Happiness and Task Completion

Ecclesiastes 2: 4-11

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well – the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

I suppose that building houses, vineyards, parks and reservoirs is the kind of thing that you can do as a king. Most of us only get to build Lego. But we need to recognise that, deep down inside, some of us find ourselves thinking, “Well, of course, I know that the kind of pleasures and projects that I have access to don’t fulfil, don’t satisfy. The kind of success that I am able to achieve won’t fulfil. But there are others who are able to do something much greater, who have access to much more, and they really will be happy. They really will be satisfied, and will find lasting contentment.”

Yet here we have the Teacher saying, “I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and huge projects,” only to conclude that he finds nothing there of lasting value. Nothing he could take hold of, nothing that satisfies, nothing that fulfils. Not ultimately, because one day he’ll lose it all.

I have a friend who had what I considered the nerdiest of all hobbies. He was a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast. One day my friend got hold of a giant jigsaw puzzle, the biggest puzzle I’ve ever seen. It covered his whole garage and was the focus of his attention for months. He just couldn’t think about anything else until he got this puzzle done. In fact, he could barely complete his work each day because all he wanted to do was get back home and get on with his puzzle. Later, he told me that he looked back at that time as some of the most unproductive months of his life. But that was his project, and he became locked into it because, I think, somewhere deep down inside he believed that it is going to make him happy – satisfy him.

Psychologists would probably call it “task completion”, the satisfaction of undertaking a great project and getting it finished. It’s one of the reasons children ( and adults) can spend thousands of hours absorbed in those computer games where they create their own cities, or why people collect stamps or beer mats or thimbles. It’s why it’s tempting to keep checking Facebook for that one new, interesting status update that will keep you bang up to date with all your friends. It has been said that checking Facebook regularly is like constantly checking the fridge for food when you already know it’s empty. And when the jigsaw puzzle has been completed, after a few hours or days or weeks, unless you’re going to frame it and put it on the wall, it gets taken apart again, and all the little pieces put back in the box.

The reason accomplishments cannot satisfy is that none of our accomplishments last. Death will strip them away from us. Think for a moment of some of the things that you hope to achieve in life. Perhaps you want to want to start a business or a ministry. Maybe you want to climb the promotion ladder to a particular position at work. Perhaps your ambition is to own your own home or have your own family. Whatever it is that you dream of accomplishing, it will not last and it will not satisfy. Accomplishments are good but they are not God.

It is worth contrasting our achievements with that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whereas our achievements are stripped away by death, Jesus’ death provides a lasting achievement. The death of Christ secures eternal life in the presence of the all-satisfying God. His is the only achievement that can satisfy, the only achievement that lasts beyond the grave. So do not look to your own accomplishments for lasting meaning. Look to Christ and his death on the cross.

 

Is there any point to pleasure?

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2: 10-11

I was reminded of this over the summer. It was a gloriously hot afternoon, so my family and I walked down to the seaside and spent some time playing on the beach. After a while I became thirsty, so my wife handed me one of those little cartons of apple juice. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to satisfy your thirst on one of those cartons but it seemed to me about as satisfying as licking a wet rock. Two sips and it was gone.

The pursuit of pleasure is just like that for the Teacher. He says, “Listen, I’ve denied my heart no pleasure,” but realises it’s no more satisfying than a carton of apple juice. No matter how much he has,  it leaves the same feeling: “I wish I had more. I wish I could keep hold of it, could sustain the pleasure.” But he can’t. There’s nothing to grab hold of. It’s just vapour.

So what is his problem? Look at the beginning and the end of this chapter, where we see parallel phrases in verses 2 and 11. In verse 2 he says, “‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’”. In verse 11 he says, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

He’s pursued pleasures of every kind, but, at the end of the day, what does it actually do? What does it leave him with? What does it accomplish? And the answer to that is… well… nothing.

Have you ever wondered why Hollywood movie stars, who make more with one movie than we earn in our lifetime, go on making more movies? Wouldn’t you at least be tempted to just pack it in right there and then, and do whatever you wanted for the rest of your life? But they don’t. They carry on. Why? People want to know that they’ve done something with their lives. It’s not just about making money, it’s about achieving something. One of the big problems with pursuing pleasure, one of the things that make it such vapour, is that at the end of the day we haven’t achieved anything.

