According to tradition, the seven virtues of the Christian life are kindness, humility, diligence, charity, patience, temperance, and chastity. These character qualities embody the new self that Christians are called to put on in Christ (Eph. 4:17-24). In this seven-part series, we will familiarize ourselves with each of the seven virtues, with the goal of developing new habits befitting our new selves in Christ.
The third virtue Christians should strive to cultivate is diligence. Properly defined, diligence is careful and persistent effort. Like kindness, diligence does not work for the sake of recognition but finds delight and satisfaction in good work for its own sake. Diligence does not despise work or overindulge in rest and play. Instead, it embraces work as an expression of love and care.
Paul encouraged the early church to be diligent in everything, to the glory of God:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:23-24)
In the book of Proverbs, we are told that the diligent person will come to a good end:
The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor. (Prov. 12:24)
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes to poverty. (Prov. 21:5)
When life presents challenges and trials, diligence helps us to press on no matter what. In The Works of the Reverend and Faithful Servant of Jesus Christ, the 16th century Puritan pastor Richard Greenham said diligence "makes the rough places plain, the difficult easy, and the unsavory tasty." In other words, diligence fosters a teachable spirit and the disposition to rest in the truth that God knows best when we find ourselves in the rough places of life (Prov. 16:9). Diligence would not be necessary if life were easy and always smooth sailing. But since life isn't easy, we must practice diligence to persevere through discipline and trial (Heb. 12:7).
Sometimes, God calls us to do work we would have never chosen for ourselves. But diligence teaches us to learn contentment, being grateful for the work that lies before us, no matter how hard it is (Phil. 4:12). We respond with diligence, not because of our own abilities, but because we trust in God to complete every good work that He has already begun in our lives (Phil. 1:6). This promise applies to our daily lives as we physically work and to our spiritual lives as we allow God to work in and through us, sanctifying us into the image of Christ--the new self of the virtuous life.
When diligence is neglected, we can become slothful. When most people hear the word "sloth," they think of laziness. The slothful person is indeed lazy. However, slothfulness is not an exact synonym of laziness; rather, it denotes a certain type of laziness. Historically, the vice of slothfulness has also been called acedia--spiritual or mental apathy.
In Glittering Vices, Rebecca DeYoung says, "Sloth has more to do with our laziness about love than laziness about our work." Sloth is resistant to the demands of love, and therefore apathetic towards the sanctifying work of love. Love is not easy; it requires work and commitment. In other words, the sluggard and the ambitious workaholic can both suffer from slothfulness.
The love of Christ is not something that we earn; it is a gift. But Christ's free gift of love is meant to elicit an active response from us. Once we have received the gift, we must engage in the hard work of loving and being known. This work is uncomfortable and wonderful all at the same time. Among other things, it means accountability and a willingness to change.
The sluggard wants all the benefits of love without any of the investment or commitment. Meanwhile, the workaholic believes that Christ's love is conditional on their performance; they work hard because they do not fully trust that Christ's love will remain when they fail.
To the sluggard, Proverbs 6:6-8 says:
Go to the ant ... consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.
The ant considers what needs to be done and diligently goes about the task instead of waiting for another to complete the work. However, the benefits of cultivating diligence in one's life transcend developing a good work ethic. Diligence fosters a right relationship with our work, affecting how we complete it and for Whom we ultimately do it. The tragedy for the slothful is that, in the end, they resist their greatest desire--love--because of what it requires of them. As Solomon explained, "The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied" (Prov. 13:4). On the other hand, the workaholic must learn to work within their limitations for the glory of God and not themselves (1 Thess. 4:11-12). If we are tempted to overwork as a means of "earning" the love of God or others, we must learn to grow our reliance on God, knowing that it is not out of our own strength that we do anything (John 15:4-5).
Diligence is an active response to Christ's free gift of love. It encourages us to be who we are called to be in Christ (the new self) and not settle with who we were (the old self). Our culture tempts us towards both extremes of sloth. We consume ourselves in work or avidly avoid it, forgetting the purpose of the work itself--to change and transform us into the image of Christ. Changing habits and cultivating virtue requires work. In other words, it demands the virtue of diligence.