2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Workshop

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Workshop

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Let’s begin by recognizing the elephant in the room: A lot of people don’t like Paul. They find him to be opinionated and outspoken; at best, condescending; at worse, chauvinistic; egotistical and arrogant – “My way or the highway.”

A lot of people don’t like Paul, and you may be one of them. If so, you may have a hard time with the passage for today, especially the parts about shunning those who are rebellious and if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Paul can be a bitter pill to swallow.

But if you’ll give him a chance, you’ll find he’s not as mean-spirited as you might think. For one thing, his concern here is to put a stop to the growing turmoil and division in Thessalonica. He’s also concerned about the individual members. He wants to point them toward a lasting truth – that the secret of a life well spent is to stay focused and do your part, however limited you may be, to build up the kingdom around you. This is what Jesus said:

“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness;
and all these things will be given to you as well.”

(Matthew 6:33)

The passage begins,

“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion,
and not after the tradition which they received from us.”
(2 Thessalonians 3:6)

Commentators are quick to point out that what Paul is not talking about lazy people; he’s talking about troublemakers. Dick Donovan writes,

When people are working, their energy is channeled into positive enterprises. When they aren’t working, their energy is available for meddling and mischief-making. That is the problem in the Thessalonian church. Christians who should be busy working to support themselves have become busybodies––meddlers and mischief-makers. (

This was something my grandmother, Pipi, knew all about. She’d take care of me on days when my mother was out and about. Pipi was a seamstress. She worked days on end doing alterations and making fine dresses for elegant ladies to wear. Her hands were always busy, and she thought mine ought to be, too.

She knew if I didn’t have something to do, I’d get into trouble. “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” she’d say. It was her philosophy of life and, thanks to her, it became a significant part of my life, as well.

She’d give me a needle and thread and a scrap of material and show me how to make a pincushion. I’d work hard to get the stitches just right. It’d take me forever – which, of course, was the point. When I got the two sides sewed up, she’d help me turn it inside out and stuff it with cotton. Then I’d fold over the open end and sew it shut. As a reward, I’d get to take it home to give to Mom, who would shower me with praise and put it in her growing collection.

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“Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” That said, Paul’s advice is to steer clear of those who are idle and unproductive and prone to causing trouble: “… withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion.” Or, as he told the Romans,

“… look out for those who are causing the divisions
and occasions of stumbling,
contrary to the doctrine which you learned,
and turn away from them.”
(Romans 16:17)

Donovan calls this “redemptive withdrawal.” I like that term. He points out that Paul wasn’t trying to purge the congregation of troublemakers, but to win them over to building up the church, not tearing it down. Paul says,

“… have no company with (one who is disruptive),
to the end that he may be ashamed.
Don’t count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
(2 Thessalonians 3:15-16)

We all have a certain amount of influence on each other. Positive energy energizes; negative energy drains. It’s up to you which to choose. You can hang out with those who lift you up and so, soar with the eagles. Or you can hang out with those who are down in the mouth and join them in their misery.

Paul would have us surround ourselves with those who share our optimism and hope. He told the Philippians,

“… whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable,
whatever things are just, whatever things are pure,
whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report;
if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things …
and the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:8-9)

One of my favorite old hymns goes like this:

Look for the beautiful, look for the true;
Look for the beautiful, life’s journey thro’,
Seeking true loveliness, joy you will know,
As to the home above onward you go.

I’m assuming word has gotten out that you’ve left the PC(USA) to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. If so, the big question in the minds of those who know you is, “How’s this working for you?”

Your response is critical. If you’re excited about the prospects of the future, others will see it in your faces and hear it in your words. They’ll want to know more and, perhaps, join you on this new road you’re taking. You owe it to yourself to be upbeat and supportive of each other.

Paul believed in the power of a positive attitude. His motto was, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) May the same be said of you today.

Paul not only maintained a positive attitude, he was determined not to be a burden on anyone else. He paid his own way. He was a tentmaker by trade, and he used his trade wherever he went to earn his keep. He didn’t expect others to take care of him. He wanted the Thessalonians to follow his example. He writes,

“For you know how you ought to imitate us.
For we didn’t … eat bread from anyone’s hand without paying for it,
but in labor and travail worked night and day,
that we might not burden any of you ….”
(2 Thessalonians 3:7-8)

Paul was what we would call today a “bi-vocational” minister. He worked as a tentmaker during the day and as an evangelist in the evenings and on the Sabbath.

There are a lot of tentmakers serving churches today

• One of the best automotive mechanics in Hope is pastor of the Cowboy Church. He works on cars during the day and studies the Bible in his spare time.

• Our former Sheriff started a new church while still in office. Given his background, he appealed to former convicts and their families.

