From Meaninglessness to Joy

I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes over the last few weeks. One of the common refrains heard throughout the book is “everything is meaningless!” Unlike the Psalmist who looks out at the world and sees beauty (see Psalm 104 for instance), the “Preacher” (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9) in Ecclesiastes sees meaningless repetition and cycles.

In the first couple of chapters of this book of wisdom, the writer embarks on several “life projects” to see if he can find happiness “under the sun.” After each of these various projects he concludes: “[B]ehold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

But as we arrived at the end of chapter two, his tone begins to change. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God…” (verse 24).

What accounts for this sudden change?

It appears that the Preacher has now brought God into his frame of reference. Prior to this, his pursuit of joy and happiness were fundamentally secular–God was not a part of the equation. At the end of chapter 2, he looks back over his toil with God in the picture and can see meaning.

When Good Things Become Ultimate Things

But what about having God in view changes the experience?

It’s certainly not that God removes the problems or the challenges or the pain. That doesn’t happen. There are many false teachers out there who will tell you that if you give enough to the church then your crops will grow and your wife won’t miscarry. That’s a lie. God does not promise that life will be easy if you follow him. In fact Jesus says the exact opposite (see Matthew 7:14).

So what about having God in view here changes things and suddenly makes things more satisfying?

I want you to think about the best gift you have ever received. Think about something that someone gave to you that changed you. Maybe it was something small like a card or maybe it was something really big. What made that gift special for you?

I can share about a very special gift I just received: a Sabbatical of four months, to go away with my family and be together and rest. My church family and the Lilly Endowment made that possible. My family is so very thankful. Now why was the gift given to me? From the church’s perspective, maybe I had earned it or I just really needed it and they didn’t want to see my burn out. Bottom line: they loved me. It was a gift given in love.

But what about from God’s perspective? Why did God give me that gift?

Of course, I don’t know all the reasons, only God knows that. But what I do know is that everything, absolutely everything, that I receive in this life as a follower of Jesus is a gift of grace. All of it. I receive nothing, not even pain or hardship (see John 15:2; James 1:2-4), that is not a gift from the throne of God. Death even! Romans 8:28: “for God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” So the Sabbatical was a gift of grace that was given to me because God loves me.

Now here is where it gets tricky and we all must be very careful on this point. My meaning and my worth do not come from the Sabbatical. The Sabbatical ended. It’s over. I’m now back doing ministry again, dealing with all the challenges that ministers face. Yes, there was joy in the break but it’s now behind us. If I was looking for meaning and joy in that time away, then what am I to do now that it is over?

Perhaps I could continue to try and milk the Sabbatical for meaning and joy by doing something like this: I could say to myself, “Hmm, I got a Sabbatical and so-and-so over there didn’t. I must be better than him.” Like the kid at school who thinks he’s the cat’s meow because he’s got the new Lebron James tennis shoes. Whenever I was feeling down about things I could look back and try to make myself feel better in this way.

What have I just done? I’m using the Sabbatical to find some kind of feeling of significance or importance. Not only is it dangerous to make such comparisons, but even more problematic is that I’m trying to make something small and temporary do something that it could never do, namely, give me meaning and significance; I’m making a good thing an ultimate thing, and that is sin.

All of us long for meaning. We want to matter and to know that somehow, in the grand scheme, we want to know that each of is important in some way. Just like the Preacher in the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, we spend our lives looking for that meaning “under the sun” in ways like I just described above. However, it can’t be found apart from God.

With God, Life Becomes a Gift to be Enjoyed

God changes everything. With God, a “random” event is transformed into a gift from a loving Creator.

How could my family’s four month Sabbatical be viewed as a gift from a purely “under the sun” viewpoint? Who exactly did it come from? If God is not in the equation, the world must be viewed as arbitrary, meaningless, mindless, random, and without direction.

But with God in view, everything changes. I can now speak of things coming “from the hand of God” (2:24) and enjoying life because “Who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him” (2:25). Because God is now in view, our break became a loving reminder to me and my family that God knows what we need and cares for us.

Viewed this way, the meaning was not located in the Sabbatical itself, it was located in the fact that God was the one who gave it to me. The meaning was derived from the Giver–God. It was a reflection of His care and concern for my family and my life. And as a result, I was able to truly enjoy it. Every time I sat down beside a pool or had a catch in the yard with my son, those moments had joy because God gave them to me during my break. I didn’t earn them because I did everything right or because I am somehow better than someone else. God gave this gift to me simply in love. And he doesn’t expect me to pay Him back–how could I? I simply offer Him my thanks and praise.

And I would wager that the best gifts you have ever received were significant and enjoyable not so much for what they were but because of the person who gave them to you.

That’s how God changes everything.