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By Mark Chen

Preached at / Published Life BPC 8am service, 2003-06-01

Text: Proverbs 6:6-11

I bid you Christian greetings on this joyful Sabbath Day. When I first came to Life Church, I used to marvel at those who would come for the first service -who in their right minds would come on the Day of Rest to such an early service. Of course, back then, I didn't understand what Rest meant - I thought Rest literally meant physical rest, and not a cessation of our labors. I was intrigued as to why people, who woke up throughout the week before the sun arose to go to school, send their kids to school, through early morning traffic, make it past the ERP gantry before a certain time; why they would actually wake up just as early or even earlier on the Lord's Day for the first service, when there's another service at a more reasonable hour. Perhaps they want to cruise down the highway to experience jam-free driving. Perhaps they want to get good seats at the back of the church. Or perhaps they have an important appointment in the late morning. Whatever it is, it is certainly no mean feat to make it to church on time at 8 AM to worship God, and even harder to make it at 7.45 to prepare our hearts to worship. It shows great discipline and endurance to this week after week after week. But are our motives correct? This can be applied to other circumstances. Why do you wake up as early as you do? If you didn't have kids who had to be in school at 7 AM, would you wake up as early as you do? If you didn't have to go to work so early and beat the sinister gantry, would you wake up as early as you do? When school is up and exams over, would you wake up as early as you do? And if it's any experience from when I was a student, I suppose not. Students learn very quickly to justify their late reveille when school's out 'It's vacation time, I worked so hard for my exams (despite having finishing 3 weeks earlier), I'm starting school in a week! (as if that justifies anything?)' 

So a very interesting question is posed this morning - Who Is the Sluggard? And judging from our behavior 'I really don't feel like going in to work today, I wonder if I can get an MC,' 'Yikes, I have a report due tomorrow, let me see what I can whip out from the internet!' 'Aiyah, I just don't wanna deal with it now - too much energy to think - I'll deal with it later.' so judging from these things, who is the sluggard? We are! To whatever degree, to whatever frequency, we, as sinful humankind, will continue to possess traits of the sluggard. And as we go through the study on this dubious person, let us identify with him, that we might remove whatever characteristics of his that are in us. And you may be pricked many times or a few times, but whatever it is, you will be pricked at least once, as I was several times.

Well, firstly, what is a sluggard? A sluggard is a person who is habitually inactive or lazy. A Bible synonym is 'slothful.' They both come from the same Hebrew root word - atsluoth - from which some believe we get the English word 'Sloth.' This word literally means to 'lean idly.' The impression we get is of a person who does not have enough strength or does not want to exert enough of his own strength to stand up by himself, but needs a post to lean on so he doesn't have to work so hard. Hence the condition of the sluggard, his chief end, is to exert as little energy to do those things which are needful. He is a person who does not like to work or be active. Indeed, in the passage that we have just read, the chief end of the sluggard is to sleep or to indulge in the activity he likes the most without putting in the energy to achieve it. There are many abounding myths about the sluggard - that he doesn't have any aspirations or that he is not intelligent. On the contrary, the sluggard has many aspirations and he is very intelligent - isn't arriving at your aspirations without doing very much a skill that many people want, and those who possess it are deemed intelligent? Sure, they might be immoral, but they sure are wise in their own right.

Now, no one becomes a sluggard because he is born into it. No doubt we all have inclinations towards laziness - it's only natural as sinful men. But slothfulness is a by-product. It is not a goal which the sluggard seeks after. No one, as a child, dreams of becoming a sluggard when he grows up. It comes upon him gradually. As I said, the sluggard's chief end is to do things and to arrive at things with the least amount of energy. And it happens to normal people who begin to make little soft choices in life, making little surrenders in daily decisions. These little surrenders seem totally harmless - staying in bed just a little longer, taking a little more rest during the day, waiting a few more minutes before starting a project, or spending a little more time in idle chatter. This is exemplified in verses 10-11 'a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:' But what is the end result? 'So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.' These daily surrenders come from making the soft choices in life; such as refusal to be subject to adverse working conditions. Now, when it rains in the morning, thundering and raining, do we really feel like going to work? Not really right? When you have a grueling day in school ahead with many responsibilities, sometimes it's just easier to call in sick right? But resisting to be subject under adverse working conditions is one of the qualities of a sluggard. Proverbs 20:4 tells us that 'The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest and have nothing.' If one doesn't work because the circumstances aren't right, they might never be right. Our soft choices have consequences. It may not be immediately known to the person at that time who calls in sick because there's too much to do, but soon the little soft choices become a habit of life. 'Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; and an idle soul shall suffer hunger' (Proverbs 19:15). It casts the person into a deep sleep - he becomes self eluded.

