Busyness is not diligence

Much of what I write on this weblog is what I consider first draft writing; once a piece is written I can’t really justify taking additional time to rework it until I’m satisfied, and so I leave it as it stands. It makes for a good challenge—I’ve had to learn ways to get the words mostly right on the first try. But the downside is that I get very little practice at redrafting, and I know full well that when I do take the time to produce a final draft the result is always much, much better—clearer, less wordy, more to the point.

I’ve been looking over my old weblog posts, looking for any that might be worth revising, expanding, or redrafting. I’ve also been looking at the few pieces I’ve written that are in final form, polished as far as I was able at the time I wrote them. I thought it might be worth reposting some of them here, since most of my readers probably haven’t run across them.

Here’s a piece I wrote nearly five years ago. I wrote differently back then, and if I were to tackle this topic again I would probably be less clever and more generous. But taking the style as given, I think the piece accomplishes its purpose concisely.

Not many social classes are held in lower esteem than the idle rich, what Thorstein Veblen called the leisure class. Roman aristocrats, the Sun King and his courtiers, denizens of high society in the Gilded Age, modern-day jet-setters—all these are widely reviled for their dissolute preoccupations, their conspicuous consumption, their degenerate behaviors. Unaware of the sources of wealth, and unconstrained by the need to create any in order to fuel their pursuits, the leisure class are free to indulge every sinful desire, embrace every God-denying lie, inflame every shameful lust, abandon every natural relation.

Wealth is good, but unearned wealth can pose great moral dangers. Whether it comes in the form of money, power, health, or social privilege, we are tempted to forget what created the wealth—someone’s hard work—and to think of it as what is rightfully due to us because of who we are—the son of a merchant, the daughter of an aristocrat, the descendant of a white European, the child of a covenant family. As with Old Testament Israel, we tend to take unearned favor for granted, quickly becoming fat, lazy, and ungrateful. And as with Old Testament Israel, curses are sure to follow.

Since we instinctively despise the idle rich, and since the Bible speaks clearly and repeatedly about what God has in store for those who steal His glory by despising His blessings, it is must be one of the devil’s prouder accomplishments that these days we all—pagan and Christian—aspire to join the leisure class ourselves. We are all conspicuous in our consumption, and what little we produce is not to exercise dominion, but to make further consumption possible. We no longer work for God’s glory, but for the weekend.

None of us glorifies laziness, but at the same time we fail to see that we have become perhaps the laziest, most idle people on earth, because we confuse work with busyness. How can we be called lazy when our society is remarkable for its frantic activity, always in a hurry, never having enough time to complete the tasks at hand? Well, this last should be a clue. Work is not a matter of energy expended, it is a matter of tasks accomplished. No matter that it takes all the running we can do to keep in the same place—if nothing of value results from our frenzied effort, to call it other than idleness is to make a distinction without a difference.

Although our confusion is ultimately rooted in bad eschatology—we think that in the New Jerusalem we will be delivered from work itself, not merely from the thorns and thistles that currently plague our work—there is a more immediate culprit that has a vested interest in perpetuating this confusion, namely an urban industrialized economy. The lifeblood of industry is an endless stream of workers trained to behave as mindless automata, willing to exchange unquestioning obedience for a paycheck, uninterested in the results of their labors. Industry benefits when its workers see real life as having nothing to do with their work—as long as they still show up for work.

This blinding fog of busyness may be dissipating, though. More and more we are learning to quench our desire to do … well, something … by vicariously participating in much more significant endeavors. Rather than playing backyard sports with family and friends, we win national championships by cheering on our team. No time to fix that leaky faucet; master carpenter Norm Abram needs our help with a million dollar renovation. The city council is about to waste another few million of our tax dollars? Sorry, we’re tied up determining the course of an entire nation through our talking, arguing, blogging, and occasionally voting. Why bother broaching the subject of Jesus with our unbelieving friends when with our help Mel Gibson will be able to convert millions? Why bother with the hungry person at our door when, armed with our favorable opinion and our tax dollars, our government can proceed to feed and clothe the entire world?

Have you noticed, though, that the gruel is getting a little thin? When novelties were suddenly in very short supply, we sustained ourselves on nostalgia for what went before, but even with our incredibly low standards about what is worth remembering fondly—disco, anyone?—we ran out of things to be nostalgic about. To remain entertainable, we were forced to become so ironically detached that we could enjoy a television show about nothing—and we managed to use that up as well. Lately we seem to have come full circle; having exhausted the creative capacity of our disintegrating culture, we’re now expected to consume ourselves, to watch a continuing parade of reality programs featuring people just like us, engaged in lives just as unreal as our own.

The final comforting delusion, one that we’ve been asserting for quite awhile now, and lately with increasing frequency, is that things just couldn’t get any worse. Well, yes, they could, despite our inability to imagine what lies beneath. Never forget that the serpent is more crafty than any beast of the field, and it isn’t likely that his own imagination is anywhere near exhausted.

Reject this false comfort in favor of a true one—that the power of the serpent lies not in his ability to thwart us in our work, but only in his ability to distract us from it by appealing to our slothful and self-important natures. He offers us a seat at the table for the asking, but only as a substitute for the work that God has given us to do. He will encourage us to imagine that we are tending everyone else’s garden, so that we will end up neglecting our own.

To resist, we need only embrace rather than shirk our God-given responsibilities; if we submit to God in these, the devil will flee from us. Once we learn to find our joy in diligently providing for our families, sanctifying our wives, training up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—once we learn to find our joy in gardenizing the small plot of jungle that has been entrusted to us, idleness will lose all attraction for us, and we will labor eagerly and unceasingly to bring further glory to God.

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