Proverbs: Wisdom at work - 21st July 2013 - Dave Walker

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Last week we were thinking about that question of ‘how do you do life well?’ Do you remember that? If you weren’t here, go to the website and listen. We saw that the thing we need if we’re going to do life well is wisdom. And God has given us the book of Proverbs in order to teach us wisdom. Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings. Most of it is made up of lots and lots of little pithy statements, each of which summarises a particular feature of how the world really is. And these sayings cover a huge amount of different topics. If you’ve ever sat down and tried to read Proverbs, you’ll know that. It’s not like reading a story, where you can just skip through it quickly. With Proverbs you have to read one, then stop and think about it, then read another. Wisdom is like that: we must stop and think about it, if we’re going to learn from it and put it into practice.

It’s not like reading laws. Laws are things which tell us “you must do this”, or “you must never do that.” Laws are fixed in every situation. Proverbs aren’t like that; we need to think about them if we are to see how they apply. Wisdom says things like “if you’re in that situation, then you’ll find there are a couple of options open to you. You could choose that one, but look where it would end up. Better instead to choose this one; that will work out better.” And we need to hear that and think about it – we need to work out if that is the situation we’re in, and if so how we are to choose the right way in practice. We need to take time over it, and we need to think. And if we do that, then God will use this book to teach us wisdom.

So let’s read what these proverbs have to teach us about today’s subject: work. 

Proverbs 10:4-5  4 Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.  5 He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.

11:4   4 Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.

12:24   24 Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labour.

13:4   4 The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.

13:11   11 Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow.

14:23  23 All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

18:9   9 One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.

20:4   4 A sluggard does not plough in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.

21:25  25 The sluggard's craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work. 26 All day long he craves for more, but the righteous give without sparing.

23:4-5  4 Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.  5 Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.

26:13-14  13 The sluggard says, "There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!"  14 As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed. 

28:19-20   19 He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.  20 A faithful man will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished.

Work, work, work. We moan about it, we enjoy it, we worry when we have it, we worry about not having it, we’re glad when it’s over. It’s what gets us out of bed on Monday morning, although sometimes we wish it wouldn’t. Say what we like about it: we can’t avoid it. Work is what we do. It’s what fills so much of our time. It might be professional or voluntary, paid or unpaid, in the office, the factory, the shop, outdoors or in the home. For many of us, our work seems a million miles away from what we’re doing right now, sitting in church, talking about God. But do you remember that line about how this book of Proverbs “puts godliness in working clothes”? Proverbs is about the nitty gritty, the day-to-day. Proverbs is all about how to live in a wise, effective and godly way in the midst of the daily grind.

So let’s think about what these proverbs have to say.

1. Be diligent at work, don’t be lazy.

This is the general principle that Proverbs wants us to grasp. It’s there in the first proverb on the sheet.

Proverbs 10:4 Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. 

Work is a gift from God. It’s an essential part of who we are as humans. Back at the start of Genesis we are told that as soon as God made the first man, he commanded him to work; to go out into the creation that God had made, and to do things with it. And crucially, work is intended by God to be the basic way that we acquire the things we need for daily living. We work so that we can have the food and the clothes and the housing and so on that we need. If we are to prosper in this world then work is what we need. We will not prosper without it.

So the key word which Proverbs gives us is diligence. Diligence is what we need at work. Diligence just means to apply ourselves with perseverance and care. To work diligently is to work patiently and with a proper attention to detail. A diligent worker is someone who doesn’t just do the minimum needed to get by, but who rather wants to do a good job. Work like that, says Proverbs, and you’ll see that it’s for your good.

Now as we hear that we may well, inwardly at least, be breathing a deep sigh. Oh! I was hoping for something a bit easier, a short cut to success. We know that work is hard. It’s tiring. In Genesis again we are told that work is one of the first things to get mucked up by the effects of human sin. Because we humans have rebelled against God, work is not the enjoyable activity which God originally intended; all too often it is hard and difficult. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food,” says God to Adam. It’s going to be hard. But it’s still what God wants for us.

Our 21st century British society is one which loves short cuts to success. We want to get all the benefits of work without actually doing the work. We want to get rich without effort. That’s why ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ and ‘Deal or no Deal’ are still on TV after all these years. All you have to do is sit around on TV for half an hour or so, putting up with Chris Tarrant or Noel Edmonds or whoever it is, and the rewards are enormous. That really is how to get very rich, very quick. The lottery or any sort of gambling is built on the same sort of thing: get the rewards of work without doing the work. I don’t know about you, but when I was at school I always wanted to be one of those annoying bluffers; you know the ones, they never do any studying, they never do any revision, and yet they still sail through their exams. We often want that – we want to bluff our way through life without working for it.

