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Counseling Idleness

Excelling in brotherly love requires repenting of laziness.

Mar 10, 2021

My name is Keith Christensen. I’m a pastor in Fort Worth, Texas, and I’m glad to be here with you to talk about counseling those struggling with idleness. The Scriptures are sufficient to address idleness. In this lecture, I want to share some ways the Bible speaks to the matter. I hope you’ll leave our time together feeling more equipped to minister to those ensnared by idleness.

We’ll begin by examining idleness biblically in a general sense. Then we’ll look at how idleness may be connected to other sins as well as counseling issues you might deal with. Further, I’ll share some more texts you can use for counseling idleness, and finally, I’ll end with some practical suggestions for counseling the idle. 

First, I want to answer the question, “Is idleness really that bad?” Almost everyone struggles to some degree with laziness, right? How bad could this really be? And the answer is that idleness can be a really insidious and subtle evil.

When we choose idleness, it doesn’t often feel like we’re doing anything wicked or devastating. It often feels like just a little more sleep or just a little more folding of the hands to rest. How harmful is that?

What the Bible Says About Idleness

Proverbs 24:30-34 says, “I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and it’s stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber; a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber. and want like an armed man.” It’s easy, therefore, to see the devastating consequences of idleness in the life of a sluggard. It’s as sad and obvious as a wall broken down in an overgrown field. But the path that the sluggard took to get there is often far less conspicuously destructive.

Derek Kidner, in his commentary on the book of Proverbs, writes, “The wise man will learn while there’s still time. He knows that the sluggard is no freak, but, as often as not, an ordinary man who has made too many excuses, too many refusals, and too many postponements. It has all been as imperceptible, and as pleasant, as falling asleep.” 

Because of this, it can be especially important to see how Scripture strongly condemns idleness. The longest sustained treatment of idleness in the New Testament is found in 2 Thessalonians 3. The Holy Spirit through Paul’s pen addresses the idle man using very stark language in this chapter. Verse 12 speaks directly to the idle saying, “Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and earn their own living.” Verse 6 speaks to the rest of the congregation about the idle, “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.”

Did you notice how Paul intensified these commands to and about the idle? Paul usually just issues commands using bare imperative verbs, but in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 12, he introduces these injunctions strongly with “we command you,” and he makes the orders extremely weighty by adding “in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul’s other command in this passage is also very stark and shows how seriously we should take idleness. He says if anyone is not willing to work let him not eat. These are severe commands: Keep away from them! Don’t give them food! They’re perfectly fitting according to God’s perfect wisdom for a potentially severe problem. 

It’s important to notice that this passage defines idleness as an unwillingness to work. It says that if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. An inability to work is not necessarily an unwillingness to work, and that is an extremely important distinction that you must not confuse. Of course, people don’t always fit easily into one category or the other, do they? Even people whose ability to work may be compromised for one reason or another may still need to be admonished to repent of an indwelling unwillingness to work at the same time. Idleness is an inordinate love of ease and a heart aversion to work and diligence, and it can be found in both people who are able and people who are unable to work.

The great Puritan Richard Baxter offers helpful counsel on this front and says, “He that has some physical or mental weariness from a physical condition or a calm stoic temperament, a heaviness or a dullness, still does sin if he strives not against it as much as he can, and as in reason he should. He is most sinfully slothful who is most voluntarily slothful. As he that endeavors least against it, and he that loves it most and would not leave it: and he that is least troubled at it and least repents and laments it, and contrives to accommodate his sloth.”

First Timothy 5 is another passage that has a strong word for the idle. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The context of that statement is specifically about caring for older family members, like a mother or a grandmother who’s a widow, and laziness is probably not the main issue Paul has in mind concerning why someone might refuse to provide for an older relative. Still Paul’s statement in verse 8 is spoken in very general terms, giving us a principle we can rightly apply to the issue of idleness. If someone fails to provide for his household because of laziness, he still falls under this same harrowing label: “worse than an unbeliever.” Even unbelievers recognize and often fulfill their obligations to try to meet the material needs of those within their household.

