How to Work Hard and Be Happy

“This is good for a man: Eat well, drink a good glass of wine, accept his position in life, and enjoy his work whatever his job may be, for however long the Lord may let him live.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT)

Throughout my life, I’ve heard a lot of “theme verses” for individual people, families, and churches. But in all of my years of ministry, I’ve never encountered someone who made Ecclesiastes 5:18 the anchor verse for his life. And yet, for King Solomon, the simple wisdom to “work hard and enjoy life” seemed pretty central.

Lay Down Your Messiah Complex

Solomon’s seemingly common sense wisdom is astoundingly rare today. For about 17 percent of the people reading this, the advice to “enjoy life” will be ignored. Why? Because 17 percent of us live with a messiah complex, and we can’t let ourselves relax, take breaks or—God forbid—vacations, or slacken the pace at all. We think, If I don’t get this done, it’s not going to get done. How can I rest when there is so much important work to be done?

(For those of you hung up on that 17 percent number, I would just remind you that precisely 84.2 percent of statistics are made up on the spot.)

Living with a messiah complex is particularly dangerous for those of us in ministry because other people stoke that fire so readily. I remember a time in my Christian life when I felt like every cause had to be mine. I would hear someone speak about the nations, and I felt like I had to go. I heard about adoption, and I was convinced my family needed to take in orphans. I listened to someone challenge me to live more sacrificially with my money, and I was convinced that it was sinful for me to have any money at all. Not only did this paralyze me and prevent me from freely pursuing any of these God-given opportunities, but it also made me feel constantly guilty. I never felt like I was doing enough.

I was struggling through this season when a mentor of mine recognized that I had picked up the messiah mantle and put it on. He gave me one of the wisest corrections I’ve ever received: “J.D., not everything that comes from heaven has your name on it.”

The flip side of that statement is that something from heaven does have my name on it. And God expects me to put my heart, mind, and strength into it. That’s what the other 83 percent needs to hear. Sure, it’s not up to us to save the world. But God’s got a job for you. It may be fostering or planting a church or creating a business marked by integrity. If you don’t know yet, ask the Spirit to guide you to it, and when you find it, put your hands to the plow!

If You Aren’t Happy Now, You Won’t Be Happy Then

When you realize that God has a specific role for you in his kingdom, it frees you up to actually enjoy life along the way. No longer are you desperately trying to define yourself by what you’re accomplishing. No longer are you working to earn your rest. Instead, you begin from a posture of rest before God—and out of that rest you are given the strength to work with all your heart.

Happiness, you see, is only something that can be experienced in the present. The irony is that most of us live as if it is something we hope to obtain in the future or something we mourn because we left it behind in the past. Blaise Pascal, the 18th century philosopher, captures this well in his Pensees. He wrote,

We seem never to be able to be happy with the present. Either we yearn for the future and wish it would hurry up and get here, or we mourn the past and wish it had had not flown by so quickly. … Are not all of your thoughts occupied with the past or the future? We scarcely ever think about the present, for it is mostly painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us. And if it happens to be pleasing to us, we only focus on the pain of it slipping away.

Most of the time, we only think of the present to plan for our future. The present is never our end. The present is our means; the future alone is our end. So, we never live, we only hope to live someday. Because we are always preparing to be happy, we never are so.

If Pascal is a bit too heady for you, take the same wisdom from Andy Bernard of The Office: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good ole days before you’ve actually left them.”

Where Andy Bernard and Blaise Pascal meet, there you find wisdom.

Most of us live under the illusion that we can be happy if we experience a certain change of circumstance. But what Solomon tells us is that happiness is a gift that God gives to us in the present.

Most of us don’t actually believe that. We think that a little more money or a better relationship or a career advancement or some great success will turn the tide. But how many times do you have to watch other people get those things and be miserable before you realize it’s a lie? If you aren’t happy now, trust me, you won’t be happy then.

I fear that for many people, you will grow old and realize that you gave away the greatest moments of your lives to an elusive future that didn’t deliver what it offered. I’m not talking about sacrifice for the mission (which we can—and should—joyfully embrace). I’m talking about yearning and endlessly working for that ethereal something to fulfill you somewhere out there in the future.

The Apostle Paul told Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6 NIV). The greatest wealth and happiness God can give, regardless of our background or socio-economic status, is within reach to all of us. So reach out and grasp it today. Happiness only exists in the present, and God is eager to give it.