Toiling to Achieve

“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:11

When the semester begins to wind down, everything starts to blur. I start to crave sleep like I crave coffee in the morning. While the need for sleep and the need for coffee complement each other at different points in the day, there’s only so far this cycle can take me before a break is needed.

During a semester, I go through three different modes: workaholic mode, neutral mode, and neutral workaholic mode. During the workaholic mode, I am eager to start classes and get busy, do homework early, start on assignments a week before they’re due, and over-organize my living space. It’s during this time that I am the least stressed, the most cheerful, and have the most free time (even though free time usually entails more organizing and homework).

As I ease into neutral mode, I still turn homework in on-time and do what’s required of me; I just do it without the ambitious over-achiever mechanism that fueled my every move before. During my time in neutral, I spend more time online, enjoy naps in the afternoon (if I can squeeze them in), and find ways to watch more Netflix flicks in my down-time.

At some point during the neutral mode, I see that my bed, though made, is no longer as neatly put together as it was in the beginning of the semester. This bothers me. I look at the rest of my room. I notice the coffee grounds on my desk that I failed to clear off before going to class early this morning. This, too, bothers me. At this moment, I decide that my slacking in the little areas could potentially cause some major messiness issues. Thus, I clean, trying to establish a renewed set of rules for myself – rules that govern the time between hearing my alarm and locking my door to leave. Sticky notes become my best friends as I use them to write lists of pre-departure tasks and stick the lists to my mirror, phone, and calendar.Welcome to the neutral workaholic mode (“neutral” because I never quite get back to my original diligence level, and “workaholic” because in this mode my work-ethic often manifests itself in several different ways: in reading un-assigned material, working hard on my own personal writing, or taking up some insanely unrealistic and difficult hobby like ballet). Once the neutral workaholic mode is set in full swing, it’s time for Thanksgiving Break.

Where were the Jesus moments in this routine? Where was the brokenness? Where was the helplessness, the utter desperation for closeness to the God who created this routine-laden life?

Aside from personality traits and cycles, I always come back to one realization: when my hard work is an expression of my desire to please God, it’s not pointless. God is faithful. His every season has its place; every storm is complemented by a sunny day. I, however, often forget to separate my own seasons. The flurries of my winter are interrupted by odd-ball monsoons of a summer that got out of hand, and – yet again – what might have been a magically white world is turned grey with the slush of my disorganization. Aren’t you glad I’m not in charge of the weather? One little distraction, and I’d mix up my folders for June and January, and June brides everywhere would be faced with last-minute reception changes and frozen champagne.

God knows my desire to please Him. He also knows that when I’m working diligently at every detail of life, expecting perfection, I’m susceptible to pride in my efforts. While such effort may make me more efficient, determined, and assiduous, it’s not always a good thing. Spiritually, it can’t be a good thing unless it’s for His glory. When I make plans for future success in sports, school, and business, I have to remember that God the Maker of all those things. He is in control of their presence, my involvement in them, and their ultimate outcome. My own motivation varies from day to day, mood to mood, and circumstance to circumstance. I might take a few more moments of time to correct sloppiness, but whether the issue is a messily-made bed or coffee grounds on my desk, each chivalrous attempt at self-perfection is meaningless if not done in humble recognition of and gratefulness for the grace I’ve been given.

So, where are the Jesus moments? They’re the times in church when I’m reminded of the look on my dad’s face when he left me at college; the times my mom texts me to remind me to focus on God; the times I know I have to proceed when I just want to turn back; the times I’m astounded that I was able to make it through a cross-country race or mid-term exam. God is faithful in all of these moments. In fact, God’s faithfulness is what makes them the moments I remember the most – they’re the moments that get catalogued between the text in my Bible’s pages. So, the next time I flip through those tattered pages, I pray He will help me remember that every failure, every triumph, every early morning coffee time done without love for the Giver of Saving Grace is meaningless.

Until I stop toiling to achieve things for my own gain, I will never understand God’s great purpose for my life.

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