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WORK IS MEANINGLESS
WALTER WHITE AND OZYMANDIAS
Andre was flipping out. “You’re the one writing a book about meaninglessness, so you probably know what I feel like.”
“No, Andre, researching and writing about a feeling isn’t the same as having one. You gotta explain it to me.”
We were sitting in his apartment. Andre had just gotten me a glass of water, and he was just beginning to peel the layers off and tell me what was really going on. Andre had accomplished several years of intense university performance, including several years earning a post-graduate degree, and all that was left was the thesis. But as he was working on his thesis, he became afflicted with extreme anxiety. All of a sudden, this high-output, focused, brilliant student wasn’t allowed to do what made him most happy: work on his research. Somehow the pressures to perform flipped a switch, and he was forced to take several months off of finishing his thesis and several months off from anything that might cause stress. He found himself sitting at home, contributing nothing to his research. The longer he stayed away from his research, the more he began to feel purposeless and directionless. And the longer he felt purposeless and directionless, the more he began to show symptoms of clinical depression.
The only encouragement he had was the hope that, through enough tests, he’d be able to get his anxiety under control and be able to do his work. Without his work, “I feel empty most days . . . adrift.” In other words, he felt like life was meaningless. He constantly expressed that he knew his life wasn’t meaningless, but he couldn’t help feeling that way. The importance of being productive, of having work to do, of having a project, can’t be overlooked. In Western culture, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that we largely view our value as humans and our meaningfulness in life in proportion to how important our work is. But this is a dangerous way to view ourselves. And every now and then, a philosopher or artist or writer tries to point this out.
An example: One of the most highly acclaimed television series of all time, Breaking Bad, revolves around the character of Walter White, a middle-class chemistry professor who, once he discovers he’s dying of cancer, seeks to guarantee financial security for his family by producing and selling drugs. Soon, though, his motivation to deal drugs to secure his family’s financial future morphs into a selfish desire to build some type of empire and legacy for himself. It’s the ultimate midlife crisis gone horribly wrong.
Interestingly, the producers of the show created a trailer for the final season of Breaking Bad in which Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays Walter White, recites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Here’s the poem:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The point of comparison for the television series is clear: The viewers of the final season will watch all that Walter White has built up for himself, all his work that he takes so much pride in, slowly fall apart around him. He will be humbled, and there will be nothing left of any value by which to remember Walter White.
Shelley’s poem applies to far more than people dealing with midlife crises. He invites us to put the greatest figures of our own time in the place of Ozymandias (Ramesses II). We’re to imagine statues of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, presidents and prime ministers, Oprah and Beyoncé. Now picture a traveler thousands of years from now traversing a desert, stopping to read plaques proclaiming the vastness of the accomplishments of these people, only to look up at the stumpy remains of these monuments left amputated and misshapen by erosion. Shelley’s point is clear: Given enough time, the accomplishments of all great people will eventually disappear.
There are two major issues with the future: The first is uncertainty. You have no idea what everyone will do with your legacy. The second is inevitability. One thing you do know for certain is that eventually everyone will forget about your legacy. Then one question remains: Was it worth it?
Shelley also invites us to consider our own desires to leave a legacy. If the great Ozymandias has left nothing behind but scraps, if there remains no memory of his great deeds, what chances are there that our own legacies will last?
Likewise, Solomon addresses our attempts to attain personal value through work, not just with the goal of the accumulation of wealth but also the desire to find meaning in life through “making a difference.” Except Solomon will not have us compare ourselves to a Walter White or Ozymandias but to his own kingdom-building.
I MUST LEAVE THEM TO THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER ME
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23)
Ecclesiastes invites us again to imagine the vast wealth and accomplishments of the biblical Solomon. Like Shelley’s poem, these observations hold true regardless of whether you have the traditional Solomon in mind. When we consider how Solomon is described in the Bible, we have the closest thing we can come to a biblical Ozymandias. We mentioned much earlier that Solomon accomplished some of the greatest kingdom-building feats in history. He built the First Temple of Israel, which was the Jewish version of Mecca’s Al-Haram Mosque or the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica. And if you compare the materials used in the temple with his own palace, as recorded in the Bible, his palace was of equal magnificence. And not only was Solomon a builder, but he also gained world renown as a scientist, a judge, and a ruler. He must have regularly burned the midnight oil, working hard to master his many vocations. As Solomon himself describes, “All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest.”
