Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth… One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys (Proverbs 10:4; 18:9).

Some teenage boys can get into a lot of trouble. What does it take to clean up their act? Is there anything to help them stay out of trouble? Well, how about teaching them a four-letter word? Okay, most teenagers already know too many four-letter words. But there’s one four-letter word they need to know, a word that can help them stay out of trouble and have a better life.

I remember hearing this four-letter word from a man who knew a lot about what gets young men into trouble. He had a lot of contact with prison inmates. He was also involved in helping troubled youngsters change their ways and stay out of prison. I can still hear this man telling me, “The way to spell change in the lives of these boys is W-O-R-K.” Work! That’s the four-letter word they need to know!

It’s no stretch to say that destructive behavior is closely related to not working. According to the Bible, idleness and destructiveness aren’t just distant relatives; they are brothers! Proverbs 18:9 says, “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.” If you’re not doing something constructive, you’re probably doing something destructive. All of us, especially young men, are bound to be doing something. If we’re not doing something good, we end up doing something bad.

My friend who worked with troubled boys was so sure of this that he set up a program to put boys to work. When he told me about his first attempt at a work program, I couldn’t help laughing. My friend was working with city boys, and he decided these boys could learn a lot from raising pigs. The boys would be housed in a place outside of town, buy little pigs, feed them, figure out how to deal with problems they cause, and then sell them when they were ready for market. It may have sounded good in theory, but as it turned out, those city boys weren’t cut out to be pig farmers. The pigs did a lot of strange things, and the boys did a lot of strange things. They got into one crazy situation after another, until at last one boy piped up and said, “I ain’t gonna feed no more pigs, man!”

Well, the boy couldn’t get out of work quite that easily–he ended up feeding those pigs–but not long after that, my friend gave up on the pig approach and tried something different. City boys hate raising pigs, but you know what? They love to work on cars. Cars are cool! So my friend got these boys involved in fixing and detailing cars. The boys had to work hard, but they developed important skills and felt good about doing something useful. They started a savings account, balanced their own checkbook, and paid any bills or restitution for damages they owed. Along with their work, they were also given opportunities for good, clean fun–though even the fun times often involved a lot of effort and responsibility, things like fishing, camping, canoeing, and backpacking.

Why is it that work is so important for troubled kids to turn their lives around? Well, for one thing, God created us to do something, so if we’re not doing something worthwhile, we’ll find something bad to do. As the saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” One way to keep the devil’s workshop from cranking out troublemakers is to put idle hands to work. When kids are working, they’re too busy to cause trouble; and when they finish working, they’re too tired to cause trouble!

But work does more than keep people busy. It forms character and builds dignity. It gives people a sense of what it’s like to put forth an effort and have something worthwhile to show for it. That’s why every child needs to learn how to work hard: in household chores, in schoolwork, and in that first part-time job. Work isn’t the whole answer, but it’s a big part of the answer.

The Bible book of Proverbs has a lot to say about wisdom and success. Proverbs is practical; it doesn’t deal with distant dreams. It gets down to basics and deals with everyday life. It says how to succeed and how to avoid failure. And what does it say? Almost the first statement in Proverbs declares, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). In other words, if you want to get smart, then take God seriously! The next thing Proverbs urges young people to do is to listen to their parents. Then Proverbs goes on to talk about things like avoiding gangs and sexual temptation and booze–things that tempt people still today. And interwoven with all this, Proverbs talks about something else over and over again: the benefits of work. Those are some of the major building blocks of wisdom and success, and you won’t amount to much without them.

If you don’t take God seriously, then start taking him seriously. The fear of the Lord is the beginning, the foundation of everything else. If you haven’t had good parents (or if you have good parents but haven’t been listening to them), then you need to learn how a healthy, godly family behaves. If you’re into gangs or booze or drugs or sex without marriage, then you need to stop being so foolish and live God’s way. And if you don’t know what it is to work hard and accomplish something, you need to learn about work and the benefits it brings. These were building blocks for wisdom and success when God inspired the ancient book of Proverbs, and today these are still building blocks for a wise and successful life.

Work Pays Off

The Bible says a lot about the importance of work, and this is especially true of the book of Proverbs. Proverbs offers powerful and practical reasons for working. Why work? One reason is simply that work pays off. Work brings prosperity, while idleness brings poverty. Proverbs 10:4 puts it bluntly: “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.” Work makes you richer; laziness makes you poorer. Simple, isn’t it? If we had time, I could mention lots of other biblical proverbs that make the same point, but for now here are just a few more. “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (Proverbs 28:19). “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23).

