Get Behind Me, Sluggard

Four Lessons Against Laziness

If you look deep inside yourself, you may notice, to your dismay, the presence of a singularly unattractive creature. You’ll need to look carefully, because he doesn’t move quickly (or sometimes at all). He camouflages under bed covers. He prefers the mumble over the clear word. His eyelids droop half open; his mouth holds back a dribble of drool. His name is sluggard.

We may prefer to keep the sluggard at a distance, to view this lazy creature only through binoculars or zoo glass. But somehow, he finds a native habitat in every soul, even the most hardworking. When the alarm buzzes, he paws the snooze. When a work project calls for relentless focus, he quietly opens a new browser tab. When some unwelcome duty faces us, one we’ve already put off too long, he nevertheless counsels, “Tomorrow.”

We may hesitate to study the sluggard, preferring to spare ourselves such an unseemly sight. But sometimes, our lazy self dies only when we take a long and careful look at him. “I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,” the wise man tells us. “Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction” (Proverbs 24:30, 32).

As we listen to the sluggard’s mutterings and consider the outcome of his laziness, we learn, by contrast, about a life of labor under the fear of the Lord. So, what instruction might the wise receive as they consider their inner sluggard?

1. ‘A little’ adds up.

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest . . . (Proverbs 24:33)

The candy wrappers strewn around the sluggard’s bed, nearly ankle high now, all have one thing in common: in the moment, they were each “a little.” A little snack, a little break, a little reward, a little treat. He squandered his parents’ allowance in much the same way. Just one more in-app purchase. Just a little more takeout.

The wise hear and receive instruction. “A little,” it turns out, is anything but — at least when joined to a thousand other littles. Many little raindrops make a lake. Many little chops fell a tree. And therefore, how we handle little — little temptations, little decisions, little opportunities for self-denial — matters a lot.

Solomon points us to one of God’s littlest creatures as evidence. “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). Yes, ants are tiny, this one carrying a speck of dirt, that one a bit of leaf, a third a crumb of bread. An ant cannot accomplish much quickly, but over time, by little and little, an anthill rises from the dirt; a network of underground tunnels takes shape; a colony is warm and fed.

Too often, in fleeing from my inner sluggard, I have tripped from trying to run too fast. Reckoning with how destructive the sluggard’s littles can be, I have thought, “Much! I must do much!” I will finish ten projects this week — no, twenty! I will work out Monday through Friday without exception! I will lead thirty-minute family devotions every night!

Sometimes, indeed, the path from the sluggard’s home rises steep and takes a running start. But most of the time, we are wiser to walk, exchanging little follies for little wisdoms, developing modest, ant-like resolutions and then building upon them. Along the way, we refuse this little compromise for that little obedience; we shun this little laziness for that little labor. We lay each little difficulty before our Father in heaven. And little by little, we receive from him the strength to work more diligently.

2. Neglect grows weeds.

I passed by the field of a sluggard . . . and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns. (Proverbs 24:30–31)

As he rolls over on his bed, or goes for thirds at lunch, the sluggard hardly imagines he is doing any harm. What damage can a little more snoozing do? What’s the problem with a few more mouthfuls? But while he sleeps and snacks and sings a little tune, thorns quietly take over his yard. The sluggard didn’t plant the thorns himself, of course — but by not working, he might as well have. If we do not furrow and plow, and sow good seed, by default we prepare the ground for other purposes. Neglect grows weeds.

Imagine, then, that along comes one of those little moments: Keep working on homework, or watch last night’s highlights? Read the Bible and pray, or enjoy nine more minutes of pillowed bliss? Focus hard for the next hour and finish the project, or check email (again)? We may think such little indulgences are merely neutral, harmless parentheses in the midst of our labors.

“The home of the lazy man and the destroyer end up looking the same. The only difference is speed.”

