Biblical counselors should be familiar with how the Bible addresses laziness. God speaks to the matter in Scripture, directly targeting the “idle,” “sluggard,” and “slothful.” Scripture addresses the issue in a host of other ways as well: through implication, by illustration in a narrative, in commending virtues like diligence and self-control, as it develops the doctrine of vocation, etc.
We all know that laziness is a pervasive issue, but we don’t always remember how serious of a problem it really is. In this first post of a series on counseling laziness, I want to share some biblical reasons why this topic is so important.
Scripture has Strong Words for the Lazy
The longest sustained treatment of idleness in the New Testament is found in 2 Thessalonians 3. The Holy Spirit, through Paul’s pen, addresses the idle man using very stark language. Verse 12 speaks directly to the idle: “Such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” Verse 6 speaks to the rest of the congregation about the idle: “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.” Did you notice how Paul intensifies these commands to and about the idle?
Most commonly, Paul issues commands by using a bare imperative verb. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 3:12, however, he introduces his injunctions strongly with, “We command you,” and makes each order extremely weighty by adding “in the Lord Jesus Christ.” We rightly conclude that the idle man is not walking worthy of Christ (cf. 2 Thess. 1:11). Paul’s other command in this passage also shows how serious we should take idleness: “If anyone is not willing1 to work, let him not eat.” These are severe commands — Keep away from them. Don’t give them food. — fitting for a severe problem.
In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The context of this statement is specifically about caring for older family members, like a mother or grandmother who is a widow (cf. 1 Tim 5:4). And laziness is probably not the main issue that Paul had in mind concerning why someone may refuse to provide for an older relative. Still, Paul’s statement in verse 8 is spoken in general terms, giving us a principle that we can rightly apply beyond the specific circumstance he addressed.
If someone fails to provide for his household because of laziness, he still falls under this harrowing label: “worse than an unbeliever,” for even unbelievers recognize (and usually fulfill) their obligations to try and meet the needs of those within their own household. If a person is more committed to laziness than their family’s provision, they have functionally “denied the faith.” After all, it’s hard to imagine a more quintessential failure of Christ’s cornerstone command, “love one another.”
The condemnations of these passages could hardly be worded stronger. Most of us (and most of our counselees) probably won’t struggle with the extreme kinds of laziness addressed directly by these two passages. Certainly, there are varying degrees of unwillingness to work that plague sinners. But these Scriptures still should be eye-opening warnings for even the “softer” struggles with idleness that are more common to man. Even if these passages don’t describe us exactly (a lazy man may still be providing for his household somehow), they still do describe how serious of an offense this sin can be in God’s eyes. We could find other Scriptures to this same effect. Consider, for example, this gut-wrenching comparison in the book of Proverbs: “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys” (Prov 18:9).
The great Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) includes a lengthy section in his classic pastoral/counseling work A Christian Directory called “Directions Against Idleness and Sloth.” He leads off his counsel by sounding this alarm: “The first help against sloth is to be well acquainted with the greatness of the sin. For no wonder it be committed by them that think it small… God himself reckons it with heinous sins.”2 If we take our laziness lightly, we will never repent of it with our whole heart (cf. Jer 3:9-10).
A Lazy Person’s Life is Necessarily Full of Sin
Theologians have traditionally distinguished between sins of commission and sins of omission. The former category describes committing what is evil; the latter omitting what is good. It isn’t sinful only to do/speak/think/desire what is wrong; it is also sinful not to do/speak/think/desire what is right. James 4:17 is the classic text in this regard: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” This is such an important Scripture and concept for counseling the idle. Laziness, almost by definition, is knowing the right thing to do and failing to do it. A lazy person’s life is necessarily full (yes, full!) of sins of omission. Along these lines, Baxter notes, “Idleness is not a single sin, but a continued course of sinning: an idle person is sinning all the while he is idle.”3 When we understand the biblical category of sins of omission, Baxter’s stinging analysis surely hits the mark: An idle person is sinning all the while he is idle.
Part of the reason that we take laziness lightly is our inattention to sins of omission. Think about it: Laziness doesn’t often feel like evildoing because when we’re lazy we most often aren’t doing anything. And therein lies the problem; we aren’t doing anything — anything bad or anything good. As we’ve seen, the Bible unequivocally identifies “not doing anything good” as sin.4
Charles Bridges (1794-1869), another Puritan like Baxter, offers these pertinent words in his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes:
While we study the awful catalogue of sins of commission, let us not forget that the sins of omission are equally guilty. We learn to do evil, by doing nothing. We satisfy ourselves in irreligious habits with the delusion, that we have done no harm. But is it really no harm to have trifled away all opportunities of doing good?5
Bridges’ comments recall the language of Galatians 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” The idle man fails continually to do good as he has opportunity.
Good News for the Lazy
The Bible calls laziness sin, even (to use Baxter’s language) heinous sin. But the Bible doesn’t stop there. In fact, once we embrace that uncomfortable truth we’re halfway toward some really good news! “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).
Jesus came into the world on a rescue mission for sinners. And not only did he never commit any act of evil (1 Pet 2:22), he also always did what was good and right, as he had opportunity. Never did he fail to know the right thing to do. Never did he fail to do it. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn 4:34). Indeed, the good news of our salvation is that Jesus has accomplished the work that the Father gave him to do (Jn 17:4), resulting in our salvation, to the praise of the glory of his grace.
Because Jesus accomplished all of his saving work, God promises not to count the sin of laziness against his people (Rom 4:8). Rather, he counted it against Christ on the cross (1 Pet 2:24), so he can credit to them instead the record of Jesus’s perfect, never-lazy righteousness (Rom 4:1-6, 1 Cor 1:30). Christ’s work also sets us free from slavery to idleness (Rom 6). As we learn to walk in ongoing repentance and faith in Jesus, through union with him and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we can experience a growing freedom from idleness. By the power of God’s grace, we can move closer and closer to being able to say, from the heart, with Christ, “My food is to do the will of God and to accomplish his work.” The lazy person should be full of hope that things really can be different: not on the basis of their past track record, but on the basis of the finished work of Christ.
In the next blog post in this series, I intend to explore how laziness very likely will become a breeding ground for other sins, and also how laziness can be associated with many common counseling issues.
1. It’s important to notice that God’s Word characterizes idleness as an unwillingness to work, not an inability to work. Biblical counselors should beware, however, not to oversimplify the issue and believe that everyone will fit into either the 100% “unwilling to work” or 100% “unable to work” categories. Consider this sage advice from Richard Baxter: “He that has some scorbutic lassitude (i.e. physical or mental weariness from physical condition) or phlegmatic (a calm, stoic temperament) heaviness or dullness does sin if he strives not against it as much as he can, and as in reason he should … He is most sinfully slothful who is most voluntarily slothful. As he that endeavors least against it, and he that most loves it, and would not leave it: and he that is least troubled at it, and least repents and laments it, and contrives to accommodate his sloth.” Taken from Baxter, A Christian Directory (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 378. Emphasis mine.
2. Baxter, A Christian Directory, 379. Dr. Timothy Keller has called Baxter’s Directory “the greatest manual on biblical counseling every produced.
3. Baxter, A Christian Directory, 380.
4. Truth be told, laziness often does go hand-in-hand with a variety of sins of commission as well. We’ll take up that topic in a future blog post.
5. Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1860), 315. Accessed on November 15, 2017 at http://classicchristianlibrary.com/library/bridges_charles/Bridges-Eccles.pdf. This quote is take from Bridges’ commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:18 – “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.”
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