Here are notes of a sermon on work, based on relevant passages in the book of Proverbs.
Work is, of course, a major part of most people’s lives. For many people, work (in the form of paid employment) takes up half their waking hours. And then there’s all the other kinds of work that people do – housework, school-work, voluntary work and all the rest. Many people – especially women – work long and unsocial hours caring for children and families, and this is surely one of the most valuable kinds of work of all.
We are looking to see what the book of Proverbs has to say on this subject of work. Proverbs is a very practical book. Its pithy sayings teach us what God wants us to be in our everyday lives. As Derek Kidner points out, it is a book ‘which seldom takes you to church…It calls across to you in the street about some everyday matter, or points things out at home. Its function in Scripture is to put godliness into working clothes; to name the workplace and the home as spheres in which we are to acquit ourselves with credit to our Lord, and in which we are to look for his training.’
The message of Proverbs on the subject of work is really very simple: Don’t be a sluggard (don’t be an idle person, a lazybones).
But, before we move on, I know what you’re thinking.
(a) Some people are thinking: “I would just love to be able to work,” but you’re unable to do so, by reason of age, illness, disability, redundancy, or unemployment. Of course, this teaching of Proverbs is not addressed to those who can’t work, but to those to those who won’t.
(b) Others are thinking: “I hope you’re not going to stand there and tell me to work harder. I work too hard already. I don’t need a kick up the backside. What I need is more time, some way of coping with my stress, a nice long holiday.” I’m not going to argue with that either. I have no intention of putting the hard-pressed under even more pressure.
(c) Still others are thinking, “Everyone needs a break. It’s not healthy for anyone to work flat out all the time. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Again, I’m going to dispute that. The Bible itself teaches a balance of six days work to one day of rest. ‘Days of toil and hours of ease’. We’re not arguing here for a work, work, work mentality.
Anyway, having entered that trio of caveats, let’s take a look at this character of the sluggard.
1. The sluggard’s teacher
The sluggard is sent for a lesson, not to a mentor, therapist, or lifestyle guru, but to the humble ant. The ant described here is the harvester ant. It collects all kinds of seeds in the spring and early summer, and stores them in underground galleries. It has no supervisor or manager. No-one sets targets, deadlines or performance standards. It just does what ants do. It works, as if work were the most natural thing in the world.
The sluggard, however, doesn’t work. Finding work a struggle, he chooses to avoid it, rather than confront it. It’s not that he refuses to do it, he just wants little respite. ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest.’ And so ‘as a door turns on its hinges’ (26:14) he turns over and goes back to sleep, murmuring his favourite word, “later”.
Isn’t there a little bit of the sluggard in most of us? Even though we would agree that hard work is a good thing in theory, in practice we feel a pull in the opposite direction, a temptation to put off necessary but uncongenial tasks; in short, a tendency to procrastinate.
I’ve gone for a drink and sharpened my pencils,
Searched through my desk for forgotten utensils.
Reset my watch, adjusted my chair,
Loosened my tie and straightened my hair.
Filled my pen and tested the blotter
And gone for another drink of water
Adjusted the calendar, raised the blind
And sorted erasers of all different kinds.
Now down to work I can finally sit,
Oops, too late, it’s time to quit.
A recent online poll of 10,000 people found that the average American worker wastes over 2 hours per day, meaning that companies are spending over $700 billion on salaries for which they receive no apparent benefit. The main time-wasting activities included socialising, making personal phone calls, and inappropriate internet use, including responding to online polls.
The sluggard is clearly alive and well in some workplaces, if the following notice is anything to go by: ‘Some time between starting and finishing time, without infringing on lunch periods, coffee breaks, rest periods, story-telling, ticket-selling, holiday planning, and the rehashing of yesterday’s television programmes, we ask that each employee try to find some time for a work break. This may seem radical, but it might aid steady employment and assure regular pay cheques.’
More seriously, ‘The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.’ (Ghandi)
Ants do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. Let’s accept work as the most natural thing in the world and resist the temptation to procrastinate.
2. The sluggard’s excuses
Prov 26:13, ‘The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside!” or, “I will be murdered in the street!”‘
He even takes pride in how clever his excuses are, 26:16. ‘The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly.’
The sluggard plays a mean hand of ‘Why Don’t You – Yes But.’ Why didn’t you get the washing up done on time? I didn’t realise it was so late. Why didn’t you look at your watch? My watch is broken. Why don’t you get a new one? I can’t afford it. Why can’t you afford it? I havn’t got a job? Why havn’t you got a job? They fired me because I never got things done on time. But, of course, the sluggard’s indolence is not his fault: he suffers from ‘compulsive lateness syndrome.’ He complains of burn-out, but those who know him suspect that he was never alight to begin with.
With his capacity for self-deception, the sluggard simply doesn’t realise what he is doing, or, rather, what he is failing to do. It is at this point that he, and we, would benefit from the gift ‘to see oursels as others see us’.
A teenage boy was overheard talking on a payphone. “Hello, sir, I was just calling to see if you needed anyone to deliver newspapers. Oh, you have someone. Well, are you satisfied with him? Oh, you are! Thanks, I was was just checking.”
A friend, overhearing this conversation, said to the boy, “Sorry you didn’t get the job.”
“Oh, no,” said the boy, “I’ve already got the job. I was just calling to check up on myself.”
Why not get someone you trust to give you some honest feedback? “Do I do my fair share of the work around here? Are there certain things that seem to avoid? Could I make better use of my time?” Give it a try: they will be either amused or amazed that you even asked.
3. The sluggard’s destiny
Prov 6:11. ‘Poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.’ In the short term, he is content with his life of ease. In the long term, he pays a terrible price for his indolence.
15:19. ‘The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns.’ His jobs, some not started and the rest never finished, pile up around him and eventually he becomes utterly overwhelmed.
21:25. ‘The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work.’ Clearly, he dreams of a better life, but he won’t put in the necessary effort.
One of life’s best-kept secrets is that people are happier working hard than living a life of pampered idleness. When as a 16-year-old Callie Rogers won £1.9 on the lottery, she gave up her job in a supermarket and spent her days planning exotic holidays and splashing out on designer clothes. Now, two years later, she is back at work earning just above the minimum wage as a receptionist. Why? Because she has run out of money? No – because she was bored and unfulfilled. ‘Most people think she is mad,’ says a friend, ‘but for Callie the thought of going back to work is the most exciting thing she has done in months.’ (Daily Mail, 4/7/5)
Don’t forget that there there is only place where success comes before work – that’s the dictionary.
Procrastination, rationalisation, and eventual ruin is the life story of the sluggard. I think there is enough there to make each of us reflect on how we are using the time, abilities, and opportunities that have been given to us.
So to conclusion. The book of Proverbs provides witty comment and wise instruction across the whole spectrum of everyday life: friendship, the family, the use of the tongue, humility and pride, buying and selling, and, of course, work. But before offering instruction on any of these things, this book establishes an over-arching principle that should govern every aspect of our daily lives:- 1:7 ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.’
What does ‘the fear of the Lord’ mean? It means to living lives as constantly under God’s watchful and penetrating gaze. It means seeing him in everything we do. It means doing our work for his sake and then finding that even the most mundane tasks are transformed into acts of worship. This is the fear of the Lord. This is the beginning of wisdom.