One of the temptations that I think we as Christians face, more than we would like to admit, is the chasing after the things of this world for a fear of missing out. We ponder whether the denying ourselves of worldly pleasures might just be a foolish pursuit of flagellation and penance rather than living lives of obedience to God. Will there not be greater benefit in me allowing myself every pleasure? Wouldn’t life be simpler and more enjoyable if I were to give in to the desires of my heart? And of course things are only exacerbated when we are then ridiculed because we deny ourselves some of the pleasures our society has deemed normal, causing us to stand out like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (cf Dan 3:16-28). Is it really worth it?
As we struggle in our search for answers to such questions, I am very thankful for the book of Ecclesiastes and the unique way in which the Teacher shares his wisdom. The iteration “everything under the sun” gives us the context for the Teacher’s wisdom, for he carefully observes and studies all created things in order to come to a conclusion about what is important and a worthwhile pursuit – in other words, the meaning of life. The teacher looks at the usefulness of health and wealth, the impact of prosperity, the patterns of human interactions, the natural inclinations of the human heart, the frustrations of life, and what can be gleaned from the reality of time. In fact, directly applicable to our 21st century conundrum, the Teacher allows himself every pleasure and possession possible, in order to work out what he might be missing, and if these things might bring him lasting satisfaction (cf Eccl 2:1-11). In summary, here are the Teacher’s findings.
Everything is futile and a pursuit of the wind
As a theme that runs throughout Ecclesiastes, the Teacher is clear that the pursuit of the things of this world are ultimately “futile and a pursuit of the wind, [for] there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl 2:11b). While we might nod in approval at the thought that pursuing pleasure and possessions might come to such a conclusion, it is surprising that this is also the case when it comes to wisdom. The Teacher sees that although wisdom is better than foolishness, they inevitably end up the same way. One might be better than the other, but neither satisfy! Given the ultimate futility of chasing after such things, the conclusion is to “eat, drink, and enjoy” (Eccl 2:24), knowing that even that enjoyment is a gift from God.
The rightness of time matters more than the future
Part of the way that the Teacher comes to his conclusions is by understanding the reality of time. While we might naturally want to increase the hours we have in a day, and make time more productive, the Teacher observes the importance of understanding the right and wrong time to do something. His examples in 3:1-8 are all wonderfully insightful, but I found the hug to be the most powerful. A hug is really all about timing. In a moment of sadness and in desperation for comfort, a warm hug from a trusted person is the greatest feeling in the world. Yet, a hug at the wrong time is awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes inappropriate. The Teacher shows us that our struggle with time comes from the fact that God has put eternity in our hearts, so that people will revere him (Eccl 3:11-15). He has given us an inquisitive mind that looks to things beyond our immediate surroundings, and yet the truth about time is always elusive. That is by design, that we might acknowledge God’s eternal character and sovereign nature. This is not easy to do, because it means trusting God even in the mysteries of injustice and death (Eccl 3:16-22), for God knows and his timing is impeccable.
Self-actualisation is not all it’s cracked up to be
The Teacher helps us to see that bettering yourself is not as good as the world says it is, because if we really search ourselves, envy and jealously are always at the heart of our pursuits (Eccl 4:4). The hard worker and the lazy worker face the same end, escaping into exile is a fool’s errand, wealth and fame get you only so far, and just maybe there is some comfort in relationships. There are better things and there are worse things, but nothing truly satisfies. Our natural inclination is to want after things because others have them – and this too is a chasing after the wind, for there will always be someone who has more. The only thing worth heeding is God, because he is in heaven and we are on earth (Eccl 5:2).
Understand your limits
As he observes, the Teacher reflects that although some things are better than others, it is best to take the path of least resistance (Eccl 7:15-22). Pushing too hard or not trying at all – both lead to the same outcome. In the end, we can only enjoy the fruit of our labour and the gifts of God while we have the opportunity, because we all face death. The inevitability of this one common destiny (Eccl 9:1-10), death, means we counterintuitively are better off reflecting on what is definitely coming as opposed to temporary things that we can never guarantee (Eccl 7:1-13). It is good, therefore, to be in the house of mourning, to take stock, and consider our mortality.
Here is what really matters
After observing all that can be seen under the sun, the Teacher comes to the conclusion:
“When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgement, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:13-14).
What really matters is God! The distinction between the Creator and all his creation means that we ought to pursue him. Of course, this is the same today for us. We don’t need to have FOMO because we know what we can pursue that will never be futile, and we know it ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus’ work means death no longer has victory over his people, Paul can conclude:
“Therefore, my dear brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
If you’re interested in following up on some of these themes from Ecclesiastes, here is a series of short reflections I created from my reading of this biblical book.