You Better Work!

· Work,Ethics

We’re all finishing up our summer vacations and returning to work. Soon, we will be singing along with Loverboy: “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” It implies that we work so that we can be free not to work. But, of course, the author of Ecclesiastes knows that’s not satisfying:

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Fools fold their hands
and consume their own flesh.
Better is a handful with quiet
than two handfuls with toil,
and a chasing after wind.
Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

Ecclesiastes 4:4‒8

We spend 40 hours of our week doing work. That’s a lot of our lives! And many of us are
dissatisfied when work life seems just like toil. Something that doesn’t fulfill us. Human need goes beyond meeting basic needs. We need meaning in our lives. And we probably want to help bring meaning to the lives of the people we love. We might even want to leave a legacy, to be remembered by others for bringing something to the world.

But at the end of a hard day’s work, we know there’s so much that is out of our hands. All
we accomplish could come to nothing. This is the “two handfuls of toil” in verse 6 that might simply disappear into the ether. So, what are our options? According to Ecclesiastes, we can either fold and give in to the idea that work is meaningless. Or we can fill one hand with work and the other with quiet rest.

Easy to say. But it doesn’t really solve the problem of finding meaning or making meaning.

Jesus offers a different idea of work:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28‒30

Coming to Jesus allows us to have that quiet rest we have read about. But while Jesus
offers only a light burden, he doesn’t promise that we will all make meaning out of our work simply by following him. Not all of us get to work in jobs we find fulfilling. Instead, following Jesus transforms our understanding of what work is and why we do it. We are called to do our best in our jobs and to dedicate our work to Jesus rather than to legacy. Whether I am satisfied with the meaning I find in my work, there is more to life than what I can bring to it.

I see this fleshed out in Paul’s second letter to his protégé, Timothy, written from prison—a dark time in Paul’s life.

Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

2 Timothy 2:3‒10

Paul is saying that following Jesus requires dedicating our whole lives—including those 40-hour work weeks!—to the work of God. A soldier’s life is made up of pleasing her commanding officer. An athlete trains her body and mind to win the gold medal. And a farmer works at odd hours to feed his family (and also you and me). Each of these things requires dedication and personal sacrifice. But at the end of the day, the commanding officer may not be pleased. A competitor may have won the gold. The crops may fail when drought comes. As for Paul, what came of his faithful teaching and preaching was serving time.

But Paul knew that our hope must be in God—that God continues to work through us no
matter what we see comes of our work. The word of God, the work of God is not chained
up. It seeps out between those prison bars in a way Paul will never come to see. This is a transformation of the idea of work. There is still toil in work and sometimes it may feel meaningless. We may end up with two handfuls of toil. But with uncertainty comes meaning-making that is beyond our own power. And when we work with and for each other, we can hope that God’s emancipated good news for creation is working through us.