Saturday, July 31, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (26)

In Genesis 3, when God cursed the ground on account of Adam, he assured Adam — and all those to be born of Adam — that under this new order of affairs which man had brought upon the world, his efforts to feed himself and his family would for the foreseeable future be accompanied by pain and sweat.

Naturally, being what he is, fallen man has spent the better part of the next six millennia trying to find ways to do an end-around God’s edict.

This was a tremendous mistake. In scripture, the idle life never leads to anything good. Too much leisure allows man opportunity to give free rein to his corrupted imagination. Left to his own devices, he will inevitably start devising. At best, the things he will choose to do with his time will be trivial, self-indulgent and banal; at worst, they will be downright evil.

Times Are Changing, Now the Poor Get Fat

Being idle was a luxury at one time in history. Only the offspring of society’s elites could afford it. Today, thanks first to the Industrial Revolution and later to the effects on Western society of ever-increasing technology-driven automation, we are seeing the first generation to question in large numbers why their brows should ever be forced to sweat. One young man on welfare explains his life choices this way:

“I refuse to be a part of this **** ‘work’ thing by wasting my time to get paid to do things that technically don’t have to be done by humans anymore, and I certainly don’t feel bad about what I’m doing. In fact I feel I deserve this after all the **** I had to put up with.”

Entitlement absolutely oozes from this guy’s pores. By his own account, he is estranged from his parents, has no prospect of a life partner, spends all his time on the internet, lives as a total shut-in, and claims to love this way of living, when it is obvious to any objective reader that he is miserable and desperately looking for someone to present him with a logical reason to change his ways. His post is a blatant plea for someone to come along and correct his toxic, fractured worldview.

But frankly, limited to his own frame of reference, he’s right: remove God from the picture, and the choice to live an idle life at the expense of others is as reasonable as any other.

Scripture, of course, teaches otherwise. We return to Amos’s condemnation of the idle elite in Israel just prior to the Assyrian captivity.

Amos 6:4-7 — The Second Woe

Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

24 Hour Party People

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what these affluent Israelites were getting up to — in moderation, that is. A nice couch. Lamb chops. Veal. Good music. A little creative expression. All good, really, when they are the rewards of hard labor taken in an hour or two of relaxation at the end of a long and productive day. When they have been earned. There were times Jesus himself drank wine (or at least endorsed it) and was anointed with fine oil. So then, take the yoke God gave mankind on yourself and wear it humbly and happily, and all these things may be yours too.

But that’s not the sort of person Amos is talking about. He’s not condemning the occasional feast, the creative spirit or a glass of wine with friends over dinner. He’s talking about people for whom self-indulgence has become a lifestyle; for whom the fate of family, friends and nation is a matter of indifference; and for whom all that matters is their next round of pleasure-seeking. They are 24 hour party people, and they feel they deserve it.

Let’s get this part clear: when you are idle, someone else is always being asked to foot the bill. Those who produce nothing are entitled to nothing. The benefits they are consuming have been earned at somebody else’s expense. So then, the sin of the gadfly is not really in the specifics of the pleasures he seeks, but rather in his broader outlook on the world: “They are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”

Not Grieved Over the Ruin

Why is that a big deal anyway? Why on earth should we “grieve over the ruin”? Why should the condition of my society matter to me so long as my own desires are sated at every opportunity? Why should I moderate my lifestyle and consumption so that coming generations have something to look forward to?

Only a worldview with God squarely in its center can respond such questions intelligibly. One answer is that a life of productive labor is genuinely better for you personally. Even intelligent men building their worldview only from what they can see with their eyes have come to the conclusion that toil is a necessary part of the human experience. Solomon wrote, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” Marcus Aurelius urged his readers, “Begin — to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.” Confucius wrote, “When you are laboring for others, let it be with the same zeal as if it were for yourself.” Plato wrote, “Apply yourself both now and in the next life. Without effort, you cannot be prosperous” and “He who is not a good servant will not be a good master.”

Of course. They weren’t even Christians, but all these men understood that a life spent in nothing but contemplation of one’s navel is extremely unfulfilling.

Going Nowhere Fast and Not Loving It

Consider: if the loving Creator of mankind instituted sweaty, laborious service, it was probably not to make us miserable, but rather to keep us from apathy, dissipation and despair.

Despite easy access to drugs, alcohol and sex; despite endless entertainment enticements; despite having the opportunity to stay in school well into their thirties rather than choose a career; despite the widespread acceptance and praise for every possible decadent lifestyle in which they might choose to engage; despite the freedom to name their own genders and choose their own pronouns; despite the unprecedented ability to make themselves heard publicly even when they have no life experience and nothing of substance to say; despite the welfare state’s safety net, and a plethora of parents who are willing to let their children live at home indefinitely — despite all this and more, the 61 million children, teens and twenty-somethings born between 1997 and 2012 “self-report higher rates of mental health issues than any previous generation”.

Gen Z is going nowhere fast, and not loving it.

A Biblical View

A biblical worldview, on the other hand, commends work. Before sin ever entered the world, the Lord God took Adam and put him in the garden of Eden “to work it and keep it”. The fact that work has gotten harder for us because of sin does not make it less appropriate activity for human beings to engage in. Of course, the Christian knows that work in and of itself is far from a complete solution to the problem of selfishness. Only knowing Christ can provide that. But when Christ is known and made Lord over one’s life, one of the first things his Spirit prompts in the new believer is the desire to get to work. Hard.

So then, when the apostles commend labor, they are simply telling new Christians what ought to come naturally to them: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” “Aspire ... to work with your hands.” “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” “Let us not grow weary of doing good.” “By working hard in this way we must help the weak.” “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.” “... always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Productive labor is not only better for you, it is better for everyone else. So then, the cure for the epic Gen Z malaise is Christ. And a great honking big shovel ...

Back to Israel

Hedonism has never made its adherents happy, and it never will. But even if self-indulgence were able to satisfy the longings of the human heart, it is not pleasing to God. Like Israel, we are not merely individuals but members of God’s people. A joyful life is a life of service to others. When the Lord looked at Israelite society around 780 B.C., he identified the rich, hedonistic idlers as a big part of the problem, and he said to them through Amos, “They shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

As a worldview, faith in Christ works under any and all circumstances, and even better when the going gets tough. But because it produces nothing and leads nowhere, hedonism is only trendy when conditions for it are made optimal by the hard work of others.

And nobody but God can control that.

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