Most schools across the country are about to begin the fourth quarter, the final grading period of the year. Around this time, I find two temptations often beset students; they either begin caring maniacally about grades and work feverishly, or else they care little about grades, or school, or anything, and coast through classes into the summer. In either case, very little learning is done.
Teachers are similarly tempted. The end is nigh, inspiration is low. All the reserves of knowledge gained over the previous summer have been spent. Plans for summer are beguilingly nearby, and so the temptation to spend a spare half hour on a game as opposed to curriculum often proves too great. It’s a good time of the year to review how hard we ought to work. Don’t worry. You won’t feel too guilty by the time I finish. I wager you’ll feel good, even though it is quite long.I write to students, but teachers ought to eavesdrop.
I would like to begin with what I hope are two provocative questions.
How hard should we work? And Why should we work hard?
I’m sure that one of the passages of Scripture which comes to mind when musing on these questions is St. Paul’s teaching to bondservants in his epistle to the Colossians. Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance, for you serve the Lord Christ.
So, how hard should we work? Very hard. Heartily, as though Jesus Christ Himself was our boss, because He is. Why should we work hard? Because God ultimately receives our labor, and not our bosses or customers.
St. Paul’s teaching here is a fine place to begin putting together an answer to the question of why we should work hard, but the Scriptures speak extensively of man’s labor and this one passage needs to be married with teachings in other books. What should we hope for in working “heartily”? How “heartily” should we work?
As high school students, you are caught between the world of children and the world of adults. Children have very little say over their own lives. Children go where their parents tell them to go, eat what their parents tell them to eat, think and pray how their parents instruct them, and only watch movies their parents approve of.
As adults, you will have a far greater say over your own lives. You will, to an extent, go where you want to go, eat what you want to eat, think what you want to think. By now, you have doubtless caught some sense of what it will be like to be an adult. In the last several years, the freedoms given to you by your parents have probably increased, as have your responsibilities, and you can see into the future and anticipate what it will be like to have an adult’s control over your own life.
When you move out of the house, you’ll decided everything… what you’ll buy, whether you’ll wear a seatbelt, when you’ll go to bed— if at all. You might come to live far away from your parents, and you will have to decide what kind of friends will help shape your soul. You might have the freedom to decide what you will study in college, what kind of career you will have, what country you will live in, where you will go to church, and eventually, what kind of movies you will let your own children see. This freedom, even just thinking about this kind of freedom, can be exhilarating. You’re at an age when it’s easy to get caught up in thinking about the future, especially a future so near, so different, so tantalizing.
This temptation to get caught up in thinking about the future will not go away when you have tests and quizzes to study for, papers to write, and pages to read. In fact, the temptation to dwell on the future will only increase.
This preoccupation with the future might simply be the desire to be done with literature tests and algebra quizzes. Or you might dwell on the future because you think the freedoms of adulthood are the payment for the difficult work you are doing now. You’re studying hard now so you can get good grades, because good grades mean scholarships, scholarships mean better colleges, better colleges mean better jobs, better jobs mean better paychecks and better paychecks mean better everything.
Of course, money isn’t everything and some of you aren’t working hard now simply for scholarships to good colleges. You have your eyes set on better things, immaterial things, like a good marriage and a righteous standing in your community.
So what we have then are three possible motivations for working hard now. The first is simply to be done with the hard work in the end, the second is for material success, the third is for the good gifts God sometimes gives His people on this earth.
I would like to suggest that the first two motivations will likely make you miserable not only now, but in the future, and that the third motivation, which strives towards maturity, must be further informed by Scriptural teaching on work if you want to avoid impatience with God and disappointment if His plans for you involve the highly unexpected.
It is because of the highly unexpected, often unpredictable, plans of God that working hard now either involves great naiveté or great faith, hope and love. The book of Ecclesiastes opens with the question, “What profit does a man have in all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” In her commentary on Ecclesiastes, Duke Divinity’s Ellen Davis paraphrases the question in a highly confrontational manner: “Why do anything at all?”
