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“Diligence is a Virtue”

Proverbs 12:25 and others
Bob DeGray
June 22, 2003

Key Sentence

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


I. The outcome of sloth and diligence
II. The attitudes of sloth and diligence


        The humor of Dilbert exaggerates the absurdity of too many workplaces where real work is thwarted by management and co-workers and the system and thus has no lasting effect, while laziness and incompetence just go on and on. Let’s look at an example:
        Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert, portrays a whole world filled with incompetence, laziness, and blame shifting. 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 would say, is a bad remnant of the Protestant work ethic. You’ll be happier in life if you slow down to smell the roses, relax and recreate, keep a balance between work and play. There is truth in that - there must be, because so many people I respect have given me that advice.

        But not all truth is on that side. As Dilbert suspects, some people take advantage of others lazily depending on the efforts of others for everything. It is those people the book of Proverbs addresses by saying a lot about the benefits of diligence, and about the consequences of sloth, with very little balancing material on rest and relaxation. Today, since it’s Proverbs we’re studying, we’re going to be unbalanced too. Other places in the Bible do tell us to rest, to relax, to play, but the message we’re going to hear today is that diligence is a virtue to be cultivated, and sloth a vice to be avoided. We can prove the truth of that key thought, from Proverbs by observing the blessings of diligence and the consequences of sloth. In Proverbs diligence universally has a positive outcome and sloth a negative. Diligence is a virtue that God, the ultimate author of Proverbs wants us to cultivate.

        That’s clear in our key verse for this morning, Proverbs 12:24 Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave 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 authority and influence, while those who are lazy end up in servitude and hopelessness. The implication is that managers, executives, company presidents, aren’t usually there because incompetence rises to the top, but because diligence and competence are rewarded. Some of the people in this congregation who are the most diligent and competent are also those in the most responsible positions at their work places. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. On the other hand, I think of a young man who attended this church for several years who could never quite get to his job or his classes on time. He had lots of excuses, but excuses didn’t pay the bills or the college fees and eventually he dropped out into the homeless life of Houston.

        So the general theory here in Proverbs is that success, profit, wealth, and security are consequences of diligence, that diligence really pays off in the practical arena of life. There are any number of verses that show this cause / effect relationship. For example Proverbs 10:4 Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. And verse 5 goes on to say: 5He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son. In the culture of the Old Testament working with your hands, in farm work or a craft, was about the only way to make a living. They didn’t have what Dilbert calls ‘knowledge workers’. But the principle still applies - someone who works hard gets ahead, and someone who just gets by falls further behind. Therefore a father will be proud of his son who works hard and disgraced by his son who sleeps the summer away.

        The benefits of diligence are portrayed in Proverbs using primarily agricultural images. Proverbs 12:11 He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment. That one sounds just like Proverbs 28:19 He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty. Both of these promise abundance to the person who works his land, that is, the person who is diligent. This is clearly in agreement with the New Testament teaching that if you don’t work you don’t eat. In contrast, there is no blessing for the one who ‘chases fantasies.’ The Hebrew means ‘emptiness’ or ‘worthlessness’ and I think the NIV translation captures it well. If you’ve lived long enough you’ve known somebody who for a period of years or maybe for their whole life gets stuck chasing fantasies. “The next thing I try is bound to work; I know I’ve had troubles in the past, but this time I’ve really got a winner.” Then they fail again. Literature and real life are filled with brothers who chase fantasies but are never willing to do the hard work needed to make their dreams reality. Dostoyevsky wrote about this kind in “The Brothers Karamazov” and those old enough to remember Jimmy Carter will remember that he had a brother Billy who was this kind of brother.

        The difference is diligence - in general the person who works hard is the one who makes it in life. It was Thomas Edison who said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Proverbs 13:4 says The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied. The Hebrew word for ‘craves’ is one of the words used in the tenth commandment: you shall not ‘covet’; you shall not crave. The lazy person craves what he does not and often ought not have. What’s interesting is that in the second half of the verse there is no craving, there is no desire - the NIV inserts that word artificially. What the verse says is that the soul of the diligent is fat. The diligent person doesn’t have to desire what is not morally his, because God has already provided all his soul needs. This is a great promise. If you pursue the things of God with diligence, God will make your soul fat. It reminds us of Jesus’ promise in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

