Why Do We Work?
Passage: Ecclesiastes 4:4–4:16
Why Do We Work?
March 30, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. The Place of Work
52%-That's the percentage of your waking life, that in an average week, you will spend at work, getting to or from work, or working on work related activities at home.
25%-That's the number of people who believe their job is the number one source of stress in their lives.
2.5-In terms of the total amount of miles driven, that's the number of times the average commuter will, in effect, circle the earth, during the course of their working career.
There is absolutely no doubt that work is a huge part of our lives. These kinds of statistics simply confirm that. Whether you work in an office in the city, or work for yourself, or work as a homemaker, almost all of us can relate to the term "work".
But why do we work? Why do we invest so many time, and energy, and money into working; even just getting to work? Some of you will undoubtedly say, "Because we have to, because we have to pay the bills."
But let's go deeper than that, this morning. Let's get beyond the obvious and talk about our hearts. And if we hope to find some profit in that this morning, we need to look at these things in light of God's word.
Turn with me to Ecclesiastes 4. (page 555)
Now, once again, we need to remember what it is we're looking at here. What is Ecclesiastes? Well, Ecclesiastes is a journey of sorts. It's one man's journey through some of the most difficult realities of life. This Preacher, or "Teacher" as we're calling him, is trying to make sense of what he sees around him. Birth. Death. Pleasure. Suffering. Success. Injustice. Wisdom. Foolishness. Love. Hatred. And yes, even work.
Ecclesiastes is not a book that lays out a logically precise and well-ordered argument for or against anything. It is a book that bounces around like a ball in a pinball machine. But it is a book that God himself chose to include in Sacred Scripture. It is a book that is, ultimately, God-breathed.
So let look at what God wants to reveal to us this morning through this unique book.
II. The Passage: "All Toil and All Skill in Work" (4:4-16)
Let's begin where we left off in our study from a few weeks ago, in chapter 4, verse 4. Listen as I read through the end of the chapter...
4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. 5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and an unhappy business. 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him-a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with thatï»¿ youth who was to stand in the king'sï»¿ place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Now you would not be the first person, who after hearing this, said, "Huh? What?"
What we have here is really a collection of loosely related thoughts. And what I will attempt to do with these ideas this morning is tie them, even more tightly, tie them together thematically. But at the same time, we cannot miss what the writer is intending to say in each of these.
This section is composed of three parts: 1) verses 4-6, 2) verses 7-12, and 3) verses 13-16. What we're going to see in the first two sections is that the Teacher presents us with a problem and then offers some related thoughts that address that problem, or at least, part of the problem.
Now, let's look again at that first section, keeping in mind the question, "Why do we work?"
A. Motivated By Envy (4:4-6)
4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Do you see what the Teacher is saying? He's saying "Why do we work? We work because we're jealous of others. We're jealous of their success. We're jealous of what they have. We're jealous of the life we believe they have.
And so what do we do? We work hard in order to not only ‘keep up', but hopefully, to ‘pass up' those around us.
Now, some of us hear this and say. "Well, that's not me?" I'm not a jealous person. There's no one I'm trying to best."
And there are examples of people who are, quite obviously trying to outdo their neighbor. One brother here told me about how he feels his neighbor, literally, his next-door neighbor always seems to go out and buy a bigger and better this or that to outdo him. There are people like that.
But there are also more subtle forms of envy. There are times in which we simply say, "Oh I like that house, or that TV, or that job, or that vacation". But in our hearts we are secretly saying. "I wish I had that AND why don't I have that AND what can I do to get that."
And we subtly change this or that in our lives, we subtly exert pressure on our boss or on our spouse, we subtly spend more time improving our skills, or we simply find ourselves more open to spending more time at work or to taking new assignments.
So many people wake up one morning and say, "How did I get so busy? How did I get to this place?" And if we were able to trace it all back, we may just find that the root cause was a very subtle and momentary instance of envy.
When we say we work "because we have to pay the bills", we need to question why we have the bills we have.
How does the Teacher respond to all this? Well, in verse 5 he seems to give us a corrective. Someone might say, "Well, maybe we just shouldn't work at all if we're going to driven by envy." But the teacher says:
5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
"Folding one's hands" was a Hebrew way of describing laziness. The person who does not want to work at all will have nothing to eat but their own skin. Not working is not an option for us, according to the Teacher.
But look at what he does say in verse 6.
