Oh Who’s Afraid of the Elbow Grease? The Case for Hard Work and the Case for Refreshment

If it is true that, in the immortal words of Wesley the Farm-Boy-turned-Dread-Pirate-Roberts, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something,” there must be an awful lot of “selling” going on in today’s culture.

Life since the Fall of man has been extremely hard. But because improved technology has made some aspects of our lives easier, it has become tempting to think that all aspects of life can and should be made easier—or that we should not have to suffer, struggle, or work hard at all.

As a teacher, it can be easy to complain that “Students do not work hard” on their assignments and move on without bothering to take this issue seriously.

But is slacking off a problem primarily found in teenagers and young people? Is slacking off a relatively minor problem compared with the black stains of plagiarism, cheating, and other sins? Are we more likely to look sympathetically on students who slack off because “we all do it”? Or are we, like Saint Augustine points out in Confessions, relieved to give ourselves a pass while holding our students up to a higher standard than we would be willing to meet ourselves?

While I probably procrastinate and cut corners as much as the next person, I’m not proud of my failure to give my best effort toward my work. Slacking off and procrastinating are vices that I’m trying to avoid.


Because sloppiness and acedia are more serious problems than we like to think they are.

No one likes to work hard, but our current culture is feeding our natural desire to be lazy by making us believe that life should be easy, that we should have everything we want without trouble, difficulty, or waiting a long time. “On-demand” movies and workouts; “free two-day shipping” for almost every product under the sun; groceries for pickup; social media, texting, and email; pre-recorded music; non-stop televised entertainment; online dating, extra-marital cohabitation, contraception, and abortion—all of these modern trends have the effect of developing a culture-wide mindset that we should get what we want as soon as possible, that our lives should be as convenient and comfortable as possible.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with convenience, comfort, or efficiency, these possibilities have become ideals in our culture—at the expense of the virtues of patience, endurance, and perseverance.

The ability to make yourself work hard when you do not want to—the virtues of hard work, patience, diligence, endurance, and perseverance—take a long time to develop. If we are not requiring them of ourselves, why are we so upset when our students do not have them?

Hard work is a test of several things: What do we really value? How much of ourselves and our time are we willing to expend on the people and activities we value? Consider:

What do we think is worth working at? Video games? Athletics? Cooking and cleaning? Helping others? Reading our Bibles? Meeting for fellowship with other Christians? Thinking about things we disagree with so that we can strengthen our understanding of those topics and prepare to discuss them with people who do not accept our point of view? Building houses? Ending abortion and human trafficking? Raising children? Cultivating love for your husband or wife? As Colonel Hogan tells Schultz, “May I remind you that our time here is limited?” We cannot do every activity, so it is vital that the actions we do take are worth the effort we put into them. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” While this point applies to money, it also applies to time and effort. We prove what we value by the effort we put into that activity. If we love God, we will put effort into Bible reading, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, formal worship, service to others, and evangelism. If we love our families, we will put effort into cultivating love between husband and wife, raising children, and caring for aging relatives. If we love other people, we will put effort into considering their needs above our own. If we love good things, we will spend time studying them.

What do we think is worth enduring? Some work is relatively easy. Other work is relatively hard and unpleasant. Still other work is so difficult or disgusting we would rather not do it at all. Reading a new book on World War II to prepare for that segment of the history courses I’m teaching is so interesting that it hardly qualifies as “work”, and it certainly does not count as “suffering”. Hauling lumber by hand to clear land for a new house involves actual physical discomfort. It is heavy, hot, and leaves you sore—particularly if you blunder through poison ivy and have a massive reaction. Yet the purpose of that difficulty is to build a house; the goal is worth suffering to accomplish: God willing, many people will be served, strengthened, and refreshed in that new house. While building a house is not necessary, great good will come of it. Fighting a hair-trigger gag reflex while scrubbing a homeless-mission toilet that has not been cleaned since the days of Methuselah falls in the third category: the actions you take only because, even though you have no desire to do them, you will to do them. Yet the purpose of that difficulty is to serve someone else; the goal is again worth suffering to accomplish. This type of suffering, though, is not merely optional. You are bound to serve others by God, by conscience, by love; no human can make you serve others—you will to, freely placing your free will under the authority of God and not under the authority of your desires for comfort.

