“Hard Work Never Killed Anybody”
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
August 19, 2018
Don’t let our culture drain the value from hard work.
I. Keep away from idleness (2nd Thessalonians 3:6)
II. Follow an example of hard work (2nd Thessalonians 3:7-9)
III. The value of hard work (2nd Thessalonians 3:10-13)
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.
10For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
Hard Work Never Killed Anybody
2nd Thessalonians 3:6-13
I guess most dads have phrases their kids remember. My dad did. When I grew up my bedroom was in the basement. My parents, three sisters, and grandmother occupied the upstairs rooms. The light in my room was on a three-way switch. You could flip it on and off from the top of the stairs as well as in the room itself. That’s what my dad did, every morning. He’d stand up there, flipping the switch and loudly singing reveille. Even on Saturdays, because Saturday morning I was his slave, helping him with yard work or house projects. Often on Saturday mornings he would remind me that “Hard work never killed anybody.” This statement wasn’t original to him, but he was a big fan of it.
Of course these days the culture pushes back on that statement, citing workaholism and stress as major contributors to many diseases, even deadly ones. There’s certainly some merit to that observation. My dad died at 66, and while it wasn’t directly a result of hard work, he certainly had a lot of it in his life, and a lot of stress. So to admit being a workaholic these days is kind of shameful.
It is possible, however, for the pendulum to swing too far the other way, to the place where it is our non-work choices that are killing us. I downloaded the latest Neilson survey of media consumption, and as bad as I was expecting it to be, it was worse. The average American spends more than 11 hours a day with media. Let that sink in. Assuming you don’t look at a screen while you’re asleep, how do you fit 11 hours of media into 24 hours and get anything else done? Even more shocking is the fact that adults in the older demographics spend six or more hours a day watching TV. Younger people spend a little less time on TV but more on other connected devices to make up for it. How can this be healthy? Excess media consumption is associated with everything from obesity to social disconnection to depression to suicide.
Leisure, it turns out, is no more healthy than workaholism. But it’s attractive. A few years ago Nicholas Eberstadt wrote a ground-breaking book called Men without Work, pointing out that nearly ten million men in America ages 25-54 have backed out of the labor force, backed out even of the unemployment figures, which only include those looking for work. These men aren’t. But it’s what they are doing with their time that I find fascinating. One article, in a journal called American Enterprise, had a lot to say on this subject. First, they assert that “There is a difference between leisure and idleness. Bluntly stated: leisure refines and elevates, while idleness corrupts and degrades.” Then, using the American Time Use Survey, the article compares working men, working women, unemployed men and those who have left the labor force.
“These non-workforce men gain an additional 2150 hours of free time each year. What is striking, however, is how little of this enormous dividend of extra free time is devoted to activities that would be of help to others in the family or the community. These men spend no more time on household duties or child care than employed men. They spend less time in religious and volunteer activities than any of the three other groups. They spend more time on personal care. And “socializing, relaxing and leisure” are akin to a full-time job for the un-working American male. They commit more time to “attending gambling establishments,” and “tobacco and drug use,” than either working men and women or unemployed men. And their media consumption more than fills up the hours each day freed by their lack of employment.
“To a distressing degree,” the report concludes “these men appear to have relinquished what we ordinarily think of as adult responsibilities: not only as breadwinners, but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens. Having freed themselves of such obligations, they fill their days instead with the full-bore pursuit of more immediate sources of gratification.”
That’s two snapshots of idleness, the rapidly increasing consumption of media across the entire population and the checking out of the workforce of ten million men between the ages of 25 and 64. How should we feel about this? The Apostle Paul has an answer. He devotes a long paragraph in 2nd Thessalonians to what he calls idleness and teaches us that we can stand out in this culture if we will not let it drain from us the value of hard work. Paul sets this up in 2nd Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
Verse 6 is a blunt command, telling the Thessalonians to stay away from those who have chosen a life of idleness. Paul gives this command with authority, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” so we know he means it seriously. The word idle is a broad word which Paul will apply narrowly to the issue of work. But its broader meaning is disorderly, unruly, out of line. Like the men who have withdrawn from the workforce in our day, these brothers were not only not working, but they were devoting themselves to negative pursuits.
This, Paul says, is “not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Remember, this is the second letter to the Thessalonians. In the first Paul told his readers to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” He taught them to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with them all.”
But apparently this patient admonishment hadn’t paid off. We’re not sure why there was a problem with idleness in Thessalonica. It may be some were convinced the Lord was coming so soon there was no need for any further work. It may be some were taking advantage of the new Christian ethic and depending on the few rich Christians to support them. Whatever the reason, this problem had continued, and Paul is saying “stop, just don’t have anything to do with these people. Don’t support them, don’t give benevolence, possibly even stop fellowshipping with them entirely.” It’s a strong command.
