My mother is a connoisseur of books. When I was a child she kept a watchful eye over the content of the books that graced my pink bookshelf, ensuring that each colorful page had quality subject matter. I remember a small tomb of Aesop’s Fables in particular. Each story was a chilling harbinger of cold reality that was awaited in adulthood. I was both drawn and repulsed by this reality and these stories. Especially the story about the Ants and the Grasshopper.
In this fable the bugs are living at the height and bounty of summer. The Ants work hard all summer putting up food for the winter. The grasshopper parties and fritters away his time, all the while mocking the Ants for their serious work ethic. Inevitably winter arrives and the grasshopper is shown in rags, hungry and cold looking in on the Ants eating a feast, warm in their dirt house. Now the Ants were partying and enjoying the fruits of their labor while the Grasshopper was serious and in trouble. The Ants, good souls that they are, take the Grasshopper in and feed him.
I remember the desire to grow up and be like the wise Ants, and fearing that in my heart, I was more like the Grasshopper. I experienced this internal conflict again in 10th grade bible class when we studied the book of Proverbs, verse by verse. There the ants are again! “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which, having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8 NKJV) The ants know when the time is right to gather and store up for hard times. They know the truth we usually avoid: hard times always come so be ready.
I wonder if people in Solomon’s time tried to get around the truth behind the wisdom of the ants. Solomon goes onto say, “How long will you slumber, O sluggard? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, and little folding of the hands to sleep – So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like and armed man.” (Prov. 6:9-11 NKJV) The NIV says the last line like this, “And poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.” A little indulgence here and little break there, a little closing your eyes to what’s going on in your life and scarcity will overtake you and rob you of security and joy.
I think this point about scarcity is still true today. Author Brene` Brown talks about the scarcity mindset in her book Daring Greatly. She says that three things underline and perpetuate this mindset: Shame, comparison, and disengagement. Shame creates a hot potato game for blame, always passing the blame onto the next person for all our problems. Comparison has inflamed past healthy competition into achieving rank in a culture-wide unspoken hierarchy, all played out in social media, family life, and the workplace. Finally disengagement, where it is no longer worth the risk of trying new things and people feel that no one is listening anyway so they stop trying.
Brown describes this scarcity mindset in our culture as a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder playing out in society at large. She says the only way to change this is to overcome it on an individual level and go the opposite direction of everyone else in our daily choices. She says, “The larger culture is always applying pressure, and unless we’re willing to push back and fight for what we believe in, the default becomes a state of scarcity. We’re called to ‘dare greatly’ every time we make choices that challenge the social climate of scarcity.” So basically, unless you’re aware of the scarcity mindset that has saturated our culture and actively fend it off, you’ll be sucked under just like everyone else. When a mindset takes hold of a culture that pull becomes as strong as a tidal undertow, and just as hard to break free from.
You might be reading this and saying, “This is America. The land of opportunity, where hard work pays off. We have the hustle and our work ethic puts everyone else to shame.” I don’t know if it puts everyone else to shame as much as it puts us in the grave sooner, but that’s a conversation for another day. We may have a strong work ethic here, but we’re still stuck in a scarcity mindset. Why is that? I think it is because of pain. Pain on an individual level as well as a societal level. Every issue is now so polarized it isn’t safe to talk about any issue without getting personally attacked and losing credibility as a person, not just on some issue. It seems like every politician and news source is bought and paid for by some big business conglomerate. We’re told our food is poisoned with chemicals and pollution. When it comes to agriculture, political science, and sociology; everything is a science experiment, and we’re the guinea pigs. Who are we supposed to trust? What are we supposed to eat? Why are we working so hard just to be guinea pigs? That scarcity mindset is making more sense now.
So scarcity isn’t just about being lazy, well neither is Proverbs 6. This passage in Proverbs calls the person overtaken by scarcity a sluggard. So what does sluggard really mean? Time to bring out the dictionary! Sluggard means, “One habitually lazy and inactive; an indolent or slothful person.” In my bible this section of Proverbs 6 is titled, “The Folly of Indolence.” Which raises the question, what does indolence mean? It’s in the title, it’s in the definition for sluggard, so there must be more to sluggard-ness than mere laziness.
