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When life feels meaningless

Lessons from Ecclesiastes for a time of frustration

This past year has reminded me of the Book of Ecclesiastes, with its recurring theme of “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless” (1:2). We have been stopped from much of our “chasing after the wind” to reflect. We wrestle with how to live in the time of COVID.

Frustration

Early on we were frustrated by loss. We lost freedom, jobs, relationships, health, and – for some – life. Some of us lost friends or family. We might be troubled by depression and tempted by despair. We are frustrated by the confusion, the conflict, the known and the unknown. Pleasures have run dry. Purposes are unfulfilled. We wonder about the times and cannot figure it out. This is the time of Ecclesiastes.

Functioning

After the author of Ecclesiastes expresses all the frustrations of life, culminating in death, he advises faithful functioning in this confusing, uncertain, uncontrollable life. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again” (11:1, NIV). This is the old translation, from 1984. The newer one tries to literalize the metaphor. “Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.”

The old metaphorical, yet more literal, translation has been a conundrum for interpretation. What could it mean to “cast your bread upon the waters?” Jewish interpreters saw this as charity – give food into the great sea of poverty and you will be rewarded. Some have seen this as doing something foolish amid meaninglessness and then seeing what happens. Others have taken this as an encouragement to make beer, the bread providing the yeast for the fermenting water. Maybe the newer translation is right, although less fun – that it is about keeping on with your work, diversifying investment and risk (v. 2), but even this loses the full picture.

Folly

The newer translation reminds me of how I was taught to figure everything out. Make all your calculations. Prove that it is the wise thing to do. Then do it, and it will all work out. This is how I saw churches make building plans, far different from the “acts of faith” in some traditions. I was taught to understand, control and then do. Now I can’t. Ecclesiastes reminds me that I was fooling myself when I thought I could.

Faith

Maybe we can learn something from the “acts of faith.” Acts of faith are not just foolish endeavors against the evidence. Ecclesiastes 11:3-5 guides us in acts of faith. “If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie. Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things” (NIV).

There is order and disorder in nature, much outside our control. There is inevitability and randomness. We cannot predict it all by divination or science. It is a mystery how our bodies are inspired by the spirit (better than NIV’s translation, “wind”), at the beginning and always. Even science and philosophy acknowledge the mystery of human consciousness. God is beyond our understanding, but he is the Maker of all and at work in all.

Freedom

So, sow. “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (11:6). Freed from the sense that we need to understand all before we can act, freed from the need to control and the guilt of failure, live faithfully and wisely.
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of every human being” (12:13).

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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