Work and God: The Importance of Knowing Which is Which
- Thursday, September 04, 2008
"What has a man from all the toil and striving of his heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation." (Ecclesiastes 2:22,23)
Political campaigns have a way of focusing our attention on economic matters. One of the persistent themes in this category of campaign rhetoric is jobs: their flight to foreign countries, theft by illegal immigrants, battering at the hands of a weak economy and record oil prices, and the persistent claims of unequal opportunity, unjust remuneration scales, and uncertain futures related to jobs. Americans have a curious love/hate relationship with their work. They love their work because it keeps them busy, provides them the means for survival and self-fulfillment, and gives them a measure of status in society. They hate their work because it wears them out emotionally and physically, never quite seems to satisfy what they'd hoped from it, and, increasingly, keeps them on the edge of uncertainty and potential ruin.
It's pretty clear that the attitude and perspective we bring to our work play a major role both in the way we work and the benefits we derive from our job. A positive attitude toward work is more likely to lead to a productive and fulfilling career. A negative attitude may affect both our contribution to the workplace and the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction we derive from our jobs. Work is not, as some suppose, a consequence of the fall into sin; it is not one of the evidences of the curse. Rather, people were made to work, created by God to tend to the creation and all its creatures and potential in such a way as to bring forth His goodness, beauty, and truth with increasing bounty and benefit.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon has a few things to say about work. And he should know, having devoted so much of his adult life to working at a wide range of projects and achievements as King of Israel. As he neared old age, Solomon sought to warn his already wayward-leaning heir, Rehoboam, about the dangers of confusing work and God. In his musings on this subject, he guides us to consider four ways that people experience their work. It might be helpful to reflect on our own work in the light of Solomon's counsel, which is offered from two altogether different perspectives on life.
Work Under the Sun
On the one hand, Solomon explains to his son that it is possible to approach our work without any consideration as to how it relates to God or the fact that we are His creatures. He uses the phrase "under the sun" when he is speaking about work from this perspective. This is the way most men approach their work, and they find it neither satisfying nor meaningful; instead, work pursued "under the sun" leaves one wondering, "Is that all there is?"
People who approach their work without reference to God and His will end up experiencing their work either as a yoke, a means to self-fulfillment, or a tool. For people whose only perspective on work is "this-worldly," work becomes something to which they bind themselves in the hope that, by devoting themselves to work, they'll get what they want out of life.
Solomon explains that, in such a situation, work is like a yoke because it demands so much of us physically and emotionally. It is a burden to bear: "So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous for me, for all is vanity and striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 2:17). We are like animals; every day we take up the yoke appointed to us, grind out a few rows, break our backs, and strain our souls, and then come home too exhausted for much of anything else. Sooner or later, we die, completely unfulfilled (Ecclesiastes 3:18-21; 9:11,12).
Nevertheless, men expect their work to make them happy and to give them a sense of meaning and fulfillment; and, for a time, it does. But soon enough even our greatest achievements fail to satisfy, and we are left wondering if we're ever going to know meaning and fulfillment in our work (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11). Besides, what is there at death to show for all our labors? Nothing we can take with us, that's for sure. And it's altogether possible that those into whose hands our estates now pass will simply squander what they did not work for and let all our legacy go to waste and dissipation (Ecclesiastes 2:18,19). This, too, can lead us to despair over our work (Ecclesiastes 2:20,21).
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