My pastor, Rankin Wilbourne, has been teaching through the book of Ecclesiastes and recently highlighted its critical message for our lives, our work, and our need for honest reflection.
In fact, Pastor Rankin quoted Herman Melville as having said, “Ecclesiastes is the truest of all books.”
And Melville was not referring to just the books of the Bible!
Solomonic Wisdom for Work
The Solomonic “preacher” of Ecclesiastes says that everything “under the sun” (meaning life as we experience it on earth without reference or relationship to a transcendent God) is “vanity” or empty of sense, reason, hope, or purpose. If this is truly “all there is” on any given day to our work, or our lives for that matter, we are indeed in trouble and Ecclesiastes provides as honest and true a description of our empty experience without God as can be found.
There were countless long days in my aerospace career where I plowed hard to get through all the responsibilities and tasks on my plate. And yet sometimes, when I got to the end of a long day, all that was left was a deep sigh. “Why does this job feel so empty?”
This may have stemmed from extended project delays outside my control, difficult personalities or organizations, economic challenges from within and without, unexpected personal disruptions, ongoing thorny technical challenges, or simply the boredom and monotony of the daily grind.
These experiences so easily lead to the loss of a sense of concrete purpose, direction, and satisfaction in the moment. And the heaviness of these issues can weigh down a tired soul, especially over the long journey of our working years.
This begs the question as to why this world seems set up to sometimes provoke our frustrated and cynical feelings. Is this life, after all, really a sad or sick cosmic trick being played on us, leading us toward frustrated despair?
Understanding the source of our frustration is found in the story of Genesis chapter three, which sets the stage for problems we encounter throughout our lives and, particularly, our work. The narrative of the “fall” of Adam and Eve specifically informs us about the nature of the life and the world we have inherited. God has intentionally cursed the world to remind us of our rebellion against him and our need to seek reconciliation with him, each other, and his world.
Here is a list of six things God has set in place in response to mankind’s rejection of him:
1. An Enemy
God promised us that the world will have spiritual enemies seeking our harm (Gen. 3:15). Evil will exist and we will be prone to hear and believe deceptive lies about ourselves, the world, and the value and role of work in our lives. Every false promise that our work will provide ultimate satisfaction gets directed into our ears from the enemy’s whisper.
2. Alienated Relationships
Trust and mutual support with God and each other has been lost. Misdirected blame and self-interest entered the scene (Gen. 3:12) and are now commonplace. Our relationships with each other at work seem naturally vulnerable to problems, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Who hasn’t experienced periodic difficulties with co-workers, bosses, clients, or suppliers?
Suffering, whether emotional or physical, are now part of the deal (Gen. 3:16-17). Our labor causes pain and injury. Even traditionally “safe” office work environments require regular attention to things like adequate ergonomic workstations and protections from abuse and harassment. Down-time from carpal tunnel injuries and work-related physical and mental stress alone typify many office environments.
4. A Resistant World
The world itself, including all the institutions humanity has created, resists our best efforts to apply ourselves and produce good and useful work (Gen. 3:17-19). For as much progress as we make in all our sophisticated technology, innovation, and industry, we still experience push back in our daily labor. Regardless of our skill level and personal efficiency, inflated bureaucracies, inefficient processes, outside disruptions, scarcity of resources, insoluble problems, and ineffective leadership all remind us that our jobs sometimes just don’t want to cooperate with our best efforts.
The ultimate disrupter of our work is death itself (Gen. 3:19). Decay, sickness, and death, (even more so than taxes!), are guaranteed. The longer one works, the more this becomes a regular theme. I’ve experienced the death of three employees over the years who were under my management and there is nothing as intrusive to the workplace as the trauma and losses of going through these experiences in your workgroup.
6. The Hiddenness of God
God removed Adam and Eve from the garden, so that they would know the consequences of living outside of intimate fellowship with him (Gen. 3:22-24). The very angst and longing the “preacher” of Ecclesiastes described regarding “life under the sun” is a direct consequence of both our rejection of God and his removal of us from his intimate presence. Our lives and work beg for meaning and satisfaction, which would be there all the time if we had direct access to God’s face-to-face presence in a perfect world.
So when you get to the end of a long day and feel that heavy sigh coming, remember your Maker who transcends “life under the sun.” He created that very day with purpose, even in all its challenges, tasks, and “unfinishedness.” Though he seems far away at times, by faith we know he draws close and cares for all who seek him. Take your angst to him and let him bear its weight as only he is able.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Matthew 5:6 (ESV)
And remember that though our work will always bear the marks of a fallen world, it is also a call for us to enter into God’s good work in restoring and reconciling the world to himself. Let God transform the list of things you dislike about your job into the reasons he has positioned you there. Love your broken world, care for the good of your coworkers, seek the flourishing of your work environment, and let God use your modest efforts to bless and bring a glimpse of his kingdom into the place he has called you.
Steve Lindsey is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work Los Angeles. As an engineer at Boeing for nearly 40 years, he often worked towards seeing how his work served God’s greater purpose for the world. He and his wife Margaret established the CFWLA in 2017 to help people reframe vocation and understand how all work, no matter the industry, has meaning and purpose.