Why do we work?
One lunch time, a business executive went up to the office coffee cart, but as he arrived he noticed the coffee cart man was packing up.
The business executive asked, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Packing up,’ was the man’s reply.
‘I’ve made enough money for the day. I want to go home, enjoy my life, rest and drink a coffee with my wife,’ the man said.
The executive cried out, ‘That’s crazy! If you keep working then you will make extra money, and if you do this regularly you can buy two coffee carts. And then four coffee carts. And then maybe open a cafe or two. Who knows, in a few years you could even retire early, then you could rest, enjoy your life and drink coffee with your wife.’
‘Why would I want to do that?’ asked the coffee cart owner.
Quaint story, right? And we know it is just a story, because no one thinks like this coffee cart dude and they certainly don’t pack up early. The story must be made up. No one treats work like that. And, business executives don’t talk to coffee cart guys like that; they mumble their order while staring at their smartphone.
But why do we work? Is work good? Is it bad? Should we all just pack up our coffee cart and go home early?
Let’s turn to the thoughts of the Biblical philosopher, Qoheleth :
I thought to myself, ‘Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.’[..]
18 For, with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18)
He has evaluated wisdom and decides that raw wisdom gets you nowhere. So, almost to ease his pain, he turns to pleasure.
I thought in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be vanity. 2 ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ 3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly-- my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)
The author is testing pleasure for the sake of pleasure. See sentence 2 – he goes for just plain fun, but it is foolish ultimately. So he turns to wine. And his conclusion: it is but a passing breath. Pleasure comes and pleasure goes.
Think about it. When you already have something, you take it for granted and it’s boring. But when you just get something it’s new and exciting. But eventually everything you get turns into something you have; everything new turns into something boring. That’s why you always need to get new things: new car, new TV.
The author of Affluenza, Clive Hamilton, said this...
The arguments and data... show that successfully pursuing materialistic goals fails to increase one’s happiness. When people and nations make progress in the materialistic ambitions they experience some temporary improvement in mood, but it is likely to be short-lived and superficial (Affluenza, page 14).
So our philosopher has written off finding pleasure in hedonism. Now he turns to work.
Enterprise and industrial pleasure
I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-10)
He had the power and position to enjoy everything. He worked and worked, all with the aim of pleasure. ‘I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.’
But what was actually gained?
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was vanity, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
Nothing was gained. At the end of the balance sheet...the profit was nothing. Why was there no gain?
Death undermines everything
Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. [...] 13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. 14 The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. (Ecclesiastes 2:12-14)
What is that fate?
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! (Ecclesiastes 2:16)
Our philosopher despairs of everything. Why? Because death undermines everything. It even undermines wisdom. The wisest man still can’t escape death. Sentence 14: the same fate, death, await them both.
Both the wise man and the fool die. Sure the wise man stubs his toes less often on his funeral march to the grave but that’s still where his life ends. And so our philosopher looks at all his hard work and says. ‘When I die it ends.’ But maybe, just maybe, we think, ‘I can create a legacy that will last after me.’
A bank founded in 1762 helped finance the Louisiana Purchase of 1802, such that the United States did not purchase Louisiana from Napoleon but from this bank. It worked closely with the British Monarch and established ties with King George V. The decedents of this bank were all elevated to Peerages with the title of Baron in England. The bank survived both World Wars and was the key to England’s liquidation of assets in the United States to finance the war effort. It operated from 1762 until 1995. And, it was brought down in a single year by one derivatives trader in Singapore, Nick Leeson. So goes the fate of Barings Bank. ING swallowed it whole in 1995.
I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man (or Nick Leeson)? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)
Nick Leeson fits Woody Allen’s definition of a stock broker. ‘A broker is someone who invests other people’s money until it is all gone.’ So if pleasure fails and work fails (for either we will pass away or it will pass away), what hope is there?
Pleasurable work is God given
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, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 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. (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)
Living rightly in light of work and pleasure
Option 1. Work for pleasure
Is work just a means to an end and that end is pleasure? One of the shirts I own says it well: ‘working for the weekend’
In Australia, we love POETS day, an acronym meaning ‘Punch Out Early Tomorrow's Saturday’. But pleasure is fleeting, isn’t it? As we established earlier, if pleasure is your goal, it is elusive. Once the weekend is over, the pleasure is over.
Option 2. Work is pleasure.
