As far back as we can remember, we were encouraged by our parents to work with diligence. We were made to clean up our rooms and participate in household chores for the good of the family. Perhaps we earned an allowance or even had opportunities to help with big projects and earn some extra money.
And as we grew older, these experiences shaped our work ethic and our understanding that laziness doesn’t pay.
Laziness in the Bible
The Bible has plenty to say about lazy people. But it’s hard to find ‘laziness’ (the state of being lazy) in scripture. Perhaps this is because laziness is such an unnatural way of operating, the Bible’s writers hardly considered it a way of life worthy of its own word.
More commonly, the Bible speaks of lazy people rather than laziness itself. In doing so, laziness is revealed not as a lifestyle, but as a character trait—and not a good one!
In the Old Testament, we encounter words of wisdom and warning directed at the ‘sluggard’. This is the favored English rendering in both archaic and modern translations. But some versions opt for ‘slacker’ or even ‘lazybones’ to improve readability. The Hebrew word behind this translation, awtsale, means exactly what we expect it to mean: lazy or slothful.
In the New Testament, the Greek word ataktos is rendered as ‘idle’ in most modern translations, though the KJV translates this word as ‘disorderly’. In English, we read this word as an adjective, a description of the person, but the original Greek uses ataktos as an adverb, describing the person’s actions.
This starts to make sense when we understand that ataktos means acting out of order (or ranks, in the case of soldiers), or deviating from what is expected. And this strikes at the very core problem with laziness: it is contrary to how God intends us to live in this world.
Is Laziness a Sin?
Sin, in its simplest terms, is anything that separates us from God. And laziness falls under this definition because—as the New Testament writers understood—laziness contradicts our God-given purpose.
If we examine the creation story, we see that man was placed in the Garden of Eden for the specific purpose of working in the garden. Why? Because man is created in God’s image, and God is one who works tirelessly.
The creation account of Genesis depicts God completing six days of work, followed by a Sabbath rest (a pattern that He commanded us to follow). At the completion of His initial creative work, God then placed His image within His creation in order to continue the work that he started.
We also note that work is not a consequence of sin. Although sweat and pain were added to our work after Adam brought sin into the world (Genesis 3:17-19), work itself was prescribed before the fall, while humanity was still without sin.
This idea of work being intertwined with our essence and purpose is threaded throughout scripture. The Psalmist calls on God to ‘teach us to number our days’ (manage our time) and to ‘establish the work of our hands’ (Psalm 90:12, 17).
And in the New Testament, Paul makes the three-pronged declaration that each of us is ‘God’s workmanship,’ that we have been created ‘to do good works,’ and that the works themselves are ‘prepared in advance’ by God for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
When we fail to work as we are called to do, we fail to live according to God’s will and purpose for our lives. And this is a sin that can lead to grave consequences not only for us but for those whose lives we affect.
Biblical Consequences of Laziness
The relationship between work and reward is self-evident. In order to grow crops, we must plant seeds. In order to receive a paycheck, we must show up and do our jobs. The natural outcome of laziness is the lack of results.
And this can affect our relationships with others. In Thessalonica, laziness was so widespread, that Paul was compelled to address the problem in one of his letters to the church. Paul famously issued a decree to this church that “If a man will not work he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
And if we read this verse in the context of the whole passage, we understand plainly why Paul determined to draw such a bright line:
- Laziness is contrary to Biblical instruction (v 3:6)
- Laziness places a burden on others (v 3:8)
- Laziness leads to frivolous actions (v 3:13)
This is not to say that we should dismiss the needs of those who are unable to work and properly care for themselves. On the contrary, one reason that we should work is so that we can properly care for the needy (Ephesians 4:28). This becomes even clearer as we break down how laziness affects specific relationships.
Examples of Laziness in the Bible
In ancient times—and in many modern cultures—a man’s purpose was to work in order to produce or earn the food and money that were needed to provide for his family. It was a man’s responsibility to ensure that his wife, his children, and any others in his care (servants and widowed relatives) had all that they needed.
So it is no surprise to us that the most severe rebuke of laziness is aimed specifically at husbands and fathers. As Paul writes, ‘Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Timothy 5:8).
As the head of the household, a man who neglects his duty to his family neglects his duty to God. He has failed to honor the Image in which he was created and the purpose for which he was created. But most of all, he has failed to show the most fundamental expression of God’s love to the people closest to him.
Such a man is wise to learn from nature:
The ant is not ordered or instructed to work, but does so in order to have provisions stored up. (vs 6:7-8). And a man’s failure to heed even this simple lesson will swiftly lead to poverty and scarcity (v 6:11). And not only will scarcity deeply impact a man’s ability to feed his children, but it places an even greater burden on his wife’s household responsibilities.
Lazy Women and Wives
Women in ancient cultures also had specific roles. While a man worked outside of the home to provide for his family, his wife worked in the home to care for the family.
Turning again to 1 Timothy 5, Paul warns that young women—particularly widows—who are inclined to idleness fall into the temptation to become gossips and busybodies (v 13). So Paul encourages young widows to marry and turn their energy to managing homes and children for the good of the community (v 14).
But even a married woman who has a household to manage is cautioned against the snare of laziness. A favorite among women’s writers, Proverbs 31 describes a wife of noble character as one who:
- Gets up while it is still dark and provides food for her family (v 15)
- Sets about her work vigorously (v 17)
- and Does not eat the bread of idleness (v 27)
It is only for lack of space that we do not delve deeper into the rich wisdom of this chapter. Nevertheless, in just this short sampling we already see how a diligent wife mirrors and honors a husband who dutiful provides for her and their family.
Here again, it is helpful to understand some cultural context. Just as we risk losing our jobs today if we do not carry out our assigned tasks, day-workers in ancient cultures faced a similar lack of prospects if they failed to work diligently. Proverbs 10:26 masterfully describes how an employer might perceive a lazy worker, likening him to ‘vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes.’ What landowner wants to invite that guy back to work the next day?
And laziness in all its forms makes the work of others—or even our own work for tomorrow—much more difficult:
When laziness keeps a worker from maintaining a path, everyone’s travels are slowed and their work impeded. In addition, the clear path maintained by diligent work does not apply just to the roads that we travel but to our spiritual journeys as well. So let us examine one final aspect of laziness.
Jesus lamented that ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few’ (Matthew 9:37). But surely he was not concerned that grapes and olives were left to rot on their vines. No, he was concerned about the spiritual work of proclaiming God’s kingdom. From the start, he called his disciples to work alongside him promising to make them ‘fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:19).
And a worker in God’s kingdom is well disciplined and prepared to:
- Pray without Ceasing (1 Thessalonians 15:17)
- Carry his own load (Galatians 5:6)
- Exercise his spiritual gifts for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7)
- Encourage the work of others (Hebrews 10:24)
- and Never tire of doing good (2 Thessalonians 3:13)
In living out these instructions, we become not just hearers of God’s word, but doers of His word. So let us set aside laziness and faithfully live God’s purpose for us.