And this happens to the point that he does not believe he is slothful. Because many of these little choices and actions can be completely rationalized in the mind of the sluggard, he will often reject the label of being a sluggard. He will assure you that he would be very willing to work if there were fewer obstacles in his path. He is only waiting for more favorable working conditions. In the meantime, he may rehearse the reasons why he is unable to begin the projects which he knows must be done. 'Oh, it's June now - very hot this month and very humid; I'll begin my report in July.' And when July comes, we know there'll be another excuse 'Oh, the heat from June, hasn't dissipated yet. August should be cooler, after all the Summer solstice has passed and we're coming to the Fall equinox! The southern hemisphere is getting warmer, hence the northern hemisphere should be getting cooler.' The Christian who is a sluggard may say that God has given rest to his people and that we should not work so hard; after all, hard work is vain as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes and we should just eat, drink, and be merry. He may remind himself of the dangers of over-exertion and the possibility of hurting his walk with God if he works too hard. He is quick to explain his views to any who wonder why he is not working at the moment. Indeed, according to Proverbs 26:16, 'The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit (that is, his eyes) than seven men that can render a reason.' 'Hey, Mr Sluggard, if you're not working now, you'll never feel like working later.' 'Oh, but you are wrong, I'm just waiting for the right time to do my work; I have everything planned out already, don't worry.'

He makes these excuses because he doesn't value the importance of time or seasons. He is usually not a self-starter. To him, one day is as good as another. What he does not do today, he can easily do tomorrow. The sluggard does not understand the value of time or seasons. His basic philosophy is to live for the moment and let the future take its own course. Even the Christian who is sluggardly may push to the back of his head the knowledge that he must one day give an account to God for the way he has used his time. And as one puritan said of the sluggard, 'He looks at nightfall as a justifiable reason for sleep, not for examining whether he has earned it or not.' How then does the sluggard survive at all? He leaches on to the diligent, who have a better concept of time. In a sense, the sluggard can never be his own boss because he can't keep to deadlines. And so someone else must be over him who is more diligent and who can keep him on his toes. As Proverbs 12:24 says, 'The hand of the diligent shall bear rule: but the slothful shall be under tribute.' It is only by their superintendence over him that he can survive. 

But what do you think his employers think of him? You're right; the sluggard is a horrible pest to them. Proverbs 10:26 says, 'As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him.' The sluggard is not just unproductive; he is destructive. His presence on the job is worse than his absence from it. His lack of initiative and follow-through becomes very costly to those who are counting on him. 'He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster' (Proverbs 18:9). Now, the employers may try to adapt to his slothfulness by transferring him to a less strategic position; but this might even prompt him to give reasons why things didn't work out in the first place - never acknowledging his sloth, but blaming it on other things. And in the workplace, this will spread discontentment. Indeed, the sluggard is vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes.

Now, why is the sluggard unproductive and destructive? Why is his presence worse than his absence? It is because he will not finish his tasks. Proverbs 12:27 says, 'The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting: but the substance of a diligent man is precious.' Since he is lethargic in everything he does, each job becomes a mountain in his path. And if he is visited by success, he does not recognize it or value it - it simply means more work. And they will not even exert the energy to maintain what they already have. Ecclesiastes 10:18 says that 'By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.' And Proverbs 24:30-31 says, 'I went by the field of the slothful' and lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down.' If any of you read the comic strip Dilbert, you will see the sluggard in this man - he is very street wise and intelligent as to how to get out of work; in one sense, he 'acts blur.' Sluggards are experts at this. But they only hurt themselves, their friends, their family members, their lives. 

Now how does he hurt himself? Well, when the sluggard isn't sleeping or resting, he will usually be involved in doing things that he likes to do. It could be going down to the coffee shop to sit idly and drink a cup of coffee for hours or it could be sitting down in front of the TV to watch his favorite programs. But these things cost money. And if the sluggard is not working hard to earn, he can't do these things. There is a struggle between his sloth and his lusts. As Proverbs 21:25-26 says, 'The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuse to labor. He coveteth greedily all the day long.' Amazing isn't it? The thing that he must do to fulfill his desires is the thing that he loathes to do the most. 

And the sluggard also hurts himself because he is the victim of self-induced fears. Slothfulness results in fears which are then reinforced by more slothfulness. These fears are based on the fact that the sluggard is a realist up to a point. He knows that he must have a source of food. His lack of food is a result of making soft choices. And as he goes through life, he will always fear the day when he has no food. He will always fear the day when he has to beg. He will always fear the day when his peers are succeeding and he is not. Proverbs 22:13 says, 'The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the street.' 'Oh no, what's going to happen to me next time? I'll be naked and destitute and no one will love me - all because of my sloth.' But what does the sluggard do in spite of all these things? Well, if he picks himself up and applies himself, praise God. But more often than not, the sluggard will escape from his fears, by resorting to more sleep. After all, thinking about these things is too hard, it requires too much brain activity. Sleep - the wondrous solution to our problems. Or so he thinks 'Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.' 

