Wisdom for Work
I dropped out of school about halfway through year 11, and after doing pretty much nothing for 6 months I started working for my dad at the chook farm, and I hated it. It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that I worked with my dad, I just had a bad attitude towards work. In 1995 I did a discipleship course, and one of the weekends was all about a Christian work ethic. That weekend literally changed my life, I went from hating work, to being grateful for my job. The book of Proverbs has a lot of wisdom for work. God cares about how we work, and Proverbs is filled with warnings about laziness, as well as the importance and benefits of working hard.
1) Don’t be Lazy
So the first piece of wisdom Proverbs gives concerning work is don’t be lazy. The book of Proverbs has a word for such people, over and over it refers to ‘the sluggard.’ The word occurs nearly 20 times in Proverbs. Here’s a classic example, Proverbs 6:6-11, ‘6 Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! 7 It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, 8 yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. 9 How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? 10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— 11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (Prov 6:6-11; cf. 24:30-34; 26:13-16)’ A sluggard is someone who lies around and does as little as possible. They are pictured as half-asleep, always resting when they haven’t actually done any work. Proverbs says four things about lazy people.
a) Lazy people won’t begin things
Firstly, lazy people won’t begin things. The questions there in verse 9, ‘How long will you lie there? When will you get up from your sleep?’ imply that they just aren’t motivated to get out of bed and start work. He doesn’t say he won’t work, but he just puts it off until he’s had a little more sleep, a little more slumber, just a little more rest. Notice that it’s always just a ‘little’ more each time. As far as he’s concerned he’s not that lazy, he just needs a ‘little’ more rest. The problem is that all these little bits add up to a lot, to the point that he never begins anything. Another proverb says, ‘14 As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed. (Prov 26:14)’
b) Lazy people won’t finish things
Secondly, lazy people never finish things. If they do finally start something the effort is too much and they give up on it. Proverbs paints some brilliant pictures, and this one’s a classic. Proverbs 19:24, ‘24 The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth! (Prov 19:24)’ Talk about dramatic overstatement, this guy is so lazy he can’t even feed himself. Oh that food looks so good, I just got to eat it… nope, too much effort! Here’s another one, ‘27 The lazy man does not roast his game… (Prov 12:27a)’ He’s so lazy he won’t even cook his food. Lazy people don’t finish things.
c) Lazy people won’t face things
Thirdly, lazy people won’t face things. Lazy people make excuses for their inactivity. And again Proverbs uses awesome overstatement. Proverbs 22:13, ‘13 The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside!” or, “I will be murdered in the streets!” (Prov 22:13)’ Could you imagine? Sorry I can’t come into work today, I might get eaten by a lion. Or, sorry it’s unsafe outside, so I’m just going to stay home. Another proverbs says, ‘4 A sluggard does not plow in season... (Prov 20:4a)’ In the Hebrew it’s literally, ‘In winter a sluggard won’t work!’ And it’s not just because they’re lazy, but because it’s too cold, they don’t want to face hardship, they don’t want to face the cold. Basically Proverbs paints lazy people as soft. They are sooks who won’t face anything that might make life a bit difficult.
d) The consequences of laziness
Lazy people won’t start things, they won’t finish things, they won’t face things, and there are consequences.
i) Lazy people annoy others
Firstly, lazy people annoy others. You can’t depend on them, you can’t rely on them, you can’t trust them. Again Proverbs puts it so well, Proverbs 10:26, ‘26 As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him. (Prov 10:26)’ Or to put it another way, ‘I’d prefer to drink vinegar than employ a lazy person.’ And I’m sure you know what it feels like when you get smoke in your eyes, that’s preferable to employing a lazy person. Proverbs puts laziness right up there with foolishness, it’s a very negative and annoying quality.
ii) Lazy people won’t get ahead in life
Secondly, lazy people won’t get ahead in life. According to Proverbs ‘19 The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns... (Prov 15:19a)’ Because they don’t start things, or finish things, or face things their lives become a tangled mess. Laziness doesn’t simply life, it often complicates it. Like we read earlier laziness results in poverty. In fact, ‘24 …laziness ends in slave labour. (Prov 12:24b)’ Lazy people won’t get ahead in life, they just go backward.
iii) Lazy people come to a bad end
Thirdly, lazy people come to a bad end. Proverbs 21:25, ‘25 The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work. (Prov 21:25)’ And that might seem a little extreme, but the statistics suggest otherwise. People who don’t work, who aren’t active, who spend all their time in bed, have a poor life expectancy. Our bodies were made for work and activity.
This morning I want to ask you: are you lazy? If someone asked me that I’d probably get a little defensive. But maybe you lack motivation – you aren’t good at starting things? Or maybe you don’t finish what you start? Or maybe you are afraid to face certain things in life and so you avoid them? Maybe other people might not think you’re lazy, but my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will convict you of where you could grow in this area.
