A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
He who gathers in summer is a prudent son,
but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.
Proverbs 10:4-5 ESV
Is there anything more depressing than advertisements that run on cable news? I’m speaking specifically of the happy retirement type. These ads attempt to convince us that the American dream is to retire early to a senior center in Florida where one can enjoy days full of golf, Viagra, and Mazda Miatas. Such is one sad interpretation of the good life.
The assumption embedded in this hypothetical American dream is that consuming is better than producing. We are happier when we’re consuming products and services. Live to buy the condo, the golf clubs, the car, and the sex aids. You’ve really made it when you don’t have to lift a finger for anyone else. In fact, the most heroic thing you can do is to walk off the job, giving a middle finger to the man on the way out. Be a slave no more!
When we put the American retiree vision of the good life in these stark terms it sounds ridiculous. But subtle versions of this story are ubiquitous in our culture. We dream of being served, not of serving. We dream of being comforted, not of comforting. We dream of being loved, not of loving. Even the popular meme implores us to “find you someone who loves you like . . . .”
We tell our kids that it is better to give than to receive, but do we live like we mean it? Most of the time, the answer is no. Our sinful hearts tell us that we deserve a little service or some shopping therapy now and then, which means now and often. This contagion is not only a rich man’s dilemma. The welfare state is built on the assumption that non-producers are entitled to consume. America’s mandatory wealth transfers extend far beyond what is necessary for survival.
We all have insatiable appetites for the world’s goods. Contentment is not a feature of this consumer-obsessed vision of the good life. In the end, retiring early in Florida or spending too much time at a Caribbean resort will leave us unsatisfied. We’re meant to produce. Stated better: we’re meant to live in community and to serve one another. A life that is lopsided with consumption is unwholesome.
Very few people have the requisite character to work too hard and to produce too much. We know workaholics when we see them, but I am certain that we’re overstating and overestimating the problem of too much production.
Usually, the negative aspects of working too much stem from the root of selfishness. It is not virtuous to obtain too much debt or to covet things. It is not virtuous to stall or waste time at the office in order to avoid the wife and kids at home. These types of work problems may look like workaholism, but they actually are sins of a different category.
It is good to have a diligent hand and to gather in summer. It is good to be as productive as we possibly can be. As more than a good father, the Lord has already set aside a sabbath for us. Would we better remember the sabbath day if we spent more of our week working and producing? The Fourth Commandment controversies dissipate if we truly can’t produce any more and actually need the rest from our labors and recreations.
I often think about what it means to produce and to live a good life in service to my neighbor. One’s employment is a big part of this, but it isn’t the only part. The verb “produce” covers various forms of work. Many stay-at-home parents are wildly more productive than the bored white collar worker who spends his day pushing out email. What a wonderful blessing it would be to store away plenty during the harvest years in order to volunteer or to take lower paying work later in life.
There is much here that remains to be explored, but the bottom line is that producing is better than consuming. A life spent examining service and productivity is much better than a life spent obsessing over consumption. Production is neighbor-focused. Consumption is self-focused.
Make the meal; mow the lawn; teach the permanent things; write a poem; lend a hand; rest on the sabbath.