24 March 2024

Image - Work: A chasing after the wind?

Work: A chasing after the wind?

Anna Brotherson

There’s a story about a young fisherman sitting on a beach on a sunny day, looking out over the rolling waves, listening to the sound of the gulls, and letting the warm sand slip through his fingers. 

A businessman comes up to him and says, “Why are you being so lazy? Go out and catch more fish!”
The fisherman replies, “I already have enough for today.”
“Well, if you catch more, you can sell them for a profit at the market.”
“Why would I do that?”
“So you can use the profit to buy more boats and hire a worker.”
“So you can get even more fish.”
“So you can sell them for even more money.”
“So that, over time, you can save up a lot of money.”
“But why?”
“Well, after many years, you will have plenty of money, and you can retire.”
“What would I want to do that for?”
“So that you can lie around on the beach all day!”

Does the voice of the businessman in this story come a little close to the bone for you?  If so, you aren’t alone.  Some of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of working people in the Western world at this moment are anxiety, burnout and depression.  A recent ELMO survey of employees found that forty-six per cent of Australian employees have admitted that they are feeling burnt out, while thirty-two percent said they felt overwhelmed by the amount of work they need to carry out.

"Some of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of working people in the Western world at this moment are anxiety, burnout and depression."

From statistics like this, I wonder if we’ve been listening to that whisper of the businessman in our ear: “Don’t be content with this. There’s more you can do, more you can get. You’re too lazy. If you want to be truly happy, you need to work more. You need to earn more. You need to put in a bigger effort now, and then the reward will come. If you just work harder, if you just spend more time pursuing these things, then, one day, you’ll be satisfied. You’ll finally be able to lie down and rest on the beach in perfect contentment.”

Such an alluring whisper!  But is there an alternative?

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher presents us with a different view of the world. At the opening of the book, he cries, Mist, mist—just mist! Everything is mist! The world we live in, he writes, is full of transient objects, cycles and rhythms that go nowhere, and ultimately death.

And the Teacher notes that as humans, we really don’t like this. One characteristic human response to a life characterised by mist is to fight the mist. We furiously engage in overwork in an attempt to produce something tangible, something lasting—some kind of legacy; something made of stone. We strive for something permanent, so that, some day, we will be able to sit back, relax, and finally enjoy the fruits of our hard labours.

But the Teacher shows us that God has actually made the world “misty” on purpose. The first three chapters of Ecclesiastes contains soaring poetry which describes the never-ending circular paths of the natural world (chapter one) and the ever-changing pendulum-swing of the times (chapter three). Both of these speak of a complete lack of meaningful progress. And sandwiched between these poems are descriptions of the Teacher’s own attempts to produce something lasting from this world of mist: some defining pleasure, some progress in wisdom, some meaningful workplace achievement. 

In the end, the Teacher concludes that all his efforts are nothing but a chasing after wind. For people looking to achieve a goal, or to feel a sense of achievement, we can find the Teacher’s reflections highly disappointing—even depressing.  It is so natural for us to respond to this world of mist by holding on to the hope of something lasting through a flurry of anxious striving. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher circles back and forth between many facets of this pursuit. In this article, I’d like to look at the area of work. This is a sphere of life where that businessman in our ear is so convincing, and so easily leads us to constant striving. Let’s explore the Teacher’s reflections on why our strenuous work doesn’t, in the end, deliver what we hope.

"For people looking to achieve a goal, or to feel a sense of achievement, we can find the Teacher’s reflections highly disappointing—even depressing."

Work is good, but…

For a high percentage of adults, work is our life from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, 48 weeks a year. Work can take over even more than that if we’re farmers, or nurses, or CEOs, or mothers... 

and for good reason. We all need money to pay for a roof over our heads and for our groceries; and then we all need to work to maintain that house and cook that food to provide for ourselves and our families. Even if we keep life as simple as possible, we need to work.

The Teacher knows this, and he writes:

Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. (Ecclesiastes 4:5)

Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks. (Ecclesiastes 10:18)

So, living well in this world of mist means working to get what we need for a well-functioning life.

But because work is good and necessary, it can make that businessman’s whisper all the more believable. Work can so easily become not just a matter of securing necessities, but an all-consuming occupation that defines us, makes ever-increasing demands on us, and dominates our thoughts. The things we can get from work—whether the paycheck or the status or the sense of pride in achievement—these can make work addictive to us. And we can so easily feel that enough is not really enough after all.

The Teacher talks about this kind of work as striving, or toil.  Toil comes when we are always striving for bigger and better and more. Think of the employee who isn’t content until they’ve reached a particular level on the organisational chart, or salary bracket. Think of the mother who can’t celebrate how much her children have learned because she is so aware of how much further they have to go.  When we toil, the days’ work never feels like it’s done.

We strive in work because we want more, and better, and lasting outcomes. But this compulsion isn’t only coming from within ourselves. Toil is one of the new religions of our day. That businessman is not just whispering in our ear—he’s in full control of the media, the social media, and the entertainment industry.

You might have heard the term “hustle culture”. Hustle culture is way of life, where it’s seen as cool and admirable to bounce out of bed at 5am and run a half-marathon before grabbing a takeaway triple-shot coffee for breakfast and putting in a 10-hour workday, eating lunch at your desk, followed by a microwave dinner, then some googling of productivity hacks, and doing a final check of emails and phone messages, before finally calling it a day and crashing into bed to read a chapter of a book on how best to invest your hard-earned cash in the stock market.

