Home > Bible on Money > Major Themes > 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Work and Idleness
Why work? Even though most everyone will agree that idleness is a vice of some kind, there is far less consensus about why work is a virtue. In fact, there is a great deal of confusion in our culture about the meaning of work in general. One clear indication of our confusion lies in the fact that many of us work now simply so that we can stop working later. Whether we are packing resources away for retirement or just getting through the day to spend the evening on the couch, most of us stay busy in order to be idle.
Of course, such generalizations may seem a little unfair. After all, “The sleep of a laborer is sweet” (Ecclesiastes 5:12), and the Bible seems to suggest that it is right to find rest after a hard day’s work. While it is undoubtedly true that our bodies need to sleep and a biblical way of life includes regular times set aside for rest, it is absolutely untrue that the purpose of work is to find time for leisure, or even to enhance the degree of personal pleasure we can get from it. Scripture is very clear that satisfaction and rest—whether daily or eternal—are gifts from God, not the product of human efforts or elbow grease, no matter how vigorous.
Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves (Psalm 127:1-2).
Though it was not the apostle Paul’s aim to provide a comprehensive rationale for Christian labor in his second letter to the Thessalonians, his “warning against idleness” in chapter 3 does shed much light on the matter. Paul’s warning helps to reveal not only the meaning of labor but also the way in which menial tasks like taking out the trash or getting out of debt intimately coincide with the work of the gospel itself. The beauty of this passage and of the way Paul integrates ordinary work with the greater work of the gospel is that he did not make a complex theological argument about the “meaning of labor.” Instead, he pointed to his own personal example as a common worker and actually used his own two hands to get his point across (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).
It would be impossible to understand or appreciate Paul’s example of “hard work” among the Thessalonians without first recognizing the crucial event that gave shape and direction to his entire life. Jesus himself literally had knocked Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus because God had chosen him as his “instrument to carry [Christ’s] name before Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). And so, Paul did everything with that end in mind. However, in spite of the fact that Paul wrote half of the books in the New Testament and was Jesus’ “chosen instrument” to take the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul happened to be a tentmaker as well, which forces us back to his words in 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9:
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, laboring 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.
“A model of what?” we should ask. Obviously, at one level, Paul was a simple example of what it means to work hard and earn a living. His actual emphasis clearly is on the practical side of things in this passage. However, Paul’s hard work as a tentmaker cannot be separated from the controlling purpose which directed everything he did as God’s “chosen instrument.” Paul was using his own life to provide Christians with an example of the connection between our ordinary labor and the gospel. Both aspects were equally at work in the “model,” he gave “for you to follow.” There is no escaping either. We are called both to work hard and provide for our practical needs, and at the same time to align all of our ordinary efforts with the work of the gospel itself.
Interestingly, if we look a little more closely at the context of Paul’s letter, we will find that the Thessalonians’ confusion about the meaning of labor was not all that different from our own. One of Paul’s chief reasons for writing his first epistle to the Thessalonians was to give instructions about Christ’s return and the resurrection of the body, because the first century church was convinced that Christ would come back very soon, even in their lifetime. As a result, some had become lazy or even given up regular work altogether. “After all,” they thought, “if Christ is coming back, why work?”
Paul’s reply was to say, “Brothers, never tire of doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). Leisure is not the end of labor. By supporting his efforts as an apostle through his work as a tentmaker, Paul showed that the physical labor we do is a prelude to the work of the gospel. One cannot be understood apart from the other. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). As Paul demonstrated by his own example, these “good works” which God prepares for us are both material and spiritual—ordinary and redemptive. Today many of us separate the two by working in order to be idle and by treating our personal leisure as the goal of our practical labor. Instead of using what we need and giving the excess to God, we build new barns so that we can accumulate as much as possible for the sake of our own rest, forgetting that God “grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:1-2). In the end, we must realize that the rest Jesus gives his followers is not inactive. Rather, it is restful precisely because it is done in union with Jesus’ power and his own redeeming work. Christ says,
Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Related Passages: Genesis 2:2-3; Psalm 127:1-2; Ecclesiastes 5:12; Isaiah 57:2; Matthew 11:28-30; Acts 9:15; 20:34-35; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9, 13; Hebrews 4:1-11