I realize most of us and most of our counselees probably won’t struggle with the extreme kinds of laziness addressed directly by 2 Thessalonians 3 or 1 Timothy 5, and it is important to note that there are degrees of unwillingness to work that plague sinners. But these Scriptures should still be eye-opening warnings for even softer struggles with idleness that are more common among men.

Consider also this gut-wrenching comparison in Proverbs 18:9, “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” Being slack in your work puts you in the same sin family as the one who destroys others. Do you remember how Proverbs lambasts this character called “The Fool?” Proverbs is a book of wisdom, and the fool embodies all that the book condemns. Surprisingly, Proverbs says that there are some people who are even worse off than fools, and the idle man falls into one of those categories. Proverbs 26:12 says, “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” This is really saying something if you’ve read the first 25 chapters of Proverbs.

Proverbs 26:13-15 then begins talking about the sluggard who says, “There’s a lion in the road! There’s a lion in the streets! As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.” The explicit connection to verse 12 comes next in verse 16: “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.” So, there’s more hope for a fool than for the man who’s wise in his own eyes, and the lazy man falls into that category sevenfold.

Scripture has strong words for the idle, and Scripture affirms that the idle need to hear strong words. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, the Apostle Paul counsels us to minister to different kinds of people in different ways saying, “…help the weak, encourage the faint-hearted, admonish the idle, be patient with them all.” The Scriptures strongly admonish idleness because the idle likely need strong admonition to rouse them and open their spiritually drowsy eyes to see their need to repent decisively. Repentance always involves a certain level of decisiveness, and the idle man doesn’t traffic very often in the lane of being decisive or in making and following through with specific plans.

Richard Baxter in A Christian Directory, includes a section called “Directions against Idleness and Sloth.” He leads off his counsel to the idle sounding this alarm before anything else. He writes, “The first help against sloth is to be well acquainted with the greatness of the sin. For no wonder it be committed by them that think it is small. God himself reckons it with heinous sins. Idleness is a sin we can sleepily ease into. It is not a sin that we can sleepily ease out of. If we take laziness lightly, we will never repent of it with our whole heart.”

I want to remind you as counselors that you have to be discerning per 1 Thessalonians 5:14 in how you minister to those who are clearly working at less than full speed. Before you string your biblical counseling bow with the arrows of strict Scriptures and strong condemnations against idleness, consider again, “Is this person weak or fainthearted?” If so, they should not be admonished as an idle person; they should be helped and encouraged. Be patient with them all.

But the idle person needs to be admonished. An idle person’s life is necessarily full of sin. Theologians have traditionally distinguished between sins of commission and sins of omission. The former category describes committing what is evil; the latter omitting what is good. We understand that it’s not sinful only to do, think, say, and desire what is wrong. It is also sinful not to do, speak, think, desire what is right. James 4:17 is the classic text in this regard; “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” This is a very helpful concept for counseling the idle. Laziness almost by definition is knowing the right thing to do and failing to do it persistently. A lazy person’s life is necessarily full of sins of omission.

Along these lines Baxter helps us again by saying idleness is not a single sin, but a continued course of sinning. An idle person is sinning all the while he is idle. When we understand the biblical category of sins of omission, we see that Baxter’s stinging analysis hits the mark. Part of the reason we take laziness lightly is our inattention to sins of omission. Laziness doesn’t often feel like evildoing because when we’re lazy we’re most often not really doing anything.

Therein lies the problem. The Bible unequivocally identifies not doing anything good as sin. Charles Bridges, another great Puritan, offers these pertinent words in his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes. He says, “While we study the awful catalog of sins of commission, let us not forget that the sins of omission are equally guilty. We learn to do evil by doing nothing. We satisfy ourselves and irreligious habits with the delusion that we have done no harm. But is it really no harm to have trifled away all opportunities of doing good?” Bridges’ comments recall the language of Galatians 6:10, “So then as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” The idle man fails in an ongoing way to do good as he has opportunity.

More helpful verses along these lines are Proverbs 3:27 and 28, which address specifically that form of idleness that is procrastination. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’—when you have it with you.”

