Unafraid: Meaninglessness

This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.

Recently, I was having a conversation with my son, Noah, and one of his friends, Paul, who just graduated from college and is about to begin his career in accounting.  It was pretty late, and the conversation turned to deeper concerns.  “I have a friend who is working in her field and she doesn’t really like it.  It’s not at all what she thought the work was going to be like.  What if I find out that I hate this work but am stuck for the next 40 years doing something I can’t stand?  It seems meaningless!  What do we do if that happens?”

Paul certainly isn’t alone.  In fact, I would hunch that he speaks for his generation that has been encouraged to pursue a vocation that fits with one’s passion so as to avoid that meaningless existence of mundane drudgery.  I remember the youth pastor in my first church clued me in to the difference between our generations.  My generation was still pretty focused on a “living to work” paradigm where we were driven to identify ourselves with our work, and success in life was closely tied to success at work.  Not him.  He worked to live.  He wanted to do well, but his identity or sense of success was not tied to his work.  I’ve spoken to parents who wonder why their adult kids don’t get a job.  The answer they get is that they are waiting for a job that fits their passion, even if it means living really stretched financially in the meantime.  They don’t want to fritter away their lives in meaningless hours working at something they don’t have any passion for.

My generation and before do struggle with this hopeless meaninglessness fear, but too often the lightbulb doesn’t come on until late in life, sometimes well into retirement.  In their later years they recognize that the pursuits of work and wealth as vehicles for meaning in life are overrated and likely won’t deliver.  I’ve officiated a number of funerals where the beloved deceased put all their eggs into their retirement basket, only to have their life cut short well before their dreams were even attempted, let alone realized.  It is easy to feel like life is pointless during those seasons.

There is a book in the Bible dedicated to this human struggle for meaningful life: Ecclesiastes.  Written by King David’s son from his ill-gotten wife, Bathsheba,  Solomon was known for two things: wisdom and wealth.  At the dawn of his reign, he had a pivotal spiritual experience:

God appeared to Solomon and said, “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!”
     Solomon replied to God, “You showed faithful love to David, my father, and now you have made me king in his place. O Lord God, please continue to keep your promise to David my father, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth! Give me the wisdom and knowledge to lead them properly, for who could possibly govern this great people of yours?”
     God said to Solomon, “Because your greatest desire is to help your people, and you did not ask for wealth, riches, fame, or even the death of your enemies or a long life, but rather you asked for wisdom and knowledge to properly govern my people— I will certainly give you the wisdom and knowledge you requested. But I will also give you wealth, riches, and fame such as no other king has had before you or will ever have in the future!” – 2 Chronicles 1:7-12 (NLT)

God was faithful to deliver.  No king of Israel before or after commanded anywhere near the same level of power and wealth as Solomon.  And for wisdom?  Rulers from other parts of the world came to sit and learn from him.  One source estimates that he was the 5th richest human being of all time.  His estimated net worth was $2.2 Trillion, which is roughly 1.5 times the net worth of Bill Gates, John Astor, Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Norman Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie combined.  Pretty successful guy.  And yet, deep into his life, he lamented in his reflections:

“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”
     What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content.
     History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now. – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (NLT)

For twelve chapters Solomon considers human existence and determines that it is all meaningless.  Wealth.  Work. Meaningless.  He surprises (especially) Baptist teetotalers with his words of advice which he states a number of times throughout his little book: in light of our meaninglessness, you might as well eat, drink, and be merry.  Cheers!

In his book, Unafraid, Adam Hamilton tackles the commonly held fear of meaninglessness head on.  He cites Victor Frankl a number of times, who survived the torment of being held in a holocaust prison camp.  Frankl noticed that some prisoners despaired while others seemed to prevail through the same experience.  He came to believe that “life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose” (Unafraid, 99).  Especially when things are not good – even evil – there is an opportunity for us to find and create meaning from them.

Meaning is something we have the capacity to find and create, apparently regardless of the circumstance.  This is an important insight to consider for all people of every age who find themselves in this existential struggle. It means that there is hope even if we’re stuck in a job that might not be as awesome as we’d hoped, or a situation we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy.  Apparently, according to Frankl, to stay stuck in the despair of meaninglessness is a choice, as is the freedom to live with meaning no matter what.  I find that very hopeful.

So, how do we pull it off?  How do we find meaning and even happiness in every situation?  Frankl noted in the preface to the 1992 edition of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “for success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen by not caring about it.  I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”  Meaning, satisfaction, and happiness ultimately stem from serving a cause greater than ourselves. 

Jesus taught this (Matthew 16:24-28).  He noted that the surest way to lose your life was to serve yourself, and the greatest way to insure that you keep it is to lose it in the Way Jesus taught.  That Way was what living in deep relationship with God looked like, which invariably included loving and serving those around us, standing up for those who are being robbed of true shalom (oppression).  Hamilton notes (103), “According to Jesus, our daily lives are meant to be lived in the rhythm of accepting and reciprocating God’s love, loving our neighbors, and pursuing God’s will in tangible ways.  Loving our neighbors does not mean having warm, fuzzy feelings for them. It means… ‘to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8).”

Hamilton incorporates a daily ritual into his life to remind him of this critical secret to experience meaning and lasting joy in life.  He begins his day with a prayer: “Thank you, God, for today. Thank you for your love and grace. I offer myself once more to you today. Please help me to be mindful of those around me. Use me to bless, encourage, and show kindness to all that I meet today. Send me on your mission today” (104). He does this so that he doesn’t miss out on what is before him all the time.  “Meaningful and significant lives are lived moment by moment – as we pay attention to the world around us, as we give thanks to God from whom all of life is a gift, as we look for the simple and selfless ways that we can love and serve others while positively impacting our world. It is both an attitude of the heart and a rhythm of daily actions that affect us as much as we affect others” (Hamilton, 105).

Paul and Noah had this figured out already.  Now it’s up to them to put it into practice and realize the power of this secret.  What about Solomon,  though?  Did the wisest man that ever lived miss the memo that his Jewish tradition conveyed?  What’s with the eat, drink, and be merry bit that he commended to his readers so many times in his brief tome?

Perhaps the conclusion to his writing was an editorial addition long after he died.  Or, perhaps there is a connection between the Way of Jesus, “eat, drink, and be merry”, and “fearing God, obeying God’s commands”.  I think there is.  To fear is to revere, to respect, to follow much more than cower.  It means to deeply value with your life, as if it is the most important thing to give your attention.  In that sense, to savor every moment is deeply honoring to God.  Given the broader context of Solomon’s writing in Ecclesiastes, and the even broader context of his Proverbs, we must assume that this is no selfish pursuit, but communal. One where there can be no merriment if someone is left outside while we eat and drink.  Just as there is no justice for any unless there is justice for all, perhaps the same is true for merriment.

Feeling like your life is meaningless?  Love someone.  Serve a cause bigger than you.  Help someone’s shalom come to fruition.  Break bread.  Raise a glass.  Pursue merriment with all.  You’ll find yourself surrounded by meaning that connects you deeply to the One Who connects us all.

Questions to think about…

1.       When do you first remember wondering if life was pointless? How did you resolve it?

2.       When has life felt most meaningful to you? When has life felt most meaningless to you?

3.       Have you ever experienced meaningfulness during awful seasons of life?

4.       How has Jesus’ approach to saving your life worked for you?  How have you experienced losing your life by trying to save it?  How have you experienced keeping your life by losing yourself in the Way of Jesus?

5.       What practices do you use to keep your perspective, which promotes meaningfulness?