Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26
Our son Philip, now thirty-one, was nine years old when we attended my Dad’s retirement party. On the way home from the party, a voice came from the backseat and asked, “Dad, why do we work?” That struck me. We take work for granted as part of our lives. We work to earn the money to pay our bills, of course. But why exactly do we work?
In our first lesson for this morning, a world weary Solomon, successor to his father David as king of Israel, gives vent to his own frustration with work.
Take a look at some of what Solomon says.
In Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, he writes: “I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.”
He goes on to say in Ecclesiastes 2:18-23, that he hated all his toil, his hard work, because he would die and then all the money and possessions he had would pass on to his heirs and lose all the things he’d gained through wisdom by acts of foolishness.
Solomon thought that hard work can be a vanity, a vain endeavor, meaning it was worthless and insignificant.
Now, other than Jesus, Solomon was the wisest man to ever walk the earth. Solomon is right here, I think. When you work just to pile up riches, comfort, influence, and power, all your work is in vain, meaning nothing, and a waste of our lives. One of the main characters in the classic film, Citizen Kane, surrounded by ticker tape machines that showed how his investments were going, while being interviewed by a reporter late in his life, speaks this wisdom when he says, “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.” He understood how vain and worthless the mere acquisition of money is.
Shifting from fiction to real life, an acquaintance of Ann’s and mine once worked for a hard-charging man who built a business empire, shedding wives and any relationship with his adult kids he might have had in the process. When he died, there were a number of people at his funeral. But he went unmourned. You see he’d worked hard to leave behind a pile of money. But he never used his work or his money to achieve anything truly worthwhile in this life or in eternity.
So, why do we work?
Let me tell you, first of all, what’s not a reason to work. Someone once asked the writer G.K. Chesteron what the greatest problem in the world was. Chesterton said, “I am.”
You and I--our sins, our faults, resentments, jealousies, grudges, imperfections--are the main problem in the world. Often, we look at that fact and tell ourselves to work harder, strive to be better people, to fulfill God’s laws as embodied in the ten commandments. There’s nothing wrong with the ten commandments or with God’s law, of course. God gave them. They contain God’s will for our lives. They’re perfect.
The problem is, we’re not perfect. That’s the problem with the world. You and I could never work hard enough to earn a place in God’s kingdom or to be worthy of His love. Instead, God gives a place in His kingdom, His overflowing love, His forgiveness, as gifts of His grace to all infused by the faith only the Holy Spirit can give, to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, the only way to life with God.
Yet even after God’s grace has come to us in Jesus Christ, even after we accept that only Christ’s hard work on the cross, and even after the most miraculous work of all, the work God the Father did when He raised the crucified Jesus from the grave--even after all that, we still work. We do so, I think, for four reasons.
First, we work because, simply, God planned things that way. God gives us work to do--as employees, family members, and citizens of our communities. Work isn’t God’s punishment for sin. In the Old Testament book of Genesis we’re told that God placed the first human being in a garden. The Bible says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” God never meant for the man to sit around and watch the garden grow! God’s intention was always for him--and for all of us--to work. God gives each of us our own parts to play in caring for, building, and renewing the world He gives us. Human beings were made to work.
A second reason we work, I think, is this: When we work, we most reflect the presence of the image of God within us. The Bible tells us that we human beings were created in the image of God. There are many implications to that statement, but one of them becomes clear when you scan the opening verses of the Bible as it talks about God. You’ll find phrases like, “God created...God separated...God named...God made.” You see, God works. God creates. God builds. We’re made in the image of a working God. So, there’s something intrinsic to being children of God that impels us to work.
But there’s a third reason that we work. Pastor Steve Goodier tells the true story of an elderly man considered by his townspeople to be both wise and thrifty. “When he died,” Goodier says, “everyone expected the authorities to find money stashed everywhere in his home. [But a]ll they found were a few gallon cans filled with coins. It turned out that he had used most of his money to help put needy young students through college. And the coins filled his pockets as he walked down the streets of the business districts looking for parking meters that had expired. When he found one, he would drop in a coin. One of his neighbors commented, ‘That explains why he looked so happy and contented!’” Here was a man who worked in his own special way even after he retired. He knew that another reason we work is to experience the joy that goes with serving others, that goes with being someone others can depend on.
God has created us for community with Him and with others. When each of us does our best at working, giving to, and serving God and others, we live out the love God has given us in Jesus Christ. And make no mistake, God and the world are depending on us to play our part in God’s creation. Elsewhere in Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes: “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks.” We work because God has constructed the world in such a way that we all need each other to do our jobs well. Others are depending on us.
And this continues even when people can no longer do the things they once could. Often, when I visit with the elderly, they tell me, "I can't do the work I used to be able to do." It's then I try to convince them that, as we grow older, God may shift our workload, calling us to do the heavy lifting of more intense, longer sessions of prayer for the needs of our church, community, and world. In this too, God and our neighbors, especially those neighbors who don't realize it, are depending on us.
Now there’s a fourth reason for working which, I think, may only make sense to those who are followers of Christ.
In his fine book, Christians in the Marketplace, Pastor Bill Hybels tells the story of a young man his father hired to work in his wholesale produce business one summer. He was a student at West Point and rumor had it, a Christian. As Hybels tells it, many of his dad’s other employees were “rough...hard-drinking, hard-fighting, women-chasing men” who “relished the opportunity to make sport of a nice, clean-cut, all-American...” kid. They wanted to make this young man’s summer miserable.
But they didn’t. Instead, “David, the all-American boy, turned the company upside down.” On his very first day, he befriended some vagrants out behind the company warehouse. He gave them his lunch. Soon, he was doing Bible studies for them. Before the end of the summer, in his quiet, loving way, David had become a valued friend and counselor to some of the most hardened employees of the Hybels company. I like what Hybels says after recounting this incident. “The shame of the marketplace is that so often it centers on nothing but business. There aren’t enough Davids in the workforce.”
Our daily work isn’t just about keeping the house clean, meeting deadlines, making money, or keeping the boss off our backs. (Although those things can be part of our work lives.)
It’s not about piling up an estate that, as Solomon laments in our lesson, the kids may fritter away foolishly.
And, may I say, it’s not even about piling up the money for a bequest to the church. (In this, I liked Mary Jane Stofcheck’s philosophy, If you’re going to give money away, give it away now. Give when it requires faith that God will supply all your needs even though you give away part of your money!)
For the Christian, the key questions as we do our work boil down to a few:
- Am I giving glory to the God Who gave His Son to die on the cross and rise from the dead to give forgiveness and everlasting life as free gifts to all who believe in Jesus?
- Am I giving 100% of my effort to glorifying God and loving my neighbor every day?
- Am I showing consideration--(another way of asking, Am I giving love) to my employer, my coworkers, my customers, or others I serve?
“No, I haven’t been a good husband. I’ve been surly and selfish.”
“No, I haven’t been a good father. I’ve been impatient.”
“No, I haven’t been a good pastor. I should have worked harder on that lesson plan, should have listened more to that counselee, should have prayed before I took action.”
It’s in these circumstances that I turn to the God I know through Jesus in repentance and ask for the power to recommit myself to giving Him all the glory in all that I do.
Why do we work?
- Because God wants us to work; it’s part of being human.
- Because when we work, the presence of God’s image in us is visible.
- Because when we work, we experience the joy of serving others.
- And because when we work, we glorify God.
We Christians work because when all is said and done, we really work for the One Who loves and works for us every moment of every day.
We work because Jesus Christ, the One Who went to the cross and rose from the tomb for us, loves us and nothing is so important to the Christian than to use our whole lives to give back to the God Who gives us everything. Amen