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How To Find Meaning In Your Work

Proverbs About Work and Laziness

     The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about work. Sometimes, it’s teaching comes in stories – like stories about ants – rather than the “how to” directions we might find in business books today. At other times, its teaching comes in rather cryptic sayings that, when we first read them, we think we know what they mean – until we stop long enough to reflect on them. Let’s look at one of those sayings: Proverbs 14:23:

In all hard work there is something to be gained.
    But mere talk leads to impoverishment.

     How does that Proverb strike you? What does it say to you?

     What if you’re unemployed? Do you read that proverb and think, “I’d like to have some work – hard or otherwise. That Proverb doesn’t have anything to say to me?”

     Or, what if you’re underemployed – working hard at a job that doesn’t pay enough to support you and your family? You might wonder whether the proverb is true at all. You may think you aren’t gaining anything from all your hard work.

     Or, what if you’re the supervisor of lots of people and fairly well off financially? Maybe you think, “That’s right. I’m where I am because of my hard work!! These other people are poor because they don’t work as hard as I do.” Is that what the Bible is saying?

     Or, maybe you’re a student who lives at home and your parents keep telling you to go and do your homework – but you just want to keep watching YouTube? Is God saying anything to you in this verse?

     Or maybe you’re recently retired and you come to church and hear God say, “There is always benefit in hard work but mere talk leads to impoverishment.” Do you think? “There’s nothing in that verse for me! I’m tired of working hard. And I made enough money so I don’t have to work!” What’s God saying to you?

     I find that almost every Proverb hits each of us in a different way depending on our situation in life at the time we read it. So I ask, “What is God saying to you through Proverbs 14:23 today?”

     Here’s what I’ll do in this sermon. I’ll take this verse apart phrase by phrase to help you meditate on it:

Phrase 1: All Hard Work

     The Book of Proverbs is very positive about the role that work plays in the world. In fact, the whole Bible is positive about work. When we open the pages of Scripture, we find that God is working, creating, digging into dirt and making things. Then, from the very first descriptions of human beings, we find Adam being placed in the Garden of Eden not to be a philosopher or an academic, but to be a farmer‑‑"to till the ground and keep it." Remember that Moses, later on in the commandments, lays down exactly what proportion of our time ought to be spent in work. "Six days you shall labor," God says. I'm afraid some forget that that is as much a part of the commandment as "on the Sabbath you shall cease from work."

     Then, when we turn to the NT, we discover this same appreciation of daily work. It's significant that Jesus was a carpenter and that Paul, great intellectual that he was, saw it to be a good thing to practice his craft of tent‑making. He would say, "With my own hands I minister to meet needs." It was also Paul who talked in the strongest terms to be found in the Bible about the importance of doing our work when he came across church people in Thessalonica who, in their zeal for the second coming of Jesus, felt that the spiritual thing to do was to hand in their notices to their employers. "If any man will not work," said Paul, "neither will he eat!" You can't get much clearer than that. So the Bible believes in work ‑‑ from cover to cover.

     But, this phrase in Proverbs, “in all hard work”, takes this positive biblical teaching about work to a new level. The Hebrew word translated “work” (“aseb”) is a word that refers to more than just the work we do at our jobs. It has to do with going diligently after any kind of assignment that requires focus, discipline and even struggle to get it accomplished.

     With that in mind: What has God called you to do at this moment? I believe your work, your God-given calling right now is to listen carefully to determine what God has to say to you through his Word. How are you doing at that task? God says, “In all hard work there is something to be gained.”

     Every day of your life, there are many tasks that you have – some great and some seem small. Like what? This word for “hard work” certainly includes employment when you have it. Solon says you should go whole-heartedly at that job responsibility. You should be the best worker at the job that you can be (when you have a job). How did Paul put it in Ephesians 6? “Serve wholeheartedly as if you were working for the Lord, not just people.” But note this: The “hard work” Proverbs 14:23 calls for also includes things like being the hardest working student you can be when you are a student – being the most focused and friendliest welcomer you can be when you are greeting a stranger – being the best listener you can be when your task is to listen – being the best pray-er you can be when you are asked to pray.

     I want you to think of it this way: Whatever task you have each moment of each day in any place or situation is the task God has given you. View it as a calling from God. So, never give half an effort. Give it your all. Proverbs’ “hard work” calls for a way of life in which everything you do is done with diligence.

     The picture Proverbs uses to describe this way of life in 6:6-9 is an ant: “Think about the ant! Consider its ways and be wise. It has no commander. It has no leader or ruler. But it stores up its food in summer. It gathers its food at harvest time.”

