You have probably heard the saying before: A clean house is a sign of a wasted life. Whatever else the phrase means, it expresses some of the frustration and the sense of futility that attends life in this world. I thought of that saying when I spotted this proverb: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4). A little bit of research shows that commentators are divided on exactly what it means, but I think one of the explanations rises to the top.
According to this explanation, the proverb is about the messiness of a life well-lived. Tremper Longman says the moral is that “a productive life is a messy life.”
I love productivity. At least, I love productivity when it is properly defined—as effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. By this definition, each one of us, no matter our vocation, ought to pursue productivity with all the vigor we can muster. And if you do that, it is inevitable that along the way you will accumulate some mess. You cannot focus your time, attention, gifts, energy, and enthusiasm toward noble goals while still keeping every corner of life perfectly tidy.
The pastor’s desk will at times be crammed with books and papers. The baker’s counter will sometimes overflow with pots and pans and flour and sugar. The mechanics’s hands will be stained with grease and his shop will need a daily once-over with the power washer. And the home—the home will at times be messy and cluttered and downright embarrassing.
Longman says, “One desires a neat and tidy life, just as the ideal stall would be clean. However, a clean stall by the nature of things would mean an empty stall since oxen do not have to be in a stall long before it is messy. However, without oxen there is no productivity.”
We could as easily say that one desires a neat and tidy house, just as the ideal stall would be clean. However, a clean house by the nature of things might just mean an empty house since children and husbands and houseguests and those neighborhood kids do not have to be in the house long before it is agonizingly messy. However, without all of those people there is no productivity—no true, biblical productivity—, no children to care for, no friends to counsel, no hospitality to extend.
Like so much else in this life, you cannot have it all. You cannot have perfect order and perfect productivity. You cannot have a home that is warm and full and inviting, you cannot have every child fed and cared for, while also having every dish done and every sock laundered. You just can’t. Of course this isn’t to excuse slovenliness or laziness. But you need to understand what Derek Kidner says, that “Orderliness can reach the point of sterility. This proverb is [a plea for] the readiness to accept upheaval, and a mess to clear up, as the price of growth.” Growth, or productivity, as the case may be. Is a clean house proof of a wasted life? Not at all. But a tidy house isn’t necessarily evidence of a well-lived life.
If you do the things God tells you to do, messes will inevitably follow. But take heart: According to the wisest man who ever lived, these messes are not proof of a wasted life, but of a productive one.