When European explorers first discovered a South American mammal, they named it Sloth because it was the embodiment of idleness. The Sloth may spend a lifetime in a single tree and its slow movements give the impression that it has an overabundance of time. And if there was an animal that the sloth could beat in a race, this animal would have to be created, because no such animal exists. It is the slowest of all mammals - in a sixty-second race, it would cover only a few feet. One scientist observed that, relatively speaking, cellular fluids of single-celled protozoa move faster than a sloth trying to escape from a python. It was once discovered however, that one adventuresome sloth made a trip of four miles in only forty-eight days.

On an average day, the sloth typically sleeps fifteen or more hours a day. This includes all day and most of the night. It is so slow and lazy, that moths and algae take advantage of the sleeping sloth. The motionless sloth with its long, course hair becomes full of moths, therefore forming a symbiotic relationship. Algae may become so thick that the sloth takes on a blue-green appearance and gives off a musty odor. The sloth also completely ignores the algae. And interestingly enough, the sloth's primary occupation is eating - only leaving its treetop home to find more food. It literally eats its way through the dense canopy of leaves which covers the forest.

And when food becomes scarce, the sloth goes hungry, but since it moves slowly and is not accustomed to hunting for its food, it will die of starvation. It is also not uncommon to see skeletons of sloths still hanging from the trees on which they starved to death. One extinct sloth, called the megatherium was the size of an elephant, but it died off because of its slothful way of life. And the sloths main primary defense against predators is deception. It remains motionless for hours at a time and looks like a patch of dead leaves in the tree.

Now, many of us may not identify ourselves as sloths in the arena of our work or study because we have to study and have to work for a living. But many of us may actually be sloths in the arena of our spiritual lives. Often times we would rather deteriorate in our spiritual lives than to spend time cultivating our relationship with God. We spend time indulging in our favorite activities like TV or something else rather than persevering in our spiritual walk. Like the sloth, we might at times apply ourselves, only because we have to - like the sloth searching for food when it is scarce, and we reading the Bible and confessing our sins because we can't take our sinfulness anymore. But throughout life, if our slothfulness is characteristic of our spiritual life, then we will give off a foul odor of worldliness - but then again, this odor does not bother us. We remain motionless as Christians - not serving, not growing, but church going, and hopefully that will deceive people. But eventually, we turn green, in a manner of speaking - and to the discerning eye, people can identify us as worldly Christians, because we are too idle to walk circumspectly. And in the end, we are no different from the sloth - while all is left is a skeleton from a lack of food, we will only have the infrastructure of our faith. Only a form, but no power.

All this because of a lack of perseverance, of hard work, of diligence. So the question you might ask is how do I conquer slothfulness? How do I improve spiritually? The only answer is perseverance. And that is why the sluggard is asked to go to the ant to consider her ways. We are to learn the principles of diligence. The ant illustrates the basic characteristics which are lacking in those who are slothful.

Proverbs 30:24-25 says 'There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise: The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer.' Compared to the things of the earth, the ant is indeed little. The pharaoh ant is smaller than the dot of an 'i' and weighs less than a thousandth of an ounce. The ant can carry up to fifty times its own weight over a hundred meters - that is equivalent to a two hundred pound man carrying five tons on his back for a distance of seventeen miles. And ants may make as many as four roundtrips a day - this is equivalent to a man's walking sixty-eight miles. Ants can also live and work years before they die, compared to bees who live only five or six weeks. And the most impressive thing about the ant is its industriousness. It prepares its food during the warm months of the summer and do so industriously until the winter when they cannot work anymore. The ant is called diligent. The definition of the Hebrew word which is translated 'diligent' is literally 'to be up early for a task.' Be up early to seek God - that is a way to conquer slothfulness. It is not just a good suggestion, but it is a principle we learn from Scripture - Christ himself arose before it was light to seek God. Great men like Luther and Horatius Bonar (who wrote the hymn 'Go Labor On') have all spoke of the spiritual wonders of seeking God early. And when you are tempted to give up on your Bible reading, persevere, and when you are tired, persevere. That is the key, both to spiritual success and secular success. And let us remember too that God's call for us in the world is just as important as his call for us in the church. Work the hardest for him and faint not. Finally, let me end with a poem by Isaac Watts, a man who woke up at 4 AM every morning to seek God, a man who industriously wrote 700 classic hymns, and one who never tired in his visitation ministry to his flock. It is entitled 'The Sluggard.'

Tis the voice of the Sluggard: I heard him complain,
You have waked me too son! I must slumber again!
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed
Turns his sides and his shoulders, and his heavy head.

A little more sleep, and a little more slumber!
Thus he wastes half his days and his hours without number;
And when he gets up he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.

I made him a visit, still hoping to find
He had took better care for improving his mind:
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking
But he scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25