What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.
Work is frustrating.
“What gain has the worker from his toil?”
The word for “toil” in the Hebrew here covers more than simply work. It suggests intensive labor, trouble, and even suffering. In other words, the assumption imbedded in this introductory question is that our work is fundamentally broken.
Experientially, this probably comes as no surprise. We know that work is frustrating. Even when our work is going well, we never quite feel at rest in it. The Bible tells us that our work is frustrating because it’s cursed. It tells us that because of our rebellion at the dawn of time, God declared, “Through painful toil you will eat…all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:17).
In other words, no matter your task list this morning, or what new job offers soon come your way, or what profession you ultimately choose, you will not like all your work some days or some of your work all days. It is not true, as the old saying goes, that if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
According to the Bible, even the best job, the best career, the most compatible work is inherently frustrating and painful. And there’s no easy answer for it. We cannot dodge the frustration.
We are part of the problem.
“I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.”
This is a confusing section, but here is a basic paraphrase:
It seems that most of what God has given us to do is busywork. Much of our work seems dull, trivial, and perhaps even pointless. But God is beautifying it all—yes, even spreadsheets, e-mail exchanges, and loads of laundry. All of our work belongs to Him and lives on connected to the glory of His eternal purposes. However, God has left us in the dark. Limited by time and yet longing for eternity, we cannot see how the two dimensions are joined. God has hidden the details of how our daily work connects to enduring beauty and significance.
The implicit moral imperative, then, is that we must work in faith, trusting God with what we cannot see. We must do all of our work in light of God’s promise to make it beautiful, resisting the urge to move through life as though our work and worship are unrelated. Just because the connection is hidden does not mean that it’s absent.
God is at work in our work.
God takes broken work and broken workers and sanctifies them both, making them beautiful in time. What does this mean for us?
1. Enjoy your work as a gift, not as a god.
“I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man.”
Your work is God’s grace to you. It is not a distraction from what you’re really supposed to be doing, nor is it simply a means for increased wealth or leisure.
But consider what often happens to the gifts God gives us. Instead of receiving them as gifts, we idolize them as gods. For example, we end up belonging to our work instead of our work belonging to us.
Only the good news of Jesus has the power to change this relationship significantly. In Christ, we are no longer the summary of our own work. Instead, we become the summary of Jesus’ work. In Christ, we are no longer defined by our performance but by His performance. The Bible tells us that we are either defined by our work or by God’s grace, and it is only by God’s grace that we can actually enjoy our work as a gift and not a measuring stick of our self-worth.
We are called to enjoy our work, but we can only begin to do so if the work of Christ is the place of deepest identity for us. Our worth must be rooted in His love for us, not in our own performance, even for Him.
2. Do your work well. Take care of the gift.
“…be joyful and do good.”
Doing good means that there is a moral component to your work. You are responsible, not for knowing how your work connects to God’s purposes, but for doing your work well— faithfully, lovingly, and competently.
The next time you are tempted to complain about your work, thank God for it instead. Treat it as a gift. Do it as well as you can.
3. Trust that God will make your work beautiful in its time.
Once again, this is the message from our passage. God takes the glorious ruins of our hearts and our hands, the tedium of our lives, and He forms it into beauty.
If you don’t think this is possible for you and your work, then consider the cross. The cross was the climax of Jesus’ work. It was His purpose, what He came to do. And yet, the cross is nothing less than an instrument of failure and death.
But God turns it into something beautiful.
If God can turn an instrument of failure and death into a piece of jewelry now, and into the center of His Kingdom for all eternity, then He can do something significant for your ordinary work today. He can make your work beautiful in its time. Enjoy it. Do it well. Do it in faith. Do it with thanksgiving.