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Broken Window Theory

November 14, 2004

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

2285 words


I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 and follow along as I read verses  6-13.  Hear what the Spirit says to us:


6  Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.

7  For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,

8  and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.

9  This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.

10  For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

11  For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.

12  Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

13  Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Amen.  The word of God.  Thanks be to God.




When you attack small problems, like broken windows and graffiti, you gain advantage over much bigger problems as well.  That, in a sentence, is what James Q. Wilson of the Harvard University Government Department calls the “Broken Window” theory of crime prevention.  Little things matter, the Wilson theory goes, especially when it comes to infractions of public order.  If a broken pane of glass goes unrepaired, other panes will be shattered, and then doors will be jimmied open.  If graffiti on a train goes unremoved, more graffiti will follow, and so will robberies in the train cars and stations.  No tolerance for petty lawbreaking leads to fewer incidents of major lawbreaking.

So when former Police Commissioner Bratton brought the Broken Window theory to the NYPD, and when Mayor Giuliani backed him, crime went down. Of course, New York crime went down for a number of reasons: fewer young men in the general population, more bad actors locked up for longer sentences, more cops, less crack cocaine. But it is hard to deny that police attention to matters heretofore considered beneath their dignity (like people who jump turnstiles to avoid paying subway fares, for instance) played a considerable part in reducing crime and changing the reputation of the city. [ see Conn Nugent, “Think small. Think big,” Citizens Union of the City of New York Web Site, RetrievedMay 10, 2004.]

Professor Wilson’s basic idea is not new.  The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Big problems arise from small problems; The wise man takes care of all his small problems, Thus he has no problems.”  But Professor Wilson’s application of this idea to law enforcement is new.

Wilson says: Take a tour of any major metropolis, and you will notice a striking contrast: Some buildings are beautiful and well-maintained, while others are ugly and covered with graffiti. You might be surprised to learn that the age of a building is not what causes it to fall apart, nor its location, nor even the finances of its owner.  Instead, an intriguing psychology is at work here, a psychology that can turn a lovely, well-preserved, inhabited building into an ugly, dilapidated, abandoned hulk.

The trigger mechanism is a broken window.  A single broken window can begin the downward spiral of a once-proud urban structure.  One shattered pane, left unrepaired for a significant period of time, causes area residents, and residents of the building, to feel a sense of abandonment.  They begin to believe that the owner does not care about them or the building, freeing them to toss a brick through another window. Soon litter and junk collect in the doorways.  Graffiti appears, and no one cares enough to scrub it off.  Serious structural damage begins, and in a relatively short time the building becomes damaged beyond the owner’s desire to fix it.  The sense of abandonment felt by the residents becomes reality—all because of a piece of shattered glass.

In his book Leadership, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani tells of how he applied Broken Window Theory to crime, and in the process reduced murders from 2000 a year to under 600.  He started with “Squeegee guys.”  These are the annoying guys who run up to your car when you were sitting at a traffic light, wash your windshield with filthy water and rags, and then demand payment. Giuliani had them arrested for jaywalking and — surprise, surprise — a huge percentage of them were found to be felons.

It turns out that murderers and muggers also break a lot of little laws, so, when you crack down on little infractions — when you fix the broken windows — you end up catching criminals that otherwise would have gotten away.  A critic of Giuliani said that arresting subway turnstile jumpers was a waste of police effort when they should be chasing drug pushers.  Well, guess what? They discovered that drug pushers were part of the turnstile-jumping crowd.

According to Broken Window Theory, attacking small and petty problems is rarely a waste of time.  Instead, it helps you to manage the major issues, and prevents the condition of your building — or your city — or your self — from spiraling out of control.


The apostle Paul seems to have this theory in mind in the text before us.  Notice that he does not focus on big theological issues.  He is not trying to explain the Trinity, or prove that God exists.  He simply advises the Thessalonians to deal with petty problems, to fix the broken windows of the Christian community.

“Now we command you, beloved,” writes Paul, “to keep away from believers who are living in idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). Paul reminds them that he himself was never idle when he was visiting their community, but instead he worked night and day and paid for his own bread so that he would not be a burden to anyone. Paul did this to set an example for the Thessalonians, and he lays down a principle: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10).

I remember a strange interpretation of this verse by my grandmother.  My grandmother Grant was a tough lady who helped run a farm and raised eight kids while my grandfather worked in a cotton mill and also ran the same farm.  I remember her cooking on a wood stove and drawing water by the bucket from a well.  It was a heaven-sent day for her when they finally installed a pump and had running water in the house.  She worked hard all of her life.

