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What Causes Spiritual Laziness (Hebrews 12:4)

What Causes Spiritual Laziness? (Hebrews 12:4)

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When we hear the word lazy, we almost always think physically, but what about spiritually? Read or listen to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way to see what causes spiritual laziness.

Work and Rest God's Way: A Biblical Recipe for Finding Joy and Purpose in All You Do Front cover
Work and Rest Gods Way Family Guide author Scott LaPierre

The text in this post is from my book, Work and Rest God’s Way, and the audio is from the audiobook. I am praying God uses the book and accompanying Family Guide to exalt Christ and encourage you as you serve Him.

The Dangers of Spiritual Laziness

When we hear the word “lazy,” we might immediately think of an unemployed forty year old living in his parents’ basement, or people on welfare who are capable of working. They’re physically lazy, but what about spiritual laziness? We aren’t sleeping in bed all day or standing on street corners asking for money, but are there other ways we’re lazy, such as spiritually?

The following verses begin with another strong criticism of physical laziness, but they introduce a spiritual application that we’re wise to consider:

I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding; and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down. When I saw it, I considered it well; I looked on it and received instruction: a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest; so shall your poverty come like a prowler, and your need like an armed man (Proverbs 24:30–34).

The end of these verses is repeated from Proverbs 6:10–11. God wants to make sure we don’t miss two points. First, there’s a strong association between sleep and laziness. Second, unexpected disaster awaits the lazy.

The words “saw…considered…looked” reveal that the father studied the field owned by the lazy man who lacks sense (devoid of understanding), just as he earlier instructed his son to study the ant. Wise people learn by observation, and just as we can learn from good examples (the ant), we can also learn from bad examples (the lazy man).

The lazy man’s neglect is evident by the shambles and overgrown weeds infesting his property. The dilapidated state leaves the owner without profit. The owner is responsible for the ruin of his own field, depicting the way lazy people ruin whatever they encounter. Proverbs 18:9 says, “He who is slothful in his work is a brother to (or is like) him who is a great destroyer.” What exactly do lazy people destroy, or waste, besides fields they own? Two things: the talents God has given them and the time of people investing in them.

Lazy people do such a bad job “working” that whatever they do will have to be thrown out or done again. They’re more work than help. A sluggard is painful as an employee; no boss wants an inefficient sluggard who won’t get the job done. Proverbs 10:26 says, “As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the lazy man to those who send him.” Vinegar in our mouths and smoke in our eyes isn’t deadly, but it is annoying, just like a lazy employee.

A Field (or Life) Overgrown with Thorns and Weeds

Thorns appear in the sluggard’s life like they appear in his field. In both cases, he’s too lazy to remove them: “The way of the lazy man is like a hedge of thorns” (Proverbs 15:19).

A field representing a person’s life is a common metaphor in Scripture. Jesus told the parable of the sower with the different soils (fields) representing different people (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). Regarding the ways God used Paul and Apollos in people’s lives, Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field” (1 Corinthians 3:6, 9). When God described the work His Word does in people’s lives, He said:

For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth (Isaiah 55:10–11).

The rain and snow represent the Word, and the ground (field) that produces represents people’s lives:

For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned (Hebrews 6:7–8).

These verses tie together Isaiah 55:10–11 and the lazy man’s field in Proverbs 24:

  • The rain in Hebrews 6:7 that brings forth “herbs” parallels the rain of Isaiah 55:10 that “[makes] it bring forth and bud.”
  • The field in Hebrews 6:8 that “bears thorns and briers, is rejected and burned” parallels the lazy man’s field (and life) in Proverbs 24:30–34 that is “overgrown with thorns [and] covered with nettles.”

Just as fields are revealed by what they produce, so are we revealed by what we produce. Jesus said, “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:17–20).

Don’t Rest on Previous Labor

The author of Hebrews spoke strongly to his readers about being rejected and cursed. Then he followed that up with encouragement for those who were saved:

But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister (Hebrews 6:9–10).

The author is more optimistic about his readers—he expects “better things [from them]”—than those “whose end is to be burned” (Hebrews 6:8). They have worked, and he expected them to continue working. Their labor was love for the saints, and this served as evidence of, or “[accompanied their] salvation.” He said God would remember their works, and this can be one of the greatest reasons to be faithful. When we’re tempted to be lazy, thinking about the rewards that await us provides the motivation we need to keep going.

Even though the author expected his readers to continue working, he didn’t want them resting on their previous efforts:

And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become lazy, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:11–12).

The words “imitate those [of] faith” reveal he’s speaking spiritually, versus physically. He’s not warning about physical laziness. He’s warning against spiritual laziness. Many of these Hebrews probably worked extremely hard physically, but did they put forth that same effort spiritually in their relationships with the Lord? Similarly, the author may be revealing the laziness we’re guiltiest of—spiritual instead of physical.

Laziness about Spiritual Disciplines

During Sunday school, when I taught on this topic, a man became convicted and raised his hand. He humbly shared that he had worked hard his whole life, and right when I began to think he was being prideful, he said, “But I regret how lazy I’ve been when it came to the spiritual disciplines.”

We work hard all day and feel exhausted when evening rolls around. When we look back on how we spent our time and energy, how much was invested in our relationships with the Lord? We slack off, not at our workplace, but regarding spiritual disciplines. Prayer, church attendance, Bible study, Scripture memorization, and Christian fellowship don’t receive the attention they should. Neglecting the spiritual is neglecting the Lord. He isn’t the priority He should be in our lives.

