“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb[a] of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.
6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecc. 11:1-6).
The main idea of this section is: uncertainty about God’s work should change the way we work.
Notice the repeated theme of uncertainty: in verse 2, we don’t know when disaster will strike. In verse 5, we don’t know the work of God that causes everything. In verse 6, we don’t know whether our efforts will succeed or fail. All of these examples are meant to point to the fact that we are uncertain about what God will do in our future. This uncertainty naturally leads to one of two human responses. One is wise and the other is foolish.
The foolish response is in verses 3 and 4, where he talks about the activity of clouds and falling trees and wind. The point he’s making is: don’t get caught up in paralysis by analysis. If you sit around staring at the weather or worrying about whether a tree’s going to fall, you’ll never get anything done. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, you’ll never get started.
Three years ago, I was preaching about this same basic topic, and I told the church I felt called to be a writer, but that I didn’t have the time. Maybe one day when the kids were grown and the church was tired of me, I’d retire and write all the books that’ve been in my head for decades. But then one day I was praying about it, and I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Just work with what you have.” I thought about it and realized, “I’m already writing a weekly sermon. Why not manuscript it out? Then one day, maybe I can turn them into books?!” Well guess what? Three years of manuscripting sermons later, and I’m expecting my first book to be published in 2020.
If you want to discover your purpose, don’t wait for perfect conditions. Don’t get caught up in paralysis by analysis. People say that the enemy of “great” is “good,” but I say that the enemy of “good” is “great.” You don’t have to be perfect! Work with what you have and just do something. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.
Which sets us up for the wise response to uncertainty. The wise response to uncertainty is not paralysis by analysis, but diverse and decisive action.
The first verse—“cast your bread on the waters and it will come back to you”—probably speaks of maritime trade. Of sending your “bread”, aka, your investment, across the sea and out of sight because one day you’ll see it come back to you. The second verse expands on that by saying, “Don’t just invest in one thing; invest in seven or eight.” And then verse 6 takes it further: “Don’t just work during the day; work day and night!” All of this to say, take diverse action (do lots of different things) and take decisive action (do them immediately). Why? Because you don’t know the work of God – what He’ll cause to succeed, and what He won’t – so just get out there and do something, lots of things, and eventually you’ll discover your thing.
Also, don’t wait around for some “special revelation” about what your purpose in life is. How often do we find ourselves complaining to God, “I’ll do whatever you want, just make it clear what You want me to do!!” We’re waiting on God, but sometimes God is waiting on us. According to this passage, you can’t know where God is working till you yourself get to work. Discovering your purpose guesswork. It’s less about revelation than it is about observation. Sow your seed, morning and night, and see what God’s blessing.
On this note, I think that one of the great ideals of American culture is taken to an extreme and sometimes hampers us. What I’m talking about is, “If at first you don’t succeed…. Try, try again.” It’s a wonderful antidote, but I would modify it slightly:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try again; if at last you don’t succeed, try something different.”
Some of us give up too easily, but others don’t give up easily enough. If you’re 4-foot-7 and blind in one eye, it’s time to give up on the NBA dream. Some things fail—not because you’re not trying hard enough, but because God isn’t in them. If you’ve been working at some line of work for years with no fruit, no promotion, no evidence that God is working with you, start exploring other things. That doesn’t mean quit your job today—verse 6 says find something else to do in the evenings. What can you do on the side? What hobby or interest or opportunity can you explore?
Do something, do lots of things, and eventually you’ll find your thing.