There is one that is alone, and he hath not a second; yea, he hath neither son nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labor, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches.
“For whom then,” saith he, “do I labor, and deprive my soul of good?”
This also is vanity, yea, it is a sore travail (Ecclesiastes 4:8).
Imagine, for a moment, that you are meeting someone for the first time. What questions are you most likely to ask that person in order to get to know more about them? You will most likely ask what their name is, perhaps something about family or place of origin; you will also most certainly ask what kind of work they do.
Work represents a very important and significant dimension of our lives. A “standard” 40-hour work week consumes almost a quarter of a person’s time; many people work many more than forty hours for their job. For most of us work does not end when we leave the workplace: we may have work to do for our jobs at home or are often thinking about work projects, or we have work to do for ourselves, our families, our friends, or to volunteer for other people, causes, or organization. In many ways our work also gives our lives meaning: we are doing productive things with our time. We may feel valued for the expenditure of time, skill, and effort in our work. Likewise, if we are not able to work, our self-esteem may plummet and we may wonder why we are even here; depression runs rampant among the unemployed and those with medical conditions that render them unable to work.
Work maintains this important place in the lives of humans because we were made to work (Genesis 2:15). The Apostle Paul decreed that those who will not work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10; not at all meaning those who were unable to work or those who were willing but unable to find work, but those who could work but did not). Working, making a living, and having some extra to give to those in need is everywhere commended in Scripture (Ephesians 4:28, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9). Work is a good thing.
While man was made to work, even in the Garden of Eden before sin entered the world, work was also cursed with futility when man sinned (Genesis 2:15, 3:17-19). Therefore we often work hard, obtain resources, use the resources, and must work hard again; we can accumulate some wealth but cannot take it with us (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2-12:8). Work for work’s sake cannot be the ultimate good.
Especially in our modern world it has become very tempting to make work for work’s sake the ultimate good, making a god out of work and effort. This is not necessarily covetousness or greed; while many people will work hard in order to get money and make obtaining money the goal of their lives (Ephesians 5:3,5), a lot of people work and work, make far less than they probably deserve, and yet remain devoted to their work. We now call such people “workaholics,” those who seem “addicted” to work and effort.
“Workaholism” happens for many different reasons. Some people never stop working because they feel as if they are in competition with others and can only be the best if they work the most; some will even brag about how many hours they work in a given week. Others do not have strong personal boundaries established and cannot turn down requests for work or assistance. Some have a nagging feeling of insecurity and doubt, feeling as if they have never done enough even though their output seems astonishing. Some overwork themselves as a way of escaping the people and/or problems in their lives. Still others crave the attention and commendation that come from others from doing a job well done; many more think they will be able to give themselves that commendation if they just get a bit more finished. Work can even become an idol in religion: how many have attempted to do good work after good work in an attempt to atone for sin or to gain the pleasure of the divine?
All idolatrous forms of work derive from fears, guilt, perceived insufficiencies, and pain. It is easy to feel as if one’s acceptance by others and their worth is tied up in what they do; sadly, many people have experiences which seem to prove this feeling right.
Yes, man was made to work, but there is more to being human than working. The same God who made man to work also expected His people to rest (Genesis 2:1-4); not for nothing does Jesus offer people rest if they come to Him (Matthew 11:28-29). Jesus encourages us to find an understanding of our value in Him: God loved us so much that Jesus was willing to die for our sins so we could be saved, and we did nothing to deserve it, and can never do anything which merits it (John 3:16, Titus 3:3-8). If work serves as our drug of choice to help us feel better about ourselves or our condition, it will become as our god; instead, we do better to believe in Jesus, find our worth in Him, and be willing to work for Him on account of what He has done for us to God’s glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry