The book of Proverbs is about wisdom. Throughout the book, the author of Proverbs contrasts wisdom and folly through character types. One such character type is the ant, who is viewed positively and is a model for productivity. What can we learn from the ant?
The ant is mentioned a few times in Proverbs, most notably in Proverbs 6:6-8:
“Go to the ant, O sluggard;
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” (Proverbs 6:6-8).
The author is contrasting the ways of the sluggard with the ant and is pleading with the slothful person to consider the ways of the ant and change. If you want to learn from the ant, here are a few takeaways to consider.
First, the ant lives a life worth imitating. If the ant is the one who the sluggard should examine, that means the ant is living a life worthy of modeling. Are you? There is great power in a good example. You may not be the most attractive, the most talented, or the most successful, but you’ll do a great amount of good to more people than you realize if you consistently set a good, godly example.
Second, the ant takes initiative. This is probably the biggest lesson we learn from the ant — the value of taking initiative.
When I worked at a small secular company many years ago, I emailed the millionaire CEO some thoughts on how to improve the company, despite the fact I was quite low in the organization. A week went by. No response. I got anxious. “That was so ridiculous of me! Are you that foolish to email the CEO?”
And then he replied.
To my delight, he seemed genuinely happy to hear from me, and reminded me of one of the organization’s core values: “take initiative.” Taking initiative is embedded in the organization. Not surprisingly, the company is still doing well to this day.
The ant takes initiative and gathers his food in the summer without having any leadership over him. No rules, accountability, check-ins, or job descriptions are required. In his excellent commentary on Proverbs, Bruce Waltke says: “Rather than having external leaders who both organize the work with regard to its nature and its timing and see it through to completion, the ant possesses a God-given wisdom to work and, just as significantly, to order it wisely” (337).
As it’s been said by others, there’s a big difference between school and the real world. School is about obliging to the syllabus; the real world is about results. The syllabus will give you step-by-step instructions on how to succeed, but the real world does not. Although there are many aspects of life out of your control, one thing you can control is how often you take initiative.
Stated differently, being productive is about being proactive. I recount two sentences on a syllabus in seminary, “Work ahead. It’s a ministry skill.” Consistent procrastination across all walks of life is a sign of emotional immaturity. The ant doesn’t work ahead to get ahead, so much as he works ahead to survive. Taking initiative is a necessity for survival.
You have to learn how to get stuff done when you have no guidance or leadership. You must be able to self-lead and self-manage. This is one of the keys to a productive life.
Third, the ant does not avoid earthly responsibility.
“How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:9-11).
Sleep is required for healthy living. No productivity advice worth anything will tell you to purposely and constantly avoid sleep in the name of being productive. If you need nine hours of sleep, get it. What is condemned here is not getting the sleep your body requires, but a lifestyle that seeks escape as a means to avoid earthly responsibility.
During one down and depressed semester in undergraduate school, I slept as long as I could to avoid life. Thankfully, the Lord rescued me from that dark place, but I know what a sluggard feels like. Paradoxically, choosing the path of the sluggard makes life harder, not easier. Because after you wake up from the nap, those problems will still be there.
Sometimes productivity books make it seem like productivity is glamorous. While at times productivity is fulfilling, in truth, being a productive person often means you have to work when you don’t feel like it, get up early when you’d rather be sleeping, and do the most difficult things first. You cannot avoid responsibility and be productive.
Fourth, the ant plans for the future.
Here are some more verses on the ant in Proverbs:
“Four things on earth are small,
but they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people not strong,
yet they provide their food in the summer; (Proverbs 30:24-25)”
Planning is commended throughout Proverbs (Proverbs 11:14; 12:5; 14:8,15; 21:5). Your plans may not go how you want them to, and you may alter them as you go, but you should plan nevertheless. The ant provides his winter food in the summer. In other words, he plans and then acts by working ahead. It’s a sign of emotional maturity when you can work with diligence on a project today that is not due until six months from now. Christians who think that all planning is unspiritual and is the opposite of being “Spirit-led” are sadly mistaken.
Didn’t think you could learn so much from an ant, eh? Well, you can. From the ant, we learn to live a life worth modeling, take initiative, don’t avoid responsibility, and plan for the future. Does this guarantee success? No, but it puts you in a better position than the sluggard.
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