Work: Eat, sleep, work … repeat?
I opened Facebook the other day and the first post that appeared said the following: “There are moments in life that make you wonder if it is all worth it. The house, the car, and all the stress of the bills, just to stay where you are. To go through hell every day at a job to pay for everything that will eventually become someone else’s one day. What’s the point of the day in and day out, if all you feel is that it’s all worthless in the end?”
Each of us are in different jobs and in different places in life. However, no matter what the circumstances or pressures are, I am sure that you have all had days when you can agree on this reality that work can be a blessing, but that it can also be a frustration. That work is a gift, but also that it can be painful, tiresome, and endless. That you might feel stuck in this cycle of getting up, going to work, plowing through work, only to come home to eat, sleep, and repeat. And then you wake up and wonder, what is the point of all this? And you just want to get out of the cycle. Perhaps you even asked yourself this question this last week.
That is what we want to look at today. How does the word of God and our life with Jesus bring life and purpose into this reality that can sometimes seem like meaningless repetition, like a drag.
For those who have not been with us, we have been studying from the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, who was a king in Israel. A very wise king in Israel actually. For at the beginning of his reign, God spoke to Him, and said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” And you know what Solomon asked? Solomon asked for wisdom, and God gave him wisdom, so much so that he was known for it in the surrounding countries and by surrounding rulers. Then, at the end of his life, this wise king writes a book, Ecclesiastes, and, in it, he observes life on earth from many angles, from many perspectives. In doing so, he is brutally honest with what he saw. He does not beat around the bush. In these observations, he also observes work .
The Joy of Work
On the one side, Solomon sees the joy of work: Ecclesiastes 2:10: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.”
Work can be a joy! I am sure that all of you experience this as well. Yes, work can be a frustration and painful at times, but work can also be a joy! I know that this has been and is true for me. Without work, life is just boring. And I have talked to others over the past couple of months who have shared the same thing with me. Their work is a source of joy. They live for their work. They love their work. And thus they have sacrificed so much for their work! We would not do that if we did not have a certain amount of enjoyment that comes from work.
And Solomon sees this and he does not deny this as he continues in his observations about work…
The Frustration of Work
However, the sad part is that that is not the end of the story. Because there is another dynamic to work that we all experience and which Solomon describes in verse eleven: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Does this verse not sound an awful lot like my friend’s facebook post? Because there are days in which we are thankful for work, in which we are content in our work and excited for our work, but there are also days in which we wonder, “What on earth is this all for?”
The Motivation of Envy
Solomon does not stop here at this conclusion though! He elaborates on this thought and the meaninglessness of life in chapter four. He continues to wonder, not just about the meaningless of work, but he also wonders about the motivation. Why are we doing what we are doing? In chapter four verse four, he observes one of these motivators that is all too common: “And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
What motivates people to work? What drives people in this cycle of eat, sleep, work, repeat? Envy. Envy is one of the key motivators that drive people. Envy is thinking, I want what you’ve got. And that is the motivation for many people in work.
What happens, without us even being aware of it most of the time, is that we look at the world around us, thinking, I want what they’ve got. I want what she’s got. I want what he’s got. We look around at the world around us, and, more often than not, we see what we do not have and what we could have or should have or want to have.
But you might think, well I’m not that envious. I don’t have those thoughts that often… Initially that was my reaction. But when we start becoming aware about this motivation, about envy, we will start actually to hear it everywhere in conversations all around us!
One of my friends, growing up, found that whenever her family would go on holiday, all she would hear was, “If we had more money, then we would also pay for that vacation home or do that trip…”
Or just recently, I was having a conversation with a friend, and she said, “Once we have more money, then I will be able to pay for a housekeeper. And then with a housekeeper, we could also upkeep a bigger home.” And it went on and on and on what that would lead to. What they could get what they did not yet have.
Or just this week, I was talking with another friend about work. And she said, “I don’t want to stay in the position where I am working. I don’t feel like it’s where I’m meant to be. It’s especially hard to be content, when I see other friends who have the job that I have always hoped for…”
Society tells us that we cannot be content, unless you have a bigger car than your neighbor, unless you have the latest iPhone, unless you have more than your friends. And it is not just in regard to possessions. We can compare skills, abilities, looks, jobs, positions, and each comparison drives us to work harder to obtain the next best. Because we start thinking, if I just had a little bit more money, if I just work a little bit harder, then I could also afford this or that or then I could also have what they have.
Envy leads to Busyness
So, in this way, envy drives us to work harder. And thus leads to busyness, to two handfuls of toil, verse 6: “Better is a handful of quietness than two handfuls of toil and a striving after the wind.” Two handfuls of toil. Both hands filled with work, filled with busyness. Solomon here has observed an individual whose life is filled with work and only with work. Work is what they do all the time. What keeps them busy. What drives them. They wake up. Go to work. Stay late at work. Go home. Take work phone calls. Work on more emails. More documents. More assignments. More deadlines. Go to bed. And then wake up and start the whole routine again. They are driven and they have beautiful goals to build a career, to build their job, to build their work, to build their bank account, to build their name, to build a home for their family and future for their children. But in the end, it is a striving after the wind… It splits through our fingers.
Busyness leads to Loneliness and Emptiness
And then Solomon goes on to observe in verse 7 and 8:
“Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:
8 There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
“and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!”