And when it came to building up all this knowledge, money, property, and legacy, he writes, “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun.” Why? His first major reason for finding this toiling meaningless: “Because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.” Let’s remind ourselves that Solomon is speaking of life “under the sun,” that is, forgetting that there’s anything higher or beyond the simple daily experiences and drudgery of life in this sinful world. And if we measure ourselves entirely by what we accomplish in this life, the first major problem is we don’t get to keep it. All our accomplishments remain ours for only a short time before they pass into the hands of someone else. As Solomon writes later in Ecclesiastes, “I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil” (Ecclesiastes 6:1,2).
Remember a time when you took extra care to prepare your favorite meal or drink? A friend of mine, obsessed with coffee, will spend 30 minutes preparing the perfect cup of coffee, taking the time to grind the beans (that he may have just bought fresh an hour earlier at the corner roaster), to select a special brewing method, and then to hover over the pot so that the moment the coffee is done he can take it off the stove. After several steps, with each step anticipating more and more the cup of coffee and with the smell of brewing coffee intoxicating his nostrils, he finally lifts that perfect cup of coffee to his lips and then . . . a slip! It falls from his hands, and it spills. What is he thinking? What has just happened to that morning spent preparing his cup of coffee? Wasted, utterly wasted—the whole process seemingly meaningless. It would have been better if he had not even started brewing the cup of coffee. Now imagine that cup of coffee is your life’s accomplishments, everything you worked for and stored up. But instead of dropping the cup, you die.
The difference, of course, is that the spilt coffee goes to no one, but all the fruit of your labor will go to others. Maybe the better analogy is that my friend spends his life preparing that perfect cup of coffee only to have someone else drink it, someone who can’t tell good coffee from a cup of motor oil!
And, of course, many of us live knowing we’ll never get to “drink the coffee.” We spend considerable time working for our progeny, whether we’re trying to create a better world for our immediate family only (like Walter White) or a better world for everyone (like Bill and Melinda Gates through their foundations). And you may have good reason to believe that what you leave behind will be used as you intended it for at least for a little while. But the problem remains, whether the legacy is for your children, community, or country: Even if, hypothetically, it was guaranteed that several generations would make good use of your legacy, it’s all going to fade into nothing at some point and then be nothing for the eternity that follows. Everything eventually goes the way of Ozymandias’ statue or, according to the Bible’s favorite parallel picture, the flower of the field—beautiful one day but blown away the next, along with its memory.
UNCERTAINTY AND INEVITABILITY NOW
Solomon does offer a pragmatic response to the uncertainty of what will happen to your life’s work after you die and the inevitability that it will one day be forgotten. His pragmatic response: Get short-term pleasure out of it. “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:24). In other words, find satisfaction now in what you do instead of focusing so much on the future. Again, Ecclesiastes isn’t a treatise on how life can’t be enjoyed. Of course it can be enjoyed, and it should be enjoyed! But recognize it for what it is. It’s short-term.
And there are plenty of challenges in deriving short-term meaning out of your labor. Maybe you happen to have a decent job that you enjoy, a job that pays well, a job that makes you feel useful. Many people don’t. What about them? Or again, Shelley and Solomon remind us that after we’re gone, there’s considerable uncertainty about how our legacy will be used, but it is inevitable that it will be forgotten. And we don’t have to wait until after we die to experience the effects of this uncertainty and inevitability. We’re not only uncertain about what happens after death; we’re uncertain about what will happen tomorrow! It’s not only inevitable that our work eventually will be forgotten after we die. It’s inevitable that during our present life things we do will be forgotten.
If you’ve driven around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the past five years, you’ve maybe noticed once or twice a sticker, stuck to a light post here or a mailbox there, with a simple face and the phrase, “Have goals.” Apparently, thousands of copies of this sticker grace the streets of Milwaukee, placed there by a Milwaukee street artist. What would motivate this kind of project, and why would it find such positive feedback from so many Milwaukee residents? In an interview, the artist said individuals have told him that his work has inspired them into “just grabbing the controls of their own life and making it be the thing that they want it to be. And then coming to me—finding me and telling me, ‘It’s because I saw this thing you put up.’ ”
The reason why even small phrases like “have goals” can be so powerful is clear: It is because they do generate meaning in a person’s life. By simply having a goal, the actions in your life can be interpreted relative to how well they steer you toward or away from that goal. Goals mean meaning. At least short-term meaning. And so we’re often trying to give our lives meaning by sketching out for ourselves goals, dreams, and future plans. After all, if we’re working toward a goal, we have purpose: That future raise, getting a business started, saving up for that boat or summer cottage, getting that diploma. . . . You name the goal. And, of course, having dreams and aspirations is healthy! In clinical counseling, if someone is feeling depressed (and the feelings of depression aren’t the direct result of a medical condition creating chemical imbalances), the first thing the counselor may ask is, “What are your goals in life?” And if the person doesn’t have any, the counselor works with the person in creating a few goals. Feelings of depression often come from feeling purposeless and adrift in life, and so creating goals gives someone an actual trajectory for their life, which in turn will lessen the moments of depression.
The problem, though, is that if this is the only thing that gives your life trajectory, if your own personal goals are the only things that you derive purpose from, you’re still in for a largely depressing life. Because no one just hands out fulfilled dreams. No one will ask you what your goals are and drop you off there. Even hard work doesn’t guarantee anything. Whether you’ll get anywhere near those goals is uncertain from the start. As Solomon says, “Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come?” (Ecclesiastes 8:7). Or even more to the point:
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
You can’t control the economy or world affairs, every aspect of your health, or the decisions of the people around you. You can’t predict all the hardships or roadblocks or hurdles you or your children are going to face. Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his grief and anger over the alleged murder of a college acquaintance of his at the hands of police. The murder victim, named Prince Jones, was a very well-liked, Christian young man who was from a well-to-do family and had a fiancée and a young daughter. Coates has a poignant description of what that murder cost Jones’ family. It’s an impressive portrait of how meaningless a Christian parent’s efforts and expenses can end up being “under the sun” because of their child’s sudden, unjust death:
Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of World Book and Childcraft. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.
You can anticipate some stuff; you can be relatively in control of your life compared to the lives of others, but you will not reach all your dreams. Your children will not reach all your dreams for them, perhaps tragically they will not even reach any. And so, if you derive all your value and purpose in life in how well you (or your dear children) achieve goals, you’re at best gambling and most realistically looking forward to bouts of depressive experiences.
And what happens when you’re at a point in your life when you are past setting goals and dreams? Marion was 100 years old, of very poor health (as well as nearly blind and deaf). She was often cranky with me. She didn’t want to live anymore. She told me this one way or another every time I visited her. “Why is the man upstairs keeping me around?” she would always say. And every time I answered her with a smile, “To teach me patience.” Marion couldn’t see a purpose for herself because she had run out of goals, dreams, and future plans. And it made sense. For most of us, if we don’t have goals, dreams, and plans, we feel like we don’t have a purpose, which means we don’t have a meaningful existence. Marion simply went one step farther, as many Christians find themselves doing. She thought that the reason God keeps people around is to do things, and unless she was doing something for God, there wasn’t any reason for her to be around. She slipped into thinking about God like many people do, seeing God as an exalted boss with goals and an agenda, a God who views people primarily as employees he’s going to put to work to achieve those goals and fulfill that agenda.
Of course, God still did have a purpose for Marion, and that purpose did involve doing things, even if she couldn’t see it. Because God didn’t see Marion as his employee. The God of the Bible sees us differently. It’s more relational, remember? Our purpose is to love: to love God and other people. And just like a spouse shouldn’t see loving his wife as work, something he can clock in and out of, God calls us to see our purpose as something far more profound than work. And it’s our goal to see ourselves that way too.
WHOEVER LOVES MONEY NEVER HAS ENOUGH MONEY
We will come back to the idea of “have goals.” But often we find ourselves doing our jobs not because we’re pursuing some meaningful (to us) life goals. Often we do our jobs simply because we want the money.
Most people recognize that acquiring money isn’t acquiring happiness. Yet, on some level, we agree with comedian Groucho Marx: “While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.” In other words, we know money can’t buy happiness, but often enough that’s how we live! It’s a subtle form of believing that money can give us things of value in this life. And, again, you certainly can argue that money affects your ability to acquire things with short-term meaning. The trouble is when we live as though money will give us cosmic meaning. Solomon writes:
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase, . . . what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them? (Ecclesiastes 5:10,11)
If you’re acquiring money in order to be happy or to feel like you have some type of cosmic, transcendent value in this universe, you’ll never get enough money. You’ll keep telling yourself, “A little more . . . , ” and then you’ll get the meaningful life you want, but a little more is never enough to give it to you. Famously, John D. Rockefeller Sr. (who tops many lists of the wealthiest Americans of all time) on his deathbed was asked how much money was enough, and he responded, “A little bit more.”
The reason, of course, is because money in and of itself is cosmically meaningless, as Solomon says. What gives us meaning beyond ourselves can only come from one thing: a story that comes from beyond us but that includes us. And if you want your life to be part of a good story, you can’t buy that. You can only be invited into it, as the biblical God has invited you. Money, though, is of no benefit, except simply to fill your eyes on a feast that will never fill your belly.