But whenever we allow the sluggard to grasp our hand, we not only pause from good work, but we produce weeds. Perhaps, for the moment, the weeds appear only in our own soul, as we tutor ourselves in the school of sloth. Or perhaps the weeds grow up for all to see — in half-done work and broken commitments, silly excuses and abandoned responsibilities. Either way, as another proverb puts it, “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys” (Proverbs 18:9). The home of the lazy man and the destroyer end up looking the same. The only difference is speed.

The sluggard, then, often looks innocent. Surely we could think of more harmful creatures than this smiling sloth, drooped upon his branch. But the wise see through him. “If I don’t disciple my children today, I simply welcome the world to do so.” “If I don’t initiate this hard conversation, I jeopardize this relationship.” “If I don’t finish this work while I have the chance, I will lay the burden on another’s shoulders.”

We are not doing nothing when we play the sluggard. We are growing weeds, toppling walls, chipping foundations, and cultivating thorns, even if ever so slowly.

3. Our desires often deceive us.

The desire of the sluggard kills him. (Proverbs 21:25)

The sluggard’s desires feel like his closest friends, his wisest aids. Their counsels sound so pleasing: “No, don’t mow the lawn now. Looks like rain anyway.” “No, don’t speak of Jesus today, not in this conversation. The time will come (maybe).” “Let your wife change the baby’s diaper. You’re recuperating.” Such wonderful suggestions. Such seductive assassins.

Wisdom puts the matter bluntly: “The desire of the sluggard kills him” (Proverbs 21:25). Kills offers a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but only a bit. In that culture and time, survival depended on labor, on calloused hands and plowed fields and harvested crops and long days. The world was once a harsher place for sluggards.

Laziness is not so lethal today, at least not in many places. But the wise know that even if “the desire of the sluggard” does not take his life, it takes almost everything else. It takes the joy of a good day’s sweat. It takes the peace of relationships carefully kept. It takes the reward of talents well stewarded. The sluggard may enjoy an easier existence — for a few days, or a few minutes. But then every part of life becomes more painful.

So, when sluggardly desires approach, in all their seeming loveliness, the wise anchor their desires somewhere sturdier than the short-term pleasures of sleep, food, or entertainment. They listen instead to the Lord Jesus; they consider the counsels of his Spirit and his promises of strength. Then, with a hearty, “Get behind me, sluggard!” they get up and do their work.

4. Hard work flows from the heart.

The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly. (Proverbs 26:16)

Till now, our weapons against the sluggard have been fashioned mainly from common sense —and understandably so, given that the sluggard is “a man lacking sense” (Proverbs 24:30). But now we come to the heart of the matter, which is the matter of the heart.

When Proverbs tells us that the sluggard is “[wise] in his own eyes,” it places godly labor within the realm of wisdom, a realm where God reigns as Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10). Why does the sluggard sleep in and arrive late? Why is he dominated by distraction and procrastination? Ultimately, because he does not have the wisdom that flows from the fear of the Lord.

“Laziness reveals a lack of allegiance; sluggishness shows not just a body but a heart asleep.”

God does not occupy a significant place in the sluggard’s frame of reference — not nearly so significant a place as the cupboard and the couch. The wise, by contrast, remember that “a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord” (Proverbs 5:21), and they love to have it so. God fills their outlook as blue fills a cloudless sky; he is their beginning and their end, the alpha of their mornings and the omega of their evenings, the one in whom they live and move and labor. He is the God who, in Christ, sanctified our labors in human flesh and now fills us with his hardworking Spirit.

So, when the wise feel themselves drifting toward the sluggard, they know that hard work is far more than a matter of common sense and self-control. Laziness reveals a lack of allegiance; sluggishness shows not just a body but a heart asleep. And therefore, they take up the dagger that cuts a deeper wound in the sluggard’s heart: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

In Christ, whatever we do holds spiritual significance, from secret prayer to rising at our alarm, from fellowship to doubling down on our work. We live and labor before the eyes of our good Lord Jesus. His kingdom calls us. His Spirit fills us. His promises empower us. And his strength compels us to daily lay the sluggard to rest.