Envy leads to busyness. And busyness leads to loneliness. That’s the picture that Solomon observes here. He sees a man and this man is so busy and work so hard, but he has his work and that’s it. At the end of the day, this man wonders, “For whom am I toiling and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” At the end of the day, this man’s life is empty. Busy, but empty.
And so are the lives of so many here in Frankfurt. They have sacrificed and given up so much. But for what? They have pushed against fatigue, exhaustion, burn-out, lost friends, and family in the way. But what has their award been? A glass of champagne with no one to share?
Thus, the running joke among lawyers students is that the average lawyer works seventy hour work weeks to make their millions of dollars, and, at the end of the lives, they end up with their millions along with three ex-wives. Because the busyness pushes everyone out of our lives.
Again, this theme is repeated in the movie The Greatest Showman. In it, P. T. Barnum is a young man who starts in poverty with a wonderful family. But he wants more for his family. So he starts up a circus. This circus is grows and develops beautifully. From working through the initial hickups and passing the beginning barriers together, the family and the crew turn this circus from being the joke of town to being a name in the nation. But then Barnum gets taken up in this drive for more. And instead of knowing when to slow down and what to prioritize, he gives everything. And, in the end, he looses everything. Work drives him away from his family. The news catches him at the start of an affair, and ruins his reputation. And finally, from rushing up to the top, everything comes crashing down.
And is this not a pattern we see so often in this world?
The Cycle continues…
But then. The emptiness, the loneliness that we feel inside of ourselves only causes us to look around again. Only causes us to wonder, is there more? And then what happens? We look on Facebook or Instagram or any of those sites. We see advertisements. We have dinner with others and hear their stories. And then we see what others have. What others have that we do not have. And we are caught up in the whole cycle again.
Or… this is where God can break into the cycle and make a difference…
The Right Perspective: Including God
We ask, “what on earth is this about?” And that is our problem and that is Solomon’s problem. Because when Solomon makes all these observations, he makes these observations from an earthly perspective. “What on earth is this about?” Repeatedly, he says, “everything under the sun”. That’s what he observes. But, in these observations, he is struggling with tunnel vision, whereby he observes too much, but has seen too little. Because he has not taken into consideration God’s perspective in this whole story… He has not seen the “above the sun” perspective. Well, that is until the very end. Because then we turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 12, and, after all his observations “under the sun,” he says in verse thirteen through fourteen: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
“Under the sun” nothing makes sense. But bring God into the picture, and everything changes.
What changes? Let me repeat the verse: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden deed whether good or evil.”
What Solomon here is pointing out, is that we will be held accountable to God. In this, in some sense or way we can do whatever we want. But, at the end of it all, we will be held accountable to God. So Solomon concludes, the wisest thing and the best thing to hold onto is to fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
We understand fearing work. We understand being driven by work. By this cycle which can have us in control, so that we play by its rules. That’s the cycle we’ve described. We fight with.
However, Solomon challenges this, and he says, we got it wrong. We need to fear God. Our duty is towards God. If the cycle is going to make sense, then God needs to be in the center. Our duty is now no longer to work or to man. Our duty is to God. We go by his rules, by his commandments.
So while society says, we need more and better. While says, this life is all that we have to live for, so make the most of it.
God now says, I am your motivation. I am who you are working for. Fear me and fear my commandments.
And this changes things. Because when we fear God, a greater fear overcomes a little fear. Our duty to God overcomes our duty to work. And this sets us free to abide by his commandments. His commandments are to love God first and then, out of loving God, to serve others.
So now, the cycle changes. The motivation changes. The core changes.
In the previous cycle, our duty is towards work. But now, our duty, as Solomon says, is towards God. Before, society and the cycle of work laid down the rules, but now God lays down the rules.
Because before, envy and emptiness and loneliness drove our work. Before, the motivation for action was obtaining what we do not have but what we want.
Now, our motivation is to fear God and follow God commandments. And His commandments to love Him first and then love others and this becomes our motivation. This life is not all that we live for. God is what we live for. Envy and selfishness can be turned into service and selflessness. From thinking, I want more and better, we are set free to think, I want more and better for you, for the other person.
The answer is not fixing the cycle. The answer is changing the cycle. Before, work was the center of the circle. Now, God is the center of the circle. And that makes all the difference. It a new ballgame. New rules.
This all starts by asking, what is the center of your life? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as the center of your life? If not, then I invite you to do so today! Take some time. Perhaps talk with one of the pastors here or someone sitting next to you, and give your life to Jesus Christ.
But there it does not stop. Then ask yourself, how are you living your life? Is work the center of the circle? Or is God the center of the circle? What is your motivation in your life? What drives your choices? Envy, work, or God? And we reorientate ourselves. We refocus
And then, you are in a position to take a step back, and ask, Lord, since my duty is towards you, what do You want from my life and with my work?
And when we choose to live by God, then you might see, actually there are some changes to be made. Perhaps, you recognize that you were working for the wrong reasons, and a change has to be made in your heart. That you have been motivated by envy or work and not by selflessness or love. Perhaps, you recognize that envy and comparison has been reigning in your heart, and not contentment. Perhaps, you realize that through busyness you have not been there for other people. And that this needs to change, because, when God is the center of our lives, work is not the only thing that matters. The picture is bigger.
The answer will look different for every single person here and it is a process to walk through this with God. What I ask, is that every time that you feel restless this week or busyness or the cycle of work seems to have the upper hand, you ask yourself, what is going on right now? And, is my center on God or elsewhere? How does having God as the center of my life change this situation? Then ask, what are you going to do about it?