The Satisfaction of Work
If you’re not already in Ecclesiastes 5, if you would go ahead and turn there. It’s so good to see you. And everyone on livestream, welcome. Next week we begin a 5-week series called “Serpents and Doves.” Jesus called his disciples to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. So, for the next five weeks, we want to wrestle with this kind of biblical wisdom in this cultural moment. How does being like a serpent and like a dove shape the way we think about COVID, toxic politics in an election year, racism and all that surrounds the tension in our country. We’re just going to dive right into those specific challenges over the next five weeks. And if there’s anyone left in our church after that series, we will start Nehemiah. It will be our next major series.
But for today, we’re going to wrap up our “Work on Purpose” series here in Ecclesiastes 5. Now, two years ago we covered this chapter, and we saw that it breaks into two parts. The first seven verses are focused in on gathered worship. When you draw near — Ecclesiastes 5 talks about drawing near to listen — beware of being rash with your words. Because it’s very easy to come into worship, something speaks to your heart, you say, “Yes, God, I’m going to do that.” And then you go out and get distracted and don’t follow through on it at all. So, 1-7 is don’t be distracted. When God speaks to you, latch onto that and act on it.
The second part of Ecclesiastes 5 moves from gathered worship to scattered worship. And it focuses primarily on money. Money goes bad when three things happen. It gives three different examples. One, when it’s used to maintain an unjust system, these pyramids of power (verses 8-9), when we try to gratify an unsatisfied heart (verses 10-12), and when we try to ensure an undisturbed future, as if money can do that (verses 13-20). We may come back to some of this, because it relates to some of the things we’re going to be talking about over the next couple weeks. But for today, I want us to focus in on verse 12. “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer.” Let’s say that together. “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer.” One more time.
“Sweet is the sleep of a laborer [Yes] whether that laborer eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.”
So, sweet is the sleep of a laborer. Work brings a sweet satisfaction in itself that transcends its results, whether the laborer” (notice there in the second phrase) “whether the laborer [scrapes by] eats little or [makes a fortune] eats much.” He will sleep sweetly due to the activity of work itself. In contrast, second part of verse 12, the person who needs to experience a certain profit to feel satisfied, “the full stomach of the rich,” will struggle to sleep. And the reason for this is the sweetness of his work is contingent. The sweetness of the rich person in this example has made satisfaction contingent on certain results, certain profits, certain securities, surplus, approval, my boss being happy, fear of rejection — all those things keep satisfaction at bay. So, sweet is the sleep of a laborer. There’s something so simple and profound about that statement. Sweet is the sleep of a laborer. And by the way, that doesn’t mean that the work itself is necessarily easy or fun, right? Notice the sweetness is found in what follows, not necessarily in the moment of the work.
This hit me this past week. I was running. The sun was beating down. My feeble bones and aching muscles were complaining. At that moment, that work, that workout was not fun. But later — drinking cold water, taking a shower — there is something sweet, satisfying about pushing myself a little further than I thought I could go. That’s what Ecclesiastes is talking about. It’s not necessarily, “Hey, your work is always going to be easy and always going to be fun and satisfying.” No, there’s a sweetness to the kind of work he’s talking about that might come later, but it will it will be there. And that feeling of satisfaction is actually the exact opposite of the feeling you get when you watch a stupid movie. Do you know that feeling? A friend recommends a movie to you. I’m not talking about an evil movie, that’s maybe a feeling of guilt. But I’m talking about a movie that is feckless. While you’re watching it, you keep thinking, “This was recommended. It’s got to get better.” And then after a couple hours, you just realize, “I flushed two hours of my life down the toilet.” And you just have that yuck feeling. Well, what Ecclesiastes 5 is talking about is the exact opposite of that. There’s a satisfaction, a better aftertaste, to good work.
And so, here’s the question we want to wrestle with today as we wrap up this series. How do we begin or how do we increase if we’ve already begun to taste the sweetness of work? Now, some of you have and are, and some of you, it just feels perpetually elusive — I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I really want to find it. So, we’re going to come at this question from four different angles. And I want to warn you, if you try to take in all four, it’s probably going to be overwhelming. So, ask the Spirit for a place to start.
Where we’re going to start is on the horizontal, the personal, side of this question. How do I, on a personal level, work freely in a way that brings satisfaction? And then we’re going to go across to the relational. How do we work collectively so that we experience together this satisfaction in work? And then we’re going to go down to the creative, the physical, the tangible. And then come up and wrap it up, tie it together, with the devotional, which links all of them together. So, ask the Spirit to show you one of these. Hey, that’s where I need to start this week.