Toward the end of her life, when she was about 85, she was confined to a nursing home due to health problems.  I went to see her one day, and she was very unhappy.  She had been reading her Bible.  She pointed to II Thess. 3:10 and she said, “Look at this.  It says anyone who does not work should not eat, and I do not work anymore, so I should not eat.”

I spent some time explaining that that was not what Paul meant.  He is not saying that people who are not able to work should be starved to death.  That would be euthanasia.  In many places, in his letters Paul emphasizes that we are responsible for taking care of people who are not able to take care of themselves.  He spent a lot of time raising money to help the poor of the church in Jerusalem who seem to have been in an especially bad way.

Certainly, we are to help people who need help.  And this verse is not talking about people who have lost a job and are looking for another job.  Most of us have at one time or another had the experience of being between jobs.  But we are willing to work.

The key to verse 10 is the word “unwilling.”  “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10).  We are talking here about people who are able to work, but who just will not do it out of sheer laziness and sloth. 


Now we might argue some with Paul here.  We might say that Paul is making a mountain out of a proverbial molehill.  After all, idleness is not as bad as a lot of other behaviors.  Idleness is not as bad as drunkenness, or as robbery or murder.  It is not as bad as pushing illegal drugs or fornication.  Idleness is a relatively minor sin.  But idleness is a broken window.  Left uncorrected, it creates larger and more destructive difficulties.  The old saying still rings true: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  Or as Benjamin Franklin says, “Trouble springs from idleness, and grievous toil from needless ease.”


Now I know most of you folks, and I know what many of you are thinking about these verses.  You are thinking that these verses certainly do not apply to you.  You are thinking that idleness is one sinful luxury that you do not have any of.

You feel busy, overstretched, overworked.  Your lives are full of stuff:  You go, go, go all week and you have to strain to make it to church on the Sabbath day.

But ask yourself this question: What is the difference between being idle, and being busy doing trivial stuff?  There is no difference. Paul alludes to this when he says, in v11, “They are not busy; they are busybodies” (NIV).

Here is what Paul is saying, we do many things that are not important or worthwhile.  They may not be wrong in and of themselves.  Paul is not necessarily saying we are all out doing sinful stuff.  But he is saying we must make decisions about the use of our time, and stop being busy doing stuff that does not need to be done.

For example, sometimes, we spend too much time talking about other people.  To repair that broken window, we need to ask ourselves three questions when we are about to say something about somebody.

1) Is it true?

2) Is it necessary?

3) Is it kind?

If we would all ask ourselves those questions before we open our big mouths to talk about others, a lot of gossip would be prevented.  Again, gossip is little stuff, but gossip unchecked can lead to hurt feelings and broken relationships.  Bad little stuff leads to bad big stuff. 

And the opposite is: good little stuff leads to good big stuff.  Think about how much time out your day is required for prayer: A few minutes.  Compared to the hours we have in a day, a few minutes of prayer is little stuff.  All of us have time to pray a couple of minutes in the morning and a couple of minutes at night.  But what happens?  We allow so much trivial busy-ness into our lives that we have not time for even two minutes of prayer.  And because we do not do the little stuff of prayer, our whole spiritual life suffers, and we find ourselves asking the big questions:  Why is my life so barren?  Why is my relationship to God so meaningless?  The answer is easy.  You did not take care of the little stuff.  You did not pray.  You did not read the Bible.  You did not come to church.  How big an imposition is it to read the Bible a couple of minutes a day, or to come to church a couple of hours once a week?  That is practically nothing. And yet it is in doing this little stuff, reading a chapter in the Bible everyday, coming to church on the Lord’s day, praying a couple of minutes, it is in doing this little stuff that we lay the foundation for a spiritual life and a solid relationship with God.

So, again, we pose the question: Where are the broken windows? What needs to be repaired?  What have you been meaning to fix about your spiritual life?  This can mean, and usually does mean, both adding and subtracting.  It means you are going to stop doing some trivial little stuff, and start doing some good little stuff.

The company a woman worked for had a mid-morning break and served coffee and donuts.  This Christian lady was unhappy about recent weight gain, and she decided to take the following action.  During the break, she would grab a cup of coffee, say hello to everybody, and then put the doughnuts out of sight by going back to her office cubicle.  There she would drink her coffee and think about God and pray a minute.  Now we could say, that is not that much.  Skipping a doughnut in mid morning probably did not entirely solve her weight problem and another minute of prayer probably did not bring about great change in her spiritual life.  But it was a beginning and from little beginnings come big solutions.

When we crack down on the small problems in order to keep out the big problems, we are doing our work quietly and faithfully and well.  When we fix our broken windows so that our personal spiritual structure is attractive and healthy and strong, we follow Paul’s advice to “not be weary in doing what is right,” and remember that doing what is right in the little things will often take care of doing what is right in the big things.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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