Of course, the question is not merely rhetorical, and Solomon will answer the question not with “Well, you shouldn’t,” but in a meticulously examined series of claims about this life and prophesies about the life to come. If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably all admit that we’ve sometimes found ourselves asking the same question which Solomon poses at the beginning of Ecclesiastes. What profit is there in doing anything? The world is full of dangerous things— dangerous people, dangerous ideas, dangerous cities, dangerous weather. I suppose even the Earth itself is dangerous.
A man sews a field with seed, waters it and tends it, but there is no guarantee a late draught in the year will not reduce his field to a pile of wilted, fruitless plants. Another man spends years building a house brick by brick, but there is no guarantee a fire will not consume that house before he sleeps there even one night. A broken leg can quickly bring the plans of an athlete or dancer to an end. An unfair admissions board can end dreams of attending the perfect college. The financial difficulties of a hurricane can quickly drain a savings account which had long been intended for a trip to Paris. A young woman dreams of motherhood, but is diagnosed with terminal cancer at nineteen. Everyone knows the pain of dashed hopes, and not simply hopes dashed on foolish decisions and sudden bouts of laziness, but hopes innocently dashed over matters which could not be prevented or controlled. In that dashed hopes are not uncommon, Solomon poses the question, “Why do anything at all? What profit is there in the work which we do under the sun?” Is the man who spends years building the house or training his body or relentlessly studying the classics a fool for not understanding the nature of the world? Later in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is upfront about the fact that hard work does not always guarantee the desired result. In Ecclesiastes 9, we are told:
The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor wealth to men of understanding,
Nor favor to men of knowledge;
For time and chance will happen to them all.
This is not really the way the hard worker wants the world to function, though. The race should be to the swift, the battle should be to the strong, the 4.0 should be to the best note taker, the scholarship should be to the studious. That’s only fair, after all. If the race isn’t to the swift, what’s the point in training to become swift? If the battle is not to the strong, what’s the point in training hard? If studying hard and taking good notes doesn’t mean an A, why try? If favor does not come to men of knowledge, what’s the point in pursuing knowledge?
What’s odd is that right before Solomon declares that bread is not to the wise, nor favor to men of knowledge, he says something that will baffle every faithless man and woman. Solomon’s declarations here are prefaced with this command: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
How are we supposed to do this? How are we supposed to study with all our might if studying with all our might provides us with no guarantee on the future? Humans are finite. By nature we’re always working towards the future because the future is, in some sense, where God is taking us. If we’re working towards the future, how do we not get caught up in the future?
In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape suggests to Wormwood that God wants His people to live in the present, where he has placed them, or in eternity, where he has destined them, where their hope rests. Screwtape suggests to Wormwood that getting his patient to dwell on the future is the best way of helping his soul on to Hell. Screwtape writes,
Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead… [God] does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. [God’s] ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity [if that is his vocation], washes his mind of whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hagridden by the Future— haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth… We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never…happy now, but always using …every real gift which is offered them in the Present… as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the Future.
If Wormwood can convince his patient to labor now for what he believes will come to him, he will have taken his patient to the point where earthly things give meaning to earthly things. God’s gifts are supplying the meaning for God’s gifts, and the Gift-giver has been forgotten. The goal for which we run, as St. Paul suggests, has been smuggled out of view. If you come to believe that your work has earned you the right to an A, the right to scholarships, a fine college, a good job and fine standing in your community, then none of those things can be acknowledged as the undeserved gifts of God. They are simply payment. There is no need to preface your plans with “If the Lord wills” because your work has entitled you to speak on God’s behalf. Your work has made you God Himself.