First, personal. Work freely. If you want to taste the sweetness of work, don’t look for the perfect job. Learn to work freely. And by the way, parents, this is one of our highest callings as parents. We are called — and I know I’ve shared this before, I guess it’s good to repeat. But as I’ve been parenting my kids, there are many times where I feel overwhelmed. You know, when you look at other parents and you think, “Oh, they’re the dream parents. They’re so creative and they’re so consistent. And I stink as a parent.” And it can be very discouraging. And the overwhelming idea of how many things should I be doing? It helped me to boil it down to two things. And that is, my calling is to train my kids to love and to work. That’s it. To live in the love of God through Christ and to love their neighbors (love) and to learn to work. And as a part of disciplining our kids in work, many, many years ago, we learned Proverbs 12:24,
“The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.”
Now, some might say, “What this is saying is, hard workers become the boss.” Yeah, that’s there. But I want us to look at it more on a personal level. And here it is: If you don’t work freely, you will work slavishly. If you don’t learn to work freely, you will live your life as a slave and be put to forced labor. Diligent work is a cornerstone to freedom. That’s true nationally, but we’re talking on a personal level. If I don’t choose to work hard, someone’s going to have to make me, whether that’s in prison one day or just forced to do what I don’t like to do. This is why some Christians perpetually complain about their managers. They always have a problem with their boss. And one of the reasons — obviously, bosses are not perfect — but one of the reasons they are perpetually in conflict with their boss is because they haven’t learned to work freely. So, they’re perpetually made to do things they don’t want to do; and therefore, they’re always complaining.
The New Testament approaches this issue from a scandalous perspective. What the apostle Paul does is say, “Okay, let’s talk about working freely, and I want to give you the worst case scenario. Let’s pretend you had to sell yourself into slavery to pay a debt. So, someone now owns you and tells you what to do every day. How do you work freely?” And in Ephesians — I’m sorry, we’ll see that in a second — Colossians 3:22-24, Paul addresses this question and says, obey earthly masters (and here it is)
“with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
So, Paul is saying, “I don’t care if you think your boss owns you or that you’re being forced to work at a particular job. I am calling you to something far deeper than that. I am calling you to work heartily.” What does that mean? In the Greek it literally means “from the soul.” Work from the soul. There’s something within you that drives you. It is not from the whip. It is not from the paycheck or the annual review. It is not from fear of past failure or future need. It is from the soul.
Ephesians 6:7, similar. Writing to bondservants,
“rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.”
What is working with a good will? Well, a good will in this context is like a good battery. A good battery doesn’t need to be jumpstarted. A good battery has an energy within itself. Same in the ministry. Look at 1 Peter. Peter addresses this to church leaders.
“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, [You don’t do it because you have to do it.] but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, [You’re not in it for the money.] but eagerly.”
So, whether you’re a servant or a CEO, whether you’re a pastor or a painter, the Bible begins within us. Isn’t that interesting? And we can talk all about broken systems, which are very real, but the Bible begins with the heart. Because you can change a system, and all you’ve done is change slave masters. You have not brought about true freedom unless you change the heart. Yes, and new hearts will change, bring about new systems when the Bible starts within and works out. Work freely. Dorothy Sayers and her classic work on work says,
“Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the workers faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
Now, some of us read that, and I know I feel a little squeamish when she says, “it is the thing one lives to do.” And what she’s talking about there is not workaholism. But what she’s saying is, so many of us view work as a necessary evil. It’s a means to get to the jet ski on the weekends. It’s a means to retire early. It’s a means to an end. If I could only get over this and build a big enough portfolio, I could be done with working for the rest of my life. And she’s saying, “No, that’s not a biblical view of work. You’re trying to use work as a means to an end. What if you were made to work?” And you’re working freely.
So, here’s the exercise. If you’re going to start with this one this week, I would encourage you as you’re driving to work, as you’re walking across your living room to your desk, that you would say out loud: “I am going to work because I want to.” And you say, “Well, what if it’s not true?” You’re praying it. “God, help me learn how to say, ‘I’m going to work because I want to.’”
And whether you’re volunteering, whether you’re retired, whether you’re serving your neighbor, whether you’re serving your family, whether you’re going to a big corporate job, it doesn’t matter. You’re working freely. I’m going to work. I’m going to school. I’m doing what God has called me to do, freely. There is something satisfying about that, liberating and satisfying. And some of us don’t realize how much we feel driven and compelled, and it sucks the joy out of what we do. So, number 1, work freely. Work is satisfying when you work freely, no matter who your boss is.
