Ecclesiastes: Toil, Pain, Joy and Glory

By Tim Yearsley, reprinted from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labour under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

Ecclesiastes 2:22-25

Last week, a project I had responsibility for fell apart completely.

I’d tried to delegate the constituent parts to colleagues who could make it happen in my absence. I’d hoped that with some clever maneuvring, we could overcome the practical hurdles. I was looking forward to my two weeks away.

It was as if the boomerang I’d launched came back and hit me in the face.

Staff shortages, logistical difficulties, miscommunications, my own over-reaching and under-organizing added up to a fumbled finale. The reward for my “toil and anxious striving” was indeed grief (the loss of that work) and pain (the humiliating sense that my colleagues think I’m incompetent, and the worry that I really am).

The Teacher warned me that boomerang was coming.

And yet, despite warning us all of work’s anxieties and frustrations, Ecclesiastes points us to the satisfaction, even joy, that we can find in our work. Not to mention the food and drink that our work earns us. How can this be?

The Teacher invites us to live in this tension, and others like it: life might be meaningless, but enjoy it anyway. There are no guarantees under the sun, so choose faith rather than fatalism. All you have is a gift from God – so while your work is toil, it needn’t be toilsome.

No wonder building our sense of self-worth on our work is like trying to grasp the steam from that cup of coffee – it’s fleeting at best. But enjoying our work is like drinking that cup of coffee slowly, savoring the aroma, the flavor, the moment – honoring the giver by enjoying the gift – even though we know it will be gone soon.

And so, whether our work is changing nappies or changing organizational cultures, we can approach it with the Teacher’s perspective. Our projects may or may not amount to anything. Our work may or may not be remembered. But if ours is good work, done well, for the right reasons, we give glory to the one who gave us that work to do.

If we can live in that tension well, we might find joy along the way. And to our colleagues who know more about anxious striving than joy and satisfaction it might model something profoundly hopeful.

So as 1 Corinthians 10:31 reminds us, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it to the glory of God. That’s good living – and working – under the sun.

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