Indolence comes from the Latin word indolentia, which means free from pain. So the first definition of indolence is, “Freedom from pain or discomfort of body or of mind.” Wait, what does a lack of pain have to do with laziness? There’s a clue in the second definition, “Quality, condition, or instance of being indolent; habitual idleness; indisposition to labor; laziness.” This second definition is describing someone who is trying to be in a state free of pain, but in order to maintain that state the pain of labor or work must be avoided. Once someone is indolent they come to a stop, everything that brings pain or the threat of pain stops, the person becomes idle. Technically, remaining in this state is a form of laziness, but it’s more than that. It’s someone trying to find freedom, a freedom from pain, in any way they know how.
The irony that Solomon is pointing out in Proverbs 6 is that indolence is trying to avoid pain in the labor of life, maybe even the pain of scarcity; but indolent behavior only produces more scarcity. Sometimes the pain of scarcity is greater than the pain of laboring through or for whatever dreams or goals. So in a way, Solomon is saying, “It’s going to hurt either way, so choose the lesser hurt that ends in a time of rejoicing. Rather than the end of scarcity and indolence, which is more lack.”
Unlike Solomon, we have the hope and salvation of Jesus. We can work hard like the ants and overcome the scarcity mindset but we don’t have to do it alone. Now we have Jesus and we work hard for Him and His name’s sake. When we go through the struggle of overcoming scarcity we overcome with Jesus who, through the Holy Spirit, sends others to bring the right word of encouragement and the right support.
Paul talks about this very thing in 1 Thessalonians. In chapter 5 Paul is warning the church in Thessalonica to remember that the day of the Lord will come like “a thief in the night,” and be wary against those who say they know when it will come or those who say we’re only going to have “peace and safety.” Paul reassures the Thessalonians that they don’t have to worry about the day of the Lord because they are “not in darkness” and they will not be overtaken in that Day. (1 Thess. 5:1-4)
Paul goes on to say, “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober.” (1 Thess. 5:6-8 NKJV) I don’t think Paul is saying that we should quit sleeping altogether. I think he’s commenting on cultural mindsets that come out during hard times. Sleep during times of darkness is like trying to numb the pain of that dark time. When you’re asleep you don’t feel what’s in your heart, you don’t feel what’s in the heart of your neighbor. You’re unconscious to the world and the darkness. Or there’s the people who get drunk at night. They’re numbing their pain through alcohol. Paul is describing indolence. He’s warning the Thessalonians to resist the temptation to fall into indolence during this sometimes difficult period of waiting Jesus’ return and the day of the Lord.
Paul gives the Thessalonians a brief list of the armor of God to help them resist indolence and remain sober and awake. “Putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.” (1 Thess. 5:8-10 NKJV) Paul goes onto tell the Thessalonians to be each other’s comforters in Christ. They can be the hands and feet of Christ to the lost and the hurting in the city, but they can also be the hands and feet of Christ for each other. They can spur each other on to stay awake, keep resisting the culture of indolence, and overcome together.
We too are in a culture of indolence, we too are faced with darkness in our time that threatens to overtake us. But let us be like the Thessalonians, let us continue to comfort one another with the love and hope we have in Jesus. Let us continue to say to one another, “Wake Up!” Let us be like the ants who not only worked hard, but worked together; and in the end let us be like the ants and rejoice together. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for grasshoppers, invite them in and tell them they don’t have to live under scarcity anymore. They too can turn to Jesus and leave indolence behind.
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary Deluxe Second Edition. Noah Webster, Revisions supervised by Jean L. McKechnie. 1983. New World Dictionaries, Cleveland, OH. Pages 933, 1711.
Daring Greatly. Brene` Brown, Ph.D., LMSW. 2012. Gotham Books, published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, NY. Page 29.