“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done,” the Teacher says in verse 11, “and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was vapour, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

Notice those parallel statements: “What does pleasure accomplish?” and “Nothing was gained.” There’s the answer to the question. A life spent pursuing and holding on to pleasure will gain nothing.

What is so helpful about Ecclesiastes is that it not only reminds us that we will be tempted to find meaning in pleasure, it also tells us why. Behind the impulse to indulge in pleasure in sinful or sinfully excessive ways is the yearning we have to create lasting experience in a world of transience. We don’t want the feeling of pleasure to end, so we keep going back to the websites, the bars, the bottles, the lovers and the television series until we find ourselves in slavery to them.

No, the purpose of pleasure can never be pleasure itself. Rather the point of all of the temporary gifts of pleasure we enjoy should point us to the giver of those gifts. He alone can satisfy our desire for lasting pleasure because He alone is eternal. As the Psalmist writes,

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11

 

Temporary and Lasting Pleasure

I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless. ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

Ecclesiastes 2: 1-3

The Teacher turns to pleasure as he begins his search for lasting satisfaction. “I thought in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless (or vapour). ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.’”

What he does, in his attempt to find something lasting, is turn to the party atmosphere. It’s the sort of hedonistic attitude that believes that having a good time, all the time, will provide us with a lasting sense of meaning. But he discovers that it doesn’t last. It doesn’t work.

Advertising often tries to convince us that, by buying a particular product, we can improve our lifestyle. Going along with it is a form of escapism. Sports, entertainment and TV, all potentially good in themselves, often seem to be more about shutting our ears to the things we don’t want to hear about – like God, or death. In the same way, drinking and partying can numb us to reality, even if only for a short time. As the saying goes, drinking leaves you as empty as the bottle afterwards. And it’s true, isn’t it? Countless celebrities and other famous people seemingly have everything, and yet they still have a void to fill. They turn to drink, to drugs and to fame to fill it, but all they do is ruin their lives.

As David Hubbard says bluntly, “[Pleasure’s] advertising agency is better than its manufacturing department … one drink, one sexual fling, one contest won, one project accomplished, one wild party – none of these, nor all of them put together, can be enough to bring satisfaction.”

Living for pleasure, whether through drink, drugs, gambling, sex, money, fame, adulation, or success inevitably leads to an addictive need for more and more to feel satisfied. But it never does satisfy! When these things become idols to us, or when they are pursued without regard for God, they bring disappointment and emptiness.

And it is important to realise that this is not only a warning to the godless. Christians are not automatically immune from making an idol out of pleasure. Some Christians are addicted to drink, drugs and pornography. Some waste hours of their lives following television series after television series. Christians – including pastors – were numbered amongst those exposed as potential adulterers by the Ashley Maddison website leak. Sadly, we have grown very comfortable in the West with its culture of prosperity and indulgence.

Christians seek pleasure as much as anyone else, but the difference is that we should know where genuine lasting pleasure is to be found – in Christ alone. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of our struggle as Christians. Will we live for fleeting pleasure now, in this world, or will we live for eternal pleasure later, in the world to come?

STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.                                                                                                                                             

Ecclesiastes 2 v 24-26

Life is like a toilet-roll just out of reach.

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”  Jim Carrey

When you study Ecclesiastes, you begin noticing it everywhere. Every place you go, every person you meet, you see Ecclesiastes happening. It’s sometimes really hard to get out of your head, rather like one of those tunes that you catch on the radio.

Ecclesiastes is like that because so much of it describes our experience of life. What is that experience? No matter what we go through – the good times and the bad – and no matter what we do or how successful we are or where we go, always hanging over us is the knowledge that one day we will lose it. There’s nothing that we can keep hold of.

This, however, does not stop us from trying. Oh how we try! We try but fail to find something ultimately fulfilling, satisfying and permanent in this world and it leaves us with a sour taste in our mouths. Life is, well, frustrating…like when you drop the toilet paper and it rolls ever so slightly out of your reach. Close, but not close enough to avoid the inevitable.

In the last blog, we saw that the word translated as “meaningless” in the NIV and “vanity” in many other translations, is actually defined in the Hebrew dictionary first as “breath” or “vapour”. And we saw that the thing about breath or vapour is that you cannot hold on to it. It appears and then it disappears. So to live as if things in this life “under the sun” are permanent, is like trying to chase after the wind, or grab hold of vapour, or keep hold of breath. It can’t be done. And trying to do so is futile.