In addition to heaping up sins of omission, idleness also is a breeding ground for other sins. Baxter teaches that, “Idleness is the mother and nurse of many heinous sins. They that do not what they should, will be doing what they should not. Idleness is the season of temptation. It is Satan’s seedtime. It is then that he has opportunity to tempt men to malice, revenge, and all other villainy that is committed.” Scripture, along with virtually every Christian’s personal experience, offers abundant confirmation to these conclusions. Paul exhorted the Ephesian church in Ephesians 5:13-16 to make the best use of the time because the days are evil. By not making the best use of time, the idle man walks unwise in the midst of evil days, and he will likely find it difficult to withstand the evil around him. 

The Connection of Idleness to Other Sins

Let’s think about how idleness can spawn other sins by considering the connection of idleness to common root sins like pride and idolatry. Proverbs 12:26 says, “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven sensible men,” which is tragically ironic, in part because the Proverbs affirm directly that the sluggard lacks wisdom and sense, but the lazy man can’t see it. He is proudly delusional about how reasonable he is.

Have you ever known a person given to laziness who is also a proud know-it-all? The sluggard might say very unreasonable things like he does in Proverbs 26:13: “There’s a lion in the road!” I can’t go to work. “There’s a lion in the streets!” It’s hard to talk him out of that nonsense, partly because the idle man can be a very proud man who insists that he knows best, better even than the seven sensible men who can answer him. 

Work in a fallen world is humbling because the fruit of our diligent labors often is not all that great. We work hard and thorns and thistles grow up instead of things we can eat. Laziness shields you from having these helpfully humbling experiences. You can sink into kind of a dream state about how great you are.

Proverbs also indicates that idleness can be related to covetousness and greed, and that is idolatry according to God’s Word. Proverbs 21:26 says, “All day long he craves and craves…” I take this to mean more than just suffering physical hunger; it also includes the proliferation of greed, discontentment, and covetousness. He wants more and more all day long. His craving is more than just hunger pangs. It refers to lust and desires. Proverbs 13:4 says, “For the soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing…” Scripture is referring to more than his belly. Proverbs 21:25 says, “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.” While the idle man’s hands are not busy working, his heart is still busy desiring. He has no tasks to focus his mind on, so he focuses instead on the things that he wants but doesn’t have. All day long he craves and craves.

According to Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, covetousness is idolatry. Coveting is a sin of desire. It’s an idol of the heart. If idleness spawns covetous craving in our hearts, then idleness can be a contributing factor that leads to all manner of sin because all manner of sin has idolatry as part of the root somehow.

Consider how idleness can be connected to some specific sin struggles that come up repeatedly in our counseling rooms, starting with depression and discontentment. Now the connection between depression and idleness is so significant that a lot of the biblical counseling literature I’ve seen on depression actually defines depression as an all-consuming kind of sadness that is immobilizing, meaning idleness-inducing, or induced by idleness, or both. They suggest that if you’re just feeling down, that’s not depression; that’s life in a fallen world. But if you’re down and out, walking in idleness in response to how you feel, that’s what they would want to identify specifically as depression. 

Hardships, profound sadness, and disappointments can weaken our desire to move and to do things. If we give in to these temptations and embrace idleness, we can become caught in a dangerous downward spiral. Depression and idleness are mutually reinforcing in this way. We feel sad and unmotivated, so we are idle, which makes us feel more sad and unmotivated. The negative consequences of idleness continue to send us further into idleness. 

Even if laziness is not part of the equation concerning what initially sends a counselee into depression, it most certainly threatens to keep them there longer and to make the pit of despair and emotional numbness deeper and darker and more disorienting. In many cases of depression, at least part of the heart dynamic is explained by Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Proverbs 13:19 says, “A desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul.” Just a few verses earlier we find a description of a sluggard that shows he is a prime candidate for this kind of hope-deferred heartsickness. Proverbs 13:4 states, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing.” The idleness of the sluggard causes him to gather up lots of hopes deferred and unfulfilled desires. Proverbs 20:4 states, “The sluggard does not plow in autumn, he will seek at harvest and have nothing.” Hope deferred. To make matters worse because he does not busy himself with daily responsibilities, he has too much time on his hands to just mull over these disappointments and these frustrated longings. A sluggard’s desires not only go unfulfilled, they also multiply and intensify as he craves and craves all day long. The sluggard is all the more susceptible to this experience that we read about in the first part of Proverbs 13:12: Hope deferred makes the heart sick.

