The Wise Worker is Diligent (Proverbs)
The Valiant Woman is diligent. Proverbs portrays her diligence in three ways: 1) Hard work; 2) Long-term planning; 3) Profitability. As result of her diligence in these ways, she is confident about the future.
The Valiant Woman “works with willing hands” (Prov. 31:13), meaning that she chooses, of her own volition, to work tirelessly in pursuit of the household’s goals. “She rises while it is still night” (Prov. 31:15). “She makes linen garments and sells them” (Prov. 31:24). “With the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (Prov. 31:16). It adds up to a lot of work.
In an agrarian economy, the connection between hard work and well-being is easy to see. As long as they have access to land to cultivate, hard-working farmers do much better than lazy ones. The proverbs are clear that a lazy worker will lose out in the end.
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. A child who gathers in summer is prudent, but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame. (Prov. 10:4-5)
I passed by the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person; and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. 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 warrior. (Prov. 24:30-34)
In the ancient near east, hard work brought prosperity, but even one week of laxity during the harvest could spell a hungry winter.
Modern economies (at least in the developed world) may mask this effect in the short term. In good times, when virtually everyone can find work, the lazy worker may have a job and appear to do nearly as well as the diligent worker. Likewise, in economic downturns (and at all times in many emerging economies), a hard-working person may have no more success than a lazy one in finding a job. And at all times, rewards for hard work may be blunted by discrimination, seniority rules, union contracts, bosses’ favoritism, nepotism, golden parachutes, flawed performance metrics, ignorance by managers and many other factors.
Does this make the proverbs about hard-working diligence obsolete? No, it does not, for two reasons. First, even in modern economies, diligence is usually rewarded over the course of a working life. When jobs are scarce, it is the diligent workers who are most likely to keep their jobs or find new ones faster. Second, the chief motivation for diligence is not personal prosperity, but the fear of the Lord, as we have seen with the other virtues in the proverbs. We are diligent because the Lord calls us to our tasks, and our awe of him motivates us to diligence in our work.
Dale Crownover attributes the success of his company to II Chronicles 15:7 where it says, “work hard and work strong and you will be rewarded.”
Laziness or the lack of diligence in the workplace is destructive. All who have experienced lazy coworkers can appreciate this pungent proverb: “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers” (Prov. 10:26). We hate to be stuck on the same team with people who don’t shoulder their share of the burden.
The Valiant Woman plans ahead. “She brings her food from far away” (Prov. 31:14), meaning that she doesn't depend on last-minute convenience purchases of questionable quality and cost. She “considers a field” (Prov. 31:16) before buying it, investigating its long-term potential. She is planning to plant this particular field as a vineyard (Prov. 31:16), and vineyards don’t yield their first crop until two to three years after planting. The point is that she makes decisions based on their long-term consequences. Proverbs 21:5 tells us that “the plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.”
Wise planning requires making decisions for the long-term, as seen for example in the cycle of agricultural asset management.
Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds; for riches do not last forever, nor a crown for all generations. When the grass is gone, and new growth appears, and the herbage of the mountains is gathered, the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field; there will be enough goats’ milk for your food, for the food of your household and nourishment for your servant-girls. (Prov. 27:23-27)
Like the Valiant Woman planting a vineyard, the wise herdsman thinks years ahead. So too, the wise king or governor takes a long-term view. “With an intelligent ruler there is lasting order” (Prov. 28:2). The proverbs also turn to the ant as an example of long-term diligence.
Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise 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 warrior. (Prov. 6:6-11)
Planning ahead takes many forms in workplaces. Financial planning is mentioned in Proverbs 24:27: “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house.” In other words, don't start building your house until your fields are producing the necessary funds to finish your construction project. Jesus picked up on this in Luke 14:28-30: “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
There are many other forms of planning, and we can’t expect the proverbs to serve as a planning manual for a modern enterprise. But we can note again the link in proverbs between wisdom, in the form of planning, and God’s character.
The plans of the mind belong to mortals, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. (Prov. 16:1)
The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established. (Prov. 19:21)
God plans for the very long term, and we are wise to plan ahead also. But we must remain humble about our plans. Unlike God, we do not have the power to make all our plans come to pass. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring” (Prov. 27:1). We plan with wisdom, speak with humility, and live in expectation that God’s plans are our ultimate desire.
