How has your week been? Good, bad or indifferent? For many of us, our answer to that question will largely depend on how our work has gone this week. Whether we are paid or unpaid, whether we work in the home, in an office – or elsewhere – so much of our time each week is spent working that it has a huge impact on our quality of life.
About half our waking hours each week are spent at work, so when work goes well, we often feel life is going well. And when it goes not so well, we may feel life is not going so well. Rightly or wrongly, our experience at work can have a huge impact on our mood and quality of life. On a good day, our work can be a joy and delight. On a bad day, it can be a burden and a bit of a slog – a necessary evil rather than a God-given vocation.
And so today, in this sixth and final sermon of our series on Proverbs, I want us to look briefly at God’s wisdom for our work. In particular, I want us to learn from Proverbs why we should work, and how we should work. I want us to see how work can be a blessing for us and for others. A way we can do good and glorify God.
- Why should we work: Service not gold or glory
Firstly, Proverbs teaches us that we should work for service not self. We should work for the good of others not to gain ‘gold or glory’ for ourselves.
That is the lesson of our reading from Proverbs this morning. Let me remind you of verses 23 to 27: “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure for ever, and a crown is not secure for all generations. When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field. You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family and to nourish your female servants.”
Those verses are more than just advice on agriculture. They are of importance to any working person, not just a farmer! Because they teach the important principle that we should work to provide for our families and those who depend on us. We should not work to gain fame or fortune for ourself, but for the sake of others.
We live in a culture, where so many people are passionate about ‘climbing the greasy pole’. A culture where we are encouraged to run after great wealth and prestige – after ‘gold’ and ‘glory’. But Proverbs warns us against wasting our energy chasing after such things. It tells us that our first obligation is to find work that will enable us to “feed our family”, rather than running after fame and fortune.
Apart from anything else, fame and fortune are highly elusive – hard to gain even for those who set their heart on them. People waste their time and talents in the fruitless pursuit of wealth and power. As Proverbs 28;19 says: “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty.”
And even if we do achieve wealth or influence, they will not last. As verse 24 of our reading said today: “riches don’t endure forever” and “a crown is not secure for all generations”. Lots of things in life can bring both wealth and influence to an end – things like retirement or redundancy, taxation or inflation, ill-health or insolvency.
So instead our goal for our work should be to serve others not ourselves. Our ambitions at work should be:
- To serve our family by earning a steady income, but not being a workaholic.
- To serve our society, but doing work that helps others rather than feathering our own nest.
- And we should to serve God with out work – our greatest ambition should be to build up treasure in heaven rather than on earth.
And its not just the book of Proverbs that teaches us these things. The New Testament wholeheartedly agrees.
- For example, Ephesians chapter 4 verse 28 tells us to work “and do something useful with our hands”, so that we “may have something to share with those in need.”
- Galatians 6:9, also says “as you have opportunity, do good to all people”;
- While 1 Corinthians 10 says “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”.
So we should work to serve others, not for selfish reasons. Work is worthwhile, not just a necessary evil until the next summer holiday!
But how are we to conduct ourselves at work? How are we to behave when we are working? The answer Proverbs gives is clear – we should work diligently and with integrity. We are to work hard and work honestly.
- How should we work: Diligence and integrity
A fortnight ago my family went to visit Butterfly World near St Albans. As well as having hundreds of beautiful butterflies to look at, it also has an ant exhibit. It has one room containing a giant ants nest at one end, and a long curling coil of rope that connects the nest to a small tree on the other side. If you look carefully, you can see dozens of worker ants walking back and forth along the rope, each carrying leaves from the tree to their nest.
The ants are amazing – to scale, the distance they walk along the rope would be equivalent to 20 miles for a human, and the leaves they carry are many times their own body weight. Those ants are diligent workers, who do all that hard slog for the sake of their colony.
Proverbs says we humans can learn a lot from ants’ attitude to work. Ants are self-starting, selfless and diligent. Their hard work is contrasted to those of the “sluggard”. The sluggard is one of the most tragic figures in Proverbs. The sluggard is a selfish, lazy man who won’t work hard. A man who always makes excuses, a man who is only diligent at his duties when his manager is around. The sluggard is a man whose laziness impoverishes himself and others.
Listen to these verses from Proverbs chapter 6: “Look at the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.” The lesson for us is obvious. We are to work hard like the ant, not be lethargic like the sluggard. Our families and our society will suffer if we shirk our God-given responsibilities.
As well as being hardworking, Proverbs also reminds us to be honest. We are to act with integrity in our workplace, as in every other area of life. As Proverbs 10:9 says “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.” Proverbs 11:1 particularly stresses the importance of integrity at work. There can be no place for deception or fraud. It says “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favour with him.”
Overall, Proverbs reassures us that an honest and diligent worker will be rewarded for his or her efforts. Hard work and honesty usually pay off as well as being pleasing to God. As verse 18 says this morning: “The one who guards a fig-tree will eat its fruit, and whoever protects their master will be honoured.”
Conclusion: Jesus’ work for us, in us, and through us!
So Proverbs says we should work hard and work honestly. But of course there is an obvious problem. None of us has always worked as hard or as honestly as we should. Whatever jobs we do, or have done, we’ve all ducked our duties at some time or another, our integrity hasn’t always been as high as we would like. At one time or another, in one way or another, we’ve all sinned in our workplace.
We all need forgiveness for our failures at work, as in every other area of life. What we need is forgiveness – and for that we need Jesus’ work for us. Jesus’ great work for us, a work he completed perfectly, was to work for our salvation. He lived the perfect life we could not live, and on the Cross paid the price we cannot pay. Jesus’ work on the cross – a work we will remember when we share bread and wine shortly – has won our forgiveness from God.
Wonderfully, if we are Christians, Jesus is now also at work in us. He is at work in us now by his Spirit – changing our characters so we become more hardworking and honest, more godly and holy. Whenever we face temptation at work, we should ask for the Spirit’s help to do the right thing.
Finally, we should be encouraged by the fact that Jesus can work through us. Wherever we work, we should have the attitude that we are working for Christ – even if our efforts go unnoticed or unappreciated by our human managers. Just as those little ants work tirelessly for their colony, we Christians should work joyfully for Jesus. We should serve him as our heavenly master, and speak to our colleagues about him, who worked for our salvation.