God made us in His image and part of that is our responsibility to work. God worked in creation. God put His hands in the dirt and planted a garden, and then He put the man in that place to work and to keep it after Him. When we are not working regularly, we are living contrary to how God has wired us as image bearers. We should expect that it will be particularly unfulfilling for a man to be idle. God worked in creation, and He liked it. He delighted in it, and He made us to be like that too. We have to be very discerning as we minister these truths. Do you remember Job? Job sat dumbfounded in profoundly immobilizing grief for days after he lost his wife and children. But there is a time to mourn, isn’t there? Job did not need to be admonished in those days to get up and start working. 

Idleness can also have a strong connection to anxiety and fear. In one of the classic passages on anxiety in the New Testament, Jesus concludes by saying, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). An idle man is not busy about the sufficient trouble of today. He does not seek to faithfully carry out the responsibilities of the present, and as a result, his thought life is all freed up to focus instead on being anxious about tomorrow.

Interestingly, the text we’ve used to address the sluggard’s sin of omission makes a similar connection. James 4:17 is an inference of what came before it, saying, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Doing the right thing now as opposed to idleness is the concluding directive that follows the several verses warning against focusing on tomorrow. That’s what came before in James 4:13-16. Don’t boast about tomorrow. You don’t know what your life will bring. So instead of being anxious about tomorrow or boasting about tomorrow, you need to worry about what you need to do in the present and do that. Don’t omit that duty you owe to God. We see in both James 4 and Matthew 6 that idleness and sinful future-focused anxiety can fit hand-in-hand.

Jay Adams taught the connection between fear and sloth concerning the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. He writes, “Did you know that the Scriptures indicate that many worrying people are lazy? Well, that is what Jesus himself said concerning the one worrier who is afraid of the future and sought to be excused from his present responsibilities on the basis of worry. Jesus called him lazy instead. The slave worried about the possible consequences of investing the money. He worried and worried and became paralyzed. He worried, and he did not work, but his master answers, ‘You wicked, lazy servant. You ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival, I would have received my money back with interest.’ That is, at least you should have done the minimal thing you could, but you didn’t. You are a lazy slave.'”

Many of the heart dynamics that we talked about earlier to explain the connection between idleness and depression are also useful for explaining the potential connection between idleness and anxiety. As the sluggard craves and craves, his desires naturally lead to concerns and anxieties that he won’t end up getting what he’s craving. When some of his many desires go unfulfilled, he can become depressed. When he considers how some of his many desires might go unfulfilled in the future, he can become anxious. One way or the other, the desire of the sluggard kills him because his hands refuse to labor (Proverbs 21:25). As Scripture and common sense both teach, a lazy person has plenty of time to lie around and worry. His love of ease and his idle habits mean he’s more inclined to simply worry about whatever concerns him instead of actually trying to do something about it.

I’ll comment on one final set of Proverbs that addresses, with comical and piercing insight, the sluggard and further highlights how a lazy man is often a fearful and anxious man. Proverbs 22:13 teaches, “The sluggard says, ‘There’s a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!'” A lazy man can be controlled by fear, sometimes irrational fear, and it’s difficult to know whether this fear is the fruit or the root of his idleness. Likely the truth is some of both, just as we saw with depression. Idleness can stem from and lead to anxiety and fear. Because of how our hearts work, the things we choose, the things we desire and love, and the things we believe and think all mutually influence each other. An aversion to work or a love of ease and choosing consistently to be idle will help shape how we view the world around us. The sluggard could just be making outlandish excuses about the lion, and in that case, his idleness has become a breeding ground for the evil of deceit, but that’s not the only possible interpretive option here. Perhaps the sluggard really has embraced this fear or maybe there’s a sense in which both dishonest rationalizations and irrational fears are in view because often one comes to actually believe the things that he insists upon saying in hopes of deceiving others. He ends up deceiving himself, too. We need to remember that turning from fear and anxiety and turning from idleness often need to happen together as part of the same turn.