Proverbs pours cold water on all those ambitions. Listen to these proverbs: Proverbs 14:23  23 All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty. Proverbs 28:19 19 He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty. 

Proverbs says that if you are chasing the fantasy of getting all that you need without working for it, then know that is just a fantasy, it’s not a wise way to go about things, because it’s just not how the world generally works. For almost everybody who plays it, the lottery is a waste of money. A tiny few win, everybody else just pays through the nose so that someone else can win. Bluffing can only get you so far. I used to try the bluffing technique at school; I was a reasonably bright kid so I got on alright for a short while; but it didn’t take long before I was found out. Diligence is the way of wisdom.

In order to help us grasp that point, Proverbs paints us a caricature, an amusing cartoon picture of a lazy person. He’s called the sluggard. And we’re supposed to look at the sluggard and learn, and ask the question “is there something of me in that picture?” So the sluggard spends as much time as possible in bed. The snooze button is his friend. “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” 26:14. When he does finally get up he can always think up an imaginative excuse of why not to go to work, or why he’s late when he gets there. “The sluggard says, “there is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets.” 26:13 When at work the sluggard is always ready to chat, always ready to take the trip to the coffee machine, or to listen to other people’s problems, anything except actually doing work. He spends his time distracting others. When he does finally sit down at the computer he’s updating facebook. When he gets home he sits on the chair with the remote controls and bowls of food all around him. But even that seems a bit too much effort “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth.” 26:15

It’s all very funny, very Homer Simpson. But the consequences are not funny. His slackness doesn’t help his company a bit. 18:9 “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.” It does nothing to endear him to his boss. Proverbs 10:26  “As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him.” So when money gets tight, the sluggard will be the first to be go. The sluggard hopes his fantasies and money making schemes will pay off, but sooner or later grim reality catches up with him. Proverbs 20:4 A sluggard does not plough in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing. Instead all he is left with is a horrible emptiness. Proverbs 13:4   4 The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.

Is there anything of you in the sluggard? If there is, then hear the warning. Laziness, in the long run, brings ruin.

So then, be diligent. Whatever work you have to do, do it carefully and patiently. Don’t just content yourself with a botch job, do it properly. That’s the wise and godly way. The New Testament agrees. Paul says in Colossians that we are to do whatever we do “with all our heart, working as if for the Lord and not for men.” When we work diligently, we are honouring God. On the other hand, if we will not provide for our families then Paul says in 1 Timothy that we have “denied the faith”. Diligent work is something that God asks of us.

A couple of words to people in specific situations. If you are someone who for whatever reason is unable to work, either because of health or age or because even though you try there is no work to be found at the moment, then please note that the aim of this sermon is not to make you feel guilty. Applying this wisdom will look different in different situations. Make sure that, as much as you can, you are keeping active. Long periods of inactivity will harm us, so find what you can to keep you doing things, serving others, meeting people and so on. Also, there are plenty of things which might not count as ‘employment’ in the way that people normally talk about it, which are nonetheless ‘work’ in God’s eyes. Things like voluntary service or being a full time mum or a carer. Those are important roles in God’s world. Do them with diligence.

Something else related to this: what should you do if you’re currently in a position of relying on state benefits, instead of working? Again, the same principle applies. It’s ok to be on benefits, they are there to help people who could not otherwise find the money they need. If you’re in that position, don’t feel guilty about it. But obviously if you can get work instead, then do that as soon as possible. Don’t stay on benefits just because it’s easier to do so.

So then, be diligent; don’t be lazy. There are a couple of other things to say about work, however, which are equally important.

2. Keep work in its right place

Work is valuable. It has great value, given by God. But it is only a limited value. We will be harmed if we let work encroach on things which it shouldn’t encroach on. If we let work become bigger than it really is.

Don’t let work harm your godliness. What I mean by that is that work must be principled. We mustn’t let our jobs, or anything else we do, compromise our obedience to God. That will result in harm. We can see an example of that in Proverbs 13:11 “Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow.” Or Proverbs 10:2 “Ill-gotten treasures are of no value, but righteousness delivers from death.” Questionable business practices are out for the Christian. Dodgy deals, fiddling the tax man out of money, that sort of thing. Getting money in those ways will harm us in other ways. Similarly, we need to ask questions about the companies we are working for. If we find out that our company is involved in sinful and dishonest practices, we may have to think hard about whether we can continue to work for them. We don’t want to be adding our support to sin. Don’t let your work harm your godliness.

