I raked 13 trash bags’ worth of pine needles yesterday.
My wife asked me if it was satisfying work, because you can see the areas in the yard where there used to be pine needles, and where it’s now cleared.
But that question of satisfaction is an old one. Even children are aware enough to realize the potential futility. Perhaps you used an excuse like this when you were a kid in a similar situation: “but more leaves are just going to fall tomorrow!” Raking leaves has pretty temporary impact; so what’s the difference?
While in college, I worked a job in our student union building. I was part of the Productions Department, and it was our task to handle all of the meeting room and conference setup for the various groups, clubs, and outside clients that would use our facilities. I would spend 8-hour shifts setting up chairs, tables, and A/V equipment, only to go right back into those same rooms immediately after the meetings were over and tear it all down. We used to joke that our role wasn’t very high on the job satisfaction scale as we were constantly undoing the work we had just done. There was never any “forward” progress, and, despite being called the Productions Department, we didn’t produce any profitable goods.
So what’s the difference? Why work jobs like these? Why serve like this? There’s no lasting legacy, little if any profit; why invest the time and energy when there’s always going to be more falling leaves and more meetings to setup?
I recently read a book by John Piper entitled Don’t Waste Your Life. One of the quotations that stood out to me was that we were originally created, not to be free from work, but to be free in work. The original design was not that we would have to work in order to feed and clothe ourselves; rather, with God providing everything that we need, we could be free to be creative in our work, to engage in the duties God has given us to do with a sole focus on His glory and our joy, and not merely with an eye on the bottom line. Our toil wasn’t intended to be fruitless, but rather an opportunity for worship and service, for taking care of the earth that was entrusted to us, and for bonding with our fellow co-workers.
But now, we can hardly help but think about the amount of income, feeling driven to put in more hours so that we can get a slightly bigger paycheck, so that we can work our way out of debt, or so that we’ll be recognized as a hard worker and get promoted so that we can get a raise and better perks (and perhaps more prestige). We rarely feel free in work to just do the things we have to do because we ought to do them, because we delight in doing them. We attempt to measure the impact, and then decide if the work is worth it.
We have relegated ourselves to life as production machines, measuring our worth and efforts by the outcomes achieved.
In Deut 5:15, after instructing the people to take a day of rest, God reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, but that God rescued them from that place with His mighty hand, and so they are to rest.
The logic seems a little odd, but I think this is what He’s getting at: when they were slaves in Egypt, they were merely seen as human production robots; their role in life was to work, to produce bricks and build monuments for Pharaoh. Since they were little more than robots, their worth was regarded by how much they produced, and so the thought of rest–which would limit production–was unthinkable. But God tells them that they are no longer mere machines; they are His people, rescued from slavery, and so they do not need to be defined by their work any longer.
So why did I rake the pine needles? In order to define myself as productive? No, but simply hoping that my father-in-law would feel served and loved. Did I achieve that? Perhaps. But ultimately, the impact is out of my control and the question of what I achieved is the wrong one. Was I diligent in the opportunity God set before me, excellent in carrying it out well, and loving in my intention to serve? I’ll leave it to God to both judge my efforts and to produce any beneficial impact.
So, what’s the difference? I’ll continue to do what I can do, what I think I should do…even if the pine needles will just keep falling.