Now that certainly doesn’t mean money is of no use to us. Of course it is. It’s great for financial security, helping others, and short-term enjoyment and pleasure. But don’t expect it to be of any use in giving you a meaningful life. It’s simply not that kind of thing. You’ll have to lift your eyes higher.
THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS
The “have goals” crowd would agree with this: Don’t just live for the next paycheck or the next Cyber Monday deals. Be intentional. Be purposeful. Make something of your life.
A group of atheist thinkers in the 20th century who we now label the French existentialists (not to be confused with the people earlier labeled existentialists, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, who were Christians) asserted that we can and must do just this. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir asked, If there is no God, and so no one to create us with a meaningful essence, can we create for ourselves a meaningful essence through the choices we make? And isn’t that our only option
They all agreed that, if there is no God, humans are born into an absurd situation, one in which we want our lives to have cosmic meaning but instead everything begins meaningless. The French existentialists made a point of frankly and honestly admitting their belief in the non-existence of God, the resulting cosmic meaninglessness of life, and the struggle with absurdity that follows. Albert Camus (he didn’t like being labeled an existentialist, but we still call him one today) wrote a novel titled The Outsider (in some translations The Stranger), which involved a protagonist, Mercault, who shot a man and was now on trial. At one point Mercault muses in his cell:
I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d lived in a certain way and I could just as well have lived in a different way. I’d done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done one thing whereas I had done another. So what? It was as if I’d been waiting all along for this very moment and for the early dawn when I’d be justified. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. . . . From the depths of my future, throughout the whole of this absurd life I’d been leading, I’d felt a vague breath drifting towards me across all the years that were still to come, and on its way this breath had evened out everything that was then being proposed to me in the equally unreal years I was living through. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me, what did his God or the lives people chose or the destinies they selected matter to me?
Mercault feels he is being honest that, if his worldview is correct that God is dead, this life is “absurd.” “Nothing, nothing mattered.” In his afterword to the novel, Camus wrote that the real reason Mercault was on trial was “because he doesn’t play the game . . . he refuses to lie.”36 The game, of course, is living as if the death of God doesn’t matter, living like those whom Nietzsche’s madman was trying to warn. But if we’re completely honest about life, if there’s only “under the sun,” in the words of the Teacher, it’s all meaningless.
The master metaphor for this absurd life became, for the French existentialists, the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a story in which the gods condemned a man to forever push a rock up a hill, but the rock would simply roll down to the bottom again the moment he arrived at the top. This is the life we are born into, they argued. Instead of finding ourselves in the midst of a story where there is a hopeful beginning and an end that we look forward to, we find ourselves in an uncaring universe and faced with purposeless, meaningless, and never-ending striving. Albert Camus, who first used Sisyphus as a metaphor, writes:
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. . . .
You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his fortune. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. . . .
Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This uni- verse henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Despite Camus’ honesty about life being meaningless and absurd without God, somehow his Sisyphus can conclude, in the midst of an absurd life, within a world “without a master” (that is, without God), that “all is well.” How? The struggle. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Somehow the struggle itself can give meaningful purpose to one’s life. According to Camus, the fact that Sisyphus has a choice to push or not push that rock gives his life meaning. Perhaps your choices are not ultimately meaningful to the universe, but the matter stands that you have a choice. Your sentience and autonomy make you able to choose, and those choices are yours and yours alone, and these choices that are yours and yours alone change the world, even if only a small part of it for only a short period of time. According to Camus, the gods thought they were punishing Sisyphus, but the fact of the matter is that they were liberating him.
Do you buy it? Many people do, with or without the French philosophers. I may not be able to control everything but, as William Ernest Henley inspires in his well-known poem “Invictus,” “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll, / I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” In other words, I can control me, my fate, my mark on this world. From Churchill to Mandela, we’ve rallied behind Henley’s words, or morphs of it: Frank Sinatra’s anthem croons, “I did it my way.” And although the singer grew to hate the song, people love to croon along with it, from genocide-accused Serbian dictators to grieving funeral-planners.
Regardless of the ultimate implications of Camus’ line of thinking or its morale-boosting appeal, we know (and Camus knew) that it can’t give us what we’re looking for: a truly cosmic (transcendent) meaningful life. If there is no God, there’s simply no overarching story to be a part of and we certainly can’t create an overarching story through our choices. We’re left, again, with short-term meaning. What we do has a certain amount of value for us and for those around us, but every day, every hour, every minute that passes after a choice has been made, the effects of that choice are diminishing, again, like the face of Ozymandias. Whereas Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of meaningless toil, if the atheist is correct, ours is only for a short lifetime, and then it’s over, along with our ability to make choices and our ability to bring short-term meaning into this world.