It doesn’t pay to be lazy. In fact, laziness is so silly that the book of Proverbs jokes about it and makes fun of Mr. Lazybones. According to Proverbs, the lazybones doesn’t even have the brains of an insect–he needs to go learn a lesson from the ants. At least ants know enough to work hard and save up for the future, while some people just sleep in and sit around and then wonder how poverty sneaked up on them (6:6-11).

Work, on the other hand, brings wealth–and that’s not all. Work also pays off by helping you to appreciate what you have and to make the most of what you have. Proverbs 12:27 says, “The lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions” (Proverbs 12:27). A lazy person won’t bother to roast a choice cut of meat in the most healthy, delicious way; he’ll just gulp it down and wipe his mouth on his sleeve. He’s too apathetic to relish what he has or to make the most of it. What a picture of a lazy person’s attitude toward good things! The hard-working person, on the other hand, prizes what he has and he takes good care of it, because he’s had to work for it.

This may help to explain why welfare and public housing have often backfired despite the best intentions. Give people a check for doing nothing, and they most likely won’t appreciate the value of a dollar or spend it wisely. Give people an apartment or house that they haven’t done much to earn, and they tend not to take very good care of it. On the other hand, when a dollar represents a person’s hard work, they tend to spend the money more carefully. And when a place to live represents years of labor and careful saving, they will take very good care of their home. I’m not saying all welfare and public housing assistance are wrong. Some people in dire need may need temporary help. But when it turns into a subsidy for laziness and makes work unnecessary, it produces people who don’t handle their money and their property responsibly.

This also helps explain why people who get rich through parents who spoil them or through lotteries or speculation or crime often seem to lose money as fast as they get it, while people who work hard and save bit by bit end up ahead of those who those who have actually taken in more money. As Proverbs 13:11 puts it, “Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow.” Money that’s made too quickly and easily can also be lost quickly and easily. That’s also why buying on credit is dangerous. Working for what you get helps to develop responsibility and self-discipline, but much buying on credit is a matter of grabbing what you haven’t yet worked for. You see something you want right now. You feel like you’ve just got to have some new clothes or jewelry or the latest electronic equipment or an expensive car or whatever. But you don’t have the money to pay for it, so you buy it on credit, figuring you can pay for it later. Your cravings run ahead of your savings, and that means disaster.

Proverbs says, “The sluggard’s craving will be the end of him, because his hands refuse to work” (Proverbs 21:25). You might say, “What’s that verse got to do with consumer credit? It talks about refusing to work, and I’m willing to work.” Fine, but are you willing to work enough to pay for the things you want before you actually go out and buy them? If not, if you want it all now, even before you’ve worked for it, then what you’ve got may be just a more complicated case of laziness. It’s not that you won’t work at all, but you always want something before you work for it, and you always want more than you’ve worked for.

If you’re like some folks, you may find yourself with money problems because of credit purchasing, and you think that your problems would go away if only you could somehow get a big chunk of money or a higher paying job. But would more money solve your problem? Probably not. Your biggest need isn’t more money; it’s more wisdom. As Proverbs 17:16 puts it, “Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom?” Some financial problems are due to a shortage of income or lack of job opportunities; but other financial problems are a matter of bad work habits and spending habits and personal character.

The Character Payoff

And speaking of character, that may be the biggest payoff of work. So far we’ve seen that when you work hard and spend only what you’ve already worked for, it increases your wealth; it helps you to value and enjoy what you have; it helps you to take care of your property; and it helps you develop greater self-discipline and greater control of your appetites. And in all of this, it makes you more and more a person of sound character, the kind of person other people respect and rely on.

And that brings us back to the topic we started with: work as a way of building character and helping to overcome crime and delinquency. Some politicians and social workers also make a connection between lack of work and bad behavior, but they look at it from a different angle. They explain crime and single-parent families and other problems among young people in our cities by saying that there aren’t enough good jobs available. They say that many youngsters become irresponsible and criminal in their behavior because they don’t see much hope of getting a good job. We’re told that the problems would go away if only we brought better jobs to those areas of the city. Now, there’s a measure of truth in that. People can indeed get discouraged if they don’t see real opportunities for meaningful work that provides a decent income. But often there’s more to it than that.

