A Surprising Command in Scripture

“Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” That proverb is at least 1,000 years old in the English language (see Chaucer, 12th century). Another is like it; “The Devil finds work for idle hands to do.” These proverbs have lasted a millennium because generation after generation finds, or rediscovers, them to be true.

But the principle goes back another millennium further. The apostle Paul, writing the Word of God under the supernatural inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, gives his Christian readers a pointed teaching on this essential instruction for living by hope in God’s grace to us in Christ. In fact, the very two verses right before the passage I blogged on last week (about everything in our lives being focused upon the certainty and meaning of Christ’s death, resurrection, and return) say it this way—

1 Thessalonians 4:11–12 NIV
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

Then, in his second letter to the Christians of Thessalonica, Paul, with much more imperative force in his tone, expands on this (notice the hard-hitting way in which he says, commands, this)—

2 Thessalonians 3:6–12 ESV
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. 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. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

What does this mean for us as believers, whose hope is focused upon the certainty and meaning of Christ’s death, resurrection, and return?

Well, lots of things. For one, it means that we must work hard in this world. It means that we need to develop our talents, develop our knowledge, develop our skills, and develop our character so that we are able to work in a way that contributes to the needs of culture and society—and to do so in a way that can earn a living by it. This is important to God because, as it says, it allows us to “win the respect of outsiders” by our daily lives. It keeps us from being unproductively idle. And it makes us a financial blessing rather than a burden to others, such as our family, or friends, or society. We could also add the Bible’s teaching on how our work is a primary way we glorify God and please God (see 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17).

So it means that investing in doing our vocation with excellence and productivity is a noble pursuit. And it means that earning money, even a lot of money, by our honest and productive work is not an ignoble thing, but a good thing. Of course, we must see all our money as a blessing from God who gives us the ability to work and earn our money. And we must see all of God’s blessings as blessings given to us in order that we might be a blessing to others and sharers in the work of his kingdom. Work done well—hard work—is pleasing to God and a biblical way our lives are a blessing to others and a glory to God.

What does this mean for how we truly help those in need?

Well, certainly there are times when the merciful thing to do is to give someone money when they are in need. But what these biblical passages also teach us is that perhaps an even more loving and helpful thing to do is find a way for someone in need to be able to work for their own living. Work is better for them than not working. Giving money in a way that enables someone not to have to work is NOT a loving thing to do. Because their being enabled to remain idle is not good for them. And not good for society. In fact, the apostle Paul went as far as to say, “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 also, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

What’s amazing to me about that statement—“even when we were with you, we would give you this command,” is that Paul was able to be with them for only three weeks. Then he was forced out by the city (see Acts 17:1ff). So in just the first three weeks of establishing brand new believers in their brand new faith in the gospel, and what that faith should mean in their lives, the apostle Paul says here that one of the few things he was able to teach them was their need to work, and also their command not to enable others to be able to avoid having to work.

What does that tell us? That providing someone with work, or helping someone develop the necessary skills, knowledge, and character to find work and earn a living, is better than just giving them money. And it tells us that just giving them money is actually harmful to them, not helpful. It tells us that necessities are a tool of God to force people to have to work. Work enables people. Idleness ruins them, because “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.”

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