6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
Now, what exactly does that mean? Let me read another translation of this verse that I think communicates the writer's intent a little more clearly:
Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
Do you see what he's saying? The Teacher's response is to recommend having less (one handful) with a peaceful heart, rather than having more (two handfuls) with excessive work; and in light of the context, excessive work driven by envy. That kind of motivation is ultimately pointless. As the Teacher puts it here, it's like trying to chase and catch the wind.
But there's another motivation he describes in verses 7 and 8.
B. Motivated by Greed (4:7-12)
Look at something else he observed...verse 7:
7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
While many people can connect their need to work directly to the needs of others in their life, the Teacher has observed one man who had no one else. He didn't work to take care of his spouse. He didn't work to take care of his elderly parents. He had no heirs, neither children or siblings ["son or brother" v.8]. He only had to provide for himself.
But still...the Teacher notes...still he worked and worked and worked, and eyes were never satisfied with riches. Why was he working? The answer is simple: greed. Greed is the you-focused desire to have more than you need, and yet, feeling that you never have enough.
How many of us are driven by greed? How many of us work and work and work in order to get what we do not need and still feel we do not have enough?
Again, like envy or jealously, greed can be very subtle, can't it? Sometimes we justify greed. It's just part of living the "American Dream", right? As Michael Douglas's character in the Oliver Stone film "Wall Street" taught us, "Greed is good, greed is right, greed works."
The point of verses 7 and 8 is not that you have to be alone in the world in order to be greedy. Any of us can be motivated by greed. The example the Teacher provides here shows us that when you strip away every possible justification, the greediness of the human heart becomes that much clearer.
Is working hard about ultimately about you, about your desires?
What the Teacher goes on to point out is that our work is always more profitable, in every way, when it's motivated by the reality of the other.
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him-a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
In its essence, greed has no room for the other, because greed is about me. But we were made for community. We were made for relationships. As we see here, community has so many advantages.
We cannot simply say, "Well, I'm working too much because I have too many people who depend on me. It was simpler when I was alone." No, two is better than one. In fact, as we see at the end of verse 12, three is even better than two.
It is good to work in order to provide for the needs of others that God has placed in your care in some way. But we still need to consider our hearts.
To be driven by greed is, as the Teacher puts it in verse 12, "an unhappy business". It is not the pursuit of happiness. It is, in the end, vanity, that is, it is ultimately pointless.
C. Motivated by Advancement
The section ends with a strange little parable, that at first glance, seems unrelated to what's come before. Look at verse 13:
13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with thatï»¿ youth who was to stand in the king'sï»¿ place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Now, there are some difficult issues related to understanding this passage, especially trying to assign the personal pronouns like "he" and "his" to the right people, or trying to figure out if the Teacher is referring to his own situation or to some real event.
But the main point, I believe, is clear. The main idea here is not about how wisdom can take you places. That's part of it. No, the real point is found in the conclusion. A man can go from rags to riches because of his wisdom, he can be followed be a sea of people, and still, verse 16, "those who come later will not rejoice in him".
No matter the position you attain, no matter how high you climb on the corporate ladder, or in the eyes of others, it can and it will all change.
Why do we work? There are many people who work simply in order to advance. Every raise and every promotion is another promise of power and prestige. Every new title is another guarantee that others have to respect you.
How much of our identity and self-worth is derived from our successfulness in this or that line of work? If who we are is defined by what we do in the workplace, we are in for a rude awakening, because it will change: layoffs, downsizing, scandals, bankruptcy, takeovers, age discrimination, and of course, competition.
Even a well-liked king can suffer from the fickleness of his people.
III. "For Whom Am I Toiling?"
I don't know about you, but once again, I find myself dizzy from trying to follow the reflections of the Teacher. He's talked about so much here, but what did he really say?
I think what he has done is forced all of us to think about some of the problems that come when we "live to work", rather than "work to live".
But what he has NOT done is given us a bigger vision for why we work.
You see, as an Israelite, the Teacher could look back and see that God had made man to work, that work was part of the original creation. But the Teacher was struggling to understand labor in light of the human heart separated from God's design. He was trying to make sense of human existence "under the sun", in a fallen world.
All he could see were people driven by all of the same things people are driven by today when it comes to work: envy, greed, a desire for position and prestige, fear, compulsion, the approval of others, obligation, pride, denial and distraction, and there are many, many more we could mention.
Aren't these the things that all of us wrestle with when it comes to our vocation?
