In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford had a big hit in a mineworkers’ song called “16 Tons”. Many of us will never forget his rich voice singing, “Sixteen tons and what do ya get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me, cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”
The song reminded me again today of a discussion I once had with a friend about whether there is any relationship between how hard we work and how much we prosper. The friend said there wasn’t. I thought he was overstating his case. Years later, I’m still thinking about that conversation.
Some of us have probably heard motivational speakers say something like, “If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
What I find interesting about that quote is that, even though it is meant to emphasize the value of hard work, it has to tip its hat to the good fortune of knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time.
The Bible seems to acknowledge both sides. On one hand, it emphasizes the rewards of timely due diligence (Proverbs 6:6-11; 24:30-34). Yet, the Scriptures are just as clear in saying that prosperity does not come from hard work.
Solomon, one of the wisest people who ever lived, found the unpredictability of work especially painful. During a time of his own disillusionment he wrote, “The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time” (Ecc 9:11).
An also cynical Don Marquis is quoted as saying, “When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: ‘Whose?'”
It’s the prophet Jeremiah, though, who gives me the most to think about on this subject. Rather than focusing my eyes on success, or its unpredictability, Jeremiah brings me to the source of all good fortune when he says, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man gloat in his wisdom, or the mighty man in his might, or the rich man in his riches. Let them boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the LORD who is just and righteous, whose love is unfailing, and that I delight in these things!'” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
And with this thought, my mind seems more ready to run to the one who said, “”Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light” (Jesus at Matt 11:27-30).
My guess is that, at this point, some of us have lived long enough to see that although hard work can be energizing or oppressive, the real issue is not what we are working for, but who….
What about you? I’d be interested to know what some of you have found in the middle of bad jobs, no work, or in those turns of fate that you know were not of your own making?