Technology and Idleness

Idleness can cause various social sins creating relational problems. Paul warns in 1 Timothy 5:13 that the young widows in Ephesus could learn to be idlers and end up filling their time with gossip and being meddlesome busybodies. Paul wrote, “Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.” If you will not focus on what is your present responsibility before God, that’s idleness, that frees you up to focus on things like someone else’s business. You may be tempted to gossip or meddle and just generally have opportunity, as Paul pointed out, to say what you should not. When Paul commands the Thessalonians to turn away from idleness in 1 Thessalonians 4, he commands them to work with their hands and to mind their own affairs (v. 11). 

Today, idle people will not need, like Paul described in 1 Timothy 5, to go from house to house to commit these social sins. They can use their idle time to do all these things on their computer or their phone, gossiping and meddling in other people’s affairs instead of minding their own affairs. Idle people today can and do commit all of these social sins on their social media without even having to spend the energy going about from house to house. They can be lazy busybodies in everyone else’s business in the comfort and confines of their own home.

That scenario of how the idle person sins using technology makes us also think of how laziness can occasion sexual immorality, and the potential connection between idleness and pornography. Many have pointed out how David’s horrendous transgressions concerning Uriah and Bathsheba sprouted from the soil of idleness. Second Samuel 11:1 says, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.” That woman with Bathsheba, and you know where things went from there. Commenting on this verse, Dr. Jim Newheiser says idleness and boredom led to temptation. David’s lack of attention to his calling put him in a situation in which he was vulnerable to temptation. Calvin warns that David did not carry out his duty as a king by sparing himself and staying in his house. In order to be at his ease, he threw himself into the net of Satan. Spurgeon reminds us that idleness is the mother of mischief and that David was safer in the midst of raging battles than he was inside his own palace where he was being lazy.

These are some examples of specific ways the Scriptures show how idleness connects with other sins and struggles that come up repeatedly in our counseling ministries. Keep a little antenna up in the counseling room about how idleness might be contributing to any of these struggles and also how repenting of idleness might contribute to freedom from these sins or faithfulness in the midst of struggles.

Texts to Use When Counseling the Idle

You could, with much profit, turn with your counselee or person you’re discipling to Genesis 1-3 and show them the biblical foundations for understanding man’s work. Show them how work is connected to being made in the image of God and what purpose our work has when we work for the glory of God by reflecting His glory as His image, and how we glorify God, especially by serving and benefiting others through our work like God did in His creating work. We also work for our own joy like God did in His creating work. In this way we bear His image. We also see in the fall and the curse in Genesis 3 that work in this life will be frustrated and sometimes futile, so we understand some of the temptations to choose idleness. Because of Christ, though, death and sin are not the final words for us. We can be free to work for God’s glory and the good of others in a way that will matter for eternity because Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, and so, too, will we in Him.

Ecclesiastes is another good book you could turn to and use to talk about learning to enjoy work in a fallen world. The basic flow of thought there shows how the author of the book became highly disillusioned with his work, seeing that it’s all vanity, and he came to hate his work, partly because he was not working for God’s glory and the good of others, but rather for his own reputation and benefit. He asked himself in chapter 4, “What is the point of working just out of envy of others and also only to benefit myself?” The author recognized that responding to these questions by turning to idleness would be foolishness. Throughout this book, there’s this great strand of verses that talks about enjoying all of your toil in this fleeting life, receiving it as God’s gift to you and rejoicing in your work for its own sake. Then at the book’s end he talks about how God will judge all of our works. They aren’t all vain and meaningless after all.