When modern Christians think of idolatry, we unfortunately think of pagans bowing down to idols of stone or wood, and as we haven’t seen any carved statues of Baal or Dagon of Zeus recently, all of Scripture’s teaching on idolatry seems to have been rendered obsolete. I would like to offer you a slightly different way of thinking about idols. While an idol might be a carved statue of a god, it’s more significant to us that an idol is a god than a carved statue.
A god allows a man to understand the world from a cosmic standpoint, not merely a fleshly, earthly standpoint. Your god is whatever interprets your life. Your god is whatever or whoever stands behind the answer you give anytime you are asked “Why?” Your god is whatever gives your life meaning. Your god is what ultimately makes your suffering worthwhile.
Athena, Apollo and Zeus were the gods of the Athenians because they believed these gods held the lives of the Greeks in their hands. To appease these gods was to live longer, gain happiness, success, and order. Anything a Greek did might please or displease the gods, and so the gods provided meaning for everything the Greeks did.
In a far grander, more sublime way, the Triune God provides meaning for all the Christian thinks, says and does. We stand to please or displease our God in everything and anything we do, but even more, our being exists wholly within the God who “is in all places and fills all things.” Our God is everywhere present, at all times present, and so every experience of our lives flows out of His gracious desire that we know and love Him with greater fervor. God does not hide Himself from us in our work and in adversity only to reveal Himself when we receive the rewards for our work. He is revealed in the work and in the reward. What is more, the love of God is the essential task of every day of your life. The work of loving God, of working out your salvation with fear and trembling, is hardly a work for which you have to wait for payment. As the sum of man’s work, the love of God is both the task and the reward at once. If today’s labor is performed out of love for God, you don’t have to wait anxiously to see if it will pay off. It is paying off as you do it. If the field you’ve planted burns, if the house collapses or the scholarship falls through, the man who has labored for the love of God will never look back on his years of labor and sigh over a meaningless life. The love of God is the meaning of your life and everything you do.
However, if you are working hard now only because it will mean graduating and moving on, if you are working hard now because it might mean a good job, then the job and the freedom are your god. They supply your life with meaning, and if the future does not pan out in the way you think you’ve earned, much of your life will have been spent in a way you come to think of as meaningless.
So what does it mean to labor out of love for God? What does it look like to labor out of love for God? This sounds like something you hear all the time. This sounds like something you expect to hear from a Christian teacher at a Christian school at a classical Christ- centered convocation. It all sounds well and good, but in two weeks, when it is very late and you are up late studying for an exam on the following morning, how are you supposed to do so in love of God? Should you pray over and again, “Thank you for this work”? Do you have to meditate on the Crucifixion while simultaneously meditating on the irony in Machiavelli’s Prince? How do you avoid sinking into earthly-minded vanity and senseless wheel-spinning?
Solomon addresses these questions in the book of Ecclesiastes. Even if you’ve not read the book recently, you’re no doubt familiar with a number of turns of phrase from the book which are ambient in modern Christianity. “Vanity of vanity, says the Preacher. All is vanity. There is nothing new under the sun.” This notion of the vanity of life under the sun runs all throughout Ecclesiastes. The expression “under the sun” is a euphemism Solomon uses for life on earth, life in the world, the secular world, the world you see everywhere you look with your eyes.
Elsewhere, Solomon writes, “Then I looked on all the works my hands had done, and on the labor in which I had toiled, and indeed all is vanity… There was no profit under the sun.” And again, “…the work done under the sun was evil before me; for all is vanity.”And again, “…what does a man have for all his labor and his purpose of heart wherein he labors under the sun?” And again, “Then I returned and saw vanity under the sun.” And again, “Then I saw all the works of God, that a man cannot discover how He does His work under the sun.”
The expression is used twenty-nine times in the book of Ecclesiastes and by the end of the book, the picture Solomon has painted of life “under the sun” is bleak, even terrifying. However, the expression “under the sun” is also very revealing. It is not the case that all of existence is bleak. No, Solomon never suggests this. The work of angels and seraphim in Glory is not terrifying. Merely “life under the sun.” So how do we escape life under the sun? Well, the great difference between the vanity of life under the sun and the beautiful life which Jesus Christ calls us to is this: the Christian life must not be lived “under the sun.” The Christian life is lived above the sun.
