After a couple of weeks off, this week brings us to part four of our series, Finding Meaning. One of the places we turn to for meaning in our lives is often our work. And that makes a lot of sense at first blush. After all, by the nature of the beast, we invest a lot of our lives there. We might as well try to get as much out of it as we can. But as with pleasure and wisdom, seeking meaning in our work is a trap and when it springs, it will leave us empty and searching. Keep reading to find out how we can get the most out of the work we do.
The Problem with Work
Have you ever done something that you knew, even while doing it, was a waste of your time? I worked at OfficeMax in the print department while I was in seminary. I really enjoyed the job and had a great boss. My favorite part was working in production. That kind of detailed and precise work was right up my alley and a nice break from school work. We produced thousands of different documents while I was there from large format posters to bound workbooks to single copies. If you wanted a document of any kind created, we could probably do it for you.
Well, while we certainly took a lot of walk-ins over the course of a week, our bread and butter were repeat customers. These were businesses who had documents they needed printed on a regular basis and gave us the opportunity to serve them. One of these customers was MUFON. If you look right in the middle of that word you might be able to guess what kind of an organization they were. MUFON stands for Mutual UFO Network. They are an organization dedicated to the investigation of claims of interactions with extraterrestrial life across the country. You are welcome to look them up on the web, although you may not want to spend too much time there or you may wind up finding yourself on some government list somewhere. In any event, what we printed for them in remarkably high numbers were their amateur investigator field guides. They were about 100 double-sided pages with light blue front and back covers and hole-punched to be able to go in binders. We’d print them in sets of 50 and ship them about once a month, sometimes twice. Inside was detailed information on what to do if you encountered someone who had encountered an alien. One of the pages had an outline of the human body so that you could make note of any physical indicators of such an interaction. I promise you I am not making up any of this.
Listen: As a Jesus-following seminary student who was and is thoroughly convinced by both modern science and the Scriptures that ours is the only planet God created with life on it, I couldn’t help but think this was all a total and utter waste of my time. But I did it, because that’s what the job demanded. I worked at OfficeMax for a little over a year. During that time we did a whole bunch of other jobs that were more meaningful. I got to meet some really cool customers. On the whole, I really enjoyed my time there. But, there are some jobs that amount to printing nothing but MUFON books all day, every day, without a break. If we’re not careful, those can be soul killers that feel like they suck the meaning out of our lives.
On that happy note, this morning finds us in the fourth part of our teaching series, Finding Meaning. For the past few weeks we have been working our way through the collection of reflections on the meaning of life from King Solomon found the Hebrew Bible that we call Ecclesiastes. The whole idea for this series of conversations is that we are creatures created for meaning. We need to have some kind of a purpose for our lives, however transparent it may be, lest we fall into a place of aimlessness which ultimately leads to despair which works itself out in a variety of ways, none of which are good. But, contrary to popular belief, there are not a whole lot of places in the world around us to which we can turn to find the substance we seek. As a matter of fact, there’s only one which we talked about in part 1: Jesus. Jesus is the only real foundation for meaning in our lives. Or, as we put it then, life without Christ is meaningless. Any pursuit of purpose we undertake without starting from Him as our foundation point will ultimately prove to be a futile waste of time.
But still, search we do because we are so driven by this need for meaning. So, we’ve spent our past couple of times together looking at some of the big places we look to find what we need. The first two places we often go on this quest are pleasure and wisdom. We turn to pleasure because it’s easy and it feels good and why not start with something that’s easy and feels good? But while pleasures certainly are…well…pleasurable (and if they aren’t, you’re doing it wrong), they’re only intended to bring us pleasure, not meaning. Pursued apart from some larger context of meaning, any pleasure will ultimately turn up hollow and leave us still searching. Remember what we said about it? Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy.
And wisdom seems like it should be a more fruitful pursuit given that we are encouraged over and over again in the Scriptures—by Solomon himself no less—to find it whatever the cost, the truth is that when pursued for its own sake and on its own terms, it turns up just as empty as pleasure as far as being a source of meaning goes. We should absolutely make the attainment of wisdom a significant goal in our lives, but, like pleasure, our pursuit of it can only be for the purpose of gaining wisdom, not meaning. Real wisdom is grounded in a relationship with Jesus.
