Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Ever hate your job?
( Living Large: Looking for More in an Age of Less, Part 3)
Success is a critical part of the good life for us. Everybody knows that, right?
Granted in a 3rd world, more primitive setting people might not worry about this quite a much. When you’re living in a hut in some jungle or desert wasteland all you want to do is survive, but most of us educated people living in what we might call developed countries aim for more than that. We don’t want to merely have lived. We want to have really lived.
Our language reflects that: we want to “live it up”. We look at wealthy, successful people and marvel: “wow, they really know how to live”. “Man, that’s the life,” we may conclude as we watch them enjoy the fruits of their success. We sum all this up by expressing our desire to “get a life”.
The writer of Ecclesiastes looks at all this “getting a life” and once again pushes back against it. In Eccl. 2 he describes all he achieved: “I undertook great projects…I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me…yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
Once again the writer of Ecclesiastes questions the real value of something whose benefit we would generally take to be self-evident. Of course it’s good to be successful, right? We might say. Ecclesiastes challenges that—really?
This leads us, once again, to ask “why?”. Exactly why do we assume it would be so good to be successful in life? Is it because the things we accomplish really matter so much in the universe? Do we really think the world will be a much better place because we sold more widgets than anyone else in our region?
Imagine this: imagine you’re talking with someone from Haiti who’s about your age. Let’s say that that person slept in the street last night because their shack was of course destroyed in the earthquake a while back. Or maybe they’ve been putting out a heroic effort to carve out a life for themselves in one of the relocation camps. Now picture yourself trying to explain to that person just why it was so critical that you accomplish whatever ambitions you were pursuing this past week. Why it was so important that you landed that overtime pay, or nailed this meeting or get this promotion. Try and explain to someone who’s had to give up a child because he couldn’t scrounge up enough food to feed her just why your career is worth the sleep you lose over it.
Chances are the stress we have from our careers, or lack of them, isn’t really the point. The point is usually something bigger, deeper than making or selling more widgets than anyone else in the company.
The underlying point usually has little to do with widgets and more to do with significance. We want to be remarkable, and we’re afraid we’ll only turn out to be ordinary.
That longing for significance is actually a good thing. It comes from something very important that God hard-wired into each of us—the innate sense that we were created for a purpose. God designed us with an ache to accomplish things that haven’t been accomplished yet. That’s not the problem.
The difficulty, though, comes when we begin to think that our personal career plans will really touch this. The disappointing reality is that many of our career successes tend to have a pretty short shelf life. It feels great to finally land a job after you’ve been unemployed, but before you know it that job becomes…a job. It feels great to get the widget sales award for the month, but then the very next month they turn around and give it to someone else and you have to go back to climbing the ladder. It feels great to be recognized with a promotion or with some new perk, but before long that promotion becomes the new normal and you find you have to aim still higher in order to really feel like you’re somebody. You stake out your kingdom in the widget world, only to discover that someone else’s kingdom is being staked out right over top of your boundaries.
Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune (Eccl. 2:20-21).”
In contrast, the Sermon on the Mount talks about pursuing someone else’s dreams. “Seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33). A passage like this is based on the underlying story line of the Bible: a good creation was ruined by human rebellion (Gen 1-3) just as we were warned. God loved us, however, enough that he was willing to do whatever it took to reclaim not only us but also the entire creation he had designed for us. To do that he carved out his original people, Israel, and through them he crept into our world to position himself to suffer for us so that we could live with him. In doing this he would not only be able to provide forgiveness for our sins, but also bring a renewal to our entire creation.
The Bible refers to this cosmic clean-up as the Kingdom of Christ. And, more amazing still, he invites you and me to participate in this amazing venture with him. To have our sins forgiven and our lives healed. To spread the word of this unfolding wonder, to starts homes that mirror his grace, to create great art and make scientific discoveries and…yes, even to make widgets in a way that can make this world a better place. Each of us has the opportunity to step into a custom-created role into this marvelous plan.
When we begin to realize that God may have specifically called us to make our widgets or to teach our students or to serve our customers (or even write our blogs or preach our sermons) we find that this changes everything. Suddenly the shelf life factor becomes a non-issue. The work that you and I do, or the dreams that you and I may pursue take on an eternal significance. These things that we do each day prove to be far more than simply ways to pay bills or to keep busy. Somehow, in some way, the career dreams that he has planted in our hearts are part of his eternal career dream for his entire creation.
We’re not just selling this month’s widgets or working today’s shift at the plant or teaching this week’s lesson plans. Somehow, whether we can see it yet or not, the work that God has given us to do will be a part of that eternal Someday when heaven will come down to earth and Christ will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21).
Our work, then, becomes meaningful.
But why, then, does it still seem so hard to get out of bed in the morning? Why doesn’t this eternal-significance-thing give us a spring in our step causing us to head off to work with a spring in our step?
More often that not the problem lies with management—who’s in charge? Not necessarily, who has the corner office, but who’s interests are really at stake in your career or mine? Typically we’re actually serving ourselves while we pretend to work for someone else. We agree to show up for work because we anticipate something that will further our purposes: a paycheck, a chance for recognition or advancement. In short, we work for our bosses because we think they can help us serve ourselves. We naively think that our human bosses can provide us with perks that will last only a short time.
Silly, huh? Like they say, if you work for yourself this way it only means that you have an idiot for a boss.
On the other hand, God has a way of using our job dissatisfaction to lead us to work for someone else. To put our career aspirations under new management. Someone who’s strategic plan can assure us that we’ll be part of something eternal.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a strange book. It questions everything we consider to be self-evident and it proposes ideas that couldn’t seem more foreign to upwardly-mobile people like us.
The book of Ecclesiastes can be irritating. It has a way of poking in the places where we already hurt. The steady refrain of “Meaningless!” has a way of echoing around the hallways of our empty dreams and frustrating fantasies. It can drive you crazy.
Or it can drive you to Him. To reach out for the one who reaches back with nail-scarred hands, and who offers not only a way to escape death but also to find a life. To find wholeness and joy and significance. The chance to pour ourselves into something that will really mean something for a long, long time.
Works for me.