In the Old Testament, sacrifices were offered to God by way of immolation, or burning. The smoke of the sacrifice on the altar was a sweet-smelling aroma offered to God, which ascended to God and was received by Him in heaven. Burning the sacrifice was not simply a way of getting rid of it such that the Israelites were showing God they didn’t need their animals anymore. If that was the case, burying a sacrificial animal would have sufficed, or casting the sacrificial animal into the ocean. The immolated sacrifice was returned to God. Given back to Him. Handed back to Him, as it were.
This, of course, looked forward to Christ, Who was finally sacrificed, and Who fulfilled the sacrificial system as our Perfect Paschal Lamb. The sacrifice of Christ is our life and, for the last two thousand years, we have been called to follow him to the Cross, to live a life of sacrifice, to ascend over the sun and be received into the arms of God, not merely at the end of our lives, but in all that we do. In Romans, St. Paul writes, “I beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” The concept of a “living sacrifice” certainly struck first century ears quite strangely. There had never been such a thing spoken of before. Sacrifices were, by their very nature, dead on behalf of the living. And yet, our life in the living Christ, our life in the living Paschal sacrifice, allows us to be “living sacrifices” as well.
The vaporous, fleeting life is the life without sacrifice, the life not offered as sacrifice. The vain life is under the sun- not a sweet-smelling aroma offered up to God, ascending into the heavens over the sun from the altar of self-denial and love. The vain life is not offered up to God, but to some earthly good or earthly pleasure in the future. The vain life never ascends higher than the Harvard classroom, the bank, the dance floor, the soccer field, the home or the classroom.
Further, God does not desire sacrifice because He likes to see His image or His good creation destroyed. We serve the God who wants to “make all things new,” and we know that the path to making all things new is the path to Golgotha, where we are all commanded to take our crosses every day. When our lives are lived sacrificially, they are not lost. They are not destroyed. Instead, our imperfect lives ascend above the sun where God majestically sanctifies them, remakes them and makes them whole.
The sacrificial life of a student is a life which approaches all tasks— all reading, all studying, all tests— not simply because something can be gained in all these things, but because something can be given—something can be given to your parents, to your teachers, to your classmates, but most importantly to your church and your God. All of your life is a gift, which means that all of your life is fodder for gifts which can be given to others. All of your life is a gift, which means you don’t have to deal with the stress and anxiety of holding on tightly to anything other than Jesus Christ.
What I’m suggesting here is not that you should give no thought for your future. Absolutely not. You should give great thought to your future, but not because it will help you lock down your future. You should give great thought to your future because thought for your future reveals what justice, wisdom, courage, self-control, faith, hope and love look like today, the day in which God has called you to love Him, serve Him and serve Him in others. Do you want to go to a good college and get a good job? Do you want a good marriage? Do you know what you want that marriage and that job to look like? This is good. Those desires help shape for you what obedience look like today. That obedience is what your “hand has found to do” today, as Solomon might say. Obey mightily. God alone holds your future, which frees you to zealously, tenaciously throw yourself into loving with your whole heart now. Christians do not hunger on Tuesday for meals served on Wednesday; Christians know that God is present everywhere, at all times, and that today, the present moment, is the gift God has given you to love Him. For everything there is a season and a time, so when God gives you time to study, study with all your might. When God gives you time to sleep, sleep as deeply and luxuriously as you can. When God gives you time to rise in the morning, dive into the deep end of the day. When God gives you time to mourn, cry your eyes out. When God gives you a time to laugh, exhaust yourself in laughter. When God gives you a time to share in the lives of others, don’t hold anything back for yourself. Pour yourself out, rise to Glory way over the sun.