Hard Work and Laziness

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A few weeks ago, when I knew I was down to speak on tonight's topic of work and laziness, I decided to send a randomly selected group of my friends a text message asking them this question: if you could ask God one question about your work what would it be? How would you answer that question? What one question would you ask God about your work? Obviously some of my friends thought it was a joke because one of the first replies I got said, 'Why can’t I have more holidays?' and almost immediately I got this one, 'When do I get to retire?'

Tonight we will be looking at what the book of Proverbs has to say about the subject of 'hard work and laziness'. Proverbs 24 from verse 30 to 34 says:

“I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;
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 observed 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 bandit and scarcity like an armed man.”

I want to look at these verses under 2 headings:



We don't know exactly who wrote this proverb. However, we are told how it came about. The writer was out one day and he sees a field – a vineyard to be exact. And it is in a total mess. Verse 31 describes it to us:

“thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruin.”

He knows who's field it is. It belongs to a man called the 'sluggard'. Of course that is not his real name, but it describes his character and he appears over and over again in the book of proverbs. The Sluggard. That word has rather an old-fashioned feel to it. Maybe if we met him today, we would call him the Slacker. My Dad would probably call him 'lazybones'. Verse 30 tells us that he 'lacks judgement' – in other words he doesn't see things as they really are.

The wise man watched him. And what he noticed about the Sluggard is that he has not maintained his field. We are not told how well he did in other areas of his life and that is not the point. As far as his vineyard is concerned, he has not finished what he has begun. He has not kept up with the weeding, and now thorns and other weeds have taken over the vineyard. And he has not repaired the damage to the stone walls and they have now fallen apart. He does not finish what he has begun.

Proverbs 26.15 illustrates this in a very vivid way:

“The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth”.

It's repeated again in Proverbs 19.24. The point is clear. He does not finish the job. The food is there, ready for the eating. His hand gets as far as the dish, but he cannot be bothered to move it from the dish to his mouth, even if it means he gets to eat. He does not finish the job. He has no perseverance, no endurance.

Other parts of Proverbs tell us more about the character of the Sluggard. Proverbs 6 verse 6 to 11 says:

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander, no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest -
and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.”

Notice the writer is again watching. This time he is watching not just the Sluggard, but also the Ant and as the two are contrasted we see again the flaws in the character of the Sluggard.

The Ant helps us as a model of hard work and discipline but in these verses we see that the Sluggard keeps putting things off. The Ant although it has no one to tell it what to do and when to do it just gets on with the work. It knows what is needed and when it is needed – so, verse 8, it stores provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. It never seems to rest. But the sluggard – well he is asleep, in bed. He is once again putting things off! That's not to say he never does anything – but as Proverbs 20.4 says:

“A sluggard does not plough in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.”

He does not do things in the time when they should be done – instead he puts them off, in this case maybe because of the cold weather. And although things may seem okay for a time while he procrastinates, later disaster will come.

When I was a student I notices 2 main ways of working in the house I shared at the time. One pattern involved doing as little as was demanded when it was necessary. Most of the time was spent putting off anything that could be put off for a later date. But of course soon, the deadline for that essay or assignment soon came round and those who followed that pattern of working found themselves frantic to get the work done – especially as they now discovered all the books on the subject were no longer in the library. They may have worked hard – some even stayed up all through the night to complete the work on time. But as Proverbs says – they were not being wise.

One of my other housemates however, consistently throughout the year used to get up and start work at 9am and end at 5pm. He got up whether he had a lecture or not and worked on his projects even if the deadline was some weeks away. I cannot remember him facing a massive panic to get an assignment or dissertation done. He also never worked on Sundays and gave priority to spending time reading God’s word, prayer and spending time with family and friends high priorities to him even at the most pressured of times. No surprise then that he has consistently demonstrated over the 12 years that I have known him an inner integrity and reliability.

