Spurgeon and the Lazy Monk

One of the more consistently popular posts on this blog is this one from 2012, in which I showed the two versions of Charles Spurgeon’s famous illustration that compares the gospel to a lion. In honor of the fact that the Spurgeon Commentary New Testament Letters collection is now compiled and should be on its way to customers soon, I thought I would share another one of Spurgeon’s illustrations that he told multiple times.

The point is that being spiritual should not be opposed to being practically useful, and he told it three times. This first is from Lectures to My Students:

To these people who never labour because they are so heavenly-minded, I would tell the story of a certain monk, who entered a monastery, but who would not work in the fields, or the garden, or at making clothes, or anything else, because, as he told the superior, he was a spiritually-minded monk. He wondered, when the dinner-hour approached, that there came to him no summons from the refectory. So he went down to the prior, and said, “Don’t the brethren eat here? Are you not going to have any dinner?” The prior said, “We do, because we are carnal; but you are so spiritual that you do not work, and therefore you do not require to eat; that is why we did not call you. The law of this monastery is that, if any man will not work, neither shall he eat.”[1]

The second is from a sermon on Matthew 6:31–33 called “Though Condemned, Yet Commanded.”

You have heard, perhaps, of the very pious man, who entered a monastery in order that he might spend all his time in devotion; so, when the time came for the brethren to go into the fields to work, he did not leave his cell; he was too spiritual to handle a hoe or a spade, so he continued in communion with angels. He was very much surprised, however, when the time came for the brotherhood to assemble in the refectory, that he was not called; and after waiting till the demands of hunger overcame the claims of his spiritual being, he went to the prior, and asked why he had not been called to the meal, and he was informed that, as he was so not work, it was thought that he was probably so spiritual that he could not eat; and, at any rate, the laws of the monastery did not permit him to eat until he had earned what he needed. There was much commonsense in that reply.[2]

The third, and longest, version is from a sermon on Proverbs 20:4 called “The Sluggard’s Reproof.”

I have no faith in that man’s religion who is lazy. He reminds me always of a certain monk, who went to a monastery, determined to give himself up entirely to contemplation and meditation. When he reached the place, he saw all the monks at work, tilling the ground, ploughing, or trimming the vines round the monastery, so he very solemnly observed as he entered, “Labour not for the meat that perisheth.” The brethren smiled, and they still continued their labours. He thought it his duty to reprove them a second time by saying, “Martha is cumbered with much serving, but I have chosen the good part, which shall not be taken from me.” However, it was taken from him, for the bell did not ring for him at the usual time for meals; and our brother, after waiting some few hours in his cell in prayer, beginning to feel certain calls within, came out, and accosting the prior of the monastery, enquired, “Do not the brethren eat?” “Do you eat?” said he; “I thought you were a spiritual man, for you said to the brethren, ‘Labour not for the meat that perisheth.’ ” “Oh, yes!” he replied, “I know I said that, but I thought the brethren ate.” “Yes,” answered the prior, “so they do, but we have a rule in our monastery that none eat but those that work. There is such a rule to be found in Scripture, too,” he reminded the monk; “Paul himself hath said it, ‘If any man would not work, neither should he eat.’ ” I think the master of that monastery acted and spoke wisely. A man must work in this life. He was sent to this world that he might be diligent in his calling, in the position in life in which God has been pleased to place him.[3]

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: The Art of Illustration; Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 3 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1905), 44.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 52 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1906), 62.

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 48 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1902), 74.