What do you toil for?

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Ecclesiastes 3:9-15, “9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.14 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. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”

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In 2014 I woke up one day burnt out, suicidal, and hating my life so much I was looking for creative ways to quit it. After months of wrestling with depression and a lot of prayer, I decided to quit my job instead. Unbeknownst to me at the time, with that single action, I would also quit an entire lifestyle and way of seeing myself and others.

The passage opens by posing a question: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” The word “toil” connotes hard labor, struggle, exertion. Essentially, the writer of Ecclesiastes is asking, “What is the point of working so hard?” I don’t think Scripture is taking a stand against hard work, per se. (Proverbs 12:1124Proverbs 13:4Proverbs 14:23.) Instead, the passage is questioning why we work ourselves to the bone.

The question rings personally in a culture like North America, where we’re obsessed with productivity, and being “results-driven” is a valuable skill. We toil to get somewhere, to achieve results we can be proud of, to make a difference, and to get ahead. We toil not just for a paycheck, but to quench a hunger for pursuit, meaning, and self-discovery.