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?

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.

Can you handle the “hebel”? (part 2)

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
    says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.’

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Last week, we saw that life and everything in this world is not necessarily meaningless, but it is fleeting. The idea behind “hebel” is like smoke, breath or a bubble that soon disappears.

“Hebel” is also translated in the Bible as “idol”. And of course, there is a connection between the idea of transience and an idol. So in Isaiah 57:13, for example, idols are blown away by a breath, but God is a firm refuge.

“When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.”

What Ecclesiastes is going to teach us is that the very definition of an idol is something temporal that we attempt to grasp hold of as something eternal; a false god we worship instead of the true God. So what is meaningless is to search for pleasures, riches or fame, work or wisdom as something we can grab hold of and find satisfaction in forever. That is putting those things in the place of God, who alone has all wisdom and who alone gives all good gifts, and who alone is eternal.

When we know better who God is, and our place before Him, then our frustrating and fruitless quests for meaning and understanding and even our identity, are stilled.

These two ideas, fleetingness and idolatry, conveyed by the word “hebel”, provide us with much food for thought. It is not meaningless to seek something stable and lasting in a world that is transient and fleeting. What is meaningless however, is to look to anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ to provide this for us. He alone is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Reflection: Where do we tend to look, other than Christ, for stability and permanence and meaning? Why is Christ worthy of our worship?

Can you handle the “hebel”? (part 1)

The words of the Teacher,a son of David, king of Jerusalem:

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.’

Ecclesiastes 1: 1-2

Everything is vanity of vanities – utterly meaningless, perfectly useless, and totally futile? It is amongst the best known phrases in the Bible, yet as Christians we often have no idea what to make of it.

It is not a motto we print on posters of sunsets or in birthday cards, and yet Jews have always read Ecclesiastes with joy as they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles every year.

It is not a philosophy we want to proclaim when as Christians we know that God has created everything with order and purpose; even if our day-to-day lives can feel mundane, monotonous and even meaningless at times.

And tempting as it is, we cannot write it off as a “foil” where most of Ecclesiastes is seen as the depressing, “wrong” way that non-Christians see the world, which is then put right in the last chapter. The reason for this is because we are told that “The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.” (12: 9-12)

The word translated as “meaningless” or “vanity” is, in the original Hebrew, “hebel”. It is a very important word in Ecclesiastes, appearing 38 times, and in some ways, holds the key to its meaning. “Hebel” actually means a breath, or vapour, or wind. Think of a cold, autumn morning, when you can see your breath for a little while, but it doesn’t last. Think of wisps of smoke, clinging to the air for a moment, then dispersing and disappearing. Think of the soap bubbles children blow with huge excitement, then the bubbles pop and vanish into nothingness. Ralph Erskine, in his poem Smoking Spiritualised, captures the idea nicely:

And when the smoke ascends on high,
Then thou behold’st the vanity
Of worldly stuff,
Gone with a puff.
Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

It is not that there is no meaning to anything. It is the problem of trying to attach eternal meaning to things which are transient and fleeting, like the wind, like the bubble, like smoke. Trying to hold onto a puff of smoke forever would be futile, even laughable. This sets the thinking behind Ecclesiastes, and how we can understand it as Christians seeking to glorify God, enjoying living in His world under the sun.

Reflection: What in your life do you find most difficult to acknowledge will not last? What does Jesus offer us that is different? (See John 3:16)