Well, this morning, we are going to look at yet another place we often pursue meaning in our lives: Work. This one is so tempting too, isn’t it? I mean, if you have a job, you probably go to a place and do a thing multiple days per week. In fact, it may be that there isn’t anything so consistent in your life as your job. If you’re in the parenting years, outside of your work, you may live in a constant state of flux. Work brings stability and sameness that is comforting and steadying. If, on the other hand, you are in the retirement season, one of your biggest struggles might be finding that refuge of stability. Or, it could be that you are in a season when work is not a steady or stable affair. You perhaps more than anyone know just how much of a foundation for purpose it can serve in someone’s life. Or maybe yet, you are a student. For you, school is your real work, and whether you want to admit it or not, is your rock when everything else is flying to pieces around you.
Whatever exactly is the form your “work” takes, when we have something that stable in our lives, we start to invest ourselves in it. We start to invest ourselves in it because it seems like a safe place to do that. Family is chaos. Kids are hard. Friends are wildly unpredictable. Even church, if you do that scene very often, can feel a bit like a rollercoaster depending on the last time the pastor stepped on your toes or who took your seat or who gave you the cold shoulder last week. Even—come on now, you know this is true—your relationship with God can be hot or cold. If you feel like He’s let you down or maybe you know you’ve let Him down, you may very well not be leaning into that as hard as you could. But work? It’s work. You don’t love it all the time, but it’s always there.
But you know as well as I do that there’s a problem with this. Solomon knew it too, and over the course of his reflections on meaning, he comes to the subject of work several different times. I’d like to look at a couple of those times with you this morning. The first comes in chapter 2. Open your Bible to Ecclesiastes 2:18 and let’s look together at what he had to say. “I hated all my work that I labored at under the sun because I must leave it to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will take over all my work that I labored at skillfully under the sun. This too is futile.”
Now, I’ve got to be honest with you: The first time I read that…and the second and the third for that matter…what struck me the most about his words are not that they resonated with my own experience, but rather how petty they seem. I mean, think about this: Solomon is saying his work was ultimately depressing to him because one day he was going to die and leave it to someone else and who knew what that person was going to do with it. Doesn’t that seem at least a little arrogant to you? He seems awfully, almost unhealthily proud of his work if this is the thing that bothers him most about it.
And as you keep reading, he doesn’t back away from this complaint at all. If anything, he doubles down on it. Stay with me in the text now at v. 20: “So I began to give myself over to despair concerning all my work that I had labored at under the sun. When there is a person whose work was done with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and he must give his portion to a person who has not worked for it, this too is futile and a great wrong. For what does a person get with all his work and all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? For all his days are filled with grief, and his occupation is sorrowful; even at night, his mind does not rest. This too is futile.”
Alright, Donnie Downer. I happen to enjoy my work. Maybe you had a bunch of kids who were dummies, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us share in your sour grapes outlook on life. Are you with me? And yet…let’s not be too hasty here. I mean, leaving a legacy is something we think about, isn’t it? If you’ve started a business and have any visions of leaving it to your kids, this is something that’s been on your heart and mind before, I suspect. It’s something that’s been on my mind of late. After a lengthy search, our former church family in Virginia finally brought in a pastor to preach in view of a call last week. It went really well and I am so excited for them. I hope you will join me in praying for them and the incredible things God has planned to do through them in their community. But, my family and I committed almost a decade of our lives to the work God had given us to do there, and I can say with confidence that we left the place better than we found it by His grace. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t wonder from time to time what will become of the work we did as God puts this new leader in place. He’ll be faithful to continue His work because there are awesome people who are committed to that end in that church and they have a superb new pastor and his family, but you wonder all the same. So maybe Solomon is hitting on something here.
Let’s go just a step further with this, though. Solomon doesn’t come right out and say it, but the question that seems to be thumping in the background of his complaint here is this one: Why do we work? Why do you get up and go to work every morning? If you’re retired, why did you work? Why do you still get up and do the various things you do each day? Why do you go to school and do homework and keep up with classes, half of which you don’t even like? What’s the point?
