From Meaningless To Weighty (pt 1)

I really dug our last blog by Chris. And hopefully, “sweet Millennial,” you did too. So I thought I’d chime in with a couple thoughts this week and next about the futility and dignity of work.

Today, I’ll be blunt…

When you feel like your work is futile, it’s because it is.

We’re remodeling our new house near 40th & Carrollton. It’s 95 years old, and we hope to have it all fixed up to celebrate its 100th birthday. At the moment, we can’t live in it (unless you enjoy bathing and washing dishes in the basement utility tub… perhaps at the same time). But rotted wood has been replaced, holes in floors and walls have disappeared, and hopefully it’ll start looking like a finished house soon.

But as we’ve been working long days on the house, I’ve found myself thinking several times: Someone has done all this before. Amidst the neglect and debris is evidence of fine craftsmanship. We took out the red and yellow bathroom floor – two full inches of tile and mortar! – only to find a beautiful pearl-white tile floor underneath it (on top of 3 to 5 more inches of mortar!). It was too cracked and damaged to keep, but you could see that it was original, beautiful, and installed by an expert craftsman. And the old, battered wall cabinets in the kitchen were handmade and so strong two people could hang on them at the same time. They took forever to take down.

Someone has done all this before. And they were really good at it.

So why am I doing it again?

It reminds me of Ecclesiastes: "Meaningless, meaningless! What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (from 1:2-9).

Pretty depressing, huh? It gets worse:

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. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 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… My heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then they must leave it to another who has not toiled for it. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.

He’s got a point. Someone did quality work on our house. Others let it deteriorate because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep it in good condition. And now here I go again…

It’s predictable in a sin-laden world. In fact, it was predicted. Right after the great rebellion and fall into sin, God let Adam know some of the consequences: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground… for dust you are and to dust you will return." 

(God just tells it like it is, and I don’t think he’d ever get a job at Hallmark. Life is pain. You’re just dust. Open card. Happy Birthday!)

An aging house is one thing. But from a super pessimistic perspective, your work – in and of itself – is also ultimately futile and meaningless. You fix cars? Great. They’ll eventually stop running, rust, and hopefully be recycled. You’re a physician who treats people. They’ll die to. (And be recycled – dust to dust – despite our best efforts to prevent it. Ok, maybe I crossed a line there.) But think about it: Jesus healed people – even raised Lazarus from the dead! They all eventually died too.

Maybe you work just to make money. Maybe you’re lost in selflessly helping others have a healthier, more enjoyable life. Maybe you want to make a great name for yourself. Perhaps people will even make a movie about your life and the microcomputers you built in your garage. But whatever you do, it’ll ultimately be buried deep under the sands of time and be forgotten. Meaningless. Futile.

Maybe you already knew all that… at least on a philosophical level.

So... why do you look for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment from your work? And why are you surprised, disappointed, or even depressed when you don't find it?

When you feel like your work is futile, it’s because it is.

Save your email – I know this isn’t the whole story. That’s why I’ll have more to say next week. But don’t skip the point. Wrestle with it. And quit putting your hope for a fulfilling, meaningful life on the shoulders of working in a fallen world.