Attention to long-term consequences may be the most important skill we can cultivate for success. For example, psychological research has shown that the ability to delay gratification—that is, the ability to make decisions based on longer-term results—is a far better predictor of success in school than IQ is. Regrettably, Christians sometimes seem to take passages such as “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34) to mean, “Do not plan ahead for tomorrow.” The Proverbs—alongside Jesus’ own words—show that this is both incorrect and self-indulgent. In fact, the entire Christian life, with its expectation of Christ’s return to perfect the kingdom of God, is a life of planning for the long-term.
“Vine Growing” at vinegrowing.com, accessed on Nov. 11, 2011. This link is no longer active, but an archived copy may be available at https://web.archive.org/web/20111113045248/http://vinegrowing.com/.
Angela L. Duckworth and Martin E.P. Seligman, “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents,” Psychological Science 16:12 (2005), 939-944. Similar results have been reported by Mischel and Shoda (Science, 1989), Rosenbaum (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1986) and Bialer (Journal of Personality, 1961), among others.
The Valiant Woman makes sure that the work of her hands is marketable. She knows what the merchants are buying (Prov. 31:24), chooses her materials with care (Prov. 31:13), and works tirelessly to assure a quality product (Prov. 31:18b). Her reward is that “her merchandise is profitable” (Prov. 31:18a), providing the resources needed by the household and the community. The proverbs are clear that an individual worker's diligence contributes to the profitability of the entire undertaking. “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want” (Prov. 21:5). The converse example is shown in the proverb, “One who is slack in work is close kin to a vandal” (Prov. 18:9). A lazy worker is no better than someone who deliberately sets out to destroy the enterprise. All of these anticipate Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
When we keep in mind that these proverbs about profit are grounded in God’s character, we see God wants us to work profitably. It is not enough to complete our assigned tasks. We must care about whether our work actually adds value to the materials, capital and labor consumed. In open economies, competition dictates that making a profit can be very challenging. The un-diligent—lazy, complacent, or dissolute—can quickly decline into loss, bankruptcy and ruin. The diligent—hard working, creative, focused—perform a godly service when they make it possible for their businesses to operate profitably.
Christians have not always recognized the importance of profit in the biblical perspective. In fact, profit is often regarded with suspicion and discussed in a rhetoric of “people vs. profits.” There is a suspicion that profit comes not from taking inputs and creating something more valuable from them, but from swindling buyers, workers or suppliers. This arises from an inadequate understanding of business and economics. A truly biblical critique of businesses would ask questions such as “What kind of profits?” “What is the source of the profit?” “Is the profit extracted by monopoly or intimidation or deception?”, and “How is the profit shared among workers, managers, owners, lenders, suppliers, customers and taxation?” It would encourage and celebrate workers and businesses who bring a wholesome profitability to their work. (See the article Economics and Society for more on this subject.)
Not all workers are in a position to know whether their work is profitable. Employees in a large corporation may have little idea whether their particular work contributes positively to profitability of the enterprise. Profitability, in an accounting sense, does not play a role in education, government, not-for-profit corporations, and homes. But all workers can pay attention to how their work contributes to accomplishing the mission of the organization, to whether the value they add is greater than the pay and other resources they extract. To do so is a form of service to the Lord.
The Valiant Woman’s profitable management of her household draws a word of exalted praise. “She is far more precious than jewels” (Prov. 31:10). This is no sentimental metaphor. It is quite literally true. A well-run enterprise can certainly earn profits over the years far exceeding the value of jewels and other stores of wealth.
The Valiant Woman’s diligence gives her an eagerness for the future. “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (Prov. 31:25). While the proverbs are not promises of personal prosperity, in general, our diligence does lead to a better future.
Those who till their land will have plenty of food, but those who follow worthless pursuits have no sense. (Prov. 12:11)
Anyone who tills the land will have plenty of bread, but one who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty. (Prov. 28:19)
The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labor. (Prov. 12:24)
Diligence is not a guarantee against future sorrow or even disaster (see Job and Work at www.theologyofwork.org). Yet the wise person trusts God for the future, and the diligent can rest in the confidence that they have done what God asks of them for themselves, their households and their communities.