[work And] Idleness

Imagine it's Monday morning. And the alarm clock, or the kids, or both, have just gone off. If you're in a paid job, work awaits you. If you're a home-maker or half and half, work awaits you. If you're studying, work should await you. But then imagine (and I know you'll find this hard) - imagine you don't actually feel like working. What reasons would you give yourself for getting out of bed? Let me give you a moment to think and maybe jot your reasons down on the outline. Why not stay in bed? Why get up to work? I wonder how negative your reasons were. Here are some possible reasons: 'I must go in or my colleagues will have to cover for me and I'll get it on the neck from them.' 'I must do the housework or the place will be a tip.' 'I must go to lectures or they'll kick me off the course.' 'I must go in or I'll lose my job.' I don't know about yours, but those reasons are all negative. It's very easy to be negative about work. And some Christians in Thessalonica were so negative about work that they'd stopped working. Verse 11:

We hear that some among you are idle.

So the apostle Paul took up his pen to spell out a Christian attitude to work - by which I mean all work, not just paid work. So first, THE PROBLEM OF IDLENESS (v6) And the problem was: Christians had stopped working because they'd misunderstood how to live for Christ in the real world. Verse 6:

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.

And the end of verse 10 says: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat.' So he's not talking about unemployed people who want to work but can't. He's talking about people who could work and should work, but won't. That's important, so we don't misapply these verses and cause false guilt. Now Paul doesn't spell out why they'd stopped work. But we do have some clues. If you were here for 2.1-12, you'll remember that some of the Thessalonians (wrongly) believed that Jesus' second coming had already happened (see 2.2). The rest of them (rightly) believed that Jesus would return, wrap up history and overthrow all the evil in the world. The crown stands for God, with the Lord Jesus at his side. The solid box stands for this life. (We can't actually see God from where we are inside the box. But because he sent his Son Jesus into the box 2000 years ago, we know he's there.) And the dotted line stands for having Jesus as your Lord - ie, being in his kingdom. So the stickperson on the left is not a Christian. And that may be you: you may believe that this life is all there is. While the stickperson on the right is a Christian. And the Christian knows that Jesus has come into the box of human history, died for their sins, risen from the dead and is back outside the box again, in heaven. And the Christian does believe that he will come a second time to wrap up history and overthrow evil. So that there will be a heaven unspoilt by sin; and a hell for those who refuse to the end to let Jesus be Lord. That's the Bible's view of things: this world is temporary, and spoilt by sin. And that does affect (and should affect) a Christian's perspective on work. Since this world is temporary, for example, everything we design and make or build will fall down or wear out. Every person we teach or treat will die. Every human structure we pass on will be changed or scrapped. And, since this world is spoilt by sin, much work is actually a direct result of sin and its effects. Just think through the professions. The armed forces, the police, the law, the banks, the insurance companies and security firms, the nurses, physios, dentists and medics. So much work arises not out of God's creation, but out of the fall of the human race. So, many jobs will be obsolete in heaven. Including mine. So a Christian perspective on work is in one sense negative. We see it for what it is in a fallen world, with its frustrations and often its futility. But some of the Thessalonians had pushed that perspective way too far. 'Why work at all?' they said. 'Why invest in anything that's temporary or spoilt by sin? After all, Jesus could come back today.' They hadn't worked out how to live as members of God's kingdom but at the same time in the real world. In terms of my picture, how to live in those two overlapping boxes at once: the world and the kingdom of God. Consequently, they thought work had no lasting value in God's eyes. That's most probably the explanation for their idleness. And Paul says, verse 6: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. Which begs the question: what teaching had they received about work? So: Secondly, THE PURPOSE OF WORK (vv7-10) Actually, it would be better to head this section, 'One purpose of work'. But according to Paul in these verses, a major purpose of work is to be a giver rather than a getter. And what he'd already taught them about work is in the box below. From 1 Thessalonians 4.11-12:

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, {12} so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

