Sunday, July 08, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (14)

Ah, ants and sluggards.

This next bit is one of my favorite sections of Proverbs, and probably my youngest brother’s least favorite. I recall quoting it to his prone form on at least one occasion as he lay blearily sprawled across his waterbed, the hour approaching noon. I have always been a very early riser (these days it’s usually somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m.) and found his inertia appalling in some indefinable, slightly jealous way. So I leaped on him fists-first and played the part of the proverbial bandit.

Not my finest hour or my most accurate application of scripture, but when your parents raise a bunch of boys together, these are the sorts of things that happen.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

7. Wisdom Applied: Work Ethic (Proverbs 6:6-11)

Go to the Ant

Here’s the passage in question:
“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”
Lovely stuff. The ESV uses “robber” instead of “bandit”, but you get the idea.

A Net Plus

There is value in being a net plus. It pleases God. A “net plus” is nothing more difficult or complicated than someone who puts in more than he (or she) takes out. If you want New Testament authority for that, we need go no further than Pauline commands like:
“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,”
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
There’s the “net plus”. Cover your own end, and in addition, save something up for those who can’t. If we are not continuously, consciously working at being net plusses, we are almost sure to end up as net minuses. Net minuses may still be loved despite their lack of productivity and initiative, but they will surely not be loved FOR those qualities. Instead, they will make themselves an unnecessary burden on others, burning up resources better expended on people who are genuinely in need.

The “Shouldn’t Have To’s”

Now, let me be clear, as my favorite ex-president used to say: A net minus is a person who SHOULD be able to provide for himself and deliberately fails to do so. There will always be those who legitimately can’t provide for themselves, or for other reasons, really shouldn’t be required to worry about such things.

In the “shouldn’t have to” category is your wife, especially if you have small children. We are living in a culture where women expect to work outside the home, and often insist on it. That’s their prerogative, surely, and sometimes it’s even genuinely necessary in an economic crisis. But Christian men who send their wives out to work against their wishes for nothing more spiritually significant than a few extra bucks in the bank every second Friday are asking for trouble in numerous ways. I am shocked at how many times I’ve heard of this happening. It makes no sense to me at all. If a woman is willing to have your children and raise them, and on top of that to keep your household in shape and make herself useful to the Lord in her spare time, what else could you want? She is more than holding up her end. If finances are so bad that a family cannot make it without two paychecks, I suspect it may still be better for a man to take a second job than to send his wife out to work.

But that’s me. Your mileage will vary. Also in the “shouldn’t have to” category, diligent elders who make financial sacrifices to teach and preach the word of God, missionaries and so on.

The “Can’t Possibly’s”

There are also those who can’t possibly provide for themselves, and nobody can reasonably expect them to. Orphans, widows ... or perhaps you have a disabled family member, or maybe one who has fallen on hard times and despite best efforts cannot make ends meet. That really shouldn’t be the taxpayer’s problem. Not to mention that our churches are full of financially needy people. There is no shortage of need out there, hence the biblical emphasis on setting something aside to contribute toward it.

After all, it doesn’t take much these days to get us into serious financial trouble. Many of us walk the knife-edge of economic catastrophe. An unnecessarily expensive vacation followed by an unexpected downturn at work will usually do it. Of the twenty-something people I work with most directly, only one does not live paycheck-to-paycheck. When management pushes back a pay date because of a statutory holiday, four or five people trek into the office complaining that they won’t be able to make their mortgage payment. For Christians, that should surely not be a normal state of affairs.

Getting Proactive

But let’s forget Christians. Let’s leave out for a moment the fact that the “fruit of the Spirit is self-control.” Solomon is speaking to what I think is probably the Israelite equivalent of today’s average, blue-collar worker bee, and he strongly advises him to be proactive about earning his keep. “She [the ant] prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest,” he says. So far as we know, the ant doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to anticipate future potential needs. She does not work to a quarterly forecast. In fact, she cannot possibly know what’s coming down the pipe. Still, she does by raw instinct what every man ought to do consciously and intentionally, and Solomon says that makes her a role model for the sort of person inclined to take every opportunity to kick back and relax.

Because poverty really does come upon you like an armed man; that part is not wrong. You can easily go from “just getting by” to “completely beyond hope” in only a month or two. With compound interest in play these days, it’s all but a mathematical certainty. You get no warning, or certainly no warning that the average person who hasn’t crunched the numbers would reasonably be expected to grasp. There’s a reason God commanded that the Israelites not charge one another interest. Compound interest puts a man (or woman) who is already down in an almost impossible position. And if you’re a sluggard — the sort of person who always has an (increasingly improbable) excuse for his empty pockets — these days you can play the victim very convincingly indeed.

Not Waiting for the Jubilee

But we don’t live in Israel. There are no Jubilee years. There are no “no interest” laws. So Christians need to govern ourselves accordingly, which may mean getting up early and working longer hours than the guy next door.

I’ve watched financial disaster happen to people over and over. It’s not pretty. And the consequences are drastic enough, and sufficiently long-term, that Solomon feels the need to devote more than a single verse to the subject.

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