You could also use 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians. Nowhere in the Bible is this topic taken up in such an extended and sustained fashion as it is here. In both of these books, Paul addresses idleness. It’s in and around the church. The apostle commands the idle to do their work quietly and to earn their own living in 2 Thessalonians 3:12.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, the broader context is not an extended dialogue addressing idleness. Rather, this chapter continues Paul’s thoughts about walking in brotherly love. This is how these two books develop ministry to the idle, that idleness is a failure to love neighbor and love the brethren. Paul’s instruction about working is all about excelling in brotherly love. First Thessalonians 4:9-12 says, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

The implication is clear: excelling in brotherly love requires repenting of laziness. The reason Paul gave for the work command here also implies a connection to loving the brothers. The reason that he gave in verse 12 is that we should avoid idleness, so that we may be dependent on no one. Love seeks to give to others instead of planning to take from others. The idle man insists that others be the ones who do the giving. Paul expands on this idea in the lengthier treatment of idleness in 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8, and he offers himself as an example. He says, “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.” Paul devoted himself to bread-earning toil and labor, avoiding even the appearance of idleness, so that he wouldn’t heap up burdens on the brothers and could, therefore, more powerfully encourage them not to do so as well.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). As you bear one another’s burdens, you are fulfilling the law that sums up the law. Love seeks to carry the burdens of others. Idleness places burdens on others. The idle man does not fulfill the law of Christ, so he fails to walk in love. He does not seek to get up underneath someone else’s burdens and help them carry that load. Instead, he is content to just heap up his burdens on other people’s shoulders. 

In 2 Thessalonians 3:13 Paul says, “do not grow weary in doing good.” Right after he tells them to labor and toil and work day and night and take care of their own responsibilities, he tells them to work to do good, and do good and don’t grow weary of it. He has to tell them not to grow weary in doing good because he has in mind that they would engage in quite a lot of good works, potentially a wearying amount of them.

This basic insight that idleness is a failure to love one’s neighbor has been especially fruitful in my own life when I’m tempted to sink into idleness. I’ve been greatly helped whenever I’ve had the spiritual wherewithal in a moment of temptation by asking myself, “Who I am failing to love right now by choosing idleness?” I’m much more likely to renounce this temptation whenever I can call to mind some specific ways in which that choice would negatively affect others.

Thinking that a burden would be added to someone, even if its small, reminds me of how “a little folding of the hands to rest” might not be so innocuous. The indwelling Spirit has used that reminder to rouse me to work and to seek to walk in love. It could prove rather ineffective to exhort an idle man to turn from idleness only by pointing out how that will benefit him. In a moment of temptation to laziness, how will the lazy man answer the question, “How will I benefit from a little folding of the hands to rest now compared to how will I benefit from hopping to work right now?” The self-focused nature of that question will usually influence a man who’s prone to idleness to choose ease, comfort, rest, and leisure in that moment.

It’s undeniable that the Bible warns the lazy man that his aversion to work will yield many negative consequences for his own life. We should not be afraid to be like the Bible and appeal to the idle based on their own normal, good, and natural self-interest. But most lazy men will struggle to properly analyze the cost to self versus benefit to self that is involved when he’s tempted to be idle. He needs more ammunition for the battle against the laziness than simply the idea that there really is a better way to pursue his own benefit right now. He needs to know he’s failing to love, and in that moment, he is called to walk in love. He needs to remember that the idle man is a brother to him who destroys, and that the lazy man is a source of shame, sorrow, and irritation for others (Proverbs 10:1, 5, 26). Laziness is antithetical to love of neighbor, giving oneself for the good and good pleasure of others. 

Another wonderful text to bring to bear on idleness is Colossians 3:17, 22-24. The main point of these verses as they relate to idleness is to show that the “put on” that corresponds to the “put off” of idleness is not just to “put on” working, but it’s to “put on” wholehearted, fervent work for Christ. This text goes so much deeper than showing us that our responsibility is merely to stop doing nothing.

Baxter counsels us this way, “Sloth can be either duties omitted or duties sleepily performed.” Colossians 3:22-24 says, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord, you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” This call of Colossians 3 touches all of our duties. We’re told by Paul that everything we do should be done for Him (v. 22). We should work “fearing the Lord” (v. 2). We don’t work as people-pleasers (v. 22) or for men (v. 23). And all of our work is to be done for Christ, and the text also emphasizes we should work with all our heart. When verse 22 says to work with “sincerity of heart,” it can also be translated, as in the King James, “singleness of heart.” We’re not to work with a double-mind or a half-heart; we work wholeheartedly. Verse 23 calls us to work, as in the ESV, “heartily” or more literally, “from the soul.” Related is the idea in verse 22 that we don’t merely work according to what and when other men can see.