2) Work Hard
Later we’re going to look at a theology of work and the cure for laziness, but firstly let’s look at the alternative. And the alternative is to work hard. Proverbs talks about three ways that we ought to work.
a) Work Diligently
Firstly, we are to work diligently. Proverbs 10:4 contrasts lazy hands with diligent hands. It says, ‘4 Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. (Prov 10:4)’ This idea that hard work results in wealth is all through the book of Proverbs. For example, ‘5 The plans of the diligent lead to profit… (Prov 21:5a)’ And ‘23 All hard work brings a profit... (Prov 14:23a)’ And ‘4 …the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied. (Prov 13:4b)’ And ‘19 He who works his land will have abundant food... (Prov 28:19)’ We’re going to examine that relationship between hard work and wealth in a moment, but for now I just want to focus on the idea of diligence. To work diligently means that we are conscientious in our work, we think through it carefully, and we do it thoroughly. Being diligent means we are thoughtful in how we do our work, we plan well; we do it efficiently, we work hard, and we are thorough, we complete our work, all of it. To work diligently means we work hard.
b) Work Skilfully
Secondly, we are to work skilfully. Proverbs 22:29 says, ‘29 Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men. (Prov 22:29)’ A man who works skilfully not only does his work well and quickly, but the end result produces a positive reaction. Their work is so good that people hear about it, in fact kings will hear about it and employ them. The quickest way to work up the corporate rung isn’t to stab people in the back, but to work skilfully, to do your job well. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, ‘21 …Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things… (Mt 25:21)’ To work hard means to do your best.
c) Work Honestly
Thirdly, we are to work honestly. Proverbs mentions over and over how God hates dishonest business practices. For example, Proverbs 11:1, ‘1 The Lord abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight. (Prov 11:1; cf. 10:9; 11:3; 16:11; 20:10,23)’ I’ve also listed five other verses that pretty much say the same thing. The easiest way to make a quick profit is to change your weights. They think they’re paying $10 a kilo, but in reality they’re paying $10 for half a kilo. That’s dishonest and God hates dodgy business practices. Another example is Proverbs 22:28, ‘28 Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your forefathers. (Prov 22:28; cf. 23:10)’ The quickest way to expand your farm is to steal your neighbours land. God says, ‘17 Cursed is the man who moves his neighbor’s boundary stone. (Dt 27:17)’ God puts dodgy business practices right up there with idolatry, incest and murder. God cares about good business ethics. God cares about our honesty, even at work.
So I want to ask you this morning: are you a hard worker? Do you work diligently? Do you work skilfully? Are you honest? If I was to ask your employer what they thought of your work how would they respond? As Christians our work ethic should be an example in our society. Imagine if local businesses would say, ‘Oh you go to Westside, I’d hire you in a minute, I’ve only heard great things about their work ethic.’ Do you work hard?
3) Work and Wealth
I raised earlier the relationship between hard work and wealth, so let’s take a look at that for a minute. Often this relationship gets abused, if you work hard you will be wealthy, if you don’t work hard you will be poor. But we need to remember that proverbs are generalisations, not universal truths. So what does Proverbs teach us about work and wealth? It teaches us 7 things, and you need to know all 7 to get the full picture.
a) God blesses righteousness with wealth
Firstly, God blesses righteousness with wealth. Proverbs 22:4 says, ‘4 Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life. (Prov 22:4)’ Proverbs is clear, generally if you honour God, if you fear the Lord, God will bless you, and he doesn’t just give us spiritual blessings, but also material blessings. Proverbs 10:22 says, ‘22 The blessing of the Lord brings wealth… (Prov 10:22a)’ God blesses those who honour him with wealth.
b) Foolish behaviour leads to poverty
On the flip side, Proverbs teaches that foolish behaviour leads to poverty. As we read earlier, while diligent hands bring wealth, ‘4 Lazy hands make a man poor... (Prov 10:4a; cf. 6:11; 24:34)’ But it’s not just laziness that leads to poverty, but also chasing after fantasies (28:19), making hasty decisions (21:5), and being ungenerous (11:24; 28:22). If you’re not wise with your wealth you will loose it.
c) Poverty is the result of injustice and oppression
However, Proverbs also recognizes that poverty can also be the result of injustice and oppression. Proverbs 13:23 says, ‘23 A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away. (Prov 13:23)’ Some people are poor because they are lazy and foolish, but others are poor because they are victims of injustice, because they are oppressed by the rich.
d) Those with wealth must be generous
Next, Proverbs teaches us that those with wealth are to be generous. For example, ‘27 He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses. (Prov 28:27)’ And again, ‘7 The righteous care about justice for the poor… (Prov 29:7a)’ The rich have a responsibility towards the poor. In fact, the New Testament suggests that God gives us wealth so that we can be generous to those in need (2 Cor 9:11).
e) Wisdom is better than wealth
However, when it comes to the crunch Proverbs teaches that wisdom is better than wealth. For example, ‘16 It is better to get wisdom than gold… (Prov 16:16a NCV)’ And, ‘6 Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse. (Prov 28:6)’ That implies that sometimes you will have to make a choice between wisdom and wealth, between what is right and what will make you rich.
g) Wealth has limited value
Finally, Proverbs teaches that wealth has limited value. For example, ‘4 Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death. (Prov 11:4)’ Wealth can’t save you. That’s why Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven (Mt 6:19-20), and why we shouldn’t pursue wealth, but instead seek God’s Kingdom and his righteousness (Mt 6:25-33). In fact, Proverbs says, ‘4 Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. (Prov 23:4)’ And the reason is because wealth doesn’t last, it’s here one day and gone the next. Elsewhere, Proverbs says, ‘8 …give me neither poverty nor riches... 9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Prov 30:8b-9)’ The danger of wealth is that it so easily becomes an idol. And the danger of poverty is that it leads to desperation. Instead, we should ask God for what we need, we should be content with what we have.
