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“Diligence is a Virtue”

Proverbs 12:24 and others
Bob DeGray
October 28, 2018

Key Sentence

Diligence is a virtue to be cultivated and sloth a vice to be avoided.


I. Outcomes of Diligence and Sloth
II. Attitudes of Diligence and Sloth


Last week David Jackson reminded us of the critical importance of rest, coming to Jesus for rest, having a rhythm of rest to your days, weeks, months and years. At that same moment Gail and I were finishing a wonderful ten days of rest, mostly in West Texas, finding the solace for our souls that Jesus promised and King David wrote about in Psalm 23 and David talked about. But rest implies labor. If all you ever did was rest, the Scripture would not use the word rest for your activity. Proverbs would use the word sloth. Modern English would use the word laziness. Laziness is the opposite of diligence. But rest is the complement of diligence. Jesus intends us to live in a healthy cycle of work and rest-in-him, but he does not intend for us to fall into sloth or laziness.

Today we’re going to explore that distinction. We start, though, with one of my favorite comic strips, Dilbert. Author Scott Adams exaggerates the absurdity of workplaces where real work is thwarted by management and co-workers, while laziness, incompetence and blame-shifting triumph. Where does he get ideas like that? Probably from a world filled with incompetence, laziness and blame shifting. But many in our culture would say there is greater danger in the corresponding virtues of diligence, hard work and responsibility. Diligence, they say, is a bad remnant of the Protestant work ethic. It leads to the dangerous disease of workaholism. You’ll be happier if you slow down to smell the roses, relax and recreate, keep a balance between work and play.

There is truth in that, as David shared, but not the whole truth. We are all tempted at times not to enjoy rest, creativity or cultivation, but to avoid work. Some give in to that temptation often. It’s those people Proverbs challenges by saying a lot about the benefits of diligence and the consequences of sloth, with very little balancing material on rest or relaxation. Today, since it’s Proverbs we’re studying, we’re going to be unbalanced too. The Bible teaches both sides, but the message we’ll hear today is that diligence is a virtue to be cultivated, and sloth a vice to be avoided. That’s clear in our key verse for this morning, Proverbs 12:24 “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” You know how in high school and college they always say “Seniors Rule!” Scott Adams in Dilbert says “Dogbert Rules!” Proverbs says “Diligence Rules” In other word those who are diligent end up with influence, while those who are lazy end up in servitude and hopelessness. This implies managers, executives, and company presidents reach those positions because diligence and competence usually pay off. It’s not universal, but it’s usually true. Some people in this room have benefited from that truth.

On the other hand, there have been a few gifted young people at Trinity over the years who could never quite get the whole discipline of daily work or school. In general they’ve not done real well in life or in godliness.

So the theory here in Proverbs is that diligence really pays off in the practical arena of life. Many verses show the cause/effect relationship. For example, Proverbs 10:4 “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 5He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.” In Old Testament cultures working with your hands, in farm work or a craft, was the common way make a living. But the principle applies to us: work hard, get ahead; slack off, fall behind. Thus a father will be proud of his son who works hard and discouraged by a son who sleeps the summer away or lives in his bedroom playing video games.

The benefits of diligence are portrayed in Proverbs using primarily agricultural images. Proverbs 12:11 “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” Proverbs 28:19 is similar, but I love the wording “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.” Plenty is promised to the person who works his land, that is, the person who is diligent. But there is plenty of poverty for the one who “follows worthless pursuits” or “chases fantasies.” You’ve probably known somebody who has gotten stuck chasing fantasies. “This is bound to work. I know I’ve struck out before. This is a real winner. I just need a little money to get started.” We see or hear the ads they fall for: “You can have all that stuff you want: freedom, money, nice things. And you can do it working fifteen minutes a week, sitting at the kitchen table in your underwear.” Some people fall for that. They must have never taken seriously the phrase “if it seems too good to be true it probably is.”

The key, Proverbs says, is diligence. In general the person who works hard succeeds. Thomas Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. It’s true spiritually as well. Proverbs 13:4 says “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” The Hebrew word for ‘craves’ is used in the tenth commandment: you shall not ‘covet’; you shall not crave. The lazy person hungers for what he does not have and ends up with nothing. But in the second half of the verse the soul of the diligent is fat. The diligent person doesn’t desire what is not morally his, because God has met his soul needs. This is a great promise. If you pursue the things of God with diligence, God will make your soul fat. It applies to far more than just money or work, but to sex, power, security, and stuff. It reminds us of Jesus’ promise in Matthew: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

One more verse. Remember we’re simply showing that Proverbs considers diligence a virtue. It links positive consequences to diligence, negative ones to laziness or sloth. Proverbs 15:19 “The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a level highway.” Here God places obstacles in the path the sluggard is trying to take, paths of unrighteousness. In this verse the opposite of being lazy is not diligence but righteousness. Of course, the sluggard thinks he sees obstacles on the path to righteousness. He has thorns wherever he looks. I’ve known many who see only thorns. At times I do.

