This is a passage you won’t hear in many Sunday school lessons or sermons. And yet it’s an increasingly countercultural and desperately needed message in our contentious, frenetic, and drama-addicted culture.
Paul argues for “the quiet life.” What is he referring to? What does it mean to “live quietly?” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines the single Greek word used here as “those who are not running hither and thither, but stay at home and mind their business.”[i] John Calvin helps clarify the phrase masterfully in his commentary: “This, therefore, is the best means of a tranquil life, when every one, intent upon the duties of his own calling, discharges those duties which are enjoined upon him by the Lord, and devotes himself to these things: while the husbandman employs himself in rural labors, the workman carries on his occupation, and in this way everyone keeps within his own limits.”[ii]
The quiet life is living our day-to-day calling from God, regardless of what those around us are doing. It is, to use a trite colloquialism literally, “minding our own business.” Paul basically says to mind your own affairs. Some antitheses would be gossip or slander, peer pressure (feeling we need to live like others), or meddling with other people’s lives. Matthew Poole says it well in his commentary on verse 11. “And this he prescribeth as a good way for quietness, contentions often arising from meddling in the affairs of other men which concern us not; for which he rebukes some in this church.”[iii]
A caution: we are not to live separate from others. Calvin points out later in his commentary: “He does not mean, however, that every one shall mind his own business in such a way as that each one should live apart, having no care for others, but has merely in view to correct an idle levity, which makes men noisy bustlers in public, who ought to lead a quiet life in their own houses.”[iv] It’s still a good thing to care about our neighbors – and we might “interfere” when need be. But we shouldn’t be “noisy bustlers.” How very common and destructive it is for people to be always ready to critique every little aspect of their neighbor’s life, while they hardly regard how they live their own lives! They spend three times more thought about how others should live than how they should. Perhaps they criticize how you manage your home, either while making a minimal effort to order their own homes or showing off their “perfect” homes with pride and not offering to help those who have a harder time. They gossip behind your back, and clamor and rage to your face even. Paul is, in essence, commanding the Thessalonians to concentrate on living their own lives well rather than on criticizing how others live. Our quiet lives ought to take up our time and effort.
Are aspirations toward great deeds apart from a quiet life wrong? Is Paul preaching the “doctrine of ignoble ease” that Teddy Roosevelt set against his “strenuous life?” Not at all. Recall Calvin’s definition of living the quiet life as “discharging those duties which are enjoined upon him by the Lord.” If the Lord calls you to a life of exploration along the Amazon, espionage in a foreign country, or preaching the gospel to unreached nations, that is wonderful and you should throw yourself into the work wholeheartedly. You should not throw yourself into this work to the detriment of other, more basic callings (such as caring for your family). This was arguably a mistake made by Teddy Roosevelt, who tended to live his “strenuous life” of adventure to the detriment of his family. Now don’t get me wrong, great ambitions can raise society, adorn the gospel, and change the world.
But the quiet life can also raise society, adorn the gospel, and change the world. I would, in fact, venture to say the quiet life is the most common way God ordained for His people to adorn his gospel. It’s not as sexy as the strenuous life. We are attracted to stories of people breaking through mundane, everyday existence to do something fantastic. That’s what superhero stories are. We’re bombarded in our American culture with the virtues of leaping out of “this provincial life” to vast adventures. And it’s true that a life can be better for diving into the deep end, enriched by the adventurous spirit of delving into the dangers of fairyland, and especially of daring great things for the sake of God’s glory and the gospel. But it should not take those risks without careful thought, and never to the exclusion of the quiet life God calls most to. The tragedy of the romantic ideal of a wild life that breaks the boundaries of the mundane, is that it makes one blind to the wild and interpersonal adventure God calls one to in the quiet home life. After all, it is in the mundane, domestic existence that a man or woman usually makes lasting change for good in this world. This is perhaps the most dangerous deep end, the wildest fairyland, and the best means of accomplishing the greatest things for God’s glory and gospel.
