Becoming diligent is hard work, but diligence is not synonymous with working hard. I know from personal experience that one can get up early and go to bed late, and expend a lot of energy, and be very busy, and not watch TV or get lost in social media binges — can appear to work hard — and still not get much done that really matters.
Diligence combines a willingness to work hard with a discerning focus, a sense of urgency, a vigilant carefulness, and faithful perseverance. And one of the clearest biblical calls to diligence is Paul’s exhortation:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15–17)
A diligent person seeks to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17). Based on the context, Paul isn’t referring to God’s hidden will (for instance, about if or who we should marry). He’s primarily referring to God’s revealed will regarding specific sins to avoid. We learn to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).
But judging by the way Paul approached life — living as a “soldier” who avoided “civilian pursuits” in order “to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4) — it’s safe to assume Paul would affirm applying this principle to lesser priorities that, while not inherently immoral, distract us from our focus. Both sinful and unnecessary distractions are often difficult to set aside.
As I write, an issue in my life is causing me significant concern and anxiety. There’s a mix of good anxiety, similar to Paul’s anxiety for the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28) and sinful anxiety, the kind Paul instructed the Philippians not to indulge (Philippians 4:6–7). Diligence requires that I must discern which is which and deal with sin appropriately. But diligence also requires me to discern that God’s will for me right now is to focus on completing my work for today and temporarily neglecting the demanding issue, which, while important, is not the priority at this moment.
In a very real sense, a diligent person must learn to be neglectful. There are myriad clamoring and demanding temptations and lesser priorities a diligent person must strategically neglect. This requires developing the discipline of discerning focus.
Sense of Urgency
A diligent person “[makes] the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). He realizes that time is limited. Again, the context tells us Paul likely has holiness in mind: We should not waste our time on sin. The best use of time is to be filled with the Spirit and bearing the Spirit’s fruit (Galatians 5:22–23) and not with dissipating sins like drunkenness or sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3, 18).
But, again, Paul would say the same thing about “civilian pursuits.” There’s not enough time to do everything we’d enjoy doing. Even as soldiers, there’s not enough time to do all the very good, spiritually helpful things we’d like to do. But there’s sufficient time for us to do what God gives us to do (2 Corinthians 9:8).
A diligent person feels urgency over the brief time he has on earth and seeks to wisely use his brief number of days on the few things he discerns to be the most important for him (Psalm 90:12).
A diligent person also looks carefully how he walks, “not as unwise but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15). This kind of care requires a cultivated vigilance. It does not come naturally to most of us.
Most of us have a natural inclination to coast, to fall into familiar ruts of thinking and behaving. Most of us have sinful or defective habits of emotional responses to certain situations and relational dynamics that were conditioned in childhood and adolescence. We might hardly notice them because we’re not looking carefully. Most of us don’t want to expend the mental, emotional, and spiritual energy to cultivate a vigilant care over how we walk.
Which means most of us are not wise. I know I’m not by nature. I don’t have a natural inclination to this kind of vigilance. But I’m old enough now to realize the real, long-term benefits of vigilance where I’ve applied it — as well as the consequences where I’ve not applied it. This only increases my resolve to abandon the foolishness of carelessness and to look more carefully how I walk.
And finally, diligent people faithfully persevere in cultivating and applying a discerning focus, a sense of urgency, and a vigilant care over how they live. This is not explicit in the text, but it is surely implicit, especially in the word “time” (Ephesians 5:16).
The “evil days” describe the age in which we live. Every one of the days we live as Christians on earth, until we are taken by death or Jesus returns, is embattled with evil, which Paul makes clear in Ephesians 6. The dangers of falling into sin or giving ourselves to “civilian pursuits” do not disappear. Paul’s exhortation is one we must apply “every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
Whatever It Takes
All diligence is hard work. But Christian diligence goes beyond hard work to a Spirit-empowered cultivating of a discerning focus, sense of urgency, vigilant carefulness, and faithful perseverance. And a Christian knows that without God’s help, we’ll miss the mark and waste a lot of life on a lot of sin and “civilian pursuits.” So, we pray:
Whatever it takes, Lord, increase my resolve to do your will with all diligence.