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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Accept the Toil

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published his now famous contemplation on life and meaning. In Walden, Thoreau makes some thoughtful observations on the hectic pursuit for significance in a world of constant motion. In his most quoted phrase, he wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau is quite right in diagnosing the disease, but he does not have a grasp of the cure.

The modern man defines his ‌value by his achievements. Consequently, each obstacle or ordeal is endured in the hopes of a meaningful outcome. “I will be satisfied when … [insert goal here].” It is accepted that the struggle of daily life is mundane and often pointless except insomuch as it moves a man toward his goal, whatever that might be. We work for the weekend or vacation or retirement. We invest in our education for little diplomas that validated our intellect. We even do good works in hopes of being recognized as a great fellow.

However, after each milestone, we are not rewarded with actual satisfaction. The applause fades or the vacation ends, and we say, “What’s next?” Some men doubledown and move on to the next goal, refusing to acknowledge that this strategy of achievement seeking never actually ends. Other men reach a more dismal conclusion.

“‌I will never be satisfied.‌​” The musical Hamilton has a great song with that lyric. It depicts Alexander Hamilton as a self-made man who accomplishes more than and orphan immigrant could ever imagine. And yet the haunting refrain through his historic life is dissatisfaction. He is driven, but he never seems to arrive.

This quiet desperation might be a heavy burden for modern man, but it is not a new one. The Teacher once asked, “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (Ecclesiastes 3:9) If the question had an easy answer, it would not have persisted through the centuries.

The Teacher (qohelet in the Hebrew text) has observed humanity and has “seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (3:10). While it would be easy to label all our efforts as mere busy work, Qoheleth offers an alternative understanding. Everything is beautiful in its own time, but we are not given a divine perspective that allows us to see “what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). We have to accept in trust that every season of life has its own beauty, and no season of life is the whole story.

This notion of acceptance is one of the subtle themes of the entirety of Ecclessiastes. Instead of fretting about achievements, the Teacher instructs us to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (3:12–13). Read that again carefully. It would be tempting to conclude that eatting and drinking is the goal here; that pleasure is the only goal of man’s life. But hedonism is not on the menu here.

“Take pleasure in all his toil - this is God’s gift to man.” This is the wisdom that bridges the gap between constant achievement hunting and bottomless dispair. We can take pleasure in the labor itself and consider it a gift. The end result is not gift. It is the toil. The journey is its own reward.

The acceptance of labor as our lot is an acceptance of our role as created being rather than creating God. God is the maker of ends, and we are stewards of what he has made and is making. “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:14–15). As long as we live under the impression that our accomplishments shape reality or that our achievements will leave a lasting legacy, we are deceived. They might, but that isn’t the point. God will do as he will, and he always has. If our satisfaction is dependent on getting our way or making our way, we cannot help but be disappointed. But what if we instead learn to accept our small role in the larger work of God?

The theme resurfaces in chapter 5 of Ecclesiastes with special application to wealth. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” (Ecclesiastes 5:10–11) The Bible repeats this theme in many ways, but the verdict is always the same. Wealth perishes and with it the hope that wealth can make us happy.

It is vanity, hevel in the Hebrew text. The word means something like steam, smoke, or wind”‌. Smoke has the appearance of reality. It can fill a room, sting our eyes, or choke our lungs. But when we try to grab it, we come away with nothing. Such are the accomplishments of men. Nothing we have gathered up in life endure (5:15-16). They leave us wanting more and always afraid of losing what we have. “Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger” (5:17).

Instead, satisfaction comes from the labor itself, not from the pursuit of gain. “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep” (5:12). ‌Work is its own reward.‌ Work is a gift, regardless of the outcome.

The conclusion of chapter 3 is repeated again in chapter 5 almost verbatim. “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:18–19).

‌Find enjoyment in all the toil. Accept our lot and rejoice in our toil - this is the gift of God. In so doing, we escape the quiet desperation and instead can be surprised by joy. “For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (5:20). Instead of a life of regret, distraction, or despair, the man who accepts his role as laborer in God’s vineyard finds a new companion. Joy.

‌Can you imagine a life so joyful that you can’t remember to worry?

‌I think Jesus intended a similar message in John. “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’” (John 6:29). Tell us, Jesus, what amazing work must we do to win God’s approval? What accomplishment will finally give us the satisfaction that life has been worth it?

“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28).

Faith is our life’s labor. Trust is our task. Acceptance of our lot is our happiness. Surrender to God’s will is our victory.

The rest belongs to God.

Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.

1 Comment

Renee Short Painter
Renee Short Painter
Nov 14, 2023

What an awesome post!!!! Thank you so much!!!

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