• The pastor of the Pine Grove Methodist Church just north of here is a full-time employee of SWEPCO, the big energy giant.

Historically, we’ve had mixed feelings about bi-vocational ministry in the Reformed faith. It led to a split in the 19th Century when the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was formed. Today we skirt the topic by commissioning – but not ordaining – lay pastors.

The debate goes on. Shouldn’t a pastor who cares for your soul be as well educated and qualified as a physician who cares for your body … or an accountant who cares for your estate? On the other hand, if God calls you to preach, who’s to question God’s authority?

Paul’s concern here is not to take sides, but to set a good example: “Imitate us,” he says. Do as we do. Don’t be a burden to others. Carry your own weight. Be productive.

That applies to us all. It’s like the devotional we heard last month in our Men’s Prayer Breakfast. It had to do with spiritual gifts. It came from 1st Corinthians 12, where Paul says that each of us has been given gifts of the Spirit and that we’re to use them for the common good.

Congregations are full of gifted people. In every congregation I’ve served you could find someone with the necessary know-how to do just about anything you needed. For example,

• A member in Sherman, Texas was a cost analyst for Texas Instruments. He took our fledgling little budget and developed a five-year plan that got us out of debt and put us on solid footing for years to come.

• A member in Odessa, Texas had a gift for horticulture – a green thumb, we like to say. He took it on himself to look after the flowerbeds around the church. With his touch the church property became a showplace of the community.

• Another member in Odessa had the gift of compassion. I found her footprints all over town where she had taken a meal to a bereaved family, brought some flowers from her garden to a shut-in, used her car to take a sick friend to the doctor.

• One of my favorites was a grandfatherly gentleman who served as our greeter in Quinlan, Texas. He had the gift of hospitality, and he used it to welcome any and everyone to church on Sunday morning. He kept an ample supply of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum in his pocket and gave a stick to every child who came in the door. The kids loved him.

I could go on, but you get the picture: The church is a family of faith teeming with gifts and abilities. Working together, we can accomplish just about anything for the glory of God. Collectively, we either have what it takes to get the job done, or we know someone who does.

Call it the covered-dish supper approach. Every member pitches in and does his part. One brings a casserole, another brings a salad; one brings a dessert, another brings dinner rolls or garlic bread; one makes the tea and coffee, another sets the tables. When it comes time to eat, not only is there enough food to go around, there’s a whole crowd of people to eat it, each having brought his or her favorite dish.

Plus, it’s a more fun when you know that it’s not just chicken and dumplings, it’s Miss Sarah’s chicken and dumplings, and nobody makes chicken and dumplings better than Miss Sarah!

Paul would have every man, woman and child to take an active part building up the church and strengthening its fellowship and mission, to the glory of God.

He ends this passage on a positive note. He simply says, “… don’t be weary in doing well.”

That’s easier said than done. We’ve all experienced burnout, at one time or another. One reason is that we try to do too much, too fast. We work nonstop until we’re exhausted and discouraged. We need to learn to pace ourselves. Think of it as the Zella Mitchell rule.

Zella Mitchell was one of the saints in my church years ago. She was a frail little woman in her early nineties. She loved the outdoors and had one of the most beautiful yards to prove it, with bedding plants and flowers all around. I stopped by one day for a visit and noticed a dump truck load of dirt in the back yard. “That’s for filling in the low places,” she said. I came back a couple of weeks later, and the dirt was gone. “Who’d you get to help you spread the dirt?” I asked. She said, “No one, I did it myself.” I couldn’t believe it. “How in the world could you have spread all that dirt?” I asked. She picked up a little child’s pail and shovel like you see at the beach and said with a twinkle in her eye, “One bucket at a time.”

That’s the Zella Mitchell rule. Don’t try to do it all at once. Simply do something to build up the church each day. Put in a good word with a friend, invite a neighbor to come with you, say a prayer for those who’ve become inactive. It takes a while for a ship to change course. Give it time. Just remember to keep your eye on the compass and don’t let go of the wheel.

Another reason we burn out is because we get ahead of ourselves. The psalmist reminds us,

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who labor build it in vain.”
(Psalm 127:1)

We can accomplish great things only if we’re willing to let the Lord take the lead. Bicyclists conserve their energy by drafting in the wake of the rider in front of them. I like to think that, in a similar way, the Spirit does the heavy lifting, and we get to share the glory.

Bottom line: Don’t wear yourself out in doing well. Instead, do a little each day, and trust God to guide your steps.

Anna Coghill has the closing thought. She writes:

Work, for the night is coming, work through the sunny noon;
Fill brightest hours with labor, rest comes sure and soon.
Give every flying minute something to keep in store;
Work, for the night is coming when man works no more.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2013, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.