“Whatever!” This one word phrase has been the motto of the last decade in our popular culture. It’s what a teenager says to her parents when they ask her to clean up her room for the 12th time that day. It’s what the employee says when his employer treats him unfairly in the workplace. It’s what the citizen says when the politician renigs on campaign promises…again. “Whatever!”
What does this statement represent? What are we really saying with this word? Underneath the seemingly cool detachment and slight sarcasm in which this word is uttered lies a deep sense of hopelessness. Over and over we have seen the injustices of the world being perpetrated by people who seem to care nothing about our feelings and who seem to never be called to justice for their flagrant acts of bullying and manipulation. The wicked seem to be flourishing while the people who are working hard and just trying to make it in the world are trampled on or overlooked. The people who claim to be righteous or hold the keys to the mysteries of God turn out to be fakes, charlatans, and worse sinners than the people at whom they are wagging their self-righteous finger. People tell us there is supposed to be meaning in the world, but the world itself shouts out, “meaningless!! There is no order to things. It’s all a big crap shoot and a game of survival of the fittest!” So we respond, “Whatever!” put our heads down, and carry on with our lives that seem pointless and devoid of real joy.
Perhaps this seems like a bleak picture of the state of affairs in our culture. If you cannot relate to this and are finding yourself skipping through life having a genuinely great time, that’s wonderful; God bless you. For the rest of us who have entertained these thoughts of hopelessness and meaninglessness, and have felt ashamed to admit it because we are Christians and are supposed to always be happy, then the study of Ecclesiastes is for us.
The book of Ecclesiastes has been called the Gospel of Generation X, or the Postmodern Gospel. The “Teacher,” the author of this book, is an intelligent man who is not afraid to deal with the difficult questions of life. He is not afraid to acknowledge the fact that sometimes life truly doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes bad people actually win and good people get the raw end of the stick. Sometimes babies die; good couples never have children; people are born with serious deformities; bad people terrorize innocent citizens. The “Teacher” is bold enough to look at these difficulties in life and not gloss over them with trite and cliché Christianisms. He is willing to enter into the world of the skeptical philosopher/cynic and meet him there.
There is where the journey begins. The “Teacher” steps into the chaotic world of uncertainty that plagues the mind of every critical thinker that has ever walked the planet. At this point we can learn a great deal from this ancient Teacher about how to be the light of God in the world. Many of us feel that if we are going to be good ambassadors for the good news of Jesus we must always have on our “happy face” and present a perfect image of life in God’s Kingdom. The “Teacher” helps us realize that this approach, if it is not authentic, is not necessarily the best approach. If people are going to be open to hear the good news of the Gospel, they need us to enter into their world and acknowledge that their pain and perspective is valid and very real. The “Teacher” is a master at doing just this.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is like a conversation between two worldviews: the Naturalist and the Biblical. The Naturalist observes the world for what it is – for what can be observed; what is “under the sun.” The “Teacher”, who is ultimately speaking from a God-centered perspective, meets the Naturalist in his perspective and articulates his arguments with an authentic empathy. Then, patiently and intelligently presents a perspective from “above the sun,” in which the supremacy of God and the finitude of man is embraced and held in tension. In other words, the Teacher says to the naturalist, “You are absolutely right.When the world is observed from under the sun there really is no rhyme or reason to it. If this is all there is, then we should just eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we vanish.”
Then adding to this perspective, and most likely surprising the naturalist who has prejudged the God-lover as narrow, trite, and superstitious, continues, “under the sun EVERYTHING is meaningless. Even religion and moral behavior is meaningless.”
“What?” replies the Naturalist, “How can you, being a man of religion, say that religion and moral behavior are meaningless? Isn’t that what your worldview is built upon?”
Now, to you the reader, comes the heart and soul of the message of Ecclesiastes. Religion and moral behavior ARE meaningless. Our lives, as followers of Jesus, are not built upon following rules, building and growing churches, being “right” when everyone else is wrong, or doing good deeds. The truth is that most of us get caught up in those kinds of activities for the wrong reasons. We do most of our “good” out of the motivation to be noticed by others and to gain a reputation for being righteous. We may couch it in false humility, but deep down we are all needy people looking for kudos from either God or from others. The “Teacher” points out to us that these activities done under those deep-seated motivations are as pointless and sinful as the fool who chases after wine, women, and work.
God is bigger than all of that. God is ultimate. God is infinite. God is not defined or confined by anything, even His own rules. God has a promise and a purpose, but there is no way that we will EVER know what it is or make sense out of all the pieces that comprise its complexity. It is not our place to understand God, it is our place to know God and serve God.
When we can come to grips with the reality that everything in life is a chasing after the wind unless the activity is completely and utterly surrendered to God, then we can know freedom. Then we can agree with the apostle Paul when he said in Philippians 4:12
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
We can read between the lines, “because, apart from God, none of it really matters anyway.” The challenge before us is to determine where our focus is. Are we still trying to make sense out of the “stuff” in life, and trying to be filled by our activities or reputation? Or, have we realized that all of it is empty unless our focus is an eternal one that looks beyond and “above” the sun, into the eternal love and reality of Godself. Let’s look to God to be filled so that we can overflow into the meaning-less world who desperately needs to drink from a well full of meaning.