What do we think is worth persevering at? Some work can be completed in a relatively short amount of time. Other tasks seem endless. It is easy to endure difficult, gross, or painful work for a short amount of time. It is also easy to do enjoyable work for long periods of time. But perseverance is not a virtue that develops quickly; perseverance comes only by repeated practice of doing things over long periods of time – often the same boring thing over long periods of time. Even doing relatively-enjoyable work over a period of months or years is good preparation for cultivating a mindset of perseverance that will strengthen your ability to continue doing difficult, unpleasant, or even dangerous tasks for long periods of time. When a student perseveres in writing a senior thesis over the course of his twelfth-grade year; when a student perseveres in memorizing a part for a Shakespeare play; when a student perseveres in practicing Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique; when a student reads all of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars or Melville’s Moby-Dick—that student is developing determination, the long-term will to continue working at difficult tasks until they are finished. Many of the most difficult actions take long periods of time: raising children, building houses, serving the poor, staying loyal to your spouse “’till death do us part,” and remaining faithful to Christ for a lifetime – even under torture. And yet, although all of these actions are worthwhile, failing to do them well over long periods of time has grievous consequences: failing to finish building a house results in tens of thousands of dollars lost, for example; much worse are the life-long wounds of abandoned spouses and children.

Hard work, patience, and endurance are virtues that can be cultivated through academics, but they are essential for all of life – particularly spiritual life. Christ warned that we would have trials, face adversity, suffer persecution, and even become martyrs for His sake. While there is no guarantee that we will suffer in any particular way, we are certain to suffer. And while there’s no guarantee that students who develop the virtues of diligence, patience, and endurance through academic work will demonstrate these virtues in other areas of life, it is certain that any virtue is strengthened with practice.

But while it wouldn’t hurt most of us to value what is valuable enough to work harder at it and endure hardship to accomplish it, even over long periods of time, we also have to beware of the other extreme of work: rest-less busyness.

As the leader of my Bible study pointed out, God very clearly calls His people to rest. From the seventh day of the Creation, to Elijah’s resting after the miracle on Mount Carmel, to Jesus’ repeated invitations to His disciples and Martha to rest, we can see that rest is not just optional—it is a divine command.

And rest is not just a divine command; it is essential. No matter how much work there is to be done, you cannot just keep working. Refreshment is – by divine grace – necessary. We must, as David did, strengthen ourselves in the Lord. Spiritual refreshment is essential.

But so is physical refreshment. Just as an athlete cannot work out at the same high intensity every day, going without adequate sleep, water, or food wrecks anyone’s constitution. The Soviets in particular knew that sleep deprivation causes insanity, and they used it to torture and kill thousands of prisoners. Dehydration can send you to the hospital.

The denial of the importance of the physical world was a major theological dispute in the Middle Ages – but sometimes, in our tech-saturated, artificial-intelligence, white-collar, virtual-reality culture, we fall into the same false train of thought. God does not discount the physical world – He made it. Jesus Himself is the Word made flesh, and He instituted the New Covenant in His body and blood – symbolized by, or as many believe, which transform, the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking we can live above the physical world. Receive God’s physical blessings of a cozy bed, fresh water, and delicious food with delight! Pray for His provision for those who lack basic necessities. Think about what God’s physical creations – even chocolate chip cookies! – can teach you about Himself! As you make yet another meal for your family, pour yet another scoop of chow into your dog’s dish, or hang yet another feeder full of seed for the wrens in the crepe myrtle outside your window – rejoice in God’s faithful, tireless, super-abundant provision!

God calls us to both hard work and rest, to both endurance and refreshment, to both patience and reward. Our students – and ourselves – can benefit from our reconsideration of both sides of the “diligence” coin.

Image: Caillebotte’s The Floor-Scrapers, 1875