In Ecclesiastes 1:12 – 2:26 is a search for something in this world that is worth taking hold of, something that we can grasp, that we can live by, that doesn’t go away or fade. The writer explores concepts like pleasures, wisdom and work, all the time looking for something  within which he can find meaning. And the reason why he concludes with “Vapour! Vapour! All is vapour!” or “Breath! Breath! All is breath!” is that he finds nothing in this world that we can hold on to forever.

What can we do?

 

The end of the chapter two describes the problem of permanence that we all face in this life. However, it also the hints at the solution.

 

His conclusion is not that eating, drinking and working are the be-all and end-all of life, so just invest everything into that.” He is saying that these good things  – eating and drinking and finding satisfaction in your work – are gifts from God. And it is not just the good things themselves that are God-given gifts; so also is the ability to appreciate and enjoy them! God alone gives satisfaction and joy, and even wisdom.

 

Only God is permanent. Only God is lasting. Only he is not a mere breath. You can hold on to him. You can keep him. He is never taken away. He is unchanging. He is also the creator and sustainer and source of all things. So you can eat and drink and work, and you can enjoy these things as temporary gifts because you know you have God, and he satisfies your desire for the eternal. It is only when we’re with God that we can appreciate our life in this world for what it is – a temporary gift.

The apostle Paul says something very similar. In Philippians chapter 3, verses 7 – 10 he writes, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

 

What is it like to be a Christian?

I was asked this question after giving a talk at a youth group and, I have to admit, it completely stumped me. I wanted to launch into rhetoric about how wonderful and exciting the Christian life is. I wanted to… but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. The Christian life is wonderful. The trouble is that it doesn’t always feel very wonderful or exciting. Sometimes it is hard and still other times it feels downright mundane.

Ecclesiastes agrees. The first chapter suggests that everything is a mere breath (translated as “meaningless” or “vanity”) because of the endlessly insignificant repetition of day in, day out activities. Verses 3-11 of ch 1 say the following…

What do people gain from all their labours
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
    ‘Look! This is something new’?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

Again and again it seems to be saying, “Look, things just happen over and over. They go round and round and round in this endless spiral, and it seems so boring, so mundane, so repetitive and so pointless.”

But perhaps you would have me believe you’ve never felt like that in your Christian life? That you’ve never felt that things were dull and repetitive? That you’ve never struggled to see the point behind what you were doing or what your life was wrapped up in? That that experience is only true of non-Christians?

Maybe its just me who has always hated routine, always hated tedious, mundane tasks? Yet I find that these are the things you have to keep on doing. You wash the dishes but they get dirty again. Each day my wife and I sweep the floor under our table. Then we feed our children, and have to sweep the floor under the table again.

It’s like that with the trivial things. But it’s the same with more significant things, isn’t it? We wake up, we get dressed, we brush our teeth, have breakfast, go to work, come back from work, eat dinner, brush our teeth, go to bed, wake up – and do it all over again. Even as Christians we say to ourselves, “What is this all about? How tedious this is!” 

So how does this shape our understanding of the Christian life?

Firstly it helps us to adjust our expectations of the Christian experience. In their brutally honest song Expectations, Caedmon’s Call highlight the importance of honesty about the Christian life.

“That boy had the highest of expectations
And he heard that Jesus would fill him up
Maybe something got lost in the language
If this was full, then why bother?

This was not the way it looked on the billboard
Smiling family beaming down on the interstate.

And you know that we all try to blame someone
When our dreams won’t rise up from their sleep
And the reaching of the steeple felt like one more
Expensive ad for something cheap

This was not the way it looked on the billboard
Smiling family beaming down on the interstate.”

We need to remind ourselves that Christians, like all people, are caught up in the effects of the fall. That means we are subject to the same tedium, disappointments and frustrations as everyone else. Armed with this knowledge, we will see that these experiences of life do not indicate that Christianity is not true or that we are not real Christians.

Another difference this should make is to shape the way we think of faithfulness. Let me quote from Michael Horton’s book, Ordinary: a sustainable faith in a radical, restless world. He says:

“Contentment is the virtue that contrasts with restlessness, ambition and avarice. It means realizing once again that we are not our own. As pastors or parishioners, parents or children, employers or employees, it is the Lord’s to give and to take away. He is building his church. It is his ministry that is saving and building up the body, and even our common callings in the world are not really our own, but they are God’s work of supplying others including ourselves with what the whole society needs. There is a lot of work to be done, but it is his work that he is doing through us in daily and mostly ordinary ways.”

