Proverbs 13:4 says, “The soul of the diligent is swiftly supplied.” The Bible verses about working diligently should encourage and challenge everyone. Read or listen to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way to learn about diligence in the Bible.
Table of contents
The Importance of Diligence
Maybe you’re reading this book because you want to be more diligent, repent of laziness, find joy in work, learn to rest, or all of the above. Changing is hard. As a pastor, I’ve heard many people say, “I’m going to stop this” or “I’m going to start that.” I’ve said the same myself.
Only 64 percent of New Year’s resolutions last longer than the first month, and only 46 percent last longer than six months. We often begin well, but within a short period of time, we find ourselves resuming what we committed to stopping or stopping what we committed to starting. How can we change…for good?
Apply the Principle of Putting Off and Putting On
The single greatest reason we fail to change, at least regarding sin, is we “put off” without “putting on.” When we hear the word “repent,” unfortunately we often think only of stopping, but we must also think of starting. If there’s a sin we want to repent of, we must replace it with a corresponding behavior.
John the Baptist is a man whose message can be summarized in the word “repent.” He said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8). We don’t typically associate repentance (stopping) with bearing fruit (starting), but we should. The apostle Paul also knew how to preach repentance. In Acts 26:20 he said, “Repent, turn to God (stopping), and do works befitting repentance (starting).”
This is known as putting off and putting on, or severing and replacing, and it’s explained in Ephesians 4:
- Verse 25 says, “Put away lying.” This is what we put off, followed by: “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor.” This is what we put on. We can’t simply stop lying. We must also make a conscious effort to start telling the truth; ensure what we say is accurate.
- Verse 28 says, “Let him who stole steal no longer.” This is what we put off, followed by: “Rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” We can’t simply stop stealing. We must replace theft with hard work and generosity. Since this is a book about work’s blessings, it’s worth noticing that it serves as a remedy for theft!
- Verse 29 says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth.” This is what we put off, followed by: “But what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” We can’t simply stop saying unwholesome things. We must intentionally speak words that edify and encourage.
Verse 31 sums it up: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.” Put off all this, and then put on verse 32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Paul makes the same point in Colossians 3:
- Verse 8 says, “Now you are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.”
- Verses 12 and 13 say, “Put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another.”
When we repent of the sins in verse 8, we’ll produce the fruit in verse 12. The actions are presented in opposing pairs. If there’s a sin that you need to repent of, but it is not mentioned in these verses, determine the opposite of that sin. More than likely that is what you need to put on.
Remember, stopping is only the first step. The second step is starting the accompanying behavior that fills the vacuum that was created. In the parable of the unclean spirit, Jesus described the danger of taking the first step (putting off) without taking the second (putting on). Matthew 12:43–45 records:
When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then [the unclean spirit] says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
At first, things seem good because the unclean spirit (sin) is removed from the man’s life. Unfortunately, he didn’t fill the void, and as a result, his life (the house), remained empty. The man ended up worse off than when the unclean spirit left. This reveals the unfortunate human tendency for reform to be temporary. Psychologists, prisons, and juvenile centers testify to this. People will be sorry, stop for a little while, but soon find themselves doing the same thing again. Why? They fail to produce the necessary fruit.
In counseling, people who thought they repented will say “I stopped this. Why do I keep struggling?” My reply is, “You stopped, but what did you start? You put off, but what did you put on?” Let me give you some practical examples:
- You stopped going to bars, but what did you start doing?
- You stopped yelling at your kids, but what did you start saying to them?
- You stopped watching things you should not, but did you start reading your Bible more?
- You stopped coveting, but did you start giving?
When there’s sin in your life, make sure your prayers are twofold. First, ask the Lord, “What do you want me to repent of and put off?” Then, “What accompanying fruit do you want me to produce and put on?”
Put on Diligence
The practice of putting off and putting on should be applied to multiple areas of the Christian life, including work and rest. Everyone struggles with laziness to some extent. If we’re going to put it off, what should we put on? Diligence! Whether we’re lazy physically, mentally, or spiritually, we need diligence! We put off whatever form of laziness we struggle with and commit to being diligent.
The Prodigal Son is a good example. His first request was, “Father, give me” (Luke 15:12). When he repented and returned home, his second request was, “Make me like one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19). He put off the lazy, entitled attitude that got him into trouble, and he put on the humble, diligent attitude of a servant. Back in Hebrews 6:11–12, the author said, “Show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become lazy.” If they were going to persevere, they needed to put off laziness and put on diligence.
What is diligence? According to Dictionary.com, diligence is “constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken; persistent exertion of body or mind.” Diligent people get the job done. They don’t quit until they have completed the job. The Bible uses the word “diligence” in several ways, and just as sluggard is always used negatively, diligence is always used positively.
