“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” – Proverbs 14:4
There’s an adage that if you want to find someone to do a job, look for the busiest people. The underlying principle is that the people who have the least to do have that lifestyle for a good reason. Sometimes there are physical and health limitations, but often times it may be the person is disorganized, inefficient, lazy, or unpleasant to work with.
People whose lives are brimming over, on the other hand, have mastered the proverb above. They value hard work and productivity. This proverb’s focus is on the investment of effort that goes into being more productive. If you start using oxen, you now have to start buying, filling, and cleaning the oxen’s feeding manger. That’s a lot of work. If your shortsighted goal is to avoid work, you’ll probably opt out of the oxen.
However, if you’re willing to take on this additional task (manger maintenance) on the front end, you secure greater productivity and products on the back end (exponential crop increase). You may soon realize enough profit that you no longer need to do the manger maintenance, but can hire somebody else for that job, freeing you up for other ventures. This is the cycle that enables hard working people to achieve greater and greater levels of productivity, and thereby take on even more work. The key mechanism driving the cycle is one’s ability to value hard work.
Like all proverbs, there is a surface level application, this time in the arena of work and business. From there, we can move to the higher tier of spiritual lessons. When it comes to work and effort, Christians sometimes get hung up and confused, because the gospel is a message of salvation by grace, not works (Eph 2:8-9). However, work itself is not bad. God gave us work as a gift at creation, before the Fall (Gen 2:15). Even “earning” is not bad, if we understand what we are earning, which are treasures in Heaven, and a better enjoyment of God.
When it comes to our spiritual life, it’s not as if God decides to overwrite his laws of work and reward. We just have to understand them differently. Our spiritual relationship with the Lord goes beyond our earthly relationships and earthly goals, but that doesn’t mean that the rules no longer apply. You can look at the state of your spiritual life, and the hard and painful tasks that will lie ahead if you start working toward spiritual growth, and decide: it’s not worth it. But that amounts to not wanting to clean and stock a manger. You’ll remain stuck in meager spiritual subsistence.
Spiritual disciplines, such as private and corporate worship, prayer, Scripture reading, and confession, have the effect of honing your relationship with Christ. These are the efforts which, to put it crassly, make you more spiritually productive. You will have a better sense of who God is and what He’s done for you, a better sense of his calling and direction, a better intuition of how to increase your enjoyment of him, and through this cycle, you’ll take more delight in the efforts themselves. “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (I Tim 4:8)