In a previous article in this series, we saw from Scripture that we were designed by God to work. This design came prior to the fall, which means that the human capacity to work is an essential aspect of the creation. God created human beings to work, exercise dominion, subdue the earth, and make it useful for themselves and others. But we also noted in that same article that the fall introduced a problem that now pervades every facet of our work. In our post-curse era, thorns and thistles attend even the best employments, and frustration, difficulty, and occasional futility are the portion of even the most faithful workers.
Not Ultimate Satisfaction, but Some Satisfaction
Despite the trouble that the fall introduced into our daily work, the call to exercise dominion, subdue the earth, and make ourselves useful to others still stands. Even though sin has entered our physical environment and hindered our fruitfulness, work remains a God-given good that Christians are to receive, use, and enjoy. Yes, it is God’s will for his children to find some satisfaction in their work.
I say “some” satisfaction because it was never God’s intent that we would find all of our satisfaction in work. We are finite creatures who can only find our ultimate satisfaction in our infinite Creator. Ultimate fulfillment is found in God and God alone (Ps 16:11; 43:4; 73:25-26; Rom 11:36).
King Solomon learned this lesson the hard way. After attempting to anchor his ultimate joy in the creation, he concluded, after a painful series of sorrowful, disciplinary events, that God, not his creation, was the source of everlasting fulfillment (see Eccl 12:13). Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s seasoned reflections on his search for meaning and what he discovered.
Interestingly, although he finally saw that work could not deliver ultimate fulfillment, Solomon did not conclude that work was a joyless enterprise. Just the opposite: once someone has realized that only God can satisfy the longing soul, they can use the creation in a way that God intends and thus derive some satisfaction from it. Listen to these optimistic words on work from the old king: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment” (Eccl 2:24-25). Work and the enjoyment one can receive from it is a gift from God.
A View of Work Rooted in Creation
Such a positive view of work coincides with the Genesis creation account, as we’ve already noted. But Solomon doesn’t end his reflections on the goodness of work with just a couple of verses. He continues: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man (Eccl 3:12-13). Indeed, Solomon returns to this theme multiple times throughout Ecclesiastes (Eccl 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15), until his reflections on work reach an apex with this exhortation: “Whatever you hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Eccl 9:10).
This exhortation in Ecclesiastes to engage our work with serious diligence will resonate with the person who has experienced the pleasure of a job well done. Half-hearted effort and wasted days never satisfy. Richard Steele (1672-1729) asks us to consider our own experiences with work to prove this latter point.
I dare appeal to every one’s experience, whether they find not more inward peace and satisfaction when the day has been diligently employed in their proper callings, than when it has been trifled away in sloth and folly.Richard Steele, The Religious Tradesman, 79.
But putting our hand to the plow and carefully keeping at our task until completion always brings some measure of satisfaction. It is right—even Godlike—to step back from a project over which we’ve assiduously labored and say, “That is good” (see Gen 1:2, 18, 21, 25). It is fitting to commit our work to the Lord (Prov 16:3) and ask him to bless the work of our hands (Ps 90:17).
Solomon’s exhortation to do whatever our hand finds to do with our might also echoes what he has written elsewhere about work. Beyond the pleasure derived from the work itself, there are other rewards that the diligent person enjoys. Throughout the Proverbs, Solomon speaks often about blessings that befall the one who works hard and, negatively, the pain that a person experiences when they yield to laziness.
A slack hand causes poverty,Prov 10:4
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
The hand of the diligent will rule,Prov 12:24
while the slothful will be put to forced labor.
The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,Prov 13:4
while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,Prov 21:5
but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.
The diligent person is rewarded with financial renumeration, leadership, and a healthy soul. The slothful person experiences financial trouble, no growing responsibilities, and spiritual impoverishment. The person who develops their skills through painstaking practice will gain recognition from those in positions of influence: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (Prov 22:29). The sluggard, however, is a burden to his employer (Prov 10:26) and, because of his laziness, placed in the same category as a thief and a vandal (Prov 18:9). Ironically, seeking ease as the primary aim of life, the sluggard is bereft of true pleasure.
The Blessings of Diligence
The diligent person, by doing what is difficult first, enjoys the frictionless ease that comes at the fruit hard work: “The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a level highway” (Prov 15:19). Solomon’s observations in Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are true because they are grounded in creation. God has weaved human work into the fabric of our nature as his image-bearers, and our resistance to his design will only lead to earthly trouble. But when we receive God’s gift of work with grateful hearts and work heartily as unto him, we will find appropriate pleasure and fulfillment in our work. Not endless pleasure or ultimate fulfillment: such blessings are found in God alone. But the God in whom our hearts find final satisfaction is also the God who reminds us to commit our work to him (Prov 16:3) and enjoy it while we can (Eccl 9:10).