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.

 

“Happy New Year!”

These words are bandied about with some regularity during this time of year. However, when we wish someone a “happy” new year, what do we really mean?

“Blessed” New Year

The very first sermon I ever preached at Bethesda was on Psalm 1.

“Blessed is the one

who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

and who meditates on his law day and night.”

As I was preparing to preach on this passage, I was struck by the significance of that very first word. The Hebrew word translated “blessed” in our English Bibles is the word “אַשְׁרֵי“ʾ(ǎš·rê) meaning “happy”. This Psalm is teaching us how to be happy.

Do not listen to the World

The world is neither short of opinions on how to find happiness, nor timid in its expression of them. The vast majority of what we hear through media, conversations in the local pub, and sadly even some pulpits, is a mass of screaming lies. This new year we need to hear God’s warning that these things will destroy our happiness. They will not make us happy because, although they may bring momentary feelings of exhilaration, they ultimately lead to destruction.

Listen to God

Happiness comes through joyful meditation on the Bible’s instruction. God is the one who made us and therefore knows what is best for us. He knows what will make us happy and he desires our happiness. Therefore the key to a happy and blessed new year is listening to God’s instruction for our lives rather than the world’s instruction. Notice that it is not simply reading the Bible that is the key to happiness. Truly listening to God is constituted by two things: delightful and regular meditation on the Bible. This means that we need to give the Bible enough airtime in our lives to thrill our hearts and to sink in deeply enough to affect our thinking.

Word or world…some suggestions for application

  1. Be careful what you expose yourself to through media, particularly TV and internet.
  2. Ask God to help you discern worldly influences on your thinking. What lies have you been believing?
  3. Make Bible-saturation a priority. Schedule in time for frequent Bible exposure.
  4. Work hard to make sure you are not simply reading the Bible but enjoying it, and reflecting deeply on it. Here are a few tips on how to do this:
  • Less is more. Sometimes we move from one passage to another too quickly and don’t give it the time it needs to sink in. Why not use your sermon notes as daily devotions rather than another devotional or set of Bible reading notes.
  • Pray through every passage you read. Ask yourself, what should I pray for myself and others in response to this passage.
  • Look for the Messiah. Ask yourself how the passage (genuinely) points to Jesus’ person and work. Nothing will thrill your heart as much as a fresh glimpse of Him in your devotions.