It’s exhausting just to read it all in one sentence, let alone live it! But according to psychologist Bryan Robinson, 45% of the paid workforce brag about being members of hustle culture. Robinson has pointed out that just like cigarettes and hard liquor were considered glamourous back in the 30s, now it’s hustle and toil that is considered glamourous. He actually calls it “toil glamour”.

"Robinson has pointed out that just like cigarettes and hard liquor were considered glamourous back in the 30s, now it’s hustle and toil that is considered glamourous. He actually calls it 'toil glamour'."

Hustle culture might seem like a new phenomenon, but actually, this is nothing new. The Teacher himself experimented with hustle culture thousands of years ago. Here’s how he found it:

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-7)

Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it? Such a diversity of work, and if you can put aside the ethics of slavery for now, the overall impression is that this is one lucky, wealthy, worker. He even says, a few verses later, that he really enjoyed the work (Ecclesiastes 2:10).

But just after this, he writes,

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. (2:17)

Why? Why was his work—his enjoyable, diverse, successful work—so grievous?

Why doesn’t hustle, or toil, satisfy?

Here are some reasons that the Teacher gives us.

1. Toil reduces pleasure

The first reason that toil doesn’t satisfy is that all the hard work and hustle actually reduces a person’s pleasure and wellbeing. Work becomes unenjoyable because during these long hours we are so terribly busy; and then after hours, the demands of the work are so heavy that the continue to play on our minds.

Here’s how the Teacher summarises it:

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. (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23)

Toil doesn’t satisfy us, because toil itself reduces pleasure.

2. Toil gives us no-one to enjoy the fruit with

The second reason that toil doesn’t satisfy is that it deprives us of the very relationships that would allow us to enjoy the fruits of the toil!  The Teacher writes:

There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is [mist] – a miserable business!  (Ecclesiastes 4:8)

The time and effort that toil demands from us naturally hinder us from spending time nurturing thoughful relationships with others. And if we don’t have robust and healthy relationships to come home to at the end of the day, all the money and success and sense of accomplishment in the world will never satisfy. We just aren’t designed to thrive like that.

3. Ultimately, the fruit of toil is mist

And finally, toil doesn’t satisfy because all the fruit, all the outcomes that the Teacher worked so hard for—they’re mist. They degrade over time, or they get passed to others through circumstance or injustice, or you die. Either way, the enjoyment doesn’t last. The Teacher realises that all of his hustle has produced nothing but mist, and that’s when he finally sinks into despair.  He writes,

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was [mist], a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

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? … This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-20)

Where are the Teacher’s fabulous houses and vineyards now, in 2024?  Where are the parks and orchards and reservoirs, the flocks and herds? All of it is gone. With this broader perspective, the Teacher could see that all his hard work ultimately resulted in nothing.

Toil doesn’t satisfy because the fruit of our toil is mist. 

So, to summarise: work is a good, necessary and productive part of our lives. But toil is grievous, because anxious striving reduces our pleasure in life; high workloads isolate us from the people we would want to enjoy its fruits with; and all of our toil can only deliver fruits which, in the end, are mist.

The Teacher sums it up perhaps just as the fisherman in our story might have done:

Better [to have] one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:6)

So, how should we approach work?

Instead of expecting rock solid outcomes and accomplishments, we anticipate that we the fruits we are working for are mist. Instead of ruining our happiness and our relationships by overly fervent striving, we can work appropriately, and moderately. We work for good; but when we begin to crave something permanent and lasting, we let that craving drive us not to more or harder work, but to God.

And then something beautiful happens. Because in God alone, our work becomes fruitful. In God alone, our work is not mist.

"And then something beautiful happens. Because in God alone, our work becomes fruitful. In God alone, our work is not mist."

In Christ, our work becomes fruitful.

The Teacher tells us that everything God does will last. He writes,

I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)

In God, through the person of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we have the opportunity to participate in his eternal work.

Jesus gave a mission to all his disciples: the mission of making more disciples of Jesus. And he gave us his own Spirit as the power source. As we join Jesus in his mission, we are joining in the work of God himself: the permanent, eternal work, which delivers stone, not mist, as fruit. We are active in this work, but God himself empowers it by his Spirit and delivers the fruit.

Paul describes his human involvement in God’s work of making disciples like this:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.  For we are co-workers in God’s service. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

When we participate in the work God is doing through Christ, we humble creatures of the mist are caught up in a work—at last!—which will not fail to bring lasting fruit. Hallelujah!

And so we see that the answer to all of our craving for fruitful work is satisfied in God, and in his Christ.

If we take this teaching on board, what will Christian life look like?

Well, we’ll still do work, and we’ll do a good job. We’ll enjoy our work as much as we can, and we’ll enjoy the food and drink and shelter that we get from it. But we won’t expect it will always be successful, and we won’t give in to that inner tug towards toil, or to hustle, to satisfy our cravings.

Instead, we’ll want to leave plenty of room in our lives to join in the work of Christ, the making of disciples. This itself won’t become a new anxious pursuit, as if the fruit was all dependent on us; rather, it will be an exciting opportunity for our human actions to touch eternity, by the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

As Christians, we can stop striving. We can stop wearing ourselves out with anxious work. More than any other people on earth, we can eat our food with gladness and drink our wine with joy (Ecclesiastes 9:7). Because in this world of mist, we are looking to God, and looking to his Christ; and there we find our craving for fruitful work and a joyful eternity is fully and finally satisfied.

Anna Brotherson
Lecturer in New Testament Greek

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Intrigued by Anna's thoughts on Ecclesiastes? You can also listen to her speak on Ecclesiastes with her SMBC 2019 Women's Conference talk

Listen to Anna's talk

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