Another thing: Don’t let your work take over your life. Work can easily become all-consuming. It can take over our lives and squeeze out all kinds of other important things. It’s not worth that much, says Proverbs. Proverbs 23:4-5 “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.  5 Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” Work can bring us all sorts of good things. But not things which are so valuable that they’re worth sacrificing everything else for. There will be times when we need the wisdom to show restraint. You were made to work, yes, but that’s not all you were made for. Other things need to take higher priority.

So if your work is preventing you from following Jesus like you should; or if your work is preventing you from looking after your family like you should; or if your work is preventing you from serving other Christians at church like you should; or if it is just exacting so high a toll on you that you know that burnout is around the corner, well then you need to exercise restraint. Your work has become too big. It is not that important. InJapan they have a word – Karoshi – which means ‘sudden death from overwork’. In France a couple of years ago there was a controversy when 60 workers for France Telecom committed suicide due to work pressures over a 2 year period. France Telecom responded initially by saying that this was still below the national average for employees. What a tragedy! Work should never become that big.

One thing which can really help us to keep work in its right place is the Bible principle of Sabbath rest. Proverbs is written in the context of God’s wider law toIsrael, which includes lots of clear instruction about the Sabbath. The pattern of one days rest in every seven, in which to refresh your relationship with God and his family and your family, is built into God’s creation. And following that pattern is an act of faith: when we take a day away from work to devote to God, we are expressing our trust that God is in charge, not us. You see, one of the big factors which cause people to overwork is the mistaken belief that everything would just stop without them. You find yourself thinking “I just can’t take any time off; it’d all fall apart without me.” Again, if you think like that then your view of your work has become far too big. It would not all fall apart without you. God is in charge of keeping the world going, not you or me. When you take your day off to devote to God, you are acknowledging that fact. You are not the saviour of the world. The post of Messiah is already filled. That’s God’s job. So you need to work like you know that is true.

So then: Be diligent, don’t be lazy. Keep work in its right place – don’t let it compromise your godliness; don’t let it take over your life. Last thing to say:

3. Remember what work can’t give you

Work can get you riches, but it can’t get you righteousness. And righteousness is infinitely more valuable.

Proverbs 11:4   4 Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.

Righteousness is right standing with God. It is being on good terms with God. If someone is righteous, that means that God will accept them on the day that he judges the world. The righteous are those that God will welcome into his new creation for ever. Only the righteous.

So the point of the proverb is that wealth, which is good and helpful, will not do you any good at all on the Day of Judgment. It won’t matter one little bit how wealthy you are then. The only thing that will make any difference is whether you are righteous or not.

And the crucial thing is this: you cannot become righteous by working for it. You can earn wealth by working diligently. But you can’t earn righteousness. Nothing you can do will make you right with God.

That’s where our other reading from Philippians comes in. In that reading Paul is considering all his qualifications which he earned through his previous career as a religious scholar. He weighs them up alongside the benefits of knowing Jesus. And this is the conclusion he comes to: Philippians 3:8-9  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ  9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

The righteousness that really counts, the only thing that will gain us acceptance from God, is the righteousness that comes from God. And the only way we can receive it is through faith in Christ. God can make us righteous only because Jesus has died in our place and taken all our evil and sin onto himself. That’s the only reason we can be made righteous: not because of anything we’ve done; rather because of something God has done in Jesus Christ. You can work and be successful in many ways. But righteousness is not something you can earn at all. It’s a gift from God. And it must be received as a gift. With open hands, humbly, prayerfully.

Leo Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers that ever lived. Unlike many artists, he enjoyed great success his lifetime. His masterpiece, War and Peace, was widely acclaimed. He became very wealthy. He was someone who worked hard and prospered. He reaped all of the benefits that work can bring. And yet he found that there was one great nagging problem. “What meaning has my life that the inevitability of death does not destroy?” He realised the limits of work: he saw that it could not save him. In the end, he came to realise that the only answer to his greatest need was Jesus Christ. And at the end of his autobiography he quotes Jesus, who said "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Eternal life, lasting peace, forgiveness and salvation: those are things that we cannot get for ourselves, no matter how hard we work. We must be given them. And only Jesus can give them to us.

So then. Work. Work is a gift from God. It’s for our good. So do it diligently; don’t be lazy. But remember too that it has its limits. It must not compromise your godliness. It must not take over your life. And it cannot make you righteous; only Jesus can do that. So whether at work or at rest, remember that Jesus must come first.