Although the words “put off” and “put on” are not used in the book of Proverbs, there are repeated demonstrations of this principle by the discussion of these pairs:
- Wisdom versus foolishness
- Patience versus hastiness
- Pride versus humility
- Truth versus deceit
- Obedience versus disobedience
- Righteousness versus unrighteousness
Proverbs encourages putting off laziness and putting on diligence by frequently coupling them together.
Proverbs Are Generalities, but not Guarantees
The book of Proverbs contains life principles that are generally true, but they’re not guarantees. This must be understood before digging into the verses because of the health and wealth preachers who distort the gospel.
They misuse proverbs to teach that God wants people to become rich, be promoted, and never lose a job, but the following verses don’t make these promises. Instead, they commend hard work and condemn laziness. They encourage the diligent and warn the slothful.
The Diligent Accumulate Wealth
He who has a slack hand becomes poor, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. He who gathers in summer is a wise son; he who sleeps in harvest is a son who causes shame (Proverbs 10:4–5).
There’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship between diligence and its rewards, and laziness and its heartbreaking consequences. It pays, literally, to be diligent; they reap wealth as their reward. The lazy have only themselves to blame, and they reap the consequences of their actions: poverty. A “slack handed person” slacks off at work, or slacks off in looking for work. When people don’t have a job, their full-time job is looking for work. Warren Wiersbe said: “A new college graduate was asked if he was looking for work. He thought for a minute and then replied, ‘No, but I would like to have a job.’ That seems to be the attitude of too many people today.”1
Just as laziness and diligence are contrasted, so are work (gathers in summer) and sleep. Just as ants store food for the winter ahead, so do the diligent prepare for the future: “He who tills his land will have plenty of bread” (Proverbs 12:11 and 28:19). This is repeated to make the point that work allows people to eat. Diligence is manifested in the foresight to store up food in the summer rather than sleep through the harvest. Just as lazy people sleep while the ant works, they also sleep while the diligent work.
Why mention sons? Diligent children bless their parents. Conversely, lazy children “[cause] shame.” The writer of Proverbs is repeating for emphasis: laziness affects others, and the people most affected are often the parents. Think of elderly people providing for their grown children. They’re forced to care for children who should be caring for them. This is shameful.
This also looks beyond agriculture to laying hold of life’s opportunities. Lazy people, like everyone, receive opportunities; however, they don’t take advantage of them, or they’re unprepared to seize them when they arise. While the lazy are busy turning over in bed, diligent people are taking the openings God gives them.
We tend to think the richest are the most fortunate, just as we tend to think the most successful are the most talented. While some amount of fortune and talent come into play, diligence is the key difference. Two great inventors attributed their success to their effort. Thomas Edison said, “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.” Benjamin Franklin, wrote, “Diligence is the mother of good luck, and God gives all things to industry.”2 These men, and others like them, succeeded because they were diligent. What about the scientific discoveries that seem to occur by accident? Perhaps that was the case, but there was considerable diligence leading up to the breakthrough.
The Diligent Are Promoted
The hand of the diligent will rule, but the lazy man will be put to forced labor (Proverbs 12:24).
Whether the Egyptians with the Israelites, the Israelites with the Canaanites, or the Babylonians with the Jews, forced labor is always presented negatively in Scripture (Exodus 1:11, Judges 1:28, Lamentations 1:1). People who are forced to labor for others are not serving freely. They’re slaves.
Lazy people shouldn’t expect to rule: “[Wisdom] will promote you,” but “shame shall be the promotion of fools” (Proverbs 4:8, Proverbs 3:35 KJV). Wisdom leads to promotion, and it’s manifested through diligence. The “promotion” of fools is shame, and it’s manifested through laziness. The lazy become slaves to the diligent because the diligent are promoted, and the lazy have no choice but to serve them.
While borrowing isn’t always a consequence of laziness, sometimes it is. When the lazy borrow, they become slaves: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). The lazy are forced to work off what they owe (see Leviticus 25:39-55 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18), and they serve the diligent. Ironically, lazy people seek to avoid work, but they lose their freedom and find themselves in bondage. Their lives of sleep and leisure result in lives of menial, undesirable labor.
While the lazy are “put to forced labor,” the diligent attain authority and independence for their work. Diligence pays in more ways than just money! It also produces character that others can trust. Rare is the employer who doesn’t notice a diligent employee. His “hand will rule” as he receives promotions, raises, and greater responsibility. We learned in the parable of the talents that this is how the master rewards diligence: “You were faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler of many things” (Matthew 25:21). In the similar parable in Luke 19:16–19, the diligent servants were given authority over cities.
During college, I went through Army ROTC and then served as an officer. There was a common saying in the military: “You can’t keep a good soldier down.” In other words, the diligent will be promoted. Allen Ross said, “The diligent rise to the top and the lazy sink to the bottom.”3 Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before unknown men.”