We love work, but why is that? This shouldn’t surprise us because we live in a meritocracy. We don’t believe rights are hereditary, we don’t believe in egalitarianism. We work to create a name for ourselves.
Have you ever had one of those conversations where you felt like you weren’t busy enough? You are talking to someone and they say, ‘Oh man, I’m so busy, been down to Sydney, then up to Rockhampton. Started at four this morning and finish at eight tomorrow night.’ And then they ask the dreaded question: ‘so what are you up to?’ And you know that your working life doesn’t match and so you feel inferior. That’s because we fundamentally think and live a meritocracy and the harder you work the greater you must be, and the greater your name is. Work is everything. It defines you. It gives you status. It gives us our ultimate meaning.
But our thinker rejects this idea, for we all die and our work will be not remembered.
Now this starts to feel tragic when you consider that hours worked = (65 years minus 20 years) x 48 weeks x 38 hours = 82,080 total working hours. Then add 1 hour for getting ready, 1.5 hours for travel each day = 2.5 x 5x48x45 = 27,000 hours getting ready and travelling to and from work. That’s three years of your life not at work, but just travelling to and from and getting ready for work. 3 years of 24 x 7. Just putting on lipstick and waiting for a bus or sitting in traffic.
Option 3. Work is something to enjoy.
Pleasure in the work is the reward of the work. Work is there to be enjoyed. Now this turns things on its head for us Aussies. Most of us work and work, not because we enjoy it, but as a means to make money so we can have pleasure. So, we live for the weekend.
But the view of the Bible is in sentence 10:
I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
He found his pleasure in his work. The work itself was the reward.
We have all experienced this when carrying out a task, even a mundane one. We put off cleaning the house, however once we start the job it is often surprisingly enjoyable. Then we stand back and find a quiet, warm satisfaction in a clean house or a clean sink or a mowed backyard. I have experienced this in long and arduous jobs on my family’s farm where I grew up. Though hours spent in the tractor ploughing a field did not seem at the outset even remotely appealing, somehow at the end of the day the work itself was the reward. There was satisfaction from long hours of hard work and a ploughed field.
Why is it that work itself is the reward? Why is it that there is a quiet satisfaction in work itself, even mundane work like house cleaning and street sweeping? Why is it that people with long-term unemployment suffer all sorts of problems that we wouldn’t think are directly related to work?
It’s because work is a fundamental part of God’s good world order. For when we go back to the first book of the Bible we see that God created humanity to work. Work is a good thing and to be enjoyed. It is a good part of our human existence, and an essential part. (You may like to read the first two chapters of Genesis to follow this up).
But if this is so, why isn’t work always good? Maybe one reason our work doesn’t bring us pleasure is because we want it to give us something it isn’t meant to. You see, work isn’t there to give us meaning or create a career or give us prestige but we keep expecting it too... and so we get frustrated.
Imagine the frustration of going day in and day out to a lemon tree and wanting an orange. You water the tree. You fertilize the tree. You prune the stupid thing. You work your guts out and all you get is... a lemon.
Human beings are made to work and work is good. But work isn’t and never was meant to be a source of ultimate meaning.
And as long as we treat it as a means of ultimate meaning it will be distasteful to us, because a lemon tree doesn’t produce oranges. We work. And we work to provide for ourselves. And we work to be able to be generous to others. Work is good but it does not and ought not to provide ultimate meaning.
But I’m not enjoying work
But you might say, I’m not enjoying work. Well, that is because God is at work:
What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? 23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. 24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:22-26)
If you enjoy work it is because this is a gift from God. So be thankful. It isn’t because of your skills or ability. God might have used them but the key is that God is blessing you.
And if you are not enjoying work, then may I say something bold: it is because God loves you.
In Genesis chapter 3, God cursed the ground and this made work hard and difficult - even at times unfruitful. Why? So that we as humanity might realise that we need God and that life without God is not good. If your work is hard, God may be reminding you that there is more to life than work. There is God. And if you are someone who rejects God there is an even more shocking statement:
26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.
Our philosopher is warning us. Work is second to knowing God and being blessed by him.
Work is a blessing from God
Work is good. Work is pleasurable. Don’t just work for pleasure. Don’t make work everything. Don’t make it the defining thing. Enjoy work. However, work shouldn’t be made to bear more than it can. You can’t get oranges from a lemon tree. Pleasure and joy is found in God. Work is a blessing from God.
Written by Glenn Hohnberg
Image - Flickr.com Creative Commons flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/