Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of oxen. (Proverbs 14:4)
I “heard” this verse for the first time when I was a senior at Auburn University. I probably encountered it before through Bible reading or a sermon. But on a spring morning, I heard it anew from a director of admissions at a different seminary — and it clicked.
See, I was embarking on a journey to find the best place for my theological studies. That journey came to an end on Friday as I graduated with my second degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
This verse struck me for two reasons. First, I was surprised that this guy could have spoken about any verse in the Bible, yet he chose this one. Second, the verse was loaded with just the wisdom that I needed. As I reflect on the last nine years of theological training, I have found these words to be incredibly true.
Counting the Cost
Before considering a few truths I’ve learned from this verse, let’s first consider what this verse says.
Contextually, remember that this verse is a Proverb, a pithy, generally true statement. Proverbs tell the story of what is good and bad from a God-centered view of reality. They don’t tell what will certainly happen, but what will generally happen.
Also remember that these Proverbs are a book within a book. They are included in the unfolding witness of the Bible—the true story about who God is and the redemption he is bringing in the world. These Proverbs are intended to point us to the good life, within God’s plan of redemption.
“Where there are no oxen…”
Husbandry is hard. I’m not talking about my marriage (it’s great!), I’m talking about raising animals. Even though I’ve never raised anything other than a cat named Sassy (don’t judge), I’ve read and seen enough to get a general idea of what’s involved. Oxen eat, poop, work hard, make noise and smell. They can be expensive and time-consuming to keep.
“… the manger is clean…”
For the neat-freaks out there, a clean manger and an organized barn may be appealing for a number of reasons. There’s less mess, and therefore less stress. If you don’t have oxen, then you don’t have the related costs and stresses. You don’t have the smells, the trips to the store, the backbreaking pain of scooping stables, the flies to swat. If you want a clean manger, don’t have oxen.
“…but abundant crops come by the strength of oxen.”
Yet lots of people own oxen. Why? Because though oxen have many costs, they are an invaluable tool in reaping an abundant harvest, which is the goal. The cost and inconvenience of oxen does not compare with the productivity and output. Of course, labor has it’s rough and unpleasant side—but that labor is to your advantage. The right kind of mess, the right kind of noise, the right kind of smells—though unpleasant—are a small price to pay to reap a great harvest.
Three Truths from a Messy Barn
Over the last few years, I’ve toiled in my own messy barn by pursuing my MDiv and PhD from Southeastern Seminary. Along the way, this Proverb has taught me a few lessons. I want to share three of them with you…
1. The cost is usually greater than you expect.
A farmer can’t foresee every issue that lies ahead of him. He can only grapple with today’s issues. He can anticipate some obstacles, but he cannot know them all in detail ahead of time.
In a similar way, I didn’t know everything that would be required of my family in picking up our lives and moving nine hours from home. I didn’t know the real strain of the degree program or just how much reading would be involved. I did know that God was unavoidably leading us to a season of training for pastoral ministry. We set out in faith, not knowing the cost, but knowing the One who called us.
2. The presence of stress and mess does not mean you’re doing it wrong.
A farmer has to put up with some disorder in the barn if he wants the help of an ox. This does not mean that we have to work wastefully or slovenly, but it is a call to work hard and endure the mess—for the sake of the harvest.
Life can feel like a messy barn. If it’s parenting children, working on a degree, or enduring in community – life is full of nobly messy tasks. Life will have seasons of unruly children, the appearance of nothing but detours and inevitable setbacks. Sometimes it seems that all we see are rising costs, messy floors and busy noise.
This Proverb teaches that the presence of these issues just might be the gracious indicator that things are going according to plan. A harvest just might be ahead.
3. Your fruit might grow on someone else’s tree.
A farmer may well work his ground faithfully and enjoy the fruit of his hands in his own generation. Yet, his stewardship also protects the ground for generations to come. His children and grandchildren will come, enjoy and be filled because of his diligence.
The last nine years of theological training have been a gracious feast for me. I’ve enjoyed the choice delicacies of many men and women who have worked tirelessly in the heat of the day and in the cold of the night. I’ve enjoyed the labors of men and women, both living and dead. They preached sermons, wrote songs, organized seminars, poured coffee and wrote books — all of which have presented me with a series of fruits that I have been able to enjoy. Their early-mornings and late-nights have been a means of grace to me. The fruit of their work has sustained me, and become a part of me, to carry me as I work in their stead. The fruit that they bore in their own lives has now become a part of mine. Their fruit is growing on my tree.
A Sacrifice, A Harvest
One day, Jesus Christ was laid in a manger in Bethlehem. His birth brought his parents the costs of raising a child, yet his life also brought incomparable benefits. He accomplished the most demanding work of sacrifice on the cross so that we could find meaning in every aspect of our lives.
Both this Proverb and the life of Jesus teach the fundamental truth: Without sacrifice, there is no harvest.
As I conclude my theological studies, I’m grateful for that sacrifice. My manger isn’t clean, but the harvest is good.