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.