But what does idleness look like today? Trevin Wax has an essay called “Consume, Create or Cultivate: Your Choice.” I ran across this in May and the ideas still resonate. Wax says “Every day we have the choice to consume something, to create something, or to cultivate something. The pressures of this current cultural moment push us to consume, but the need of the day is for people to create or cultivate.” The problem of idleness, in Thessalonica and today, is consumption. Wax says consuming is “the passive reception of entertainment. As consumers, we spend time entertaining ourselves through television shows, movies, video games, and so on. We develop the idea that passive consumption is what we work for and live for. Surely we were made for more than powering through the work week so we can spend hours binge watching TV or gaming on the weekends! God has built into us a rhythm of work and rest, but it is a fallacy to believe that resting is always and only consumptive in nature. Restful activity can also be spent in cultivating and creating.”
We’ll come back to that after we’ve seen Paul’s example, verses 7 to 9. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. Paul is not shy about using himself as an example and telling his readers explicitly “imitate me.” He uses ‘us,’ possibly referring to himself and his companions, but he’s really talking about his own example. “We were not idle when we were with you.” We were not disruptive, unruly, or out of line in this area of working hard.
We did not accept charity, we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it. Now I’m not saying that it’s not ever right to accept support from others. Paul did so at times, and he was grateful for it. I’ve accepted support from all of you for the last 25 years. Almost every dime I’ve spent has come from your generosity. But, Paul says, I never took advantage of this as an excuse for idleness, specifically for laziness. He says “with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.”
Paul worked hard. The words ‘toil and labor’ speak for themselves. The words ‘night and day’ speak for themselves. Was all this labor tent-making? We know Paul was a tent-maker and supported himself that way at times. Did he do that day and night? I don’t think so. I think he’s talking about that plus ministry. He made tents and poured himself into the people of Thessalonica day and night. That’s the example he wants them to follow. Now I’m not Paul, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’ve tried hard to live up to the trust you place in me by your generosity. I may not always do well, but I work hard. From time to time over the years I’ve metered my work week, and I’ve never come up with less than 90 hours. I say this not to boast, but as Paul says, to give what I hope is an instructive example, possibly even one that can be imitated.
This is where the idea of cultivating and creating rather than consuming comes in. Many of my hours, and probably some of yours, are spent cultivating or creating. In my job I tend to call all those things ‘work,’ which is how the number of hours gets so high. You may think of only your paid job as work, and your unpaid hours as something else. The point is that in those hours all of us have the opportunity to turn from consuming to creating or cultivating
The most intriguing category is ‘cultivating,” Wax says. “As cultivators, we engage in something that makes a demand of us. It can be the development of the mind through reading and study, or cultivating a skill or hobby, or restoring a car, or playing a musical instrument, or working in the garden. The activity requires mental or physical exertion as we make something of the world we’ve been given. In turn, the activity develops us.” I’d add to this the cultivation of relationships, focusing on people as a non-consuming use of our time.
Part of the reason I like the word cultivation is that Adam was a gardener. He was put in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. What do you think of when you hear the word “gardener?” Maybe you think of an home gardener, someone with a green thumb, and a lovely front yard or a bountiful vegetable garden in the back. There is no paycheck for this kind of gardening, but there is a reward. There is satisfaction and there is some sustenance from the labor. Maybe you think of a ‘professional’ gardener, someone out of an English movie, hired by the Lord of the estate to tend his gardens and make them beautiful. Tending those formal gardens would be both his profession and his livelihood, and yet he was still only a steward for the Lord of the estate who owned them. We would say of both kinds of gardeners that they cultivated.
What kind of a gardener was Adam? Both kinds. On the one hand, the garden he tended was not his own. It belonged to the Lord of Creation, and both the Lord and Adam knew that he gardened as a steward under the Lord’s authority.
Yet there was also tremendous reward both in sustenance and in satisfaction for the effective execution of his duty. These twin characteristics of cultivation, stewardship and sustenance, are the first Biblical model of work. But at the fall Adam was cursed to be a farmer and not a gardener. Since then work has been characterized by drudgery and dissatisfaction, not by cultivation.
