How has your week been? Good, bad or indifferent? For many of us, our answer to that question will depend on how our work has gone this week. Whether we are paid or unpaid, whether we work from home, in an office, or a shop – or elsewhere – so much of our time each week is spent working that it has a huge impact on our quality of life.
And so today, in this final sermon of our Proverbs series, 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.
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.
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. As verse 27 of today’s reading tells us, 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 verse 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:
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.
A couple of years 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 person 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.”
Wherever we work, we should have the attitude that we are working for Christ. As the apostle Paul says in Colossians 3:23 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters”.
We labour for the glory of God, even if our efforts go unnoticed or unappreciated by our human managers. Just as those little ants work tirelessly for their Queen, Christians should work joyfully for King Jesus. We should serve him as our heavenly master, and speak to our colleagues about Christ. As we work, let us take every opportunities to tell our co-workers about Christ – our gracious Master, Lord and King.
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