Question: "What does the Bible say about idleness/being idle?"
Answer: There are several different words translated “idleness” in the Bible. Although there are some subtle differences in nuance, the general meaning of idleness is “undisciplined slackness.” Ecclesiastes 10:18 gives a graphic description of the results of idleness: “Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.” Idleness is the opposite of diligence, which the Bible often commends (Proverbs 12:24; 13:4; Romans 12:11; Ephesians 4:28).
Idleness can manifest in many different ways. Jesus warned us about idle words. He said, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). Idle words are undisciplined speech. Ephesians 5:4 gives a partial list of idle speech: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” Idle speech is that which would most likely not be said in the physical presence of Jesus. First Timothy 6:20 also tells us we are to avoid “godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge.” So not only are we to eliminate our own idle speech, but we are to turn away from the foolish talk of others.
First Timothy 5:13 gives instruction to young widows to marry again and have children so that they would not “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.” Idleness produces other evils such as gossip and slander (2 Corinthians 12:20). Women were not the only ones warned about idleness. Second Thessalonians 3:11 says, “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.” Idleness is a foundation for many other sins, and believers are warned not to allow it in their own lives or in the church.
In contrast, the Bible praises those who were known for their good works and service for the kingdom of God. Tabitha “was always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). Euodia and Syntyche are praised by Paul for working hard at his side for the sake of the gospel (Philippians 4:2–3). Epaphroditus worked so hard to share the gospel that he nearly died (Philippians 2:30). Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis are others who were commended for their hard work in the Lord (Romans 16:12). All of these are praised for their refusal to be idle when there was work to be done.
Idleness implies that there is nothing to be done that is worthy of time or effort. But as long as there are people who are lost without Christ, there is always something to be done. To combat the tendency to be idle, we should cultivate the habits of prayer, Bible study, meditation, and service. There is always someone who needs help, prayer, or encouragement. With the internet, we now have limitless ways in which we can fill time with meaningful work. Through the internet we can pursue online study, write emails to support or challenge political leaders, send encouragement to persecuted believers, and volunteer on Christian chat sites to help seekers find Jesus. When our hearts are fully committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we cannot be idle for long because that is not what He would do. Jesus said, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).
The Bible instructs us to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). Anyone who is tempted to be idle should ask himself: What can I do right now to be one of His workers?