Number 2, work collectively. Let’s move to the relational. How does working collectively increase the sweetness of work? When Paul was specifically addressing the church in 1 Corinthians 12, he wrote,
“There are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Here he is highlighting the beautiful interplay of diverse roles, all empowered by the Spirit for the common good. In Ecclesiastes 4 the same idea is communicated, except it’s applied to everyone, not just the church. Ecclesiastes 4:9,
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward [for their work] for their toil.”
The passage goes on to argue that collaborative work brings more help, more warmth, more security. How is that? Wendell Berry, in his classic book, “The Gift of Good Land,” confronts a society that tries to deal with everything technically with technology. He calls it through “remote control.” And he can be a bit extreme. But he raises the question: where does satisfaction come, specifically in our work? And then he answers it with a story, a story about the second cutting of alfalfa. He talks about a day that was hot and humid. And the hayfield they were bringing in was at a river bottom, so there was no breeze. The sun was beating down on them, the hay sticking to them, and they got it all back into the barn and the metal roof reflected the heat and it was stifling. He described it as, “miserable.” But they pressed on, and they got the hay in. And then they sat under a big elm tree on a pile of posts and talked and laughed. His neighbors had come over to help. And in the end, he called the day, these are his words, “pleasing.” It was a “pleasing day.”
“Why was it pleasing? [He goes on.] Nobody will ever figure that out by a ‘logical projection.’ The matter is too complex and too profound for logic. It was pleasing, for one thing, because we got done. That does not make logic, but it makes sense. For another thing, it was good hay, and we got it up in good shape. For another, we like each other, and we work together because we want to.” [You see, he just hit a number of these perspectives in one paragraph. He goes on.] “And yet, you cannot fully explain satisfaction in terms of just one day. Satisfaction rises out of the flow of time.”
What does he mean there? You really don’t grasp the satisfaction of a hard day of work just in that hard day of work. He goes on to describe months later, when your stalls are full, and your animals are fed, and your feet are up in front of a warm fire in the winter. The satisfaction of that hot day continues to be experienced, knowing your animals are not starving. “Satisfaction rises out of the flow of time.” Collaborative work is satisfying work when you sweat together and then sit together and talk together and laugh together. But it’s true not just at the farm.
In the video series, “For the Life of the World,” episode 3, called “Creative Service,” the narrator walks us from the lumber jack, to the lumber yard, to the truck driver, to the craftsman, to the furniture store salesperson, to the homeowner. And he paints a beautiful picture of people offering their various gifts to one another in a free exchange. Most of us are so used to seeing this we totally miss it. But think about it, take anything. Look at your shirt and just imagine: how many people were involved in clothing you today? All the way back from farmers to seamstresses to truckers to salespeople. The video explains, our labor is never impersonal. Never. And it’s never merely a force of efficiency. It is always communal. It is “a great and gracious collaboration.” Isn’t that beautiful? It is a great and gracious collaboration. And I don’t care what you’re talking about. Name any item here from this podium to the carpet to the clothes you wear, glasses. Everything is a great and gracious collaboration. It is great because of the scale. It is gracious because people are giving their lives to use their creative abilities that have been given by God to serve one another in a free exchange.
So, the exercise, if you’re going to start on this one, wrestle with the question: do you see your work as a great and gracious collaboration? Even if you work alone, how does your work depend on and provide for other people? I don’t care what business you are in; you are in the people business — in the people you’re working with, the people you depend on, the people you provide for — it is a great and gracious collaboration.
Third, work creatively. How does working creatively increase satisfaction? Proverbs 13:4
“The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.”
What this is saying is slothful people have great desires, but their lack of diligence leaves them perpetually unsatisfied. Diligent people have great desires, but their actions, their work allows their soul — and notice it’s not just their cupbard or their bank account, which is also true — but their souls to be richly supplied. There is something soul-expanding about diligently applying the strength that God gives you, the creativity that God gives you, the brain that he gives you. You’re actually using it to work. And you’re not just benefiting the people you’re working to provide something for. You’re also doing something to your soul. Why is that? Well, God has made us in his image. He has called us to emulate him as micro-creators and thereby exercise dominion over the world. As you write computer code, as you design buildings, as you imagine new recipes, as you manufacture tools and discover medical cures, you are living out this God-given calling to create. Wayne Grudem writes this,
“We should not dismiss this innate human drive for material productivity and flourishing as greedy materialism or sin. It can be distorted by selfishness and sin, but the drive to create, produce, and enjoy useful products ultimately comes from a morally good, God-given instinct that he placed within the human race before there was any sin in the world, when he commanded Adam and Eve to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over all of it.”
