Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Things I haven't retracted.

On my blog post Things I've retracted, Junior Jensen saw fit to ask if I'd retracted my article "Quit Your Day Job", which can be found in Briefing #50, July 1990. At that point, Adam asked

For those of us who were 10 years old when you wrote "Quit your day job" (and, surprisingly, not Briefing subscribers at that time), care to share highlights?

Cheng leans back in his leather armchair, refills his pipe deliberately, lights it and begins to puff meditatively.

Ah young fellow-me-lad, that question takes me back many years. I was but a callow youth at the time, barely 29 years old. Junior Jensen was a spotty but strapping teenager who inhabited the touch football fields close to Moore Theological College in Newtown. Happy, happy days...

Anyway, I tossed off what I thought was a fairly damp squib, some reflections on Ecclesiastes and how the meaninglessness of life affected all things, and was not undone by the new covenant and would indeed not be undone until new creation. My damp squib turned out to be a double bunger that started a conflagration, not least because the piece I'd written was, unbeknownst to me, being regularly trotted out in Moore College Ethics lectures as an example of idiotic things to say regarding the nature of this creation and the next.

Highlights, you ask? Oddly enough, the people I work for haven't provided an online version of this particular piece. Possibly they fear another rash of cancellations of Briefing subscriptions. But years have passed since then, and we're all a bit older, a bit sadder, a bit wiser, a bit sleepier, a bit...oh well, let me stop rabbiting on and just give you the article!

The screen shimmers and begins to blur ... the year is 1989

There can be only one meaningful career choice for Christians—that of preaching the gospel of the risen Christ. So says Paul, and having also read Ecclesiastes, I tend to agree with him.

You’ll remember, perhaps, the desperate-sounding cry of Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”

The word translated ‘meaningless’ might also be rendered ‘transient’, ‘ephemeral’ or ‘vain’. Nothing lasts. Everything changes. When it has changed then it will change back again. Nothing is ever achieved. Nothing is ever undone. “I know that everything God does will endure forever: nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it” (Ecc 3:14)

How does this relate to career choice?—whether I become a bean counter or a paint salesman, an engineer or an aerobics instructor? Ultimately it says that all jobs are equal in the sight of God—meaningless! There is no difference between the doctor, the dentist and the dishwasher. No-one achieves more than any of the others: “I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecc 2:17)

You see, there are a number of problems with work. All of it is ‘pain and grief’—for most of us, work is difficult, frustrating and unrewarding (Ecc. 2:23). It is unfair: we receive pay and amass possessions, only to die and leave it all to one who doesn’t deserve it (Ecc 2:21).

But the fundamental problem is this: Nothing is ever achieved. Buildings are demolished. People healed of sickness die of old age. People are counselled, relationships restored—only to be permanently broken by death. Governments and business empires collapse. Rot creeps in where growth began. Technological ‘progress’ is used for destruction—and all returns, finally, to the dust from which it was taken.

“But”, we protest, “surely it is better to take what brief happiness we can from life, and to help others to do likewise?” Yes indeed—there may be some merit in lubricating the wheels of the cradle, so that we can achieve a smoother and more comfortable ride to the grave. Does not Ecclesiastes himself acknowledge this? “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That every man may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in his toil—this is the gift of God” (Ecc 3:12-13). Or a favourite verse of mine: “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.” (Ecc 9:9) Yes, hard as it is to grasp, it is possible to find enjoyment and satisfaction in the midst of—and even because of—our meaningless activity.

Perhaps this is why Christians (mistakenly) speak of being ‘called’ to work in a particular profession—advancing God’s Kingdom by being a surgeon, or a lawyer or a secretary. It is easy—too easy—to equate job satisfaction with meaning and purpose. But such enjoyment, while a gift from God, can never remove the basic futility of life in the fallen creation.

Indeed, as Paul points out, there is only one thing that brings an end to futility: the death and resurrection of Christ. He it is who puts an end to death (1 Cor 15:54). He it is who restores and renews the old creation under his leadership (1 Cor 15:24-27, Eph 1:10). And “if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). Through Christ's death and resurrection the creation (now groaning) will be “liberated from its bondage to decay, and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:28)

What then, of career choices? Anything, job included, belonging to this creation is doomed to futility by its temporary nature: the one shining exception is that which puts an end to meaninglessness—the gospel of Christ. For it is by this gospel that we are given new birth into a living hope—our old selves are put to death, and we are raised to life in Jesus. There is nothing temporary or hollow about our new life, for in it we are transformed into the very likeness of Christ!

Thus, when the gospel is taught and learned, there is an end to both death and, with it, meaninglessness. As Christians are built up in the knowledge and love of God, so they are being changed from glory to glory, that they may stand perfect on the final Day. It is this reality that gives gospel work its meaning and significance.

Gospel work is the only work with permanent effect. That is why it ought to be top priority for Christians. That is why the most demanding full-time secular job can really only be, in its significance, a small part of a Christian’s life. Yes, some jobs do tend to take time—but in a very real sense we will be like the typical Australian, who lives not for his job, but for the weekend. The only difference is that we live for the gospel—and that is what will take our time and energies.

That is why we understand Paul’s exhortation of 1 Cor 15:58 not as urging us to take our bricklaying seriously (or whatever job we do), but to get on with the work of evangelism and gospel teaching: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” What about you? Is your labour a ‘work of the Lord’? Or have you poured your energies into an investment that cannot last?