   What should you learn about hard work from the ant? You should learn from the ant is that the motivation to be productive and live life well comes from within. You should learn from the ant to get up and get started with whatever you know must be done at the moment. The ant is Col. 3:23 in action, i.e., Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not just for people.”

     So, this 1st phrase in 14:23 phrase applies to everyone, every day and in every situation. It says that you should not just muddle through your days and live as if what you do doesn’t matter. Live each moment of life with focus – with energy. It’s teaching you that there is always something productive that you can do with your time and with your life. When you read this verse, you should see a call to waking up each day and asking, “God, what would you have me to do today? I may not be able to do what I might choose so I choose this: to be your representative. I’ll work hard and bring blessing to those who come across my path.”

Phrase 2: “In all hard work there is something to be gained.”

     When you engage in energetic, focused work, the Bible tells you there is always benefit. What kind of benefit comes from hard work? And who benefits? Some have read this verse and, without any careful reflection, have thought it promises, “If you work hard, you’ll get rich!” But does God say that?

     I want to say as clearly as I can that there usually is some personal benefit when you live every day fully alive and being as productive as you can. Every person who has lost his job and found it difficult to find new work will affirm that. Every person who has retired and lived a period of uncertainty – not quite knowing what to do next – will say “amen” to that. The gain from hard work is sometimes material – but not always. And, your work doesn’t have to be paid work – simply something that is productive and makes a difference. I imagine all of us know the incredible sense of satisfaction that comes when you have taken on a tough task and completed it. Jesus spoke of this profoundly when he told his disciples in John 4:34, “My food, i.e., my nourishment and fulfillment, is to do the will of my Father and to accomplish his work. Jesus was saying that when you work hard and complete something God has called you to do, you experience what the Jews called “shalom”, i.e., you have a deep sense of fulfillment in your soul.

     And, there is surely some material benefit that comes from hard work too, i.e., the one who works hard is more likely to have food to eat and a place to sleep than the on who doesn’t. There are times when that doesn’t happen. I know that. Jesus had times when he didn’t have a place to lay his head. Paul had times when he was in need. But, usually, hard work leads to your needs being provided. That’s what Prov. 28:19 is getting at when it says, “Those who work their land will have food. But those who chase fantasies will be very poor.” I am aware that there are some people who are lazy and who have food simply because they were born into a wealthy family or have cheated. But, the Bible strongly contends that the eventual outcome of any life of laziness is not good. It results in a wasted life and judgment when people stand before God.

     And I want you to notice this: The “something to be gained” that 14:23 talks about is not just for the one who works hard. When you live a life that is focused on making the most of every moment and accomplishing what God would have you accomplish in every task, others benefit too? I contend that when you live in keeping with this verse, everyone around you benefits.

     Your marriage and family will benefit when you work hard – usually financially but always relationally. If you got up this morning and you were focused on greeting your family members with warmth and kindness, you will find that they gain from that. When you get the coffee made, get out of the shower in time for them to get in, get out to the car in time for you to make it to church on time, and engage in meaningful conversation, everyone benefits.

   Your church will benefit too. When you get here on time ready to worship and learn from God’s Word, it will affect everything in the service – both for you and those around you. When you serve our children and students teaching them to the best of your ability, they will gain from it. The whole church will!

     Your workplace or those in your school will benefit from your hard work too. I think you know that. I don’t have to give illustrations of that. The way you live your life affects everyone whose life touches yours. “In all hard work, there is something to be gained.” It’s a profound truth.


Phrase 3: But mere talk…

     The most unforgettable verses in Proverbs may be its descriptions of lazy people. Read 26:13-16.

     Envision that picture painted in words: It’s of a lazy person who is not just tied to his bed but hinged to it‑‑like a door. He's so mentally weary that he can hardly muster enough energy to feed himself. Just listen to the feeble excuses he makes for getting nothing done. "There's a lion in the road!" If he would but be aware that he's a lazy person, there might be hope for him. But no, he's convinced that everybody else is wrong and that he is the one who is always right. I think that's what Solomon is getting at when he says, "He's wiser in his own eyes than seven people who answer discreetly." So he thinks that all he is not doing is perfectly reasonable and he's not even aware that he's being lazy. That's the problem with preaching a point like this. The workaholic will probably think he even has to work harder. And the real lazy one can't even conceive of the possibility that the message might be directed to him.