Can you see that – how the Gospel impacts a life of endlessly repetitious and temporary things? We are not our own. We were bought with a price. And we live our lives as worthy of the gospel through the ordinary things that he works through us to accomplish his purposes.

Assurance & Justification

Why do Christians struggle with assurance of their salvation? In the last post I explored the Bible’s teaching about salvation generally. In this post I want us to go a little further and think about how that salvation works. At the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of salvation, is the doctrine of justification.

What is Justification?

Justification is one of the most important terms used by the New Testament in order to describe our salvation. It is a legal term, drawing its meaning from the pronouncement of a verdict in a court of law. In God’s economy, to be justified is to be declared “not guilty” of sin and therefore to be free from any fear of condemnation of judgement.

In the New Testament a person is justified by God when he or she turns to Christ in faith and repentance. Jesus’ death and resurrection effectively cleanse the Christian of all their wrong-doing and cover the Christian with Christ’s right-doing so that they are “justified” in the sight of God.

We are not justified by anything that we have done, but rather by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.

Therefore justification means that Christians can walk through this life in the full assurance that when they face final judgement at the end of time, they already know what the verdict will be. It is as if they have never sinned and always obeyed. They are justified.

This glorious reality is given to us as a gift, free and undeserved.

Justification and Assurance.

The connection between the doctrine of justification and assurance should be fairly obvious by now. If you have turned to Christ in repentance and faith then you are justified and should have no fear of being condemned by God.

So why do we fear?

At one level we fear because our faith is weak. It is one thing to clap for the man taking the wheel-barrow across the tightrope, it is another thing entirely to get into the wheel-barrow. It is important to remember that the strength of our faith may affect our subjective experience of salvation in this life (happiness) but it never affects the objective reality of our salvation. Christ is our Saviour, not faith. It is the presence of faith, not the strength of it that matters.

The one who sits in the wheelbarrow on the tightrope, with eyes closed and fists clenched may not be having fun, but he is still in the wheelbarrow. He is safe in the hands of the one who holds him, whether he knows it fully or not. One day, he will see that there is nothing to fear. For now, he just needs to sit tight.

 

 

 

Is Christianity unfair to those raised in other faiths? (part 2)

“How can God judge people simply because of what they believe about Jesus? Some people never hear about Jesus and others were raised in religions that taught them not to believe the way you Christians do. None of us were alive then, so how can we be expected to know what really happened anyway.”

In my last post I began to think about how we can answer this question in a loving an honest way, especially in cases where it is not merely an exercise in philosophy but the sincere grappling of an earnest seeker. We saw that it is important to empathise with concerns of those around us to be honest when those concerns are valid.

It is my aim in this post, not to formulate a reply, but to understand how these objections fit in with the teaching of the Bible. Here are a few thoughts about how we can resolve some of the tension by rooting out the misunderstanding of the Bible’s teaching on judgement and salvation.

It is not true that God judges people simply because of what they believe about Jesus. 

The reason this person is struggling with a sense of injustice is because they are misinterpreting the gospel message. Jesus is not presented in the Bible as the correct answer on a multiple choice question ranging between 1-10 (only counting the major world religions). If we begin to think that God has set a test, and will bring us to judgement for getting the answer wrong, then no wonder it comes across as a little sadistic. If this is how we understand the gospel then we should experience anguish over those who are raised in parts of the world who do not even have “Jesus” as an option on the answer sheet. This however, is not the message of the Bible.

How should we understand God’s judgement?

The Bible doesn’t say that we will be judged because of what we believe about Jesus. Rather it is clear that we will be judged because of our sins and because of our sinfulness. Sins are our acts of disobedience and rebellion against God. We all commit these acts because we have disobedient and rebellious hearts. We are corrupt with evil and we commit deeds that are evil. This is the problem we have as people before a holy God. God cannot ignore immorality, nor can he excuse it, he must execute judgement otherwise God has no right to call himself just.

This is as true of those who live next door to churches as it is of those who live in places where there is no church. All people will be judged with justice according to what they are, and what they have done. Nobody will be punished for something they did not deserve. This is the problem: No matter where we grow up, or who our parents are, we face God’s just judgement as those who are guilty.