Before we begin analyzing verses that will help us cultivate an attitude of diligence I want to spend a moment thinking about where diligence is needed. The verses so far might imply that diligence is only needed in work, whether in the workplace or in a home or school. But we’d be wrong to limit diligence that way. We also need this, for example, in relationships. Husbands, are you diligent in showing practical love to your wife? Fathers, are you diligent in investing time and energy in your children? Wives, are you diligent in caring for your family? Children, are you diligent in respecting and obeying your parents? All relationships take work, whether family, extended family, fellow believers, co-workers or neighbors. Many of us, as introverts, seek time alone to recharge. That’s OK, but not as an excuse to neglect relationships and allow them to wither. It takes diligence to care for people God has placed around us.

Consider also diligence in spiritual things. In the verse just quoted Jesus said “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” All of Scripture expects us to be pursuing God by diligent study of his Word and prayer. It’s far too easy to get lazy in this area, to think the habit of making time for Bible meditation and prayer is unnecessary or unworkable for you. But your relationship with God needs to be as diligently pursued as any other, and the practical link between spiritual discipline and spiritual prosperity is, if anything, stronger than the one between working hard and workplace success.

Here’s another area: finances. Too many people neglect finances, hoping something will work out but ending up in debt, enslaved to credit. It happens to Christians as much as to others. But diligence in budgeting, self-control in spending, consistency in paying bills, care in investing, these things pay off. The diligent are usually more financially secure than those who neglect these matters. As someone who allowed some kinds of financial neglect I testify to this.

So diligent at work, in relationships, in our spiritual lives, in finances. You could add to this list. But the other question we need to answer from Proverbs is “What does diligence look like?’ What attitudes do I need to have if I’m going to be diligent? What attitudes do I need to avoid if I’m going to avoid sloth?”

I’m going to limit myself to five pairs of attitudes, positive versus negative. First, diligence means having initiative, being a self-starter. The sluggard is a slug, moving slowly if at all and characterized by sleepiness. Some of the most famous verses in Proverbs are on this subject. “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. 7Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, 8she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” The key point here isn’t that ants work hard, it’s that they work at their own initiative. They require no commander or overseer or ruler. If you scan job websites you’ll see that employers are looking for ‘self starters’, people who will take initiative. That’s what God wants too, not only in our work, but in our families, our finances, and maybe especially in our spiritual lives.

By contrast, in Proverbs 6:9-11 we find the sluggard: “How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? 10A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 11and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” The only initiative sloth takes is to pursue sloth. I’m not saying we shouldn’t get rest. I slept longer on our trip than I have in years. But the sluggard goes beyond the need to sleep and makes it his life’s work. “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” In Dilbert, Wally exemplifies this. The pointy-haired boss says “Hey, what are you doing? Are you sleeping?” “No . . uh, I was brainstorming.” “What idea did you come up with.” Diligence requires initiative. It starts with the simple initiative to get out of bed in the morning.

A second principle is found in Proverbs 14:23 “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” Isn’t that good? We’re called to embrace hard work and avoid mere talk. The Hebrew word implies but burdensome toil, work that takes it out of you physically and emotionally. In other contexts, this Hebrew word is even translated sorrow. This is draining labor that takes us right up to the edge. Such labor, the Proverb says, is rewarded.

The contrast is mere talk. Here the underlying Hebrew literally means ‘lip talk,’ the empty talk of con-men and sales people. Wally has made a science out of it: “someone should take care of that problem!” “You could take care of it.” “I can’t do everything.” “You don’t do anything.” “Not a single thing.” “It’s my job to angrily identify problems.” But it goes deeper than that. Empty talk is evidence of a corrupt and sinful heart: empty promises, empty boasts, insincere repentance, even lies. We fool others and even try to fool ourselves with false sincerity. Paul teaches us in Ephesians to “let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Empty talk does not build others up and it does not accomplish God’s goals for our lives or in the lives of others. In fact, Proverbs sees our need for hard work as right and good: we’re to be hungry rather than satiated. Proverbs 16:26 “A worker’s appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on.” A hunger to provide for yourself and your family is good. A hunger to care for them is good. A desire for morally right things, such as spiritual maturity or righteousness is very good. These things drive us on toward diligence and godliness. Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be satisfied.” Godly hungers work for us, in the workplace, in relationships and in spiritual things.

In contrast, consider Proverbs 19:24 “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth.” Don’t ever say God has no sense of humor. This is a funny image, someone so lazy they can’t even bring the food to their mouth. The problem is not lack of abundance - somehow this sluggard is provided for, maybe by an indulgent family, or a government handout. He’s got food to bring to his mouth, but it’s just not worth it. The sluggard loses all desire. He doesn’t want to do right. He doesn’t even strongly want to do wrong. Nothing interests him. Sometimes this is called Marie Antoinette’s disease. Living in unparalleled luxury, she complained “nothing tastes.” I admit I’ve felt that way. The two verses taken together show me that having something I desire, a goal, something to pull me on is the path of godliness.

