be. Are we to think that faith would make us indolent, lazy, idle, and useless to others? No one would ever dare say so. Virtually any biblical commandment you can think of requires us to work. Try to love your neighbor as yourself without working; try to provide for your family – and he who doesn’t do that is worse than an infidel – without working; try even to run the race or fight the fight without working. “Work out your salvation…for it is God who is in you…”
God’s grace is given to us to make us the right kind of workers and to bless our labors and make them fruitful in the right way. So it is no surprise at all that, contrary to the popular imagination of harp playing and cloud sitting, that in the Bible heaven is a place of fruitful and useful work. We are going to be working forever and ever.
God made us with the capacity for useful and fruitful work because as a worker himself he loves the working life and because as our creator he made us with the capacity to achieve through work and because as our Savior he has restored us to the life we ought to live, to that wonderful, satisfying calling of fruitful work. God works all the time; he is never idle. Are we not to be like him? Eden before the fall was a place of work and of enjoying the fruits of labor. Heaven will be such a place as well. And so our lives in between; so must earth be.
And most of us, I think, have had the experience of how satisfying hard work can be! Hard workers are a much happier lot than the lazy, and Christians who work hard find an immense amount of satisfaction in their work, just as Proverbs teaches they will. As the poet has it:
Blest work! If thou dost bear God’s curse,
What must his blessing be!
The world as God made it is a place where hard work brings blessing. It is to trust the Lord and to honor him that we live our lives according to that truth and teach our children to do the same.