What’s the Difference Between Sloth and Rest?

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to a new week on the podcast. Last summer, in episode 1500, some of you may remember that we talked about personal productivity. And there, Pastor John, you said it was essential that we learn the difference between sloth and rest. You pointed us to your poem titled “Pilgrim’s Conflict with Sloth.” I commend the poem, and your reading of it. But in APJ 1500, you said that everyone knows “that there is a place — an absolutely crucial place” for rest and for leisure because “the Sabbath principle [still] holds.” But then you warned us that “we must know the difference between sloth and rest.” You didn’t really explain that difference there; you pointed us to the poem. I hate to say it, but I think a lot of listeners will resonate more with plainly stated principles. So can you, in principle, distinguish for us the indulgence of sinful sloth from the virtue of true rest?

Yes, I think we can, and that’s because the Bible does pretty clearly. So, let me use biblical terms.

Restful or Lazy?

Let’s use the terms sluggard and diligent, because those terms are used in Proverbs. For example, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Proverbs 13:4). The question we’re asking, then, is, What’s the difference between the restfulness of the diligent and the laziness of the sluggard? Because at any given moment, restfulness and laziness might look the same if you’re just looking at somebody sitting in a chair or lying in a bed or sleeping — but they’re not the same. So, what’s the difference?

“The restfulness of the diligent is received as a gracious reward for the gift of God-glorifying work.”

One other clarification before I state the difference: I’m not interested here in unbelieving diligence. The kind of diligence I care about is the kind that sees the cross of Christ as the ground of all grace, and the Holy Spirit as the key to all holiness, and the glory of God as the goal of all reality, which would include the goal of all diligence. I’m not just talking about any diligence, but the diligence rooted in the glory of God, the cross of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, let me state now my summary of the difference between laziness and the sluggard, and restfulness and the diligent, and then we’ll dig down into the roots. The laziness of the sluggard is owing to his overpowering aversion to work. And the restfulness of the diligent is received as a gracious reward for the gift of God-glorifying work and a pleasant preparation for renewed productivity. Or let me say it another way: The laziness of the sluggard is a capitulation to his disinclination to exertion. And the restfulness of the diligent is a sweet compensation for God-honoring exertion, and thankful renewal for more usefulness. Those are my summary statements.

Slaves to Sluggishness

Let’s go down now to the roots and take just a moment to focus on the problem of the sluggard, and then spend most of our time on the biblical vision of work that makes the restfulness of the diligence so sweet.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” — that is, useful or beneficial to accomplish some good purpose. He continues, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated [mastered, controlled, ruled] by anything.” Now, there’s the test that the sluggard fails: You can devote your life to things that are helpful, useful, beneficial, accomplishing some good for the glory of God, or you can be mastered by bodily disinclination to work. That’s called laziness or sluggishness.

Paul says, “I will not be mastered, enslaved, dominated, ruled, by anything. I belong to Christ. He alone is my Master; therefore, I will put to death the bodily impulses that tend to enslave me, and I will walk as a free man, devoting myself to things that are helpful, useful, beneficial.” But the sluggard, not so. The sluggard is mastered by his bodily aversion to exertion. He’s a slave. Therefore, his rest is not the sweet reward for doing good; it is the selfish resistance to doing good.

Recover Work’s Reward

Let’s turn for a moment to the amazing roots of the diligent and the restfulness that they enjoy. At root, the basic difference between the sluggard and the diligent is that the sluggard feels work as a misery to be avoided, and the diligent sees work as a God-given, life-giving privilege.

Now, of course, it’s true that when sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, one of the effects of sin was to infect work with futility and burdensomeness. God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:17, 19). That’s not a very positive view of work. There will always be some of that burden, some of that futility, in all of our work. As long as this sinful age lasts, there’ll be some of that — no matter what your work is — which is why the final rest that God offers in his kingdom is desired and longed for, even by those who find their work here rewarding.

“The sluggard feels work as a misery to be avoided, and the diligent sees work as a God-given, life-giving privilege.”

But the grace of God has penetrated this fallen world order and enables the children of God to recover, in part, the rewarding significance of work, which God intended from the beginning in creation. And that’s what I think the diligent perceive, even if they don’t articulate it. They sense it. Before the fall, God said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . . over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). That subduing and having dominion over creation will not happen while you’re sitting in your lawn chair with your feet up.

In fact, in Genesis 2:15, before the fall, it says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” In other words, the original plan was not laziness or sloth or inactivity or lack of productivity. Human beings are in the image of God. We are makers, like God. Whether we make a meal or make a bed or make a computer program or make a straight piece of wood or make a ditch or a wall of bricks or a school lesson or a sermon, we are makers by nature. The diligent have discovered this, and by grace, the fall does not prevent the recovery — by grace, in Christ — in some significant measure, of the God-glorified meaningfulness of work, so that rest can be experienced as a sweet reward for a day’s work and a pleasant renewal for a new day of purposefulness.

Sweet Diligence

Ecclesiastes 5:12 says, “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.” What makes the restfulness of the diligent sweet is the peaceful realization that the success of all their work depends finally on God, and not themselves.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
     those who build it labor in vain. . . .
It is in vain that you rise up early
     and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
     for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:1–2)

It is the grace of God, pushing back the effects of the fall, that takes away anxiety and makes labor meaningful and sweet, and gives true restfulness. The New Testament adds to the motivations of the diligent that, when we work,

  • we will have something not only for ourselves but to give others (Ephesians 4:28),
  • we will not be a burden to others (2 Thessalonians 3:8),
  • we will be a good example to unbelievers (1 Thessalonians 4:12), and
  • we will let our light shine, so that people see our good deeds, our exertions, for the glory of God (Matthew 5:16).

The sluggard finds none of these motivations compelling.

So, let me give my summary once more: The laziness of the sluggard is owing to his overpowering aversion to work. And the restfulness of the diligent is received as a gracious reward for the gift of God-glorifying work and a pleasant preparation for renewed productivity.

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