I read the book of Ecclesiastes this summer. If you’re not familiar with it, it is the musings of an old ‘Philosopher’ on life; what satisfies, what is the point of it all? He tries to make sense of life, and what the purpose of both life itself and its pleasures are, given its brevity, the randomness of chance, and the fact that, taking the long view in his eyes, everything comes around again in an endless cycle in which nothing lasts. ‘Everything is meaningless, like chasing the wind’. He speaks with great wisdom, and yet I found myself debating with him as I read.
It occurred to me I’m thinking like the Philosopher, and not in a good way; in the long, slow recovery from the depression that has knocked back my energy for activism, if not my desire to see things change, I’m starting to succumb to the feeling that everything has happened before and will happen again, it all comes around again and nothing makes a difference. And then as I try to nurse myself, I find I am just trying to ‘feed’ myself, give myself the things I want, as if that could satisfy, and finding unsurprisingly that it doesn’t.
The Philosopher blows back and forth on this, on the one hand saying it’s useless as chasing the wind, on the other that enjoying what we have is all we can and should do.
But is that true?
I think adding Jesus to the equation changes everything. In Him there is a bigger narrative of hope and direction. There is eternity. Everything is headed somewhere. There will be justice – beyond the timeframes of our lives. Which side of that we choose to stand on now matters, not because we can change the endless cycles of rise and fall in this world in our lives, but because He sees it, and is honoured and assisted, or dishonoured and hindered, in His work by our actions and inactions in all things.
Recently at church the speaker preached on the whole book! Their conclusion was similar, that you need Jesus to complete the picture. The service was focussed on wisdom, rather than any other aspect of the book, but it took a similar course. The Philosopher points out that wisdom does not guarantee success, and asks what the point is, and yet concludes that it is still the best way to live and enjoy life. And yet wisdom is personified in Jesus; without Him, there is a hole in the logic. Why live wisely if it doesn’t bring us any benefits, except to know and please the one who is Wisdom?
The speakers made a big deal of how ‘depressing’ the book is to keep emphasising the reality of death. But isn’t this an important, and even life-giving, perspective, a wake-up call to remind us to actually remember to live whilst we have time? It is good and healthy to look at the material and remember how transient we are. But the conclusion of that should not be that we can only consume it in the time we have, but that we need to find contentment. And more than that, we can do far more than simply enjoy what we have; we can actually use it to help others thrive. We are blessed to bless, given to to give. In this way we build something bigger and more lasting than anything merely material we could build and invest in here for ourselves.
Everything may well come around. The justice, peace and progress we work for may well never be seen in our lifetimes, and may be undone in the generations to come. It is important to remember that I cannot fix the world. Even small acts of good that I do may be undone again afterwards. Does that mean it is worthless? No, it is worth it if I can help others now nonetheless. It is not my own legacy that I’m working for, but God’s, not my own kingdom but the eternal Kingdom of God. Never let fatalism become an excuse for apathy! It matters now!
What struck me most from the church sermon was when we were told the meaning of the word translated as ‘meaningless’ – ‘hevel’. It means vapour, breath, smoke. Real, but intangible, transient, hard to grasp, hard to hold onto. Life is like this. It isn’t meaningless, but we cannot hold on to it, or anything in it. We can enjoy them. We can live in the now. But the only solid, lasting thing we can build is the Kingdom of God, and making life more enjoyable for others.
This is the perspective that I need right now. I cannot truly care for myself and nurse myself back into health by simply feeding my desires, though a certain amount of that is no bad thing. It won’t actually satisfy; but blessing others will. And whilst I cannot fix the world, I can always look for the opportunities before me in all situations and take the baby steps towards bringing in God’s Kingdom that will get me walking again with some direction.
Don’t try to run from what’s uncomfortable; look for what opportunities you’ve been given to do good, and take them. That will satisfy in a way that feeding our comfort and material desires never could. It will outlast us all.