- March 06, 2018
- Meg Rodriguez
As a part of God’s design for man, He made us workers. Whether we call ourselves top business executives, engineers, farmers, post office clerks, or parents, we all fill our days—in one way or another—with work. While some of us may find that we are invigorated by our jobs, and that we find joy in the work we are doing, it is not too uncommon to feel drained, passionless, overwhelmed, or bored in light of the work that we do day to day.
This contrast has spurred a necessary reflection on the fundamental nature of our work and its meaning. Recently, my church has been going through a series on Ecclesiastes, a book that explores some of man’s most basic pursuits—wisdom, pleasure, and toil. To be honest, the book first comes across as rather depressing.
“Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4).
Vanity of vanities! This refrain of the book’s author strikes at the heart of his findings about the nature of man and his toil, about his chasing after earthly wisdom and pleasure—all is meaningless. According to the preacher, it is man’s nature to seek meaning and value in these things, but he has come up empty.
In a discussion over the first few chapters of Ecclesiastes, someone from my small group (which is a group full of Millennials) raised a curious question. What does our generation value in its work? We had already agreed that the generation before us largely defined work as a means of financial security, a way to “bring home the bacon” and provide for the children and family. So, how has our value for work changed in this present day and age?
Someone else in the group promptly responded, “Our generation just wants to do something valuable with work, to do work that means something and leaves an impact.”
I was stunned because of how true this felt not only for my generation but also for my own life. Over this past year, I have been at a crossroads in my own pursuit of meaningful work. After I recently walked away from a career in medicine, I have found myself weighing several new paths that offer much more relational, ministry-related opportunities, such as counseling or education. I must admit that the same question has been at the forefront of my mind as I have considered these different careers—what path would lead to the most valuable, impactful work?
While studying Ecclesiastes, I have come to the conclusion that these questions lead us to look for the value of our work in all of the wrong places, just like the preacher did.
“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).
As long as we approach our work with this earthly mindset—the mindset that our value depends on what job we have, that we need to work more hours for our work to have an impact, that we need to find a career that “matters”—we will continue to be disappointed. It is not wrong to desire to do work that matters, but when we stake our own value and identity on this, we will ultimately feel unsatisfied. Just like the preacher, we will return from our search with the realization that all is meaningless, just a striving after the wind.
So, then, what does give our work its value?
During my recent time of transition, I have been working at a learning center, where I help students of all ages with a variety of school subjects and test preparation. I have truly enjoyed the job, but I have struggled at times with feeling like my small role in these students’ education is not quite impactful enough.
A couple of months back, I began working with a girl who I saw several times per week, and together, we took huge steps toward improving her performance on standardized tests. After the first few weeks of our time together, I began to realize that her mother always left me with the same words after they said goodbye: “We appreciate you!”
Never, not once, did she leave without reminding me of that appreciation. At first, I didn’t take much notice of these three small words that masqueraded as a kind gesture. However, as weeks continued to pass and these words kept meeting my ears, I finally began to believe it. My work was appreciated. My work—which had often felt so small to me—was leaving an impact, even if it was only for this one family.
I have realized that our work has inherent value when we touch the lives of others, even when we take what seems to be a small step toward others’ stories—by managing their finances, designing their home, delivering their mail, serving their food, or helping them improve test scores. When we work in order to make others’ lives better and to glorify the God who has designed us for this work and called us to honor Him and serve one another, we find the fundamental meaning of our work, for this is a reflection of eternity.
“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart…I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13).
God has put eternity into our hearts. It is no wonder that, as humans, we are forever in search of meaning, in everything that we do, for the Lord has designed us to seek and to know this deep meaning. He has made our work beautiful, as it is a means to glorify Him and to serve our brothers and sisters. In this, we can find joy. Yet we must always remember that our true value will never be found in this earthly work. On this earth, we are living only in the reflection of the meaning that awaits us in glory.