Well, we do it so we can eat. We do it so we can provide for our families. We do it so we can have the resources we need to go and do the things we’d rather be doing anyway. Now, perhaps there are some more mature- or spiritual-sounding reasons we work (we are in church after all), but that’s the bulk of it, right? We work to get money so that we can spend it. And when we spend, then what? We work to get more money to spend that. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Now, maybe you work so you can leave something behind for your kids to make their lives a bit easier than yours was. That’s noble. But as Solomon clearly bemoans here, what’s the use? I mean, as a kid, I wouldn’t hate to inherent a whole bunch of money, but if you’re the one working, you don’t have any control over how that money gets used. It may be used in a manner consistent with your vision for it (and if we make money, we have a vision for it), but then again, it may not be. Either way, you don’t get a vote because you’ll be dead. There’s also this: How many times have you heard of a wealthy parent dying and the kids immediately start fighting over who gets what and how much of it? That happens all the time. What’s the use of working so hard if you’re just laying the groundwork for family squabbles that will just serve to make your family miserable for years after you go? What parent wants that? But, if you happen to have a lot of money and make plans to get rid of it all before you die, your kids might resent you because they had plans for what they assumed would be their inheritance. It’s all futile! It’s as pointless as chasing after the wind. You run and run and run and wear yourself completely out, and you never catch it. What’s the point?
Then there’s the fact that so much of our work is just a drudgery, isn’t it? I mean, yes, there are people who find themselves in a position that gives life to their bones such that work is a joy, but if we’re going to be really honest, most days it feels like those folks are the noble exceptions to the well-established rules. For so many folks, on most days, work is something you have to do in order to be able to do the things you’d rather be doing. Work does appear to have a purpose then, but not a very noble one. This vision of work explains better our love-hate relationship with it. It both facilitates, but also gets in the way of the things we’d rather be pursuing. Do I have you all excited for Monday yet?
The net effect of this first passage, then, is that work can be a real source, not of meaning, but of futility in our lives. And, if we’re thinking clearly, this should not surprise us in the least. As for why this is, we need only look back to Genesis 3. Do you remember what happened there? The serpent slithered his way into the Garden and convinced, first Eve, and then Adam through her, to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which God had told them not to eat. Then God came, asked what happened, they all blamed somebody else except for the serpent which seems to have suddenly lost its tongue, and then God starts handing out consequences. Most notably for us right now is what He said to the man. Listen to this from Genesis 3:17: “The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.”
Now, Adam’s punishment here was not work. That’s a misunderstanding of the text. Adam was already working. God put him in the Garden to work it and keep it. Adam’s punishment—and ours—was futility in his work. All his—and ours—hard work would come to naught. It would eventually pass away and be forgotten. We would work hard for a little return and be exhausted for it. It would become little more than a meaningless toil. In other words, all these hard and confused feelings about work are to be expected. As Solomon asks over in Ecclesiastes 3:9: “What does the worker gain from his struggles?” So then, are we to just embrace his despair about work and pronounce it all a net loss?
No, we’re not. Because work itself is not the problem. Work itself is not evil. There is a time and place for all work. Verse 10: “I have seen the task that God has given the children of Adam to keep them occupied. He has made everything appropriate in its time.” The problem is with seeking any kind of meaning for our lives in our work. As tempting as it is, we cannot do it. As soon as we do, we will find ourselves up to our necks in all the problems we’ve been laying out here in soul-sucking fashion.
No, the problem with seeking meaning in our work is that we were created for something bigger and higher. That’s what Solomon is getting at in the next part of v. 11: “He has also put eternity in their hearts…” We have an inherent longing for something bigger than ourselves. Our work would seem to make us a part of this—after all, a company is usually bigger than one person and even if it’s not we are actively contributing something to the world to make it a better place—but it’s not big enough in and of itself. Work cannot fill that void in the same way that pleasure and wisdom failed to do the trick. Indeed, look at the last part of v. 11:” …but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.” We can’t see the whole picture and where our work fits into it. If we try and make a single piece of the puzzle the meaning for our life, we will lose the big picture and drown in the details. We were made to work, and work will always be a part of how we honor God both now and in the coming kingdom of God, but work itself is not the thing for which we were chiefly made.
