Saturday, November 02, 2019

Time and Chance (8)

Christians work not just because we are commanded to, or because we enjoy it, or because we think toil is intrinsically meritorious. We work because work serves a higher purpose.

One example: the apostle Paul reminded the Thessalonians, “[W]e worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Paul, Silvanus and Timothy were deeply concerned about the example they set for the people to whom they preached, and so they labored ceaselessly to make sure their actions were consistent with their words, and thus validated the principles and precepts they taught.

They did this, Paul says, out of affectionate desire. Their hearts were full of love, and so their toil was joyful and purposeful rather than vain and frustrating.

In this, Christians are more than a little unusual.

Two Outlooks

Now, our subject in this series is Ecclesiastes, not Thessalonians, so let’s get back to the Old Testament. But it’s worth taking a paragraph or two to contrast two very different outlooks on work, both of which are found in the word of God.

Two weeks ago we noted that Ecclesiastes 2 divides neatly into three sections. In the first two of these, the Preacher considers the emptiness of hedonism as a philosophy and the inadequacy of human wisdom as a be-all and end-all. This third section deals with the disappointment that inevitably results when we make hard work our reason for being. The ongoing expenditure of human effort which Paul viewed as the product of love, and which he entered into joyfully, is portrayed by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes as “vanity, and a great evil.” What is it about Solomon’s view of work that makes it so different from Paul’s?

Let’s consider the Preacher’s position on the subject.

The Shortcomings of Hard Work as an End Goal

Deserving Heirs are Hard to Find

So what is there in life that is worthy of our time and effort? If pleasure and wisdom will not serve, how about diligent, productive labor? The Preacher considers:
“So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”
Despair. That’s his conclusion. Why? One reason is that, like accrued wisdom, the work of our hands does not inevitably produce value generation after generation. Solomon has already mulled over one problem with leaving an inheritance behind: the heir may be an incompetent or a fool. The new master of an estate may quickly run it into the ground. Years of hard work and sacrifice may go out the window with a single, monumentally ill-conceived business transaction.

Here the issue is not merely competence. It’s a bigger problem. Competent or incompetent, the Preacher is now troubled by the fact that the person who gains control of one’s wealth and work product has not done anything to merit what he has received. He did not toil for it. He did not build it. He has no long-term personal investment in its success. He doesn’t deserve it. In short, the Preacher feels he should be allowed a vote in intergenerational succession planning. But life rarely offers us that.

Building Things is Hard Work

A second reason labor is an insufficient end in itself is that it is a source of stress. It wears out the body and preoccupies the mind:
“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.”
Hard work takes it out of you. Things go wrong. Months tending a crop can be undone by a single, early frost or an excess of pests. The supplier who promised you a quality product sold you junk you can’t use. The system crashed ... again. The person who sees work as valuable because of what it produces goes up and down emotionally with the daily frustrations of business. If there is no crop to sell, everything he has done for the last six months was wasted. If the manufactured goods do not succeed in the marketplace, tens of thousands of dollars go up in smoke. The stress of anticipating another problem in the production chain is enough to give you ulcers or make you lose sleep.

In and of itself, building things is an insufficient goal. It does not satisfy the human heart.

The Value of Hard Work

That said, hard work is not without some limited value:
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”
Even when we cannot bring an eternal perspective to our earthly labors, there remain a few good things to be said about working hard. One is that toil enables us to eat and drink. It provides the basic necessities of human existence. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” to be sure, but even a sandwich tastes pretty good after a hard morning on the job. Moreover, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” says the apostle.

Loving the Process

But there’s more here. The Preacher says there is nothing better than that a person should “find enjoyment in his toil.” Perhaps the end goals in your business plan are never attained. Maybe they were unrealistic. So the stock does not split. The quarterly earnings are sub-par. You don’t quite capture the market. But if you enjoy your work and are able to eke out a living at it, the fact that the CEO’s vision for the company didn’t quite gel this year may not matter so much. From an earthly perspective, perhaps the best we can say is even if hoarding wealth doesn’t pay off, the alternating cycle of labor and rest is itself sometimes satisfactory. It pays the bills, you get the occasional compliment for your efforts, and you have the satisfaction of doing the job well.

In the absence of revelation, this is the very best human wisdom can offer on the subject of earthly labor.

Wisdom, Knowledge and Joy

However, as I hinted at earlier, there are joys in the life of the believer that the average man cannot know:
“For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
Even under the Old Testament economy, in a pre-Christian era where the joys of service for Christ were all but unknown (and certainly not explicitly advertised), the Preacher recognizes that men and women who have a relationship with their God are different where work is concerned. The believer has joys and pleasures in his labor that cannot be understood or appreciated by the gatherers and collectors of this world.

For the believer, getting up and getting busy is about obeying God, paying the bills and providing a testimony to the world. That is all we expect of it. We do not ask the work of our hands to give us more than it was intended to provide. Those things we get from our relationship with Christ. The work itself is very much secondary to the eternal reward we look for.

Gathering and Collecting

Meanwhile, the gatherers and collectors go on gathering and collecting. The Egyptians hoarded resources and enslaved the children of Israel, until forced to enrich the people of God in one fell swoop. “You shall plunder the Egyptians,” God told Moses. Maybe this is what Solomon was thinking of when he wrote, “to the sinner [God] has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God.”

Or maybe he was thinking of the Canaanites. Here are the words of Moses to Israel on the brink of coming into their inheritance as God’s earthly people:
“[W]hen the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you — with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant — and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord.”
Who built the cities in the Promised Land? Why, the Canaanites did. That’s an awful lot of work. Who filled the houses, dug the cisterns and planted the olive trees? No bonus points for guessing it wasn’t Israel. All the gathering, collecting, fussing and sweating was done by others. God’s people simply walked in and benefited from all that hard work.

Does that seem fair? Probably not to the Canaanites. But then perhaps it was not supposed to.

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