A shortage of jobs and opportunities can be a depressing problem, but what if the problem goes beyond a shortage of job opportunities? What if the biggest problem is that these youngsters have never learned to work in the first place? They haven’t developed the ambition and drive to set goals, or the diligence and discipline to put forth the effort to achieve those goals, or the character and reliability to qualify for jobs that give them significant responsibility and significant pay. Creating good jobs is important, but what’s the use of creating more jobs if young people haven’t developed the character to stick with something and the skills to do it well?

Many young people don’t need a better job opportunity nearly as much as they need to work, period. If you learn to work hard and to do your best, no matter how little it pays, no matter whether you enjoy the job or not, you become a stronger, more diligent, more disciplined, more reliable person. Even if you’re working at something that doesn’t seem to have much of a future, the work itself can help you become a person who does have a future.

If all you can get is a job mopping floors or flipping burgers, then show up for work on time and do your best. Mop those floors as clean as you can. Flip those burgers as well as you can. Before you know it, you may start turning into the kind of person that other people would like to hire. If you work hard at something and do it well, there may be bigger and better things in store for you. If you’re in school but you don’t see how your studies will help you in the future, work hard and do your best in your studies anyway. Some of what you learn may help you more than you realize, and even if some of the information you’re studying turns out to be useless, the very fact that you work hard and apply your mind to something will make you a better, more disciplined thinker.

The Bible tells the story of Joseph, a boy who seemed to be on a dead-end road. Joseph got one raw deal after another. First he got sold as a slave. But even as a slave, Joseph worked hard and proved that he could be trusted, and before long he was running his master’s entire estate. Then, just when he seemed to be succeeding, it all fell apart. Joseph was falsely accused of sexual assault and landed in prison. But even in prison, Joseph tried to do the right thing and worked hard at everything he did. Before long, he was given greater responsibility and freedom. Then, one day, his big chance came, and Joseph ended up being the second most powerful ruler in the entire nation.

Joseph is an example of the fact that when you seem to be getting nowhere and hard work seems useless, even then your work is building the kind of character that prepares you for greater things later on that God has prepared for you. Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.” Proverbs 12:24 says, “Diligent hands will rule.” Proverbs 27:18 says, “He who looks after his master will be honored.” In other words, good workers tend to get promoted. So if you want respect and success, don’t expect it to be handed to you on a platter. It usually comes as a result of tireless effort and solid character.

Real Success

Now, when the Bible talks about success, it’s not just talking about money. If all your hard work did was to develop your character but left you as poor as before, you’d still be a success. Proverbs 28:6 says, “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse.” Or, as Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” A good reputation with others, a measure of self-respect, and above all, the approval of God–these are worth more than a fat bank account.

Hard work is so important to pleasing God, and so important to winning the respect of others, that in the New Testament, God tells us, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands … so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

We’ve looked at many different statements in the Bible that show us why work is so essential to a wise and successful life. But I wouldn’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. We must never treat work as an end in itself or think that we can be successful simply by our own efforts.

The drive to work hard, and the confidence that it will pay off, must always be rooted in a relationship to God. Before the book of Proverbs says anything about work, it first says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (3:5-6). Later it says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed” (16:3).

A few minutes ago I mentioned Joseph, the young man who was first a slave and then a prisoner, but who kept doing his best anyway until at last he ended up as a powerful and effective ruler. Joseph didn’t do this on his own, however. The Bible says that God was with him and was blessing him the whole time. Joseph trusted God. He sensed God’s nearness. Even when the outlook seemed hopeless, Joseph believed that the Lord had something great planned for him. That’s why he never gave up. His faith kept him going and gave him the motivation to do everything just as well as he could. So when Joseph finally made it to the top, he didn’t brag about his own hard work, and he didn’t seek revenge on those who had hurt him. Instead, he said that it was all part of God’s plan to make him a blessing to others.

You can go about your work in that same confidence when you trust the God of the Bible, the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. You may have all sorts of sins and harmful habits, and you may have a bad work ethic and not much self-control, but when you trust Jesus, you can leave all of that at the cross where Jesus died. You can trust his resurrection power to make something worthwhile of you.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and commit your ways to the Lord. He will help you succeed. Work with the energy and confidence that comes from knowing that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in you, that he has a wonderful destiny in store for you, and that when he finds you faithful in small things, he will give you responsibility for much greater things. No task is unimportant when God is the one you’re working for. Everything is worth doing well. As the Bible puts it, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Once you know the Lord Jesus, W-O-R-K is one four-letter word that’s not a curse but a blessing.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.