When I look around at all you people, I am stunned at the creativity God has given us and the variety of ways, from accountant to editor to HVAC guy, eye doctors, teachers, and just on and on and on. We are so blessed as we gather, and God’s Spirit speaks to us and encourages us and then sends us out into the community to bless our neighbors for the life of the world.
Let me just share one example of this kind of creativity being given by God for the common good. In 2010, ten years ago, we held a homegoing service in this very room for Dr. George. And George, whose widow, Geegy, is here this morning, and their son Geevan. They have two other boys, as you can see there. He went to be with the Lord 10 years ago. And as I was just rejoicing in the blessing of being surrounded by so much creativity, I thought of the way God used George. His Ph.D. was in optics, an optic engineer. He worked for NASA. He would never talk about this, but he actually discovered the formula that is still being used today if there is a missile from another country that is shot at/launched at Greenville, South Carolina. He did the math and created the prototype that created holograms and outfit the satellites, so that missiles could be fired from our country that would intercept these missiles before they came into ours. Can you imagine the complexity of that? I have no idea what I’m talking about up here. But just imagining the rotation of the earth, the wind, the speed, a million other variables and coming up with the math so these two things intersect for the common good, so you’re not blown up. And when you met him, George, he was the most humble man. He would never talk about this. And yet God gave him a gift, and he cultivated that gift to its fullest and then used it to design, to create, to bless his neighbors.
Now, I know all of us don’t do things at that level. But can we imagine, every time we make a meal for our little one, we are using these God-given abilities to bless others. Every time we go to work to solve a problem or design a solution or to answer a phone and minister to someone in a very mundane way, to mow the lawn, we are joining God. We are using the creativity he gave us, no matter how sophisticated or how simple. Deuteronomy 16:15 says,
“Because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be all together joyful.”
The context of that is in the context of Israel’s feasts. They would gather and have feast to celebrate the way God enabled their creativity and energy to be used to bring about produce, to bless their neighbors. And God is enjoying their joy in that endeavor. So, if you choose to begin with this one, your exercise would be to describe a time when you have experienced creative satisfaction. And don’t try to make this too sophisticated. It might be something very simple. You found a way to do your job more efficiently. You found a way to make someone else’s life a little more happy. That creative ability to see a problem and solve a problem comes from somewhere. It comes from God. And so, don’t fly over that. I think many of us miss out on satisfaction at work because we’ve gotten so used to doing what we do that we just blow it away as nothing. It’s not nothing. Marinate in that and watch your soul be enriched. So, work is satisfying when we work creatively.
Last one, and this brings them all together and really flows through all the other ones. And that is, work worshipfully. Work worshipfully. Psalm 127:1,
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Sweet is the sleep of a laborer. There’s something deeply humbling and satisfying in acknowledging our complete dependence on our Father. We can do nothing without him. It was interesting that Paul, when he was questioned it seems by people in Corinth who had recently come to Christ. And they were wondering, “Should we keep working secular jobs? It feels unspiritual. Should all of us be missionaries in another place or whatever full-time Christian work is?” And Paul writes them in 1 Corinthians 7:24,
“So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
And basically Paul is saying, and this is in a context of vocation, “Keep doing what God called you to do, but do it with God. Do it in the presence and power and grace of God.” And as Piper points out, this calling is not to the gathered church so much. It’s to the scattered. Wherever, whatever your hand finds to do, whatever God gave you gifts and abilities to do, do them with God. Piper goes on,
“All your faculties of sight and hearing and touch, all your motor skills with hands and legs, all your mental acts of observing and organizing and assessing, all your skills that make you good at this particular job, all these things are God’s gifts. To know this can fill you with a sense of continual thankfulness offered up to God in prayer. ‘I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.’ (Psalm 86:12) Sometimes the wonder of who God is will rise up in us while we work, and we will whisper his praise: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great (Psalm 104:1)”
If you start here, your exercise is: What gifts from God are you using today as you work? Are you using your hands, your feet, analysis, creative energy? Take time to stop assuming that the abilities he gave you are from you. 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” So, to pause and say, “Thank you, Lord. You gave me the ability to do what you’ve called me to do for the common good.”
Where are you going to start this week? Can you think through those four? I know they can be overwhelming. Working freely, collectively, creatively, worshipfully. I know they’re intertwined. But pick one of those and say, “Lord, help me this week to start here as I go to work.”
Father, we thank you. You care about what we do every day no matter how mundane it feels to us, no matter how long we’ve been doing it. We do it by grace. Your grace saves us through faith. It is a gift of God. And then your grace empowers us. We are created in Christ Jesus for good works. We pray that you would open our eyes more and more to know what it means to taste the sweet satisfaction of a laborer. We thank you in Jesus’ name, amen.