In previous posts, we considered how seriously God’s Word condemns laziness. We also looked at some ways that the Scriptures connect laziness to other sins and common counseling issues. In this post, I’d like especially to focus on the Scriptural judgment of laziness as a failure to love one’s neighbor.
This insight has been particularly fruitful in my life. When I’m tempted to sink into idleness, I’ve been greatly helped whenever I’ve had the spiritual wherewithal to ask myself, “Whom are you failing to love right now by choosing laziness?” I’m much more likely to renounce the insidious temptation to laziness whenever I can call to mind some specific ways in which that choice would negatively affect others. The thought reminds me how “a little folding of the hands to rest” (Prov. 24:30-34) might not be so innocuous. The indwelling Spirit uses the call to walk in love (Eph. 5:1-2, etc.) to rouse me to work.
How exactly do the Scriptures pit laziness and neighbor-love against one another? The verses we’ve examined in previous posts start us down the proper path of reflection: the idle man fails to do good to others when he has opportunity (Gal. 6:10), fails to do what he knows is right (James 4:17), and even does harm to others, being in league with “him who destroys” (Prov. 18:9; cf. 28:24). We could add other verses along these same lines. The Proverbs command us directly not to put off doing good to our neighbor (3:27-28), and warn how the lazy man is a source of shame (10:5), sorrow (10:1), and irritation (10:26) for others. This is antithetical to love of neighbor, which is giving oneself for the good or good-pleasure of another. Of course, this connection shouldn’t surprise us; if the Bible condemns laziness as sin, then laziness must be opposed to love of neighbor, because love of neighbor fulfills God’s law (Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:13-14).
Excel in Brotherly Love
We’ve seen before how Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians address idleness. Paul commands the idle “to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:12). The same order is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:11. In that instance, however, the broader context is not an extended dialogue addressing idleness, as in 2 Thessalonians 3. Rather, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 continues Paul’s thought about walking in brotherly love. (Notice how the verse doesn’t even begin a new sentence, but continues 4:10!) The implication is clear: excelling in brotherly love requires repenting of laziness.
The subsequent reason Paul gives for this command to hard work in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 also implies a connection with loving the brothers. Verse 12 states that we should avoid idleness “so that [we] may be…dependent on no one.” Love seeks to give to others instead of planning to take from others (cf. Eph. 4:28). The idle man insists that others be the ones who do the giving.
Paul expands on this idea in the lengthier treatment of idleness in 2 Thessalonians 3. He offers his own example: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor 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” (2 Thess. 3:7-8). Paul devoted himself to bread-earning toil and labor, avoiding even the appearance of idleness (cf. 2 Thess. 3:9), so that he wouldn’t heap burdens on the brothers. While love seeks to carry the burdens of others, idleness places burdens on others. Thus, the idle man does not fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2) and he fails to walk in love.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:8-9, Paul clearly relates his burden-removing hard work among the Thessalonians to his love for them: how he affectionately desired them, counted them very dear, and gave himself (the essence of love) to them.
Benefits to Self Are Not Enough
Are you beginning to see how important it is to cast laziness as a failure to love one another? Consider another line of thought: it will rarely be effective to exhort an idle man away from idleness simply by pointing out how it will benefit him. Think about it. In a moment of temptation to laziness, how is a lazy man going to answer the question, “How will I benefit from ‘a little folding of the hands to rest’ compared to how I will benefit from hopping to work right now?” I submit that the self-focused nature of the question will usually influence a man prone to idleness to choose ease, comfort, rest, and leisure in that moment. It is undeniable that the Bible warns the lazy man that his aversion to work will yield many negative effects for his own life (e.g. Prov. 6:10-11, 10:4, 12:24, 13:4, 14:23, 15:19, 20:4, 20:13, 21:25, 24:30-34, 28:19), and we should not hesitate to motivate men, like the Bible does, by appealing to their normal, good, and natural self-interest. Most lazy men, however, will struggle to properly analyze the “cost to self vs. benefit to self” that is involved when he’s tempted to be idle. He needs more ammunition for the battle against laziness than simply, “There really is a better way to pursue your own benefit right now.”
The book of Ecclesiastes teaches us much about man’s work, including its connection with love of neighbor. Man’s work will feel like “vanity and striving after the wind” when he works simply for his own benefit and out of envy of his neighbor (4:4) – a direct opposite of brotherly love. Interestingly, the very next verse warns against laziness (4:5), implying that the unsatisfying nature of self-focused labor may tempt some to succumb to the lazy avoidance of labor! Verses 7-8 of this Bible chapter pull on the same threads. Man’s toil on earth will be “vanity and and unhappy business” for the “one person who has no other” and who “never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling?’” Working without reference to the good and good-pleasure of others (love of neighbor) is an unhappy business indeed. We can understand why someone who only seeks to love himself might choose the sluggard’s life.
God made us to glorify and enjoy Him, and we do that partly by working for the good of others (Eph. 5:1-2). Part of what it means that God made man in His image is that man is called to work (Gen. 1:26-28, 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11 – Note that labor, and not just rest, is commanded here). Part of how man’s work displays God is the way our work benefits others, contributing to their good and good-pleasure (e.g. Gen. 2:8-9, 15; Ps. 104:14-15). As we exhort the idle man to work for love of neighbor, we should remember to ground that charge in the enjoyment and glory of God. Thus, the lazy failure to love others is first and foremost a sin against God (cf. Ps. 51:4).
The idle man needs his eyes lifted up to Christ’s call to love – as we’ve seen – but he also needs his eyes lifted even higher: to Christ’s work of love (Eph. 5:1-2; Gal. 2:20). We can only make headway in loving our brother as we hope in God’s love for sinners (1 John 4:10-11, 19). Love is perfected in us as we come to know and believe the love God has for us (1 John 4:16-17), the love displayed when Christ bore in our place the wrath of God we deserve (1 Jn. 4:10). The path that leads away from laziness and toward love begins with this Good News of God: He sent His Son to save, because we haven’t worked and loved others like we should. Then He sent His Spirit to renew us progressively unto this great, God-like way of life. We should teach the lazy to sing, “My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love for me. Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be!”
Showing how laziness is failure to love others helps us see how the problem of idleness relates to the Gospel and the Christian life. We can draw a straight line from warring against laziness to following Christ, because Christ has said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).