Why We Do What We Do–Ecclesiastes 4:4

Bad things will happen if I don’t get some grading done today. I’m teaching two sections of Comp I online this summer, and I will confess that I am behind on my grading. What happens if I get too far behind? My students will start to complain. They’ll start by bothering me: “Where’s my grade?” “I don’t have a grade for X!” Then, should I not respond, they might begin to complain to my dean. He would contact me, and I would have to explain my behavior. I suppose if I totally fell apart, I could conceivably lose my job. That’s why I will get that grading done today.

Or maybe that’s not why I will do the grading. Instead, I will do it because it is the right thing to do. I take a healthy amount of pride in being a productive and ethical writing teacher. I believe that my remarks on a student’s paper, if thoughtfully considered, will help that student become a more capable communicator and thus a more successful person. That’s why I will do that grading today.

Either of those motivations makes sense, but I can, with great confidence, say that there’s not one bit of jealousy driving me to put comments on papers today. Frankly, I don’t care what David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan are doing or how they look to others. That’s why I’m confused by our text today.

I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4

What if “all” isn’t all?

Perhaps my problem with these verses is in that pesky word “all,” which pops up twice in the first sentence. Once I accept that Solomon is using hyperbole–exaggeration for effect–then the verse makes a lot of sense. Certainly my grading efforts today won’t be done out of envy, and they won’t provoke envy. On the other hand, a great deal of what we do is motivated by appearances and the desire to have what others have, including status and reputation.

As much as I hate to admit it, I enjoy my positive reputation among students. When I hear that student X recommended me to student Y, it warms my heart a bit. And I really don’t want my dean to think that David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan is better than me.

Perhaps not “all” of my labor and striving is born out of jealousy of someone else. Perhaps not “all” of it will be apt to create jealousy, but some of it can and does. When Nathan spends much of the summer in Southeast Asia, I wonder why my bank account won’t support that sort of travel.

Getting in Tune

At least before the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were a muddled bunch. In Matthew 20:20-28, the mother of James and John asks that her boys sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in the kingdom. These guys, it seems, were serving Jesus to “work on their résumés,” to establish their credentials and raise themselves up above their peers.

What we do, whether it be in the church or in our jobs, should be done, as much as we can manage it, without any comparison to another. It should be done without any desire for self promotion. That’s hard to achieve in a world that values followers and likes and shares, but the defeat of envy will help us stop pursuing the wind.

Stop Being So Awesome!

From time to time, I get to sit on hiring committees, looking for new professors to swell the ranks of English teachers at my school. You start with perhaps a hundred applications, winnowing out the less qualified, and then you interview a handful, offering the job to whoever rises to the top of the pile. The goal, of course, is to hire the best person we have available to us. And over the years, I’ve helped to hire some pretty great colleagues.

group of women sitting in front of table
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Why is it then, since I set out to find an excellent co-worker, that I find myself sometimes annoyed at the success that these people enjoy. I look at people I’ve voted to employ and find myself thinking them just a bit too awesome.

That’s what I think of when I read about Saul in the aftermath of the whole Goliath encounter. It’s in 2 Samuel 18:5 and beyond. Let’s pick up the story, already in progress:

David marched out with the army and was successful in everything Saul sent him to do. Saul put him in command of the fighting men, which pleased all the people and Saul’s servants as well.

Notice some key facts here. Where did David find success? He found it in “everything Saul sent him to do.” It’s not like David is going into a shameless self-promotion tour. He’s doing what the king told him to do. And how does that king respond. We’ll find out in a moment. After one successful military expedition, David and Saul make their way back home in triumph. Here’s what we find in 2 Samuel 18:6-7:

As the troops were coming back, when David was returning from killing the Philistine, the women came out from all the cities of Israel to meet King Saul, singing and dancing with tambourines, with shouts of joy, and with three-stringed instruments. As they danced, the women sang:
      Saul has killed his thousands,
but David his tens of thousands.

Saul doesn’t like this one bit. He doesn’t hear the praise directed at him but instead is obsessed with the greater praise directed at David. Never mind that the women came out to meet King Saul rather than David. Never mind that no matter what David does tomorrow, Saul will remain the king. Saul simply cannot stand the accolades that flow at the guy who is only doing what he was hired to do.

Jealousy is an ugly thing, and that’s what Saul felt toward David and what I, in a weaker moment, feel toward those excellent colleagues whom I, after all, selected to be excellent. There’s nothing new about this emotion. Envy probably lay at the root of Cain’s murder of Abel. It is singled out in the 10th commandment. Proverbs 14:30 warns us that “envy rots the bones.”

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:4 that love “does not envy.” When I envy that successful colleague, it’s pretty hard to simultaneously love him or her. And like Saul, I need to recognize that the success of a colleague means, to some degree, a success for me as well. After all, I did help to hire this person.