     If the hard working person is like an ant, then the lazy person is like a sloth. Sloths sleep from 15-18 hours a day. They are among the slowest moving mammals in the world. They hang upside down most of their lives. And they move so slowly that green algae grows on their fur. I want you to see what this kind of laziness is like:

   In 14:23, this way of life is described as being one of “mere talk”. Other Proverbs put it in other ways: 28:19they chase fantasies; 21:5 – they have no purpose or aim in life; 21:13 -- they ignore the cries of the poor; and 24:30they don’t have any sense and they don’t want to work. And the result of this is found in the last phrase of Proverbs 14:23. I don’t want any of those things to be said of you!

Phrase 4: But mere talk leads to impoverishment.

     So what is impoverished when a person is lazy? What goes lacking when you waste your days? We’ve already seen verses that say that this person ends up feeling dissatisfied – and that his life has been wasted. 6:11 points out that laziness will leave you in the same situation as if “someone had robbed you.” But, in reality, you have robbed yourself! More often than not, an unwillingness to work hard leads to poverty. At the end of the day, it is empty. God has made us with the great privilege of being able to affect things around us. We can live each day bringing blessing through our work.

     A study that appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that sitting and viewing television for an average of 6 hours a day can cut your life short by 5 years? The researchers claim that every hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes. By comparison, smoking a cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes. So, one hour of television equals 2 cigarettes. This last phrase in 14:23 might be translated, “Laziness empties you out!”

     But, unfortunately, a sluggard’s laziness injures other people too – and that’s even worse. Proverbs is clear in teaching that a sluggard impoverishes the entire family and community. What does it say?

  • Laziness brings shame upon the family. 10:5: A child who gathers crops in summer is wise. But a child who sleeps at harvest time brings shame to the family. God calls you to work ‑‑ not just for your own benefit but for the blessing it brings to your family and friends. Everyone here today knows what it’s like when the entire family is constantly waiting for a person who is always so tired, so late and so lethargic. It drains the life out of each day and each encounter.
  • Laziness irritates people at work and harms the business. 10:26: Those who don’t want to work hurt those they work for. They are like vinegar on the teeth or smoke in the eyes. In fact, as a very close friend, who is an excellent businessman, told me, “Greg when you do job review with a sluggard, he usually ends up evaluating the supervisor. When that happens, you’ll soon find you have to make a change. That person will poison everyone.” The reason this happens, of course, is that the lazy person has learned over the years to blame his lack of productivity on others. Like being an angry person or a lustful person, laziness becomes a way of life that is not easily changed.

     I think the most incisive verse about how laziness leads to impoverishment is 18:9: “Anyone who doesn’t want to work is like someone who destroys.” That's a very serious verse. It tells us that our laziness has an impact on the whole society around us. We wreck your world when you live idly.

     Let me draw this together: What I think Proverbs calls for is the way of life Paul talked about in Eph. 5:15-16: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.” Or in 1 Cor. 10:31 – “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Or Eph. 6:7: Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.

     Lake Avenue church people: Don’t ever just muddle through a day of your life! When it comes to having your life count, Proverbs teaches that every day you face a choice of going one of two ways. You can go 1) the way of laziness, of least resistance or 2) the way of energetic “kingdom effectiveness”. The way of least resistance, according to Proverbs is the way of procrastination. It is the way of staying in bed too long, missing assignments too often and always making excuses. It is the way of saying, “It doesn’t matter whether I work today or not.” “It doesn’t matter what time I show up at work.” “It doesn’t matter if I check out a few minutes early.” The way of laziness is the way of saying, “The boss isn’t around; nobody is seeing me.” It is always saying, “Tomorrow – maybe tomorrow.” It is the way of no plans, no forethought, and no enthusiasm. It’s a rotten and destructive way to live.

     The way that I’m calling “kingdom effectiveness” is very different. It is not workaholism. Even something as fulfilling as work can become an obsession. Work is a terrible god. And the Proverbs’ way of work calls for times of rest and vacation too – but that’s another sermon. What Proverbs is talking about is ta lifestyle of being willing to get up early to fulfill a commitment. It is the way of preparation, diligence, showing up for work on time, and giving 8 good hours of work for 8 hours pay. It’s doing what you’re Job Description says you should do -- and then doing what needs to be done even if you’re not told.

     Here’s the ironic thing about these two ways? The way of laziness looks easy but once you get on it, it turns into something unimaginably hard. And the way of kingdom effectiveness, the way God calls you to work, looks hard but once you are on that path, it turns out to be deeply fulfilling and life-giving.

   So, do something with the life that God has given you! If you are working, work with energy each day. If you are a student, go after those assignments with fervor each day. Whatever you have the opportunity to do, do it with all the might God gives you. Do it as if you were doing it for the Lord – for that’s exactly what you’ll be doing.

In all hard work there is something to be gained.
    But mere talk leads to impoverishment.

                                                                                                Proverbs 14:23