Overcoming laziness is well within the normal scope of what God is pleased to do by the power of his Spirit in the work of sanctification. We may not be born again with a new work ethic in full form. We may still wrestle with all sorts of poor patterns from our past and upbringing and indwelling sin. But God has poured his own power in us in the person of his Spirit, and he is working in us the very energy of Jesus himself (Colossians 1:29).
Does Christianity have a work ethic?
Growing up, I remember frank conversations with my father about hard work, but few (if any) instructions from sermons and Sunday school. For years, I assumed the Bible addressed many other theological and spiritual subjects, but not something so earthy as work. But work ethic is, in fact, profoundly spiritual. And the Scriptures do have a great deal to teach us about work ethic — not just in the hands-on sayings of Proverbs, but especially in the life and theologically refined ministry of the apostle Paul.
One striking instance to note in Paul’s letters is his surprisingly similar language in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:8. I’m not aware of anything quite like it elsewhere, where he strings this much (almost) exact language together in the same order. Perhaps this was a regular refrain for Paul — and what does he speak about with such precision? Work ethic. His example of “toil and labor, night and day, working to not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8).
In 1 Thessalonians 2, he recounts his own work ethic as an example, but in 2 Thessalonians 3 he doubles down, and charges Christians to imitate him.
As a whole, Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians focus on two particular issues in the young church: one more “theological” (the end times) and the other more “practical” (idleness). For this reason, many readers have connected the two and reasoned that the theological problem led to the practical. The expectation that Jesus was coming back at any moment (or already had) led to the devaluing, and even cessation, of daily labor.
However, idleness appears to have been an issue in Thessalonica from the time the gospel came to town. Writing shortly after the church’s founding, Paul enjoins, “Admonish the idle” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The force, then, may have worked the other way: the Thessalonian (and human!) penchant for laziness, and seeking justification for it, may have led to twisted end-times views convenient to sinful impulses. It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last, where a sinful heart led to theological error, more than vice versa. Either way, they had a problem with laziness.
The trouble, however, isn’t simply that those who fail to work end up presuming on, mooching off, and unnecessarily burdening those who do work. “Idle” persons also create additional burdens by disrupting and distracting those trying to labor. Laziness gives birth to twin troubles: The lazy not only eat into others’ earnings, but also eat into their limited time, energy, and attention for work.
The word translated “idle(ness)” in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 7, and 11 (as well as 1 Thessalonians 5:14) means, literally, “disorderly” or “irresponsible.” It describes someone who is “out of order” or “out of line” with the patterns and expectations of the community, in particular related to labor. When others wake up and head out to work, “the disorderly” sleep in and hang around. The irony is that they aren’t really idle. As Paul writes, with a play on words, “We hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11). They may be idle from work, but they end up frittering away their time in unproductive ways that eventually disrupt and distract others from productive labor.
This problem of laziness may seem marginal at first glance, but we should take note how serious the problem is for Paul. He is blood-earnest. Paul doesn’t often resort to such explicit “commanding,” but here he does four times in short space (in verses 4, 6, 10, and 12). And he says any brother, no exceptions. We shouldn’t be too surprised when unbelievers are idle, but we should when it’s those claiming the name of Christ (2 Thessalonians 3:15).