Everything Is Meaningless
Let me start with a memory.
I remember when I first started looking beneath the surface of things as a believer. You know, lifting the rock to see the world of life and dirt underneath what I had only walked by previously. The Bible had been a book I revered in ritual only. I would have never thrown one across a room but I also was not too interested in mining it for all it was worth. Before, the Bible was purely a place to go for devotional thoughts to help me through the day. But then something changed. I began to see it as the interpretive key for understanding. And not just for understanding the so-called spiritual parts of my life. It became the lens through which I made sense of everything.
I wouldn't have talked about it like that. For it was only a beginning. A start of a long journey of looking at everything in light of this God who created everything, who we rebelled against, who took the initiative in rescuing us from ourselves, and who has promised restoration. Everything began to take on new hues and colors as they reflected back to me new less-well-known vistas of this God who loves and redeems and saves and gives so much so freely.
But like I said, it was only the beginning. There was a lot of stumbling through caves of legalism and caverns of liberty. But I was growing all the while. Fits and starts; but growing all the same. Growing in my love of thinking deeply about my life and its parts and how it all related to this God.
And then I read the book of Ecclesiastes.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzle for most people. Just when you think you have heard something which rings true, you happen upon a phrase, verse, or whole section which sounds nothing like what you have been taught to believe or do for that matter. Just when you think the writer of Ecclesiastes is making a great point, he says something crazy like, "Everything is meaningless!"
Which is weird.
Or is it?
I mean, on the surface this sounds a lot like the nihilism so rampant in western culture. The philosophy which strips meaning from anything and everything. The belief that nothing really matters in this life or the next is not only popular in our world, it is also pervasive. Some get there by speculation and others by experiencing suffering to such a degree that meaning is like a dust particle in a pitch-black world.
But not us.
Evangelical Christians reject such ways of thinking. Don't we?
The proto-typical evangelical Christian finds it very easy to make sense of all the spiritual parts of their lives. Quiet times, Bible study, worship songs, sermons, prayer, baptism, communion, evangelism, missions and helping the poor are meaningful. We would never call these parts of our life "meaningless." It all has meaning because these are religious or spiritual acts we do which relate directly to God. They help us and others be connected to our Creator and Redeemer. And this gives us joy. And rightly so.
But what about the other parts of our lives?
What about the parts of our lives which do not seem all that spiritual? You know what I mean—the parts of life we must be about because they are, well . . . life? What about all those day-in and day-out repetitions? Do the routine and mundane parts of our lives have meaning?
Does work and play and leisure and sex and showering and yard work and texting and changing diapers and watching a movie and driving to/from work and budgeting and homework and getting dressed and making art and responding to Facebook messages and breathing in and out have any meaning?
And what about our work?
We all know that pastors and worship leaders and missionaries and youth pastors and campus ministers and chaplains and anyone else in vocational ministry are doing meaningful work. They are working hard for the expansion of the kingdom here on earth as it is in Heaven because they are spreading the gospel of Christ throughout the world. Of course that work is meaningful.
But what about everyone else? Is their work meaningful? What about the work of accountants and nurses and tellers and baristas and teachers and artists and woodworkers and gardeners and janitors and firemen and lawyers and stay-at-home moms and musicians and garbage collectors and architects and lab-techs and graphic designers and bankers and retail sales associates?
Can we call their work meaningful?
We just might be tempted to think it is meaningful . . . if we add an "if." If the money made is given to support missions and the work of the church. And if we are telling others at our workplace about their need for Jesus. If we are living very morally while we do this work. That's a lot of if-ing.
So our work—if it is not vocational ministry—is meaningless unless it is the means to another end? There is nothing intrinsically meaningful about it? We might be tempted to think this is the case.
Add to this the celebrity culture in which we live. Are our lives meaningful even if we spend all our time here in an unknown corner of the world where nothing newsworthy ever happens? Must we do something wonderful, grabbing the notice of others in order for our lives to have meaning? Do we need to "shine" for our lives to have meaning? What about all those lonely lives? Are they meaningless?
Meaningless, meaningless . . .
We may recoil when we read the writer of Ecclesiastes say "Everything is meaningless," but we far too often live as if this is close to being the case. We live as if only the overtly spiritual things are meaningful. We live as if only work that is religious in nature is meaningful. And we live as if an anonymous life is without meaning.
Or we are at least tempted to do so.
But I am not so sure. I know the temptation. I am intimately acquainted with these thoughts and fears. But I am not sure it is true.
Our celebrity-driven culture makes it hard to think any differently. And really, the church isn't a whole lot of help. Maybe it has always been the case. But it is hard to miss the celebrity zeitgeist of the modern-day evangelical milieu. Not to mention movements which will make the hardest working stay-at-home-mom think she may not be doing enough for the kingdom. "You need to change the world," sounds enticing while changing the third diaper before noon.
When Solomon made his pronouncement that life is meaningless, he was examining life "under the sun"—a phrase he used more than 25 times in Ecclesiastes. This was a look at life without God at its center. In such circumstances life is indeed meaningless. But by the end of the book Solomon had discovered life's meaning—to fear God and obey His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
So I ask, "Is most of life meaningless?"
I don't think so. I think there are clues throughout Scripture which help us see a beautiful picture of meaning in even the smallest of details.
Romans 8 is a favorite section of the Bible for many people. It's where Christians have gone for centuries in the midst of hardship and pain and suffering. Why? Because Paul not only gives us the promise that nothing—not even death, our greatest enemy—is able to separate us from the love of our Father because of what Christ has done, but he also tells us something strange. He makes it clear that everything is working for the believer's good.
Everything. Surely if torture and death itself are working for our good, then we can assume all those parts of our life which are not all that "spiritual" are doing the same. And it does not say all things have the potential to work for our good. It says they do. It's as if God is orchestrating this incredible symphony of everything so it all works for our good and His glory. And it's beautiful. And it's meaningful.
It's funny really. Christians seem to always fall into the trap of dividing up work as spiritual and secular. Pastors and missionaries are doing spiritual work. Plumbers and doctors are doing secular work. Only a few are doing the spiritual stuff and getting paid to do it. But wasn't Adam told to work even before the Fall? In fact it is hard to walk away from the story of Adam without thinking he . . . we were created to work.
Indeed, it seems to be at the very heart of being created in the image of God.
And the message of the goodness of work stretches all the way into the New Testament—to the gnarled hands of a carpenter reaching for a piece of wood to fashion. We hardly have even noticed that the Apostle Paul—a missionary himself—never tells others to be missionaries in his letters to the churches. But he does tell them to work.
Why would he, under the direction of the Spirit of God, tell the Christians in Thessalonica in chapter 3 to do something like work unless it was meaningful? Are we to assume Paul, directed by the Spirit, would ask them and us to do anything that is without meaning?
Really, we have a problem. But it is not the problem we think it is.
The problem of finding meaning in all parts of our life lies not in what we can see but in what we believe. Our tendency is to label something meaningful if we can see the meaning in it. If not, we call it meaningless.
Remember Geometry? Diagramming sentences? Greek Mythology? We assume that if we cannot see the meaning, it is not there. It does not exist, at least for us anyway.
But we must remember that the very God we cannot see has promised to work meaningfully in all things. This God who has created all things. This unseen God who has redeemed us at the price of His Son's life, though we stuck a fist in His face. This invisible God who holds out hope to us in the gospel, that even the death we cannot yet see works for our good by ushering us into a bliss we cannot even imagine.
So, for those who are in Christ, who have been called according to His purpose, everything has some meaning. Bursting with it. Even when we cannot see it or imagine it, the meaning is there.
"Everything is meaningful."