The mundane, domestic life is hard work. It may be that the very antithesis of the quiet life, is what makes Paul’s injunction to “aspire” so striking. We think of quiet as the default, as the lazy thing we fall back on when we’re not doing important stuff. But God’s Word corrects our thinking. Matthew Poole says this: “To study to be quiet…may be difficult, especially in some circumstances of times, places, and persons. The Greek word…implies an ambitious study. Quietness we should pursue with holy ambition, as that which is honorable to ourselves and our profession.”[v] It’s a strange thought, but it makes sense.
The quiet life is the marathon of good deeds. It’s not nearly as thrilling to watch as the 100-yard dash of strenuous adventurism, but it is exactly 46,005 yards more difficult. And it’s probably 46,005 yards more important in the grand scheme of things. It requires not a one time, newsworthy sacrifice, but a minute by minute sacrifice of your desires to build up the people closest to you. It is a grueling day-to-day death of yourself.
Why should we aspire to strive for the quiet life? What exactly makes it important? Why should we live it?
God commands it. 1 Thessalonians 4:11 tells us this in black and white.
It keeps down contention. Concerning myself more with my daily walk, and less with that of others, quashes argumentativeness and gossip and being a busybody.
It makes us good witnesses. It shows the world a Christian is a good citizen, he can pay his bills and stay out of jail, he can be depended upon.
It makes us self-sufficient. The quiet life keeps us from depending on others too much and gives us a base to spread our abundance to those around us. Paul says the “quiet life” will be one of independence (“be dependent on no one”). Ancient Greek philosophers extolled a life of independence in terms of “self-sufficiency.” Aristotle wrote in part “for to have all things and to want nothing is sufficiency.” He notes, quite accurately, that “men are inclined to rush into one of two extremes, some into meanness, others into luxury.”[vi] The famed American idea of Independence comes to mind as a social application. It is a bad thing to be dependant on the government for our living or to let rulers dictate how we live our day-to-day lives. The Christian idea is both more basic and more expansive. It is more basic because it says “work hard so you don’t have to be beggars on the streets” and “don’t let a lazy life be a bad witness.” It is more expansive, in that it includes the idea (Eph. 4:28) of working so we can give to those in need. God calls Christians not only to self-sufficiency and independent living, but to make more than covers our needs, with the goal of spilling generosity over to people around us.
It is how life itself is perpetuated. Those in the quiet life usually raise and/or influence the kids that form the next generation. What a terrifyingly important task! What a grand adventure, with stakes as high as the future existence of humanity! It is the height of folly to neglect your quiet duties to pursue some flashy hobby, no matter its virtues. Even if you don’t have kids, pursuing the quiet life in singleness or a good marriage is one of the highest callings you will ever have. Volumes have been written on the intense importance of marriage as a picture of an adornment of the gospel of Christ. It is a lifelong investment in the immortal soul of one person, and no effort you put out to advance your marriage is a wasted one.
It is the backbone of society. One cannot have a society full of “adrenaline junkies.” There needs to be a base of “normal folk” living the adventure of mundane existence to form the very backdrop of history’s epics. Without us dull family guys, there’d be no superhero GI Joes. Paul defines part of the quiet life as “working with our hands.” The 8-5 drudgery, the “curse” of the blue collar man, is presented as a noble calling. Scripture teaches that “everyday” work, and not just missionary or gospel work, is a good thing. God created Adam and Eve to work the garden even before the Fall. Work is a good thing because it provides for those we love (1 Tim. 5:8), keeps us out of trouble, and gives us the means to help those in need (Eph. 4:28).
Home is the highest adventure! G.K. Chesterton put it well: “Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”[vii]
The question to ask yourself: Do you feel like going to work, tending to the constant demands of teaching and raising your kids, paying your mortgage, keeping up with your taxes, spending time with kids or grandkids, or taking care of your house is cramping your style? Do you think about the great things you could do if you weren’t weighed down by these drudgeries? Think again! The Bible exhorts us to aspire to excel in these very “drudgeries.” It elevates them. It makes us see the reality that the quiet life is the best of adventures, a noble ambition indeed.
[i] Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, accessed on Blue Letter Bible. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2270&t=ESV 1/21/18
[ii]Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Baker House Books, Grand Rapids, MI. P 278
[iii] Poole, Matthew. Commentaries on the Whole Bible. P. 744.
[iv] Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Baker House Books, Grand Rapids, MI. p. 278
[v] Poole, Matthew. Commentaries. P. 744.