What's your reaction to those two ways of working? At first I must admit my reaction was ‘Oh that would never work for me. I'm a pressure worker – I cannot work unless the deadline is tomorrow. It's how I'm built.’ But that betrays the third and final aspect of the character if the sluggard that is highlighted in proverbs: he won't face the truth that he is lazy.

The sluggard is often found making up stupid excuses for why he will not get up and work. So for example, in Proverbs 22.13 we read:

“The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside!’ or, ‘I will be murdered in the streets!’”

Similarly in Proverbs 26.13 we read:

“The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!’”

Of course if there really was a lion or other life-threatening outside your door, it would be a good reason to stay in bed and not go out! However, the point is that it is just an excuse! There is no lion outside. He is just making up excuses to cover up the fact that his real motive is just sheer laziness. He is a slacker. But he becomes convinced of his own excuse and will not face the truth that he is lazy. But the truth is obvious to everyone else.

So the wise man watches. And what does he see? He sees the sluggard who:

1. has not finished what he has begun;
2. keeps putting things off;
3. won't face the truth that he is lazy.

So much for the sluggard. What about us? Are we like that? We need to watch ourselves and ask honestly – Is there anything of that description in my character?

Now I know we live in a society that is characterised by busyness. If you ask someone in the UK ‘How are you?’ the most common answer is ‘I’m so busy.’ or ‘I’m so tired.’ Maybe you've even given an answer like that to someone recently! In many ways our society today is very different to society in the time that Proverbs was written. We live in what is pretty much a 24-hour 7-day a week society. In the UK we work some of the longest hours in Europe. I also know that we are a very busy church – it is amazing how many people give so freely and generously of their resources and especially their time in all the many groups and activities that we run. And so it can be tempting – in a busy society and a busy church – to wonder if the lessons of the sluggard and in this book have any relevance to us at all.

It does. You see although work and life patterns may be different now proverbs mainly concerns itself with our character rather than he specifics of our job. Our society may have changed, but human nature has not. We are no different to the people living in the days of Solomon when Proverbs was written down and inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is God’s word and so is timeless for all people. What Proverbs has to say applies to all of us – and not just to those who ‘work for pay’ but also to those who work without pay – including students, those looking for paid employment and the unwaged too. And so we need to examine ourselves and ask the question – what are the areas of my life where I am a sluggard?

Imagine your whole life is a field and each part of your life is a different patch in the field. What are the areas that are ‘overgrown with weeds’? I am almost certain that for all of us there are areas of our life where we are very active, highly motivated and hard working. However, what are the areas that are being neglected? I have found that a deeply challenging question as I have studied this part of God’s word.

- Maybe you are someone who works hard at work, but you neglect your relationship with your family. At work you take many initiatives and persevere and work hard, but with your family you don’t do more than is necessary – you leave that to your spouse.

- Or maybe you’ve grown weary of your job and although you started work with high standards and worked hard, you’ve now become bored and are happy to just let things tick over. You’re known in the office as someone who dodges responsibility and you abdicate rather than delegate responsibility. Everyone knows you'll do anything to dodge your fair share of the work.

- Maybe you're neglecting your health – you always take the easy option and eat food that are convenient, but not giving you a balanced diet. Or maybe you neglect exercise.

- Maybe it’s your spiritual life that you’re letting slip. You may be so busy with work, family and church, maybe even regularly leading bible studies and teaching. You may even excel in those areas, but you neglect your own relationship with God. It is a common temptation – and I know this all too well myself – to invest most in the areas of our lives that are seen and noticed by others and to neglect those areas that are not.

What are the areas of your life where you are like the sluggard?

So firstly, the wise man watches. But he does not stop there. Secondly, The Wise Man Learns.

The aim of all this teaching is not that we feel guilty, but that we learn from it. The wise man learned from what he saw. Proverbs 24.32:

“I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw:”

Look back at that passage from Proverbs 6 again: the Sluggard is also instructed to learn from what he sees. As he watches the ant, he is to learn from the ant. See verse 6:

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!”

And what is the lesson to be learned. See verses 10 and 11:

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest –
and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.”