So then…what do we do? Verse 12 now: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life. It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts.” We strive to enjoy the work we have been given to do. We strive to find joy and enjoyment in as much of life as we possibly can. Now, this isn’t merely a call to hedonism in some form or another. Then we’ll just wind up pursuing pleasure which, as we have already seen, will leave us just as empty as futile work will.
There’s just one way to find this enjoyment in the things we do. We must do them for the Lord. Our work gains meaning when it is done to honor Christ. The only way we are going to find any relief from the bone-crushing futility that so often accompanies so many of the things we do on a daily basis is to make absolutely certain that our primary aim in each and every instance is to bring honor to Christ. That’s it. We sit back, make Jesus our aim, and enjoy the journey. It does not matter what it is that we are doing, we can find delight and contentment in it if we are making Christ the object of our efforts.
This is something Paul made explicitly clear in his letter to the Colossian believers. If you’ve been around church very long, you’ve probably heard this before. Listen to this from Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people.” If we are trying to please some person, the odds are good that we’re going to wind up falling short of their expectations somehow. Maybe we won’t this time, but at some point we will. We will because on our own, falling short is what we do.
Now, you might be thinking here, “Alright, Paul. That sounds really good, but I can’t do that in my work. You just don’t understand what it is that I’m facing on a regular basis.” There are deadlines and family pressures and co-workers and unfair expectations, and the list goes on. It would be great to do it all for the Lord, but I just don’t have time for that. And I hear you. But do you know who it was Paul talking to here? Slaves. Is your job better than slavery? (Spoiler alert: It is.) Then you’re starting from a better place than Paul’s original audience. And his commands to them were tough. Listen to the whole thing: “Slaves, obey your human masters in everything.” Now, that’s one of those verses that has been used erroneously to justify slavery, but suffice to say now, that view badly misunderstands the context and the culture. What he says next becomes more relevant: “Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people.”
Whatever work you are doing, if you want it to have any meaning in your life and in the lives of the people around you, the only way you are going to accomplish that goal and remain on track with it is to make Christ your aim. Our work gains meaning when it is done to honor Christ.
Okay, but why? Why is this so important? Why is this such a big deal? Because of the inherent futility of work that we talked about just a minute ago. Because of all the problems with work we talked about before that. Think about it: If your work is not primarily done to honor Christ, why do you do it? To make money? Again, you’ll just spend it and then have to work more to make more to spend more and the cycle repeats. To give your life purpose? Fine, but what about when it’s gone—and we both know that work can be gone in an instant? Suddenly your life is purposeless and what did your work accomplish that has any last significance? To leave a legacy for after you are gone? Maybe you will, but eventually it’s going to be forgotten and then what? All of these are just things we tell ourselves to make us feel better about the absolute worthlessness of work pursued for its own sake.
The only way our work gains any kind of meaningful substance is when we put it in the context of a story larger than our own. But it’s got to be a story that’s going to last longer than our own. And, it’s got to be a story we are going to be able to participate in when our own part of the story in this life has ended. Are you with me? Listen to some more of what Paul said: “Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.” That’s the story that’s big enough to give our work the substance and meaning we need for it to have. It can’t give our lives meaning on its own, but when we put it in the context of the eternal life of Christ and the fact that we can be making investments now that will continue paying dividends forever—literally—it will have meaning and that’s what we need. Our work gains meaning when it is done to honor Christ.
If you want your work to mean something—and that’s exactly what all of us, not just want, but need—then do it to bring honor and glory to Jesus Christ. Whatever it happens to be, whether printing amateur field guides for the Mutual UFO Network or sweeping a floor or testing a sample or selling a product or turning a screw or whatever, make the glory of God your aim and it will matter. That doesn’t mean it will always be fun. No work is. But it will matter. Our work gains meaning when it is done to honor Christ. Make sure your work matters. Honor Christ with it. Our work gains meaning when it is done to honor Christ.