"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).
So perhaps the best we can do is use our work as a tool to get what we want out of life (Ecclesiastes 6:7). We'll work ourselves to death so that we can have enough of this world's goods to sate our lusts. The problem, of course, is that we tend to overextend ourselves in the pursuit of the good life: "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 5:10). We never quite learn the wisdom of Solomon's admonition: "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 6:9). So we spend beyond our means, then have to work beyond our strength to pay the bills. The tool we thought we were wielding to hammer out a happy life becomes the very instrument driving the nails into our coffins.
"Under the sun," all work can only ultimately leave us flat. Yes, there are temporary rewards and satisfactions; however, over the long haul, work cannot fulfill the job description we assign it, which is to make us happy, gives us fulfillment, satisfy our longings for meaning and security, and let us pass out of this life in peace. Work "under the sun," in short, cannot be God.
Work under the Heavens
Thus Solomon counsels his son to take a larger perspective on the work of ruling that he is about to inherit. He should not look at his position as a means to merely selfish ends, or even as an end in itself. He should see his work as a gift from God, meant to be enjoyed but also to be used in serving the purposes of God for creation and mankind. Work, Solomon wanted Rehoboam to understand, is a calling from God, and only when we see our work in this light will we appreciate it for what it is—regardless of how grand or menial it may be—and make the contribution and gain the benefit of it God intends.
What does this entail?
First, we must make sure that we receive our work as a gift and not a curse. God has given us the work we do (Ecclesiastes 3:9-12), and He intends that we should find our work satisfying and enjoyable. But this will only be the case when we receive work with gratitude and engage it with a view to carrying out the purposes of God. We cannot know these exhaustively, of course. Still, God has put a spark of divinity in each of us, and He has made His will known in Scripture and elsewhere so that, by careful study and diligent labor we can do our work in a way that helps to fulfill God's purposes for His creation (Ecclesiastes 3:11; 1:13).
God's work is directed toward fruitfulness, goodness, renewal, edification, and the benefit of all His creatures. His work has enduring value (Ecclesiastes 3:14). To the extent that we bring our work into line with the commandments and purposes of God—both in how we do our work and the way we work with others—we can expect to realize fulfillment at our jobs (Ecclesiastes 3:15; 12:13). Solomon says "God seeks what has been pursued" (Ecclesiastes 3:15, my translation, ESV margin), which seems to mean something like He wants us to follow the pattern of work He Himself demonstrated in Genesis 1 and 2 and which He continues to pursue in caring for the creation and all its creatures (cf. Psalms 104, 147).
Second, we need to cultivate positive attitudes toward our work, in the first place, because it is a gift of God, and in the second, because by our work we actually can make a contribution to the "divine economy." Solomon says, "For the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy" (Ecclesiastes 2:26).
Let us, then, daily give thanks for the work God has given us, and let us come to the workplace with joyful hearts, eager to serve God and our fellow men. Solomon insists, "there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his portion in life" (Ecclesiastes 3:22, my translation).
We should also learn to accept the good and bad that comes with our work as part of God's plan, and cultivate contentment along with joy in all our endeavors (Ecclesiastes 5:12, 7:14). If we can receive our work as a gift from God, with thanksgiving and joy and contentment, then it will not be so hard to sustain an attitude of diligence and productivity in our work: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The rather fatalistic and grim context in which this last bit of counsel occurs should not obscure the truth it contains for those who pursue their work, not "under the sun" but "under the heavens", that is, with reference to God and His eternal plan and good and perfect will.
Finally, we need to seek the wisdom of God concerning our work. Here Solomon intends both such everyday, practical advice as being diligent in all our labor (Ecclesiastes 4:5), diversifying labor and investments (Ecclesiastes 11:1,2), wise planning (Ecclesiastes 11:3,4), and taking sound advice wherever it may be found (Ecclesiastes 9:13-16), as well as such long-term perspectives as never losing sight of God and His purposes for our work (Ecclesiastes 12:1), making friends with colleagues and co-laborers (Ecclesiastes 4:7-12), and striving to finish well in all our endeavors (Ecclesiastes 7:8). Such wisdom comes from God's revelation of Himself in the creation and His Word, but especially in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
What a wonder is the work God has given us to do! It can be a source of great enjoyment and satisfaction, a way to lasting friendships, a means to creating a legacy to benefit others, and, above all, an everyday way of advancing God's holy, righteous, good, peaceable, and true agenda on earth as it is in heaven. When we approach our work not as God, but as a gift of God for furthering His purposes, our work can be a glorious adventure of daily laboring in His presence for His glory and unto His saving and sanctifying purposes. "Under the heavens," all our work can be a source of joy and satisfaction, as well as a means to honoring God and benefiting others.
Do you feel as if your approach to work is more "under the sun" or "under the heavens"? Why?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (Waxed Tablet). Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint. Used with permission.