Diligence: Living virtuously in a work-obsessed world

In a world that insists on defining things by extremes, it can be challenging to identify the true balance we call virtue.

Virtue is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (No. 1803). The catechism goes on to say that a virtue “allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.”

The opposite of virtue is vice, which is a habitual disposition of doing what is not good. While we might describe a virtue-driven person as virtuous, we don’t often hear a person who has vices as “vicious.” However, when we look at things from the spiritual perspective, to allow vices to reign within us — that is, to let them exist in our hearts and minds without working to overcome them — will gradually but surely eat away at the life of grace in our souls.

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Virtues can be difficult to understand in and of themselves. However, when we look at their opposing vice(s), we find something very interesting. The virtue is almost always achieved, not by extremes, but by a balance between the two extremes. (The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are exceptions: There can be no excess in believing, hoping in and loving God.) In my years of study, one thing I came to love about the Catholic faith is that the Church, in imitation of Christ, finds the answer to moral questions with a “both/and” approach where charity and truth temper and perfect one another.

The two extremes

A commonly misunderstood virtue in today’s world is diligence. When we look at the word’s etymology, we find diligence comes from the Latin root word diligere, “to love,” and this love is marked by a kind of attentiveness, carefulness and aspiration to please the one loved. We could define diligence as the virtue of lovingly carrying out our responsibilities with attention, care and a desire to please God.

One opposing vice would be sloth (one of the seven capital sins). Sloth is a slowness or neglect to carry out one’s spiritual and material responsibilities. It’s also a tendency to delay what one knows one ought or needs to do, or to neglect the responsibility altogether. I once heard a priest share a fable about a group of demons who were trying to determine how best to lead their human prey astray. One suggested war, another suggested distraction, but the third, who was praised for his cunning, said that he would convince his prey by telling him, “You have plenty of time.” We do not know the day nor the hour on which the Son of God will appear, and we will have to answer for how we have used the time that God has given to us.

However, the other extreme in this case would perhaps be best described as obsession or “workaholism.” The “workaholic” mentality tends to think that the person must always be busy in order to be valued and productive. The person is obsessed with work and thinks that he or she has to do everything themselves in order for things to be accomplished or done right.

The obsessed person thinks “it’s all up to me.” The slothful person thinks “I have plenty of time” or “that’s someone else’s job.”

But why should we strive to please God with our daily work? Isn’t work a result of original sin?

In the beginning, one of the first commands God gives to the first man is that he should work and guard the garden. Work, therefore, is a part of the original divine plan. After the first sin, however, work becomes burdensome. Yet, it remains good. We can know this with certainty by looking to Christ, who for 30 years of his life on earth, before his public ministry, worked as a manual laborer in Nazareth. Jesus’ choice to labor with his human hands reveals to us the great capacity that work has to be made holy and the great opportunity the person has to make one’s work an offering to God. Consider this: do you think that Jesus, while working in Nazareth, would have set about making a table poorly, simply because the table was not all that significant to the kingdom of God? Of course not. Nothing was too small to be sanctified by Jesus’ Incarnation. Jesus would have made the table to the best of his ability. But neither would he obsess and make every table the most incredible masterpiece known to man.


As a recovering perfectionist, the balance of diligence eluded me for much of my teenage years. As a homeschooled (and somewhat scrupulous) child in my early teens, I often thought that if I had not worked as hard as possible on an assignment or a task, then I had failed God in some way. Even in my first year of teaching, I would slave away at lesson plans for most of Saturday, only to find that during the week my lesson plans were not very helpful or far too ambitious. It has taken time, effort, grace and surrender to learn the proper balance that is the virtue of diligence. So how does one achieve the balance of true diligence?

First, one must pray. In the story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel, we see Martha busying herself with much serving while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Often, Martha is seen as the “problem” here. But the problem is not Martha herself; it is that Martha set about serving Jesus and the others without going to Jesus first. She does, eventually, go to him with her concern and troubles. But how would Martha’s work have looked if she had gone to the Lord first? Perhaps she would have known where to focus her energies instead of finding herself frustrated and overwhelmed.

I find this to be so often the case with my own work. When I take the time to pray before the work day, I am able to bring before the Lord the tasks I know are before me that day. When there are many things to do, I can tell the Lord about the responsibilities and concerns I have. When I listen, I can receive direction from the Lord about where to prioritize my time and energy for the day. This also gives me perspective on what is mine to do. I need not concern myself with what others need to do. After all, most of the time, I have no control over this. But, perhaps the Lord will direct me to ask for help in areas where I am in need. Prayer is essential in discerning where the Lord is calling us to focus our energy, attention and time.


The second piece that balances the need to “achieve” and “perfect” is surrender. Before I was a teacher, I worked for a short time in parish ministry. There was a point in time where I was incredibly overwhelmed with how hard I was working and how little fruit I was seeing. While listening to the “Abiding Together Podcast” one day, Michelle Benzinger spoke about fulfilling one’s daily responsibilities and then “putting the heavy lifting back on the Holy Spirit.” This radically transformed my perspective. I can keep myself as busy as I want, trying to do it all myself. Or I can do what I know God expects of me at this moment and then let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest. This is, I believe, what St. Benedict meant by his rule of life which, in summary, is “prayer and work.”

Our attitude toward our labors, therefore, must be inspired by love. We ought to carry out our work attentively and thoroughly because we do it for God. After all, God sees everything, and by God’s grace in us, we are called to sanctify (make holy) the secular (ordinary). The way in which we do this is by making our every deed, our labors and our rest, an offering to God. We seek his direction before we begin; we are mindful of him while we carry it out; we give our best effort because we desire to please him in our work; and when we have done what we know to be necessary, we surrender it to him trusting that he will take care of everything else.

Diligence is not perfectionism and it is not obsession. Neither is it a lack of action while waiting on God to act. Diligence must be motivated by love, by charity, in order to be truly virtuous. Love is what sets apart our work — consecrates it — so that it becomes an offering to God. We give our best effort because it is a gift to the Lord. But we also trust that God is pleased with our desire to please him, which means we do not have to fear God’s rejection of what we offer to him. He receives with love that which is given in love.

Therefore, let love for the Lord be the motivation for all that we do, and trust in his love be our peace at the end of each task and each day. God is taking care of everything. I think this is best expressed in a quote by Victor Hugo: “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.”

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