Identity – Work

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?

  • Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person 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 2:17-26

For he remembered his holy promise
    given to his servant Abraham.
He brought out his people with rejoicing,
    his chosen ones with shouts of joy;
he gave them the lands of the nations,
    and they fell heir to what others had toiled for—
that they might keep his precepts
    and observe his laws.
Praise the Lord.

  • Psalm 105:42-45

“Some would insist that our chief purpose in life is to work.  No other place in the world, since the days of Adam to this present time, has given more honor to work than on the North American continent. Not that we like to work, we just like to talk about what an honorable thing it is.
“Have you ever stopped to consider what work is?
“Let me put work in its simplest form. Work is moving things and rearranging them. We have something over here and we work to put it over there. Something is in the pail and we put it on the side of the house, which we call painting. Something is in the cupboard, we work to put that into a skillet and then on the table to put it into your husband, and that is called cooking.
“Smile at this simplification, but you will find this definition of work a very good and sound one. Work is taking something that is somewhere, putting it somewhere else and rearranging it. To the observer of humanity, the obvious thing about work is the fact that it has a short-range focus; it never has long-range purpose.
“The farmer has some corn in his barn, puts it in the field and covers it up. After nature has worked on it for three or four months, he takes it from there and puts it back where he got it, only there is more of it. The next year the corn is gone; the cattle ate the corn. Therefore, work always has a short-range purpose.
“But what is the result of all this? Why do all this? Why put that green, red or white paint in that pail and put it on your house? You say, in order that the house might not be affected by the weather, that it might stay nice and look nice.
“That is very good, but there never was a house built yet but it will rot and get rundown and finally be replaced with something newer. Nobody can convince me that I am merely made to work like a farm horse without having any future or any reason except that work. A man can work all his life, be identified by that work and then retire. Shortly after retirement, he dies because he has lost his purpose in life. The end result of work is utter futility.”

  • A. W. Tozer, The Purpose of Man

I think I am going to start a Friday series on A. W. Tozer’s book, The Purpose of Man. But I may limit myself to chapter 2, “Searching for Man’s Lost Identity.”  Tozer uses the catechism definition of man’s purpose, that being to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but Tozer must first identify the roadblocks that are in the way.  If we do not identify with the catechism definition, then simply stating it (which would be a very short book) would be a waste of time.

I had someone ask me once to observe others at a party.  My friend knew that I was a wallflower (introvert), and I would feel perfectly comfortable standing in the corner of the room with a ginger ale in my hand (therefore no one would know that I was not drinking alcohol).  I could stand there for hours and never say a word and hardly ever be noticed.  My friend wanted confirmation to his theory that when men who do not know each other get together, their conversation starter is ALWAYS, “What do you do for a living?”  Okay, in my research, I was only successful in changing his theory to “almost always.”  If they knew each other, the conversation might start with sports, for example.

We identify so much with “work” that we have difficulty in starting a conversation with anything else, if those in the crowd are not close friends.  But is it a conversation starter with an agenda?  Is it a safe topic?

Many men start the conversation with work to impress the other person, but with a stranger, this could backfire.  If you are both blue collar or both white collar workers, you might have common ground for further discussion, but let’s say you are both white collar workers, but one is a starting level engineer, and the other is the VP of accounting.  You smile, nod knowingly, and both make a quick exit from the conversation.  You basically both have office jobs, but with nothing in common.  Even in blue collar jobs there can be a pecking order.  I have worked in some production facilities where the electricians considered themselves above the mechanical people because their job did not usually get greasy, and their tools were smaller, more refined.  But then within the electricians, the instrument technicians felt themselves above the guys that simply dealt with electrical transmission.  Thus, an agenda for starting the conversation might be, “Do I wish to waste any of my time with this person?”  Sad, when that person might not be a waste of time when dealing with other topics of discussion.

To a Christian, this is dangerous ground. If our purpose is to glorify God, and Rev. Tozer mirrors the words of Solomon in that toil under the sun is meaningless, then what are we doing starting a conversation in such a manner?  Sure, it takes money to buy the meat so that we can eat or buy the sweets for a treat, but if our conversation starter is a question about work, what are we telling the world about what our purpose is?  It might not be glorifying God if working and making money is the conversation starter.

A few years ago, I went to a wedding, a nephew.  I had lost contact with those in-laws, and I liked them.  They seemed to have their priorities straight, but I had forgotten why my sister-in-law’s husband had changed jobs late in his career.  I was curious how he was fitting in with the new company, being a seasoned engineer with a bunch of new people.  He got snippy and stated that his work for a living was writing a speech for the wedding rehearsal dinner, the requirement of the groom’s father.  I thought his speech was more sermon than wedding rehearsal speech, so he had done a wonderful job.  But I never got my sincere question answered.  The subject of “what do you do for a living” was off limits.

And then Rev. Tozer brings up the ugly elephant in the room, retirement.  Some people survive for a while by channeling their work concept into a hobby.  My wife calls my “calling” to write blog posts a hobby since I do not get money and it actually costs money and I put twice as many hours into it as I did working, but a calling is different, in loyalty to God and for God’s glory.

Some people simply find a less stressful job to supplement their retirement income and consume that awkward free time that they suddenly have.

And then, there are those that die.  Have you ever noticed the tremendous amount of retirees that die within the first year of retirement?  Why do people die soon after retirement?  Some do not retire until they are well along the way of a terminal illness.  Their entire purpose in life was working, and it was only an illness that put a stop to it.  But then there are those who got the idea that retirement was the logical next step – or they were forced into it – and then they got there to find how meaningless their life had been.  Again, their only purpose in life was to work.  Without work, life became meaningless.  I have actually heard wives tell their husbands that they were worthless now that they were not drawing in an income.

I love Rev. Tozer’s explanation of how all work “works.”  His explanation of taking something, possibly modifying it, and putting it somewhere else is comical, but it fits most work.  And the fact that the work has a short-range purpose is an excellent point, but in glorifying God, that has both a short-range and long-range purpose.

We glorify God on a short-range basis because that is our divine, spiritual purpose, but in glorifying God, we get a feeling of closeness with God, short-range.  And in keeping our eyes on the prize of being with God forever, there is the long-range purpose for our purpose on earth.

Why do we exist?  God created man so that man would willingly glorify Him, the Creator, choosing to do so.  God loves us and He wants us to recognize that love and love Him in return.

Sometimes work becomes a distraction and we forget our purpose for being here in the first place.

If I remember, next week will be “Identity through Education.”

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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