        One more verse on this topic. Remember we’re simply showing that Proverbs considers diligence a virtue. It shows positive consequences for diligence and negative ones for laziness or sloth. Proverbs 15:19 The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway. Here God places obstacles in the path the sluggard is trying to take - obstacles on paths of unrighteousness. Of course, the sluggard also sees obstacles on the path to righteousness - he thinks thats too hard - so the lazy person has thorns wherever he looks. I’ve known many who have seen only thorns, and I have to confess that at times I have. But the promise of this verse is that for the upright God clears a path - he makes a highway. Diligence isn’t mentioned here specifically, but in this verse the opposite of being lazy is being righteous or upright. There is no doubt God sees diligence as a virtue of the upright, and laziness as a sin. There is no Biblical excuse for laziness.

        Before we begin analyzing verses that will help us cultivate an attitude of diligence I want to spend a moment thinking about where the virtue of diligence is needed. The verses so far in Proverbs might lead you to think that diligence is only applicable to your work situation. Certainly it is applicable there - God wants us to be diligent in our work, whether that work is in the workplace or in a home or school as a parent or a child. But we would be wrong to limit diligence to just our work. We also need diligence, for example, our relationships. Husbands, are you diligent in doing the things that show love to your wife? Fathers, are you diligent in investing time and energy in your children? Wives, are you putting effort into caring for your husband, caring for your children? Children, are you diligent about honoring and respecting and obeying your parents? In all your relationships, with family, extended family, fellow believers, and even those who do not yet believe, you need to be diligent. Most of us are somewhat introverted, which means we seek time by ourselves in order to recharge our batteries. That’s OK, but not if we use it as an excuse to neglect relationships and allow them to wither. It takes diligence to care for the 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 that having had quiet times for many years you don’t need that anymore. But a relationship with God needs to be diligently pursued, and in the same way our responsibilities to God’s people need to be diligently carried out.

        Here’s another area: finances. Too many people neglect their finances, hoping something will work out but ending up in debt, a slave to their creditors. It happens to Christians probably as much as to people of other faiths or of no faith. But diligence in budgeting, self control in spending, consistency in paying bills on time and care in investing, these things have very positive natural consequences. The diligent are usually more financially secure than those who neglect these matters - and as someone who has been guilty of neglect I can testify to this truth.

        So diligent at work, diligent in family, diligent in our spiritual lives, diligent in finances. These are only examples. You could probably add to them. But the question we need to answer from Proverbs this morning 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. We can identify a number of these. I’m going to limit myself to discussing just five pairs of attitudes, positive versus negative.

        First, diligence means having initiative, being a self-starter, whereas the sluggard is a slug, moving slowly if at all and characterized by sleepiness. Some of the most famous verses on this subject are found in Proverbs 6, beginning at verse 6: Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! 7It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, 8yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. The key point here isn’t that ants work hard, though they do - the key is they work at their own initiative - they require no commander or overseer or ruler. If you scan the help wanted ads in the Chronicle 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 especially in our spiritual lives. He wants us to take initiative to know him and he will always reward that initiative.

        By contrast, in Proverbs 6:9-11 we find the sluggard: 9How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? 10A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – 11and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. The only initiative sloth takes is the initiative to roll over and go back to sleep. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t get rest - I’m reminded of frequently. But the sluggard goes beyond the need to sleep and makes it his life’s work. Another verse in Proverbs says As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed. Still another says Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare. Wally struggles with this:

        So diligence requires initiative, and the case study in Proverbs is of the simple initiative to get out of bed in the morning. Now it may be that Solomon, like many, was a morning person. It’s easier for a morning person to hop out of bed before dawn. But I don’t think these verses are intended just for morning people. You can sleep late and still get up on time and do the next thing. It’s only when you avoid what you need to be doing by lying in bed that you fall into this category.

        A second principle is capsulized in one verse Proverbs 14:23 All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty. Isn’t that a good one? We’re called to embrace hard work and avoid mere talk. The Hebrew word implies not only hard work but actually burdensome toil, work that takes it out of you physically and emotionally. In fact, in other contexts, this Hebrew word is often translated sorrow, so this is draining labor that takes us right up to the edge of our endurance and perseverance. Such labor, the Proverb says, is rewarded by God. But you can choose the alternative, which, according to this verse, is mere talk, which inclues what we’ve already called ‘chasing fantasies’. Here the underlying Hebrew literally means ‘lip talk’ or ‘lip service’. We all know the empty talk of con men and sales people. Wally in Dilbert has made a science out of it:

But it goes deeper than that. Empty talk is spoken with the tongue, not the heart: empty promises, empty boasts, insincere repentance, even lies. We fall into this whenever we say we support an idea or a commitment or even a moral value, while not really pursuing it with diligence. Paul teaches in Ephesians that you should “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.
        So we’re to take initiative and we’re to work hard. Sounds trite doesn’t it? But this is what the Bible teaches and it’s good to remind ourselves of it. In fact, the Bible sees our need to do these things as right and good: we’re to be hungry rather than satiated. Proverbs 16:26 The laborer's appetite works for him; his hunger drives 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.” Our desires work for us, and motivate us, whether in the work setting or in relationships or in spiritual things.

        In contrast, consider Proverbs 19:24 The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth! Don’t ever let it be said that 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 has been provided for, maybe by an indulgent family, or in our culture by the federal government. So he’s got food to bring to his mouth, but it’s just not worth it. The sluggard has no desires. He doesn’t want to do right. He doesn’t even strongly want to do wrong. He just wants to be left alone to vegetate in peace. He wouldn’t admit that, but the fact that he has no initiative, no hunger, no work in him for even the simplest tasks betrays the truth. Sometimes this is called Marie Antoinette’s disease. Living in unparalleled luxury, she complained “nothing tastes.” I’ve got to admit, I feel that way at times. But 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 following Godly desires - with a plan. Proverbs 21:5 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty. The diligent person plans ahead. This is one of several verses in Proverbs that call us to be planners - and it’s an interesting Hebrew word. Let me read a little from the Theological Wordbook: “The most frequent use is of "planning, devising." Israelites, for instance, are warned not to "devise" evil against a brother. In Genesis 50:20 Joseph uses the word twice; first in saying that his brothers planned evil in their earlier treatment of him, but that God planned it for good. So not all human plans are necessarily God. Dilbert makes plans:


        But the word also means ‘to invent’ and ‘to be creative’. It is said of Bezaleel, chosen by God to be head builder of the tabernacle, that part of his work was inventing or devising tabernacle decorations using gold, silver, and brass. A final meaning is "accounting" or "bookkeeping." “In the time of the aged high priest, Jehoiada, when repairs were being made on the temple, the priests so trusted the workmen that they kept no accounting of the funds used for the repairs. In the Law the word is used several times of the accounting needed to figure the fluctuating value of properties and produce.” So 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. I almost fell into this trap this week when I took the Honda 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. If I’d acted in haste, I’d be a thousand dollars poorer today.

        One last attitude: one of my favorite verses on this topic is Proverbs 22:13 The sluggard says, "There is a lion outside!" or, "I will be murdered in the streets!" Betsy put together a great picture of this for the children’s bulletin this week. Is there a lion outside? No. Is murder likely? No. The sluggard just doesn’t want to do the next thing and he’s making any excuse he can to avoid it. In our family we call this ‘Responsibility Deficit Syndrome’ or RDS, the unwillingness to take responsibility for our behavior either in the past or in the future. In our culture RDS is mainly seen in the fact that we’re all victims. My attitudes and my behavior 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.”

        Our culture teaches people to say “I’m not responsible for my cancer - it was the cigarette companies that sold me the package with that label. I’m not responsible for my obesity - the fast food companies lured me into fatness.” The sluggard with responsibility deficit syndrome is a master of excuses and evasions. Wally from Dilbert is a master of this.

        The alternative to Responsibility Deficit Syndrome is clearly to take responsibility for what God wants you to do, to do it diligently. One verse that implies this is Proverbs 24:27 Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house. There is a little bit of planning and prioritizing implied here, but the verse also teaches you to be responsible for your stuff - willing to go out and take care of what needs to be done in the work area of your life, and then responsible to come home and take care of what needs to be done there.

        The diligent person takes responsibility and doesn’t try to get out of what 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 - that’s just another excuse. 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 body. There is a proverb not found in Proverbs that says ‘many hands make light work.’ That’s truth the life of the church – we all need to be diligent here.

        So what have we seen? That diligence is a biblical virtue. It does need 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 it’s opposite is one of the most significant sins. So you and I need to be examining ourselves for diligence in work, marriage, parenting, church life, spiritual life and stewardship. If we don’t do so, Proverbs teaches that there will be natural consequences; 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 - and all right living requires diligence.