It’s important to get across the idea that idleness does not only look like refusing to work all together. Idleness can be any half-heartedness in our work. We should not work wholeheartedly only when other people are watching. The goal we aim our idle counselees at is not merely that they should start working. The goal Colossians 3 puts before us is way higher than that: Start working for Jesus in a whole-hearted manner whatever you do. That’s what repenting of idleness actually entails, which is why you need the gospel. It’s your only hope. You need to be forgiven for your sins including your sin of idleness. All of us have been half-hearted in our duties toward God and have omitted our duties toward God. For us who knew the right thing to do and failed to do it, it is sin. We need forgiveness from God for this, and we can have it through faith in Christ as we come to Him in repentance as well as receiving and resting in what Jesus has done on the cross for us. 

Lastly, the book of Titus shows that the gospel not only provides forgiveness for lazy people, it also changes lazy people. Titus shows us how the gospel changes lazy people and makes them zealous for good works. Paul leaves Titus to serve the churches of Crete, and he expresses agreement with the Cretan’s assessment of themselves as lazy gluttons. Paul proclaimed how the gospel can change that because the grace of God has appeared. Titus 2:11-14 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Jesus died to redeem His people from all lawlessness including laziness. His work is so great that lazy gluttons can renounce that way of living and can live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives as they’re disciplined by His grace. Jesus is at work to purify all of His people to be just the way He wants them, which is zealous for working good things.

Paul instructs these church members in Crete to live in step with this good news of the gospel. In Titus 3:1 he says, “Remind them to be ready for every good work.” In 3:8 Paul says, “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” And in 3:14 he says, “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.” And in Titus 2:4-5, he teaches that older women need to train the younger women to be workers at home, not like the idlers of 1 Timothy 5 who went from house to house as busybodies. He told Titus himself in 2:7, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works.” The grace of God that has appeared in Christ bringing salvation to all men really is sufficient to accomplish this kind of radical transformation from laziness to zeal.

It can transform us from not caring about our daily responsibilities to being eager and careful to devote oneself to desiring every good work.

Counseling the Idle

Teach your counselees to respond to idleness in repentance toward God and faith in Christ for forgiving and transforming grace. Teach them to walk in daily repentance, even for sins of omission. Bring this issue to light as sin before God and encourage your counselee to trust in the gospel and what Christ has done for forgiveness and for power to change. Then believing that they are empowered to change, encourage them to go work out the fruits of repentance. Also teach them to repent toward, that is seek forgiveness from, those they’ve sinned against by their laziness, maybe the members of their own household. Inculcate this biblical truth that idleness is contrary to the love of neighbor and is sin against our neighbors.

You could choose to have them write out an hourly schedule for accountability. They can write out a to-do list of their daily responsibilities. Give them instruction about how they should pray as they move through it. Set up accountability with them. It probably needs to be more than just meeting with them once a week, maybe a phone call more often than that to see how they’re doing. Ask them to make a list of the things they typically do instead of being busy with their work. You can call this their “busybody list” per 1 Timothy 5. Then set up appropriate boundaries to make no provision for the flesh practicing radical amputation as necessary to keep them from these busybody temptations. Use the texts we’ve discussed for instruction, homework, and memorization.

Examine what heart idols might be at play. You can have them keep an anger journal or an idleness journal. Have them answer heart-probing questions about times that they chose to give into idleness in hindsight. What was it that I wanted most in that situation? What outcome did I most want to avoid? Whose opinion mattered most to me at that time? What was I thinking I needed or deserved? What is making me lazy? Is it a love of ease? Is it pride? Is it that I don’t do work because I don’t want to give myself to work that isn’t status-affirming or world-changing or important enough for me? Is it frustration stemming from a false idealism or idolatry that I just can’t cope with the frustrations of the futility of life in a broken world because I’m pinning my hope for a meaningful life and joy on my success at work?

Finally, it’s also a good idea for those who feel fatigued, tired, and weak all the time to visit their doctor in order to look for any potential physical problems that may be contributing factors to that inability to work. Maybe there is some kind of medical intervention that would help with that as a gift of God’s common grace.