So diligence is taking initiative to work hard for godly desires. With a plan. Proverbs 21:5 “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” The diligent person plans. The Theological Wordbook says “The most frequent use is of ‘planning, devising.’ The Israelites, for instance, are warned not to "devise" evil against a brother. In Genesis Joseph says his brothers planned evil in their earlier treatment of him, but God planned it for good.” Like many of us, Dilbert plans, but not necessarily for good: “There. I've organized all my tasks into ‘a,’ ‘b,’ and ‘c’ priorities. The ‘a’ priorities aren’t even worth doing. ‘b’ priority stuff would probably get me in trouble.” “Are you done with the stapler oil?” “Thank goodness for ‘c’ priorites.” The same word means ‘to invent, to be creative.’ It is said of Bezaleel, the lead builder of the tabernacle, that his work was inventing or devising tabernacle decorations using gold, silver, and brass. A final meaning is ‘accounting’ or ‘bookkeeping.’ In the Law the word is used several times of the accounting needed to figure the value of property and produce. The plans we are expected to devise have the flavor both of being inventive and of being concrete, having real numbers attached to them. The diligent person is concrete and creative about what he is going to do, whether in the workplace, the family, his finances, or even his spiritual life.

Does that describe you? Or are you what Proverbs would call ‘hasty’? Proverbs 21:5 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty. The person who is not diligent will not plan. If they decide to do something they do it right now, with no forethought and with no regard to whatever pieces might need to be in place in order to get it right. Years ago I almost fell into the hasty trap when I took my Honda Accord to Aamco with a transmission problem. The owner there quickly and slickly decided I needed a rebuild, which would cost $1300. If I had been as hasty as I wanted to be, I would have done it just to get it over with. Instead I got a second opinion - and got the car fixed for $124. Acting in haste has a real cost.

One last attitude: one of my favorite verses, Proverbs 22:13 “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’ Is there a lion outside? No. Is death likely? No. The sluggard just doesn’t want to do the next thing and makes excuse to avoid it. In our family we used to call this ‘Responsibility Deficit Syndrome,’ RDS, unwillingness to take responsibility for behavior. In our culture RDS is mainly seen in a victim mentality. My attitudes and behaviors are excused by my circumstances. “I’m not responsible for that. I was hurt as a child. I’m a victim of my upbringing. I’m chemically wired to behave that way.” We turn circumstances, which may in fact be difficult and allow them to distract us, become excuses and to justify any behavior, even behavior that Scripture calls sin. Responsibility Deficit Syndrome majors on blame-shifting. Wally from Dilbert is also a master of this:

“My cubicle is surrounded by loud idiots who make it impossible for me to concentrate on my work.” “Wally, did you create a presentation on why you couldn't do the presentation you're supposed to be doing?” “Yes.” “Wouldn't it have been just as easy to create the actual presentation?” “I’m hoping to use this one more than once.” The alternative to Responsibility Deficit Syndrome is clearly to take responsibility for what God wants you to do diligently. One verse that implies this is Proverbs 24:27 “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.” There is prioritizing implied here, but the verse teaches you to be responsible for your stuff, willing to go out and take care of priority needs in the work arena, then responsible to come home and do what needs to be done there. The diligent person takes responsibility and doesn’t try to get out of it. And the truly diligent person doesn’t avoid diligence in one area, like family or spiritual life, by being hyper-diligent or workaholic in another area. The diligent person is willing to take responsibility for what God wants him to do with his work, in his relationships, with his finances, and with his own spiritual life, both as an individual and as part of a church.

There is a proverb not found in Proverbs that says ‘many hands make light work.’ That’s true in the life of the church. We’ve seen it as the new Christian Education Committee and the new Facility Task Force and the new Small Groups have formed up this fall. The Lord is allowing us to do far more than we’ve been doing because many people are helping. But I want to encourage all of us, as we transition from starting to sustaining these things, to be diligent. Paul might have been reading Proverbs and talking to our church when he said “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.” God is at work in our church, but his work involves our diligence.

So what have we seen? Diligence is a biblical virtue. It needs to be balanced with the Biblical virtues of rest and dependence and trust, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. In fact, in Proverbs, it is one of the most important virtues, and its opposite is one of the most notable sins. We need to examine ourselves for diligence in work, marriage, parenting, church life, spiritual life and finances. Then we need to ask God for diligence that takes seriously initiative, hard work, planning, hunger and taking responsibility. If we don’t, Proverbs teaches that there will be natural consequences, even failure and poverty. But if we are diligent, we will reap positive consequences; success, security and above all godliness and righteousness in life. Proverbs teaches wisdom for right living. All right living is blessed by diligence.