At the Thanksgiving table few of us are likely to express thankfulness for hard work -- but that’s what Ecclesiastes recommends. Here’s wisdom from Chapter 5: “What I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun.” Toil and its wages are a blessing: “To whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil -- this is the gift of God.”
We mess up when we try to relieve others of toil. One example: According to “The Press Democrat” of Santa Rosa, Calif., students in a public school district 50 miles north of San Francisco can now earn a passing grade of D with a score of only 20 percent. The district school board accepted the idea that students with zeros get demoralized, so the offer of a readily obtainable passing grade will keep them from giving up. A sole dissenting board member, Leffler Brown, disagreed: “Anytime you lower the bar, it hurts. You just let people do a more mediocre job.”
Here’s a subtler example: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights member Gail Heriot reported last month that fewer African-Americans than expected become scientists and engineers. Why? Race-preferential admissions and scholarships lure many to prestigious colleges for which their level of academic attainment is inadequate. The suite-level theory: Degrees from such schools will give minority students social and career acceptance so they won’t have to toil their way up. Street-level reality: Starting behind the competition and often falling further behind, many minority students transfer into softer majors. Meanwhile, those who go to lesser-ranked schools toil successfully and ultimately succeed.
Books, movies, and folk sayings used to teach us to thank God for hardships. In “The Lord of the Rings,” Frodo cannot destroy his ring at the Cracks of Doom without the help of Gollum. In “The Great Escape,” prison camp tunnel-digging keeps hope alive. Grandparents used to say, “Idle hands make mischief.” Personal experience also teaches us that harder is better. I still remember driving sleepily along a Pennsylvania highway 25 years ago until construction barriers forced me to wake up.
Often hardships become blessings that help to deliver us from evil pursuits. Roman Catholic leaders probably would have strangled the young Protestant Reformation had not the Ottoman Turks threatened to capture Vienna: That forced the Holy Roman Emperor (who governed what was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire) to turn his attention east. The U.S. government might not have – slowly -- embraced the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s had it not been for the Soviet threat and the way police dogs attacking black protesters hurt American foreign policy initiatives in Africa and elsewhere.
We play checkers, but God plays chess, as His billions of moves bring the world toward its culmination. In Chapter 19 of 1 Kings, despairing Elijah complains to God: “The people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” God responds by ordering Elijah to anoint three people: Hazael to be king of Syria, Jehu to be king of Israel, and Elisha to be Elijah’s successor.
That sequence of moves seems odd: Hazael was as brutal as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is today, and Jehu was a mixed bag, so why would God put them in power? Answer: Israel needed punishment for turning away from God, and Elisha would be in place to pick up the pieces. Watching this fall’s GOP debates and wondering whom voters will anoint, I suspect Donald Trump’s task is to increase viewership, Ben Carson’s role is to knock off Trump, and Marco Rubio’s role is to be the second choice of both evangelicals and the GOP establishment, thus unifying a fractious party and eventually making Carson head of the Department of Health and Human Services.
That’s a highly fallible prophecy, not an endorsement, and we’ll all probably laugh at it in a few months -- but at Thanksgiving we can thank God for even Republican presidential campaign toil.