Wise Man Says: Enjoy your Toil

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Over half of the U.S workforce is unhappy at work. Friday afternoon and Monday morning are completely different experience for most people. For the vast majority, work is a means to an end, and NOT an end in itself. Our work seems like endless, repetitive toil, which is perceived as devoid of meaning.

In many countries in our world, there are fewer jobs than workers. In these deeply impoverished places, not having work is a far greater problem. This realization keeps Americans getting up each and every day. “At least I have a job.” is the mental stop-gap that keeps people showing up to jobs they don’t particularly enjoy.

It is still true that having a higher education typically correlates to higher income jobs, but book knowledge doesn’t open the doors it once did. In many cases, “Who you know” can get you much further than “What you know.”

The recipe for success has been proven many times: attitude+service=opportunity. These are not skills to be “taught,” they are dispositions that must be “caught.” Pick any job in the world from “Sign Twirler” to CEO,  the person who really gets into their work with an attitude of service and gratitude will always outperform those who merely execute the metrics of their work. Attitude and service are the rails upon which promotion, higher-pay, and greater opportunity arrive.

These vital ingredients are not aspects of any role at work, they are characteristics of the soul. Success in this world is predicated upon what happens inside. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, corruption exists virtually everywhere. Make no mistake, achievement is not the same as success.

Jobs give us a sense of purpose and identity. Having a purpose is great, but gaining an identity from work is the very definition of the loss of self. If this confuses you or you disagree, then chances are very good that you are a “climber” in search of an identity. Your ambition drives you on to attain higher levels of attainment (which you have confused as success). If each level up validates and shapes our self image, then our soul is sick or out of tune. Work was not intended to name us.

Early in Solomon’s life, he also was a climber. Unlike most of us, he had the resources to accomplish anything, and he did. He built everything the mind could imagine. He denied his heart no pleasure. All of it was great, but it came with a sobering reality: It was all just vanity, a chasing after the wind. There was little to be gained by all his wisdom and toil, his death was as certain as the fool’s death.

If you knew you would die in 48 hours, would you spend your time at work? Like the Blues Traveler song: “It won’t mean a thing in 100 years.”

We will all be forgotten. Even those we remember remain mostly unknown. Our work might endure, but not for millennia. While our minds and hearts yearn for greatness, timelessness, and even immortality, there is something about the scope of our life that we must reconcile. We have but a “few vain days under the sun.”

Solomon learned that the greatest gift of God was not found in the “big stuff”, the ego projects, or in raising our flag of self-importance, those are vain wind grabbing efforts.

“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he (God) has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol (place of the dead), to which you are going.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:9-11)

The wisdom to enjoy our life and toil is not insignificant. Solomon repeats this theme several times within this book. He also goes on to say that our ability to enjoy our toil, is a gift of God.

To unpack what Solomon is saying we must reflect upon the curse of Genesis 3:17-19. In the Jewish creation narrative, God punishes Adam and Eve. “in pain shall you eat… by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” 

Enjoying our toil is the gift that overthrows this curse.

The design is that we would all work, all the days of our lives. To take joy in our toil means that we have found acceptance in our lot, and this reverses the curse of work in our lives. Acceptance is a gift given to us each and every moment, but we so often prefer resistance.

I used to pump portable toilets. That is where I learned this lesson. I found joy in my toil. I gained a heart to serve. I accepted my lot with great joy though with much toil. Then and only then, did my life begin to change.

The gift has never stopped giving as joy in my toil has never stopped. This wisdom from Solomon allowed me to see opportunities and enter them with the same heart of service. As I have done that, God has prospered every endeavor of my life.

If life is not what you had hoped it to be, as long as there is today, then there is time to change. Solomon’s wisdom reveals that the outside always conforms to the inside, NOT Vice-Versa.