Let's unpack that. 'Lead a quiet life': ie, not so spiritually over-excited that you neglect quietly carrying your daily responsibilities. Then, 'mind your own business'. There's a temptation when we don't have work to do. For these Thessalonians it was because they refused to work. For us it might be in the holidays, or if we're unemployed or job-hunting, or retired or mainly at home during the day. The temptation is getting too much into other peoples' business. And Paul says, frankly, 'mind your own business'. And this can be a particular problem in churches. We easily cross the line from being supportive fellow-Christians to being self-appointed counsellors or even gossips - 'busy-bodies', as Paul puts it in v11: spending all our time putting other peoples' worlds to rights while neglecting our own. And then: 'work with your own hands' - which shows that there's nothing 'unspiritual' about any kind of labour, and no 'hierarchy' of labour. 'So that' - here are two of Paul's reasons for getting up on Monday morning - (for one thing) 'your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.' Non-Christians fear that we're some kind of cult that withdraws from the real world. So we need to show them that, far from withdrawing us from the real world, the Lord Jesus sends us back into it to take our responsibilities more seriously than they do. And, lastly in the box, 'so that you will not be dependent on anybody.' And that last point is the one Paul picks up again in 2 Thessalonians 3.7. A major purpose of work is to be a giver rather than a getter. To help others, rather than depend on them unnecessarily. 2 Thessalonians 3.7:

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat.' (vv7-10)

So Paul pulls the rug brilliantly out from under the idlers' feet. You can imagine them saying how 'unspiritual' work was (because it was all to do with the here and now) and how it was far more spiritual to be doing something like full-time missionary work. And Paul says, 'No!' [Verse 7:]

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We [full-time missionaries] were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you [ie, so that we could give you our ministry for free.] (vv7-8)

So according to these verses, a major purpose of work - not the only purpose, but a major one - is: to support oneself and be able to give to others. At its lowest, the purpose of work is to support oneself. Verse 10: For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat.' (Let me say again: he's not talking about those who can't find work or are unable to work. He's talking about those who could work and should work, but will neither work nor look for work.) But at its lowest, the purpose of work is to support oneself. It's so we can eat. Or in our terms, pay the bills. Which is a truth we need to grow up into. While we're still at home, or students, we do depend on our parents' support. But we've got to be careful that we don't see that as a right which we can demand from them. And when we do reach the stage when we can contribute to our own support - for example, a holiday job - we should, if our parents need us to or want us to. And parents have the hard job of weaning children on to that sort of attitude of self-support. We don't have a right to work-free school or university holidays (or any holidays, come to that). Nor do we have a right to support leisure time on the dole. Work to support yourself, says Paul. But more than that: work to be able to give to others. Look at verse 8 again (half-way through):

On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.

Not 'so that we'd have plenty for ourselves'. But, 'so that we could give you our ministry for free.' Paul's vision for work is not a vision of selfish financial independence - working so that I'm well-fed, well-leisured, well-mortgaged, well-pensioned and finally well-retired. It's not the 20th century vision of being a financial island, safe and sound inside my castle of PEPS and ISA's. God's will is not that we work in order merely to get. But that we work in order to get in order to give. How does that apply today? Well, your husband or wife may not be working right now. So one reason for getting out of bed and going to work is to give to them. Work in itself may be a negative experience for any number of reasons, but there, at least, is a positive and God-pleasing attitude to take into it. The same applies to those with children, or supporting older parents or relatives: we can say to ourselves, 'I'm working to give to them.' And I guess it's those of us who are single and earning well who need to think about this most. It's much easier for us, without husband or wife or children, to be selfish. To spend on ourselves or save for ourselves. And we need to ask: 'How am I giving with my salary?' How's your hospitality? Your generosity? Your sharing of home and possessions? And so on. According to Paul, a major purpose of work is not just to support ourselves, but to get in order to give to others, help others and share with others. Another time Paul said this:

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said; 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' (Acts 20:35)

That's a major part of the Christian attitude to work. Clearly, jobs do have other purposes which make them valuable to God. The integrity of the businessman is valuable to God. The compassion of the social worker is valuable to God. And so on, for every job. But whatever the job, if we have one, the income puts us in a position to give. And like I said at the start, there's more to work than paid jobs. And few kinds of work exemplify this attitude of giving more than the unpaid work of the home-maker or the parent or grandparent, or the charity worker. Pay packets have no intrinsic value in God's sight. But giving hearts do. Let me come back to verse 9 and the point at the bottom of the outline which I've headed, 'The special case of 'Christian work''. Ie, those whose job is to support the spread of the gospel and the life of the church. Paul says in verse 9:

We did this [ie, supported ourselves financially in Christian work], not because we do not have a right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.