Again the screen shimmers. we are back at the present moment. Cheng is sucking absent-mindedly on a pipe that has long gone cold.

So there we are, Adam. I hope that answers your question. My goodness, we were even using the NIV Bible in those days.

Anyway. Obnoxious, overstated, hot-headed, poorly expressed; yes, yes, all of that. No doubt the article was each of those things and more. But it seems to me that the greatest howls of outrage came from the middle-classerati who had fallen deeply in love with their own careers, and so failed to really believe that Ecclesiastes could be serious and mean what he said.

Apparently the Briefing got more letters complaining about that one article than ever before or since; meanwhile I was happily ensconced in Melbourne, more or less oblivious to what all the fuss was about, or even that there was a fuss. The article took maybe an hour to write, I just posted it off and thought no more about it, believing the basic point I was making to be unexceptional but essentially in line with the Bible's teaching on the matter. And I still believe that 1 Corinthians 15:58 is all about the ministry we have to each other and to the world as Christians who speak the gospel (and that is all of us, may I say, not just the paid full-timers. I might, on reflection, have made more of the total and utter insignificance of that paid/lay distinction).

The most interesting response I can remember came from my mate Timmy Booker, who told me that the working class members of his church just read the article, shrugged their shoulders and couldn't see what the fuss was about. The work they were involved in was, by and large, drudgery. They knew that Ecclesiastes was right and that work is meaningless. They were just thankful to God that he had lifted them into eternity through the merits of his only son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.


Pete said...

I like the article Gordon, though I'm pretty sure I didn't get to read it way back then.

It was funny, after the first talk on Ecclesiastes at Engage last year, I was thinking the clear implication was just the same (though others weren't quite so sure).

That type of article, though it seems a bit controvertial, is something that the Briefing should produce more of. In a similar way to a church that doesn't believe anything eventually turning away people, a bland magazine needs to keep edgy to keep people reading.

Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Pete

That was an aspect of Engage '07 that I would have loved to have seen pushed harder, Pete. It got a good ol' stir-up at Men's Convention this year, thanks to Coekin, though it wasn't the main point.

CraigS said...

lol - that article annoyed me *so* much! I think Luther's doctrine of vocation is a helpful counter-balance.

Having said that, there is now no doubt in my mind that our comfortable, middle-class churches are deeply infected by worldliness. The suggestion that we should throw it all away should not upset Christians who have (allegedly) already died to themselves and the world...

adam said...



Thanks for posting the article!

michael jensen said...

Please don't encourage him, everyone!

Murray said...

"My goodness, we were even using the NIV Bible in those days."


O tempora! O mores!

Phil Nicholson said...

That brings back memories. I liked it then and like it better now. That's why I quit *my* day job! (not the article but the reasoning behind it)

Seems to me Gordon was just doing what I remember being taught by a well known Sydang preacher - don't be balanced and bland but preach for a response - he certainly got one.

Timothy Wonil Lee said...

If someone asks me, after reading your article, whether every job is meaningless except the preaching and proclaiming of the gospel, would I be required to raise my eyebrows and make a hand gesture and say, no, no, no, that's not what it meant?
If I do so, I think I'd be doing that in fear of letting him/her down and damaging his self-esteem, or because I fear that I'd be rejected by him.
If I do not do that, I think I'd be doing that because that is what I really believe.

Hmm... I think I agree with what you said Gordon. How you present that idea may need some polishing? Maybe. Maybe not.

michael jensen said...

Trouble is the slippage between the word 'meaningless', which is an inadequate translation for the word 'hebel' and an alternative (as Grodo recognises) like 'emphemeral'. Ecclesiastes acknowledges that work has a good and a significance 'under the sun'...

Pete said...

Not to encourage Michael too much, but I agree there needs to be a balance in how we teach about the purpose of work "under the sun".

Yes, we should work to feed ourselves, and not be slothful, and there are great things that can be done with our time, but we should be working to allow the gospel to be proclaimed, and through our work promoting the gospel.

It is a shame that none of the related articles were accessible online on the briefing search tool. Makes me almost want to buy one of those archive CDs (and I guess while I'm at it a Kategoria one too).

Anonymous said...

as an owner of one of those CDs I would say they are definitely worth the buy - I use mine heaps.

Gordon, is there a new one due out soon?

Gordon Cheng said...


the Briefing CD is incredibly useful when doing some initial thinking about a whole lot of relevant subjects. I don't know when the next one is coming out I'm afraid! I might ask someone.

michael jensen said...

not to encourage me too much??

What about the lack of a doctrine of creation that is recogniseably Christian here? Or the terrible eschatology?

Gordon Cheng said...

Jensen, you are wronger on this than a confused thing that has lost its way and ended up on a small planet of Beta Centauri speculating about the constituent elements of Neon.

But carry on. They love this sort of thing in Oxford.

michael jensen said...

Wow, you do condescension like an expert. Where did you learn it? Or is it a gift?

Gordon Cheng said...

Sheer hard work over many, many years, JJ.

Anyway, you weren't expecting a serious response were you? You only raised the topic in order to point out how silly my views were. If you were really wanting to critique it, you'd do it somewhere else (please).