Finding Purpose in our work (Higher Purpose #3)

Finding Purpose in our work (Higher Purpose #3)

After graduation I took a gap year in a role in Christian ministry, before spending 6 years working in Financial services. It was a really developmental time for me and it was fun to apply lots of the skills I had been developing during my gap year, into the workplace! I remember only too well the novelty factor of starting a new job and simply enjoying the challenge of getting to grips with it. Over the course of those six years I moved swiftly through the ranks and into management. I enjoyed balancing the technical rigours of the role alongside the people management aspects. I liked having lots of variety in my job and it has been fun to see how that has been a feature of the ministry roles I have played also.

I would like to say that my experience of the workplace has always been hugely satisfying, but that would not be true. In reality I faced lots of challenges on a day by day basis. On occasion work was a real struggle and it felt more like painful toil than joyful creativity! Along the way there were plenty of relational tensions and misunderstandings – people often find it hard to get on with one another. Sometimes there are competing agendas or simply that personal ambition gets in the way – not everyone can get that one promotion! Being involved in dismissing a team member and then having to escort her from the building was a real low point for me. Trying to motivate people who really didn’t want to be there was another.

During my 14 years in Christian ministry, I would like to say that I have seen something entirely different. However, while there have been highlights, there have also been plenty of lowlights. These past few months have been particularly frustrating in this respect although I am hoping that there is now some light at the end of the tunnel. I am sure that whatever the focus of your work (employment, self-employment, ministry, working in the home, caring for others etc), your experience will have been similar. This is because whatever the nature of our work, the truth is we work in a fallen world. Things are not as they were meant to be!

Photo by Rahul Kashyap on Unsplash

What makes our work such a struggle? (Genesis 3:17-19)

According to Genesis 1-2 work was not a struggle – indeed there is not even a hint of it in these chapters. That doesn’t mean that it was not hard work, but there was a strong sense of satisfaction and purpose in the work they were doing. All of that however was turned on its head when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the one tree that God had said they should not eat from. In that moment they turned their back on God in order to go their own way. They ignored the one boundary that God had placed on them and so God banished them from the garden.

In Session 1 we talked about how we were made to reflect God’s image, but as of Genesis 3 it has become a distorted image. There was a huge impact on the four ‘R’s. Firstly their Relationships with one another became strained and they now felt vulnerable and naked before God. Secondly, now their first inclination was to shift blame to others rather than taking Responsibility. Thirdly their understanding and thinking (i.e. Rationality) became darkened. Finally, they began to experience negative emotions and there was a temptation to hide (i.e. Reality). In choosing to go their own way, they gave rise to a natural inclination to sin and rebel against God. Soon afterwards the first murder was on the cards as a jealous Cain killed his brother and tried to pretend to God that He had had nothing to do with it. By Genesis 6 we read that God regretted even making humans altogether (v5-6).

So how does this relate to our work? We find the answer in Genesis 3:17-19 which talks specifically how God cursed Adam. In the previous verses God had cursed both the snake (3:14-15), and the woman (3:16):

17 To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat from it,” ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’

Genesis 3:17-19

Its a pretty tough section of the Bible, but God is clear that He was going to curse the ground and from then on work would be painful toil. Moreover, there would be thorns and thistles for them to contend with and it would involve the sweat of their brow. In addition the impact on the 4 ‘R’s makes work very difficult indeed – we struggle to relate with others, we struggle to take responsibility, we are darkened in our thinking and we contend with negative emotions and vulnerability. No wonder work is hard!

Photo by Felipe Simo on Unsplash

Why does our work feel meaningless? (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26)

The book of Ecclesiastes does not tend to be common reading. It can come across as somewhat despairing of hope and is far from straight forward to understand. In it however, the Teacher (probably Solomon) demonstrates for us the foolishness of a life lived without reference to God. The existence of God is not questioned, it is assumed. The question however is whether He matters.

The book begins with the Teacher contending that: “Everything is meaningless” (1:2). He then works through various aspects of life and each time concludes that they are meaningless. He examines Wisdom (1:12-18), Pleasures (2:1-11) and Wisdom & Folly (2:12-16), before coming to the subject of Toil. On the latter he says that he had come to hate all of life “because the work that was done under the sun was grievous to him” (2:17). He had found work to be meaningless because he had realised that all that he had worked for had to be left to the next generation. It bothered him that they would have control over all the fruit of his toil, and that he had no idea whether they would be wise or foolish. His question was one of purpose: why should he bother with all this toil for which he laboured under the sun?

17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour under the sun. 21 For a person may labour with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labour under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 2:17-23

If that were all that was said, it would be a fairly depressing read, but in the next few verses the Teacher says that we can find meaning from the hand of God which he says enables us to find satisfaction and enjoyment in our toil:

24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

This side of Heaven work has its frustrations and it will continue to do so. We would have to acknowledge that work is at times going to feel toilsome and difficult. This is the truth communicated in the second element of the Tick and the Cross diagram: namely the Fall. We might well agree that sometimes work feels meaningless too. However the Teacher’s contention in Ecclesiastes is that it is only in relation to God that we will begin to understand its meaning. Without God we will never find ultimate purpose in our work. That we might remember is what we saw in Session 1: that God has given work intrinsic value because He made us for it. God gave Adam & Eve a clear purpose in what He asked them to do. Though God’s image in us has become marred, it is still true that God has made us to work even when sometimes it is frustrating. In the next two sessions I want to wrestle a little with how we might redeem our work.

See other posts in this series

  1. Created for work
  2. Working from a place of rest
  3. Finding Purpose in our work
  4. Working for the glory of God
  5. Wrong ways of working
  6. New Creation Work

Cover Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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