Neglecting the spiritual also implies there isn’t spiritual work to do. But there’s always more to be done. Paul said we should be “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). God wouldn’t use the word “always” unless there’s always something spiritually profitable for us.

There are unbelievers who need to hear the gospel. Jesus said, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2). We can labor, pray for those who labor, or pray God sends out people who labor. There are believers who need prayer and encouragement. Paul said, “Comfort each other and edify one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Who might God have us reach out to through a phone call, email, or text message with something as simple as, “I just wanted to see how you’re doing. Is there any way I can pray for you?”

Jesus said, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4). Our time to serve the Lord on this side of heaven is limited; therefore, we must take full advantage of it. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” We must serve the Lord to the best of our ability as long as He allows. Anyone who wants to avoid spiritual laziness can easily find an answer to the question, “What can I do right now for God?” Since Jesus redeemed us, everything—including our time—belongs to Him.

Laziness about Temptation and Sin

Hebrews 12:4 says, “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” Opposing sin is described as “[resisting] and striving.” These are military terms indicating considerable effort. There is no room for laziness in this conflict.

The author of Hebrews told his readers they hadn’t experienced persecution that cost them their lives. Since they were called to that, they needed to avoid fainting under the lesser suffering that striving against sin caused them. Simply put, since they were called to die for their faith, they needed to be willing to do the smaller work of resisting temptation.

We must be diligent against temptation, but sometimes we choose spiritual laziness. We buckle under the pressure and give in to sin. As Christians, we have a contest within ourselves: “fleshly lusts war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Those who hope to persevere must exercise the utmost diligence.

Mental Laziness

To discourage mental laziness, 1 Peter 1:13 says, “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” When men in the early church needed to act quickly, they gathered up their robes and tucked them in their belts. A close equivalent today is, “Let’s roll up our sleeves.”

Since Peter referred to Jesus as “a lamb without blemish and without spot” a few verses later in verse 19, it’s probable that he was borrowing from Passover. The Jews ate the meal in haste, ready to move (Exodus 12:11). Peter is applying this metaphorically to our minds. We need to get mentally ready for action and do whatever it takes to eliminate those thoughts that trip us up.

Being sober in this context doesn’t have alcohol in view. Instead, it means not becoming intoxicated with the allurements of the world, controlling our thoughts, and exercising sound judgment. We should have clarity of mind, be morally decisive, and look at things earnestly.

Why mention the revelation (or Second Coming) of Jesus? When we center our minds on that reality and live in anticipation of it, we escape many worldly entanglements that encumber us and hinder our spiritual progress. We live in the future tense, which means our present actions and decisions are governed by our future hope. Just as an engaged couple makes plans considering the future wedding, so we make plans today considering seeing Jesus at His return.

Encouraged by Christ’s Second Coming

Christians looking forward to Christ’s return have greater reasons to obey Him and be good stewards. Let’s contrast Abraham and Lot:

  • Abraham looked forward to the heavenly city (Hebrews 11:10). He lived considering that reality; therefore, he had no interest in the world’s real estate. By doing so, he brought blessing to his home.
  • Lot was attracted to the city of Sodom (Genesis 13:10). He tasted the pleasures of the world in Egypt and wanted to continue enjoying them. By doing so, he brought judgment to his home.

The following verse also discourages mental laziness: “As obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). This contrasts our new nature with our old one. According to Ephesians 2:2, we were “sons of disobedience,” but now Peter says we should be “obedient children.” Genuine salvation results in obedience.1

Prior to salvation, our disobedience could be blamed on our “ignorance.” The word “ignorant” has a negative connotation in English. If someone said you’re ignorant, you might feel insulted. But Scripture calls people ignorant, and it’s not a criticism.2 It simply means they didn’t know. We tend to think ignorance is the opposite of wisdom, but foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. Ignorant is the opposite of knowledgeable.

Before we were saved our ignorance produced indulgence. We lacked spiritual knowledge, which led to all manner of fleshly and worldly pursuits. At that time, we didn’t know better, but after conversion, we receive new natures preventing any excuses.

We were imitators of the world, “conforming [ourselves] to the former lusts.” After conversion, we must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our minds]” (Romans 12:2). We shouldn’t pattern ourselves after the desires that controlled us when we were unsaved. Paul’s reference to the mind reveals where this battle takes place. This leaves no place for mental laziness.

We need to break away from the sins we committed prior to conversion: “You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind…put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:17, 22-23). The battle for spiritual transformation is fought in the mind. This is why mental laziness, as well as spiritual laziness, is so dangerous.

Hopefully, from now on when we hear the word “lazy,” we won’t think only physically. The spiritual laziness we discussed in this chapter is as devastating as any physical laziness we might imagine. What is the solution to laziness, whether it’s physical, spiritual, or mental? Diligence! We put off laziness of any sort and put on gospel-motivated, grace-enabled diligence, as we’ll learn in the next chapter.

Footnotes

  1. Romans 1:5 says, “Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name,” and 1 Peter 1:2 says, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”
  2. For examples, see Romans 11:25, 1 Corinthians 12:1, 2 Corinthians 1:8, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13.

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