Joseph was faithful in Pharaoh’s house, and then he found himself over all Egypt. Joshua was faithful as Moses’ servant, and then he found himself over the nation. Part of Psalm 78:70–72 records:
[God] chose David His servant, and took him from the sheepfolds; to shepherd Jacob His people, so he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.
David was faithful over his sheep, and then he found himself over all Israel. His diligence was predicated on God choosing him and making him the shepherd of His people, Israel. David was faithful because he was chosen by God. He’s a good example of what we discussed in Chapter Two—God equips those He calls.
Isn’t Jesus the premier example of diligence leading to promotion? The author of Hebrews writes, “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house. For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses” (Hebrews 3:1–3). Moses was faithful, but Jesus more so; therefore, His promotion is greater (counted worthy of more glory).
We must “consider” Jesus because His perfect faithfulness and obedience enables our all-too-imperfect work. We want to be diligent, but we’re wrong if we think the solution is simply trying harder. Instead, we must focus on the faithfulness of Jesus for both our justification and sanctification.
The Diligent Finish What They Begin
The lazy man does not roast what he took in hunting, but diligence is man’s precious possession (Proverbs 12:27).
The wise father says nothing is more important (precious) than diligence. Why such a strong commendation?
Without diligence, even what is valuable becomes worthless. When lazy people are fortunate enough to catch an animal, the food is lost, because they’re too lazy to prepare it. The solution for them is to be diligent and follow through to the end: “The end of a thing is better than its beginning” (Ecclesiastes 7:8). Just as they won’t bring their hand to their mouth, they won’t cook the food they caught. In both situations, they won’t be able to eat the food even though it’s before them.
The Diligent Are Satisfied
The soul of a lazy man desires, and has nothing; but the soul of the diligent is swiftly supplied (Proverbs 13:4).
This verse looks beyond money to cravings of any kind. The diligent plan, save, and work, which allows them to have their soul swiftly supplied. Their desires are fulfilled because they acted.
In contrast, the lazy never have enough; their desires are unfulfilled. Proverbs 21:25 repeats the theme of laziness leading to lack: “The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.” Lazy people have cravings too, but they remain unsatisfied because they’re too lazy to do anything about them.
A good night’s sleep is one of the blessings of a diligent life: “The sleep of a laboring man is sweet” (Ecclesiastes 5:12). Diligent people sleep well because they worked hard all day, but is there another reason? God gave us consciences to convict us of sin. When we give in to the temptation to be lazy our consciences keep us awake, because we’ve been unfaithful with the precious time God has given us. Although, when we’re faithful we can sleep well because we know we’ve been good stewards.
How can we ensure we put off laziness and put on diligence? Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” Everything we do flows from our heart; therefore, it must be protected. We must intentionally guard it, versus passively allowing anything and everything to enter it. David provided an example when he said, “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes” (Psalm 101:3). Picturing soldiers securing a base gives the imagery of what to do with our hearts.
Why are our hearts so important? The outward reflects the inward. Diligent hearts produce diligent lives. When we cultivate the internal through external spiritual disciplines—such as prayer, Bible study, and fellowship—the rest of our behaviors are affected. Then we can experience the blessings of a diligent life. Even more importantly, we can have fellowship with Christ Himself. Spiritual disciplines are not merely a means to diligent outcomes. Instead, we engage in them to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Then our work flows from hearts that are in communion with Him.
Truly any diligence in our lives stems from Christ’s diligence on our behalves. His work transforms our lives; therefore, the fruit we produce contributes to the glory of God because it is from God in Christ. Our sleep can be sweet, not because of anything we’ve done, but because of what Jesus has done for us.
Nowhere does Scripture present our relationships with the Lord in any sort of casual or lackadaisical way. Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Following Christ requires more diligence than any other area of our lives.
Unless we pursue the Lord with all diligence, we will fail. The world is too appealing, temptation is too strong, and distractions are too abundant. Jesus described what is needed: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:37–38). More important than anything else in life is diligently loving the Lord. If we do so, our actions will rightly flow from this pursuit. The grace of the gospel will work in our hearts and propel us toward godliness and holiness in all areas of life, including work.
Change is hard. We considered why we usually fail: we put off without putting on. We all have behaviors we want to stop, temptations we want to avoid, and disciplines we want to cultivate. Diligence is the necessary ingredient to all the above. One of the biggest threats is idleness. In the next chapter we’ll learn why idleness is so dangerous to our efforts, and why it prevents us from working God’s way.
- Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: Wisdom and Poetry, 2nd edition (David C. Cook, 2004), 430.
- Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth and Poor Richard’s Almanac (Nayika Publishing, 2008), 2.
- Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Vol 5) Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 973.