Several parts of the NT say that it is perfectly right for full-time Christian workers to be financially supported by Christians (see 1 Corinthians 9.7-14, 1 Timothy 5.17-18). For example, 1 Corinthians 9.14:

'the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

So, for example, Paul sometimes received an income from a church (eg Philippians 4.14-18), sometimes earned his own (as here in Thessalonica). It depended on his circumstances. Or take two examples from our church. Last year, Simon Price was working 3 days a week in Asda in order to give several days to study and various ministries in JPC. This year, he's on the staff. We're paying him to release those three days that went on Asda so that they can go on supporting and organising the life of the church. And the point of the paid staff is not that they do 'Christian work' instead of the non-staff. Staff do their work in order to support and expand the work of the non-staff. So, for example, pay Jonathan Redfearn so that he doesn't have to be a teacher to pay his bills, and he can organise Home Groups. Which results in 80 leaders leading 40 groups so that 600 believers can build one another up. (That's the aim for next year, anyway.) I've been involved in setting up and organisation to help people consider and (if appropriate) find their way in to full-time, paid Christian work. There are many student-and-above-aged people wanting to head up that path, and again and again the limiting issue is: money. We desperately need as Christians to recover a vision for using our money to support full-time Christian workers, in order to support and extend the gospel-work of all of us. And we need to be sacrificial enough to support their training, whether giving study time on the job (as for Parish Assistants here), or sabbaticals (as for Liz Holgate at the moment or David next year), or for residential training, where for a while you're getting nothing back from them. That's part of the agenda of our church, and it is a sacrifice. I heard the story of two married couples talking about family life. And one of the couples was going on about what a financial sacrifice it was having their two children, with all the demands as they grew out of this and grew into that. And the other couple listened and then just very quietly said, 'We used to have a son. He died when he was 14. He hasn't cost us a penny since.' Whether it's physical, or spiritual, growth costs. Death is cheap. And in many places the spiritual death of the church is because we won't pay the price of supporting full-time workers. I find that we Christians are often embarrassed by how much we earn. When in reality we should see our salaries not as spending power, but as God-given giving power. (I remember a member of my Home Group saying she was considering two jobs that were equivalent, but for the salary - one paid £8000 more. I said unhesitatingly, 'Go for the higher salary.' And everyone looked rather shocked. But I didn't mean in order to keep it, but in order to steward it for the Lord. £8000 is one Parish Assistant's salary plus expenses.) We shouldn't be embarrassed by our income. We should often be embarrassed by how we fail to give. The problem of idleness. The purpose of work Thirdly, TWO COMMANDS (vv11-13) One to the idle. Verse 11. The apostle Paul says to them and to us:

We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busy bodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.

Ie, if you could be and should be working to support yourself and/or help others, but you're not, then repent. Settle down and find work - paid, or unpaid - and stick at it. And then one to the others. Verse 13:

And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

Which is very realistic. Because we do get tired of work. Tired of the routine; tired of the frustrations; tired of financial responsibility; tired of the tyranny of the bills; tired of being depended on. Tired enough to stay in bed on Monday morning. And Paul says to us:

brothers, never tire of doing what is right [literally, doing good]

Not meaning, 'Don't feel tired,' (which is unavoidable for most of us). But meaning. 'Don't actually pack in working.' Don't focus on what's negative about work, says Paul. Focus on the fact that paid work earns you giving power - whether giving to family or friends, to relieve poverty or spread the gospel. And focus on the fact that all work, in some way, is giving to someone else. And in having that attitude, you can be like God in the most ungodly work-places. Because like it says:

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)

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