How should we understand salvation through Jesus?

Rather than thinking of Jesus as the correct option on a multiple choice exam, we should think of him as a lifeguard.

We are all drowning in sin and guilt. We are being swept away in a current toward God’s judgement. So how will we escape? The answer of all religions is to “swim faster”; do more good than bad and you may be able to swim yourself out of the current and safely to shore. The problem with this is that it is not the way justice works. If you commit a crime, you must be judged regardless of how much you give to charity afterwards.

Jesus is the lifeguard sent to a drowning world. We have no hope of surviving judgement on our own. The message of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, proclaimed by Christians, is like the outstretched hand of the lifeguard who is willing and able pull us from the water and take us to the shore.

Therefore we do not face judgement simply for “not believing” in Jesus. We are going to face judgement anyway, and to refuse Jesus, is to refuse the only one who can save you.

Is Christianity unfair to those raised in other faiths? (Part 1 – learning to be honest)

The Challenge of the Global Village

The world is becoming a smaller place and more people are being exposed to the various cultures, religions and practices contained within it. This, I would argue, is a good thing. When I moved to London from a fairly sheltered community in South Africa, it was one of the first things that struck me about the city. I was exposed to the cultures of Europeans, Africans, Asians and even Americans. My experience stretched me and I am all the better for it.

Globalisation (as they call it) does also present its challenges. For example, this is a summary of a real question asked by someone engaging with the truth claims of the Bible.

“How can God judge people simply because of what they believe about Jesus? Some people never hear about Jesus and others were raised in religions that taught them not to believe the way you Christians do. None of us were alive then, so how can we be expected to know what really happened anyway.”

Some groups within the church have been reflecting on this question over the last few weeks, I thought it may be helpful to jot down some of those reflections in the hope that it may be of some help to those who have asked, or been asked, similar questions.

Trust God enough to be honest

When I encountered this particular comment I was surprised at just how defensive my reaction was. I immediately wanted to let out the doctrine guard-dogs and watch them tear the objection to pieces. When I dug a little deeper I realised that my defensiveness betrayed a deep sympathy for the seeker. Defensiveness often betrays our vulnerabilities.

The truth is that I have asked myself this question many times. It has disturbed me in the past and continues to lay siege to the stronghold of my beliefs. This too is a good thing. If the Bible cannot withstand a few honest questions then it cannot be God’s Word. However, when we truly engage with these issues and allow the Bible to present its own defence, our confidence in it will not be weakened. That is my experience anyway. No matter what doubts have come against my faith in the Bible, the walls have held. In fact, my faith has been strengthened through earnest wrestling with doubt.

The point I want to make here is that we can and should sympathise with those who are genuinely perplexed by these things. I believe this puts us in a much better position to help them.

Do unto others…

When Jehovah’s Witnesses come round to the house I generally allow a bit of time to converse with them. Most of the time, I wonder why I bother. I feel that particularly when I don’t believe they have actually engaged with any of my questions. So often it feels like vague well-rehearsed answers or changes in subject. It is worth noting this phenomenon is not limited to JW’s. I have had the same experiences with Muslims, Atheists and, in more polemical contexts, other Christians.

In one particular conversation I became so frustrated that I blurted out a simple question; “Do you ever have doubts about what you believe?” Their response was without hesitation, “No, never.” I knew at that moment that I was wasting my time. I cannot take seriously the views of those who claim never to doubt their beliefs. They are not being honest with themselves, so how can I expect them to be honest with me.

Yet, to my shame, I have to admit that I have fallen into this trap as well. I’ve never claimed to be doubt-free but sometimes I act as if I am. We think that sympathising with the questions of non-Christian friends are displays of weakness and that to vocalise our doubts are a betrayal of our God. Ironically when we do this we reinforce the presupposition that Christians are brain-washed and beyond reason. There are times when we should keep our doubts to ourselves but we should never make it seem as if they do not exist.

Speak the truth in love

If we love those of different faiths and want them to know the good news about Jesus then we need to learn to be honest and sympathise. If it frustrates us to deal with rehearsed mechanical answers, why should we expect others to respond differently to our own versions of the same. Trust God enough to let them know that you recognise the validity of their questions before you raise attempt to answer them.