Andrew Peterson shows us cultivation as life in his great song “Planting Trees,” which, oddly enough, I’ve never done a video for. The first verse is about the actual planting and watering of maple trees. The second is about a man who goes to Africa to adopt a child. The third is about a mother’s role. Peterson says “She rises up as morning breaks. She moves among these rooms alone, before we wake. And her heart is so full; it overflows. She waters us with love and the children grow. So many years from now, long after we are gone, these trees will spread their branches out, and bless the dawn.” Mothers, and fathers too, are cultivators, stewards of God’s work in the lives of children.
In the same way Paul, in his toil and labor day and night is not just making tents. He’s cultivating believers. My 90 hours is not work in the drudgery sense. It’s cultivation. Cultivation of people by time spent in relationships. Cultivation of spiritual maturity by time spent in prayer and the Word. Cultivation of skills in writing and making videos and so forth. So imitate Paul. Work day and night. But don’t narrow your vision so much that work is only the drudgery of providing. Don’t narrow your vision so much that rest is only consumption. Recognize and embrace the parts of life that are cultivation and creating.
That kind of hard work has value. Verses 10-13 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
Paul goes back to his time with the Thessalonians and repeats a significant and memorable form of his teaching. We gave you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. This is blunt, this is catchy, and it must be taken seriously. He’s talking about drudgery part of work, the part that is done is simply provide. He’s saying to the idle, those who are only consuming, those who have left the workforce. “Get a job. Find some way to put bread on the table. Don’t sink into the morass of media. Don’t spend your nights playing video games and your days sleeping. Don’t live the rest of your life on the government dole. And don’t just talk about it. Do the full time job of getting a job, and do the hard work of providing for yourself and your family.”
Notice though, that he does qualify the statement in a very important way. He doesn’t say: if a man cannot work he should not eat. That would go against what God has taught about mercy. No, he says, if a man is not willing to work he should not eat. Circumstances are real. There are times, places, physical reasons why a certain individual just can’t get or do work of even the simplest kind. Paul isn’t talking about the person who is willing but genuinely unable. He’s talking about the person who is somewhat able but unwilling. The men not in the workforce include a huge number of men on disability and other government programs. I’m not saying all of these are fake, but many are taking advantage of a program to avoid work that might be difficult.
Paul elaborates in verse 11: “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness.” They are disorderly, they are out of line, because they are “not busy at work, they are busybodies.” The translation does a good job of capturing Paul’s play on two Greek words with the same root. These are people who could work on some level but they choose idleness and use it not to help the community but to disrupt it. Today these are people with the greater than 11 hour a day media habits. They would be the ones posting the inflammatory political comments on Facebook, cultivating a culture of incivility, or the rabid fanboys who spend their whole time shouting “Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Wars, Star Trek.”
Verse 12 “Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” This is how we stand out from our culture. We turn from rabid consumption to cultivation and even creation. The blessing of hard work is not so much that it blesses us, though it does, but that it blesses others. By it we provide for our loved ones; by it we care for others. One of my favorite verses on this subject is Ephesians 4:28 where Paul says “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” This isn’t just work, it’s work as cultivation, work for the sake of caring for others. Verse 13, “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.” We’re tempted to grow weary, to justify a retreat into consumption. But there is blessing in cultivating and creating, doing good.
I want to close with two things. The first is to talk a bit about creativity. I believe each one of us is made in the Lord’s image and that includes a creative impulse and ability. Trevin Wax says creating is “the invention of something that did not exist before. As creators, we leave something behind for others to enjoy and benefit from. We might compose a piece of music, write a poem or story or article, or paint a portrait.” He goes on though to expand the definition beyond what we would normally call “the arts” to include things like cooking, engineering, furniture making, mothering, fathering and grandparenting.
The line between creation and cultivation is kind of fuzzy, but when you try to cultivate something, from a child to a cantata in a new and beautiful way, that’s creation. The hours I spend preparing a sermon are both the work I have to do and the focus of a ton of creative thought as I try to answer the question “how can I communicate what God has said.” The hours Gail spent this spring growing a garden and then exploring the wonders of pickling are cultivation but also creation.
So the range of possibilities for your use of non-sleep non-maintenance time is very broad. There are really four things on this line. Providing, by which I mean the repetitive part of your job, whether that’s in a plant, an office or a dirty kitchen. At the other end is consumption. You can go straight across from the drudgery of providing to consumption, thinking that is your reward, and never touch creation or cultivation. But you can also see providing, cultivation and creation as the three positive parts of your toil and labor, day and night, and focus in different ways the whole of your life on these things, minimizing consumption for the sake of cultivating family and church and others and skill and spiritual maturity and for the sake of creating beauty and blessing. This is the positive contrast to our culture, but more importantly it is not drudgery. It is the positive alternative to the idleness that Paul commands you to avoid.