When you ask a Christian what their favorite book of the Bible is, most would pick one of the gospels, a narrative like Genesis, or one of the smaller epistles like Colossians. Few would choose anything in the Old Testament. I’m one of the rare people who actually enjoys reading through the wisdom literature, so much that I took a class called Wisdom and Poetic Literature for one of my Bible classes as a sophomore (and most of the people in my class were juniors or seniors). I readily took on the challenge.
Although I love the book of Job (if you couldn’t tell from my blog’s tagline), Ecclesiastes is actually my favorite book in the Bible. Some people may call me crazy since the book’s material is difficult to understand. However, I’ve read it several times and discovered the meaning of Solomon’s message, which is both profound and beautiful. God speaks to me so powerfully through Ecclesiastes that I read through it frequently. I read the first chapter again this morning and realized it relates directly to a lesson I learned this semester –– people can aim for success, but at some point success is futile. It’s a paradox that some can’t readily grasp, but I’ll try to explain it.
No, I don’t struggle with having too much luxury like Solomon. However, I do know what it’s like to work hard day after day and how that produces positive and negative results.
Everything is Futile (Ecclesiastes 1:1-12)
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
3 What does a man gain for all his efforts
that he labors at under the sun?
4 A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets;
panting, it returns to its place
where it rises.
6 Gusting to the south,
turning to the north,
turning, turning, goes the wind,
and the wind returns in its cycles.
7 All the streams flow to the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
The streams are flowing to the place,
and they flow there again.
8 All things are wearisome;
man is unable to speak.
The eye is not satisfied by seeing
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Can one say about anything,
“Look, this is new”?
It has already existed in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of those who came before;
and of those who will come after
there will also be no remembrance
by those who follow them.
Solomon says everything is “absolutely futile” (other translations use “vanity of vanities”). He’s overstating a bit, but he’s making his point clear when he says “there is nothing new in the sun.” In other words, everything is the same on earth. The Hebrew word he uses here is hebel, which means can mean a vapor or something fleeting. In other words, all our work and the praise we receive for it vanishes after a while. Each generation does the same thing –– works until sun up and sun down. Each generation has famous people, who become lost in history books within time (verse 11). We become jaded because we’re so used to routine.
I even think back to my “famous moments,” like when I received the John Philip Sousa Band Award my senior year of high school, when YMI Today published one of my freelance articles, and when I earned employee of the month for my job at one of the campus cafes. The rewards and compliments I received for my hard work felt great, but they were only temporary. Everyone forgot about these moments within a week and focused on other things in their life or praised other people for their accomplishments.
As Solomon asks, can we really say anything is new? (verse 10). There are always people who will win academic awards and scholarships, people who snag an awesome internship, and people who successfully climb leadership ladders.
Pursuit of success
It’s important to work towards these goals, but how important is the pursuit of success? In the end, unhealthy obsession with goal-setting and overachieving can produce devastating consequences, just as it did for me.
I consider myself straight-A/ A- student, yet I earned my first two B’s ever in college this semester. I’ll admit, I was disappointed a bit at first. I already learned how to separate my academic achievements from my true identity ( read about it here), yet I still was not happy. I hoped to preserve my 3.7/4.0 grade streak, and I earned not one, but two B’s this semester. I could’ve tolerated one B, but the second one really hit the bullseye and shattered my heart in pieces. Why? It’s because I didn’t achieve my goals.
Fear of failure
Missing the mark meant that I was a complete failure and that even one of the hardest working individuals couldn’t fulfill her promises. After reading through this passage, God showed me that I worked myself to death and that my work was in vain because I placed my grades before other important things. During March, I only got four hours of sleep for about two weeks because I wanted to complete every last assignment perfectly.
Naturally, this made my gastritis/ GERD worse and I almost took a medical withdrawal because I couldn’t handle the pressure along with increased health problems. In addition, I took on extra hours this semester for both my jobs and worked an average of 25 hours each week. The lowest amount of hours I recorded this entire semester was about 18. The most was 35 (which is 10 overtime hours). I even worked 13 hours one day during finals week. Some of my shifts were also back-to-back late night and early morning, which hurt my already sick body and caused me to sleep 13 hours straight one Saturday afternoon.
The effects of workaholism
Why in the world did I push my body to exhaustion? I really can’t say why at this point, and I do regret some of the choices I made. After careful analysis, I discovered that I feel pressured to always be productive and also fear post-graduate debt. As a result, I work hard to save money and keep myself busy at the same time, which is a deadly combination for anyone, especially someone with an autoimmune illness. I’m 29 days shy of 21 and I’m a workaholic.
That’s just the work side of the equation. When it comes to school, I feel compelled to always do my best because everything I create reflects on God, so it seems like anything that’s not perfect does not glorify him. This was also another unhealthy attitude I had this semester that I hope to change for the upcoming year. Solomon describes how water flows into the streams, yet they never actually become full (verse 7). That’s how my work was –– I constantly gave more and more of myself, yet it was never enough. I can complete each assignment perfectly, but there will always be more papers, more projects, and more exams. Perfect results will never satisfy a perfectionist because they always seek improvement.
Where does someone draw the line?
Yes, hard work is important, but only to a certain extent. God is just as pleased if we try hard, give ourselves some relax time, and earn a B than if we push ourselves to our breaking point, can barely function because we’re so exhausted, and earn an A plus. Something that once excites us can also lose its meaning (verse 8). We seek more of something that brings us pleasure once we get it, whether that’s food, money, or something else. I personally felt like I was never earning enough to pay my debt and that nothing brought me joy anymore. I didn’t enjoy my favorite coffee, books, or musical instruments. I became apathetic as a result of overworking.
My poor choices this semester showed me that my work was in vain, even though I sought to glorify God through it. It was in vain because I put my health on the back burner in the name of personal success. I didn’t make time for doctors appointments, even if it meant getting an excused absence for class, hardly ever rested, and never gave myself leisure time, even if it was only 15 minutes of reading after I finished an elaborate project. Furthermore, I often had emotional breakdowns because I felt so overwhelmed and feared I would never reach my goals (which I didn’t anyways, in the end). What did I gain from all my vain efforts? (verse 3). Pushing myself to breaking points was not worth it and has forced me to spend this summer in recovery.
I encourage you to read through this passage several times and ponder what God’s trying to tell you. Know where to draw boundaries and don’t let your work become vanity. Set goals, but don’t set the bar too high and make sure to leave room for failure. Learn to let go and move on if things don’t turn out as expected. Lastly, know that you are loved despite the work you produce. God loves you simply for being you, not for the things you do.