That in a nutshell is the lesson to be learned. Notice that these two verses are repeated in the passage in chapter 24. The wise man learned the same lessons as he watched the ant at work and the sluggard in bed. And it is basically this: you reap what you sow.

It's worth saying right now that Proverbs presents us with the general way things work. They are not an exact science. Life can be complicated and the unexpected happens. But the lesson to be learned is this. ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’

That is not to say that everyone who is in poverty is lazy (as we saw last week), but those who are lazy will suffer the consequences of their choices. Notice that is addressed to those who will not work and not to those who cannot work – such as the ill or the elderly or those who are unemployed through no fault of their own. They are to be cared for by those who can and are working.

1. You will face disaster.

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.”

The effect of laziness is like a thief – you don’t notice it coming, but when it does it hits you hard and it robs you. But in a sense the Sluggard has robbed himself by wasting away his time, talents, and earning power. Precious hours, important opportunities, and years of productivity are wasted because he lacks enthusiasm and initiative. What began as a bad habit became a way of life and what was sown is what is reaped.

2. You will feel dissatisfied. Proverbs 13.4:

“The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.”

It is not as if those who are lazy do not want to do well in that area of their life. They may desire to get fitter, or do well in their job or have a healthy marriage or mend a broken relationship or become more Christ-like. But they are not diligent. They are not disciplined and so never achieve what they long for. And so they are deeply dissatisfied. The rule is simple: if you want things, you must work for them.

This is a general principle of life – and applies in whatever sphere we apply it in. In our work, our relationships, and our ministry – we should expect that if we are to see fruit in these areas, we need to work hard. That is a lesson we would do well to take to heart.

So for example, we talk often of our conviction that God is calling us to grow to be a church of 10,000 people in the next generation. 5,000 of those at our church and 5,000 in churches planted by us. We must never ever kid ourselves that we will see anything like that unless God works in us powerfully by his Holy Spirit. We must pray that God will bring that about.

However, we must be under no illusions that if that were to happen, it will involve huge amounts of hard work from all of us. That is the normal way that God works. As we pray and as we work hard, so he works. So we must not out off working hard, we must not give in when the going gets tough and we must not make up lame excuses to avoid hard work.

That is also true in our lives regarding our own spiritual growth.

The Bible is utterly clear – no one can ever be acceptable to God by working hard. Even the best we can offer to God is like filthy rags. The only way we can be acceptable in his sight is by trusting in the work of Jesus.

Jesus came to earth, and lives a sinless, perfect life. He then took on himself the punishment of God that be deserved for rejecting him. He took the punishment so we could stand before God forgiven and acceptable in his sight.

So does that mean we do not have to work hard spiritually? No – this principle applies here too. Even when we trust in Jesus and his death on our behalf on the cross – that does not mean we just sit back and let him do all the work. We are also to cooperate with his Holy Spirit in the work of transforming our hearts and minds until the day he comes back again.

We are called to work hard spirituality too. The work we do does not save us, but the principle is true that we reap what we sow. So how do we avoid ‘spiritual laziness’?

1. Don’t put things off. If you know the conviction of Holy Spirit in an area of your life then act now. Do something about it and do it now. Maybe for example you know that there is someone you need to seek forgiveness from, or offer forgiveness to so that your relationship can be renewed. Do not put it off.

The ultimate form of spiritual laziness is to put off trusting him. Maybe you know that you are not right in his sight, but you will not humble yourself and ask him to forgive you because of what Jesus has done. Well do not put it off – because more than anything else the results are eternal separation from him.

2. Show perseverance. It is easy when we see no instant results to give up. After battling with a sin, or realising that the Christian life is harder than you expected it is easy to feel like giving up. Look at the example of the sluggard. Learn from the example of the Ant. Keep running the race.

3. Let us not make excuses. We do not have to hide who we are from our Father. He knows the depth of our sin and yet he sent Jesus to die on the cross for us. As we see our sin – let us not make excuses. Come back to him, repent of our laziness. Don’t hide behind excuses. And trust in his promise to forgive you and change you.

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