We need to be so careful when we deal with the relationship between work and wealth. Sometimes we may be tempted to think that the wealthy must be blessed by God, when the opposite might be true, they have gained their wealth in sinful ways. Sometimes we may think the poor are poor because they are lazy, when in fact they are victims of injustice. But God does reward those who work hard and who honour him, and poverty is also the result of laziness. But probably the most important thing to remember is that as Christians we are to pursue righteousness rather than wealth, and if you are wealthy than you also ought to be generous.
4) Work and God
When it comes to wisdom and work the book of Proverbs is very clear, don’t be lazy, instead work hard, be diligent, work skilfully and be honest. But this isn’t just secular advice, it’s advice that is founded on a biblical theology of work. This morning I want to finish by looking at the relationship between work and God.
a) God Works
The first thing that we need to understand to form a biblical theology of work, is that God works. The Bible starts with a picture of God working. According to Genesis 2, ‘2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. (Gen 2:2)’ In fact, God’s work in creation becomes the model for our work week. In the Fourth Commandment we’re told, ‘9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but [on] the seventh day… you shall not do any work… 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth… but he rested on the seventh day. (Ex 20:9-11)’ Not only does God work, he created us to work. After God created Adam we read, ‘15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Gen 2:15)’ God created us in his image, and a part of what that means is that like God works so to are we created to work. Unfortunately, because of our rebellion against God our work became a chore instead of a joy. But even then we see God working to restore our broken relationship with him. God is still at work in our world. Jesus says, ‘17 …My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working. (Jn 5:17)’ In fact, God’s greatest work is seen nowhere better than in Jesus Christ. Jesus said that what gave him the most fulfilment was, ‘34 …to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (Jn 4:34b)’ Later Jesus says, ‘4 I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. (Jn 17:4)’ And that’s exactly what Jesus did on the cross, he did his Father’s will and he finished the work of redemption. That’s why on the cross Jesus said, ‘30 …It is finished. (Jn 19:30b)’ Jesus completed God’s work of salvation. Because Jesus completed his work we can know forgiveness and new life. Because Jesus completed his work we have been reconciled with God. And the best work that we can do is to put our faith in Jesus. Jesus says, ‘29 …The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. (Jn 6:29)’ What matters first and foremost is not our work, but believing in the work of Christ on the cross. Without faith in Jesus all our work will amount to absolutely nothing, it’s ‘meaningless’ as Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes (Ecc 2:17). Our view of work must be founded on the fact that God works, that he worked to create this world, and that he works to redeem it, specifically in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
b) God Works through us
Secondly, God works through us. God uses you and me to continue his work in this world. God works through us in three ways.
i) We are His hands
Firstly, God works through us in practical ways. In a sense we are his hands. According to Jesus when we serve the poor and those in need we are doing the Lord’s work. The Bible says, ‘10 …we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works… (Eph 2:10)’ When we help the poor, or the sick, or those in need we are doing the Lord’s work. Jesus says even when we give a glass of water in his name we are serving him. God is working through us when we share his love in practical ways.
ii) We are His Ambassadors
Secondly, God works through us to achieve his redemptive purposes. By that I mean that God uses us to share the gospel and bring people to salvation. We are his ambassadors. Paul talks about how we are called to tell people that they need to be reconciled with God through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:18-20). We can’t make people believe in Jesus, only the Holy Spirit can do that work (2 Thess 2:13), but God uses us to build his kingdom, whether that’s sharing the gospel or encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul says, ‘58 …Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58)’
iii) We are to work for Him
Finally, we are to do all our work for God. Proverbs 16:3 says, ‘3 Commit to the Lord whatever you do... (Prov 16:3a)’ And Paul echoes that same idea when he says, ‘23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. (Col 3:23)’ The person we are really serving, who we are really working for, is God. We work diligently because we are so grateful for Christ’s work on our behalf. We work skilfully, because God gave us his best in Christ’ Jesus. We work honestly, because we want to please God.
We avoid laziness because just as Jesus gave us his life on the cross, so we want to give our lives to him as a sacrifice of praise. Because Jesus completed the work of redemption on the cross, we give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord. So if you struggle with laziness, in any form, remember that Jesus gave everything in order to save you. And may Jesus’ example on the cross encourage you to work hard for the Lord, to be diligent, and skilful and honest. Do the work of the Lord – help the needy, proclaim the gospel, and work with all your heart, because you’re working for the Lord, not just for men, and your work for the Lord isn’t in vain, it has eternal significance. Amen.