Usually, when it comes to vocational motivation, our culture only has one response: "Find something you enjoy. Have fun. You should like your job."
But what if you don't like your job? Or what if you lose the job you enjoy so much? Or what if your job is just so-so; what if it's just a job? Isn't there a motivation that transcends all of this, that applies to every single person, a motivation that guides us away from the ugly motivations that are so common "under the sun"?
There is. Listen. While the Teacher could look back to what God had already revealed, he could not look forward to what God had not yet revealed. But we can.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul tells workers in the city of Colossae. Even those these "workers" were technically slaves, they still had to wrestle with all of the motivations that can drive the human heart when it comes to labor. Listen to what he tells them about what should be their ultimate vocation-motivation:
Slaves,ï»¿ obey in everything those who are your earthly masters,ï»¿ not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (3:22-25)
Do you recognize, from Ecclesiastes, the question we're brought back to you by this passage from Colossians? It's the question we skipped over from verse 8. It's the question that the isolated man, the loner never seems to ask, but should: "For whom am I toiling"?
While the isolated workaholic in Ecclesiastes 4 never asks that question, that's the real question we need to ask ourselves. The question, "Why do we work?" should always lead us to this question, "For whom am I toiling? For whom am I working?"
As we can see from the passage in Colossians 3, these households servants were being tempted to simply look busy and do the bare minimum in order to keep their masters happy.
Paul tells them, "No, do your work with a sincere desire to serve; do your work with all your heart."
Now if we left it here, this would be a good pep talk.
"Sincerity. Yes! With heart. Yes!" But there is more here than just good moral instruction. Remember the real question: "For whom am I toiling?"
Ultimately, we should not be working for ourselves, or for our boss, or for our spouse, or for our family, we should be working, verse 24, for the Lord Christ. "Work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men" (v. 23). "You are serving the Lord Christ" (v. 24). Jesus is your real boss.
I've had a lot of jobs in my life, which means that I've had a lot of bosses. And because every boss had a different style, because there were different managerial styles, how you work for that person is a little different.
Some bosses were strict, so you always had to make sure you were doing what you were supposed to. Some bosses were laid back, so you were able to have a little more fun. Some bosses were unpredictable, so you always had to be careful. Some bosses didn't know what they were doing, so you had to be a self-starter. And some bosses were just plain mean, which would just make you bitter. I'm sure you've worked for one or some of these kinds of managers.
But how do you work for the Son of God? How is what you do affected by the fact that your calling, your filing, your driving, your customer service, your cleaning, your meeting, your data-entry, your computing, your fixing, your programming, your maintaining, your scheduling is all being done in service of Jesus Christ, the one who loved you and gave himself for you?
If your periodic performance review was conducted by Jesus himself, what would be different? What does he expect from you? What does he deserve from you? What do you long to do for His honor?
Jesus Christ should be our real vocation-motivation; not our family, not ourselves, not our employer, not simply to bring home a check. Wherever you are, whatever your job, from the corporate office to the cashier's stand, as Paul puts it, "you are serving the Lord Christ".
We have to do away with this idea that we work and then minister for God in our 'spare time'. No, our work is our ministry. Everything in our life is our ministry! All of it is ministry.
Even when you don't like your job, even when it's wearing on you, even when you would love to be doing anything else, you have to remember, God has you there to serve Jesus. And if that's true, that changes everything. It changes why you go to work, it changes how you do your job, it changes how you relate to coworkers, it changes what kind of return, what kind of profit you're ultimately look for.
The Teacher looked around, and he simply saw the ugliness of human labor: the envy, the greed, the shifting sands of position and prestige. And if we're honest, we see the same things.
But because of Jesus, we can wake up each morning and ask, "for whom am I toiling?"; and we can be reminded right then and there that in whatever we do, we are serving the Lord Christ.
And the only reason we can say this, the only reason our work can become kingdom work, is because Jesus could said this to His Father:
I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. (John 17:4)
Jesus did His job. He gave himself on the cross, with sincerity, and with all his heart, so that we can do everything we do with a new heart, for God's glory.
He died so that through faith, we can live to serve Him out of gratitude and love, wherever we are. And He rose again from the dead in order that he might be the "boss" of all things, that his authority might extend into every part of our lives, even the workplace.
Why do we work? Why do you work? I can't answer that for you, but I can point you to the right Answer. I can point you to Jesus.