IS PROGRESS POSSIBLE?
At this point, the skeptic might be saying, “Okay, I agree money can’t buy happiness, and I agree that if there is no God, life is absurd. And so the choices I make in this world can’t give me cos- mic meaning. . . . But I can at least work toward making the world a better place, right? That’s meaningful, isn’t it?”
remember a few years ago when I was starting to formulate some of these thoughts; I was trying to explain to an agnostic friend of mine the need for God in order for life to be meaningful. He and his partner were extremely politically active; they were both urban planners deeply interested in revitalizing segregated, economically depressed neighborhoods. At one point he quickly turned to me and said, “So if there’s no God, there’s no point in the work we do? There’s no point in trying to make our cities better places to live? There’s no point in trying to improve the lives of people in the world? You’re saying our work is meaningless?”
I was caught off guard, wrapped up in my own lines of reasoning, and I hadn’t realized how he was reading this all. I deeply offended him. To make things worse, I didn’t have a good answer at the time. I don’t know if our friendship ever quite recovered.
If I could rewind the clock, this is what I would have wanted to say: “Of course it’s meaningful. Of course throwing yourself into work that you conscientiously believe is good for your community is awesome. Of course that’s what life is all about. You know it’s meaningful. The question, though, is why is it meaningful? Because there are people who don’t care about their communities, who take no interest in their neighbors, who are comfortable with their selfish lifestyles. Would you tell them what they’re doing is wrong, that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing? And then what would you say determines that they are wrong?” I’d challenge him to see his meaningful work within a larger, meaningful story that would give it not only temporal, short-term meaning but cosmic, eternal, transcendent meaning.
Remember that the point of this book is not to prove to you that your life is meaningless. I certainly don’t think it is. I think every life has infinite value, that every choice we make has deep significance, and that there’s tremendous value, even cosmic</em value, in trying to make the world a better place through the work we do.
The question is not, “Is your life meaningful?” The question is, “Can you give an explanation for why your life is meaningful?”
And Solomon’s response is, if we’re only looking at life “under the sun”—that is, life as it daily appears to us in all its monotony, pain, suffering, and temporariness—if we’re not seeing our life within a higher, overarching story, we have no good reason to believe life is meaningful. However, the overarching story, the metanarrative of the biblical God, infuses every bit of life with transcendent, lasting, infinite meaning. Does a part of you feel like you were created to love and care for fellow human beings? Looking at life “under the sun” will not give you an explanation for that feeling. But the biblical metanarrative does: A good God who loves us created us to do just that, to love, both him and one another. And the highest expression of his love for us is found in his giving his life for us on the cross, an act that both unites us with God and provides the proper motivation for us to give our lives for others. Does a part of you feel like you were created to make this world a better place, that if you’re just wasting your life away in front of the TV or computer, you really are, somehow, wasting your life? Looking at life “under the sun” will not give you an explanation for that feeling. But the biblical metanarrative does: The Bible teaches that humans brought pain and suffering first into this world through wrong choices, but God through history has redeemed us and calls us now to work toward making this world a better place, first and foremost through sharing the good news of the gospel metanarrative.
Most everyone agrees we should be working for progress. The question, though, is can you explain both why we should be working for progress and what that progress should look like? Considering life only “under the sun” can’t give us answers. As the Christian writer G. K. Chesterton wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time where nationalistic progress (expanding one’s nation in order to bring more order and “civility” into the world) was all the rage:
Progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we.
During Chesterton’s lifetime, the ability for one nation (like his own British nation) to affect the whole world through trade, warfare, and the spread of culture was growing at the exact same time as the secularization of academic thought (that is, leaving God out of philosophy, psychology, the sciences, and all academic subjects—exactly what Nietzsche was talking about when he spoke of the death of God). Academics and artists wanted to make the world a better place, wanted to aid the progress of civilization. The problem, though, as Chesterton points out, is that when we take God completely out of the conversation, if we’re trying to explain everything only in naturalistic terms, we can’t really talk about progress. How can we talk about moral progress if, given an evolutionary explanation for all things, there’s no such thing as objective morality to measure that progress against? What, then, do we actually mean by the word progress? How can we talk about scientific progress if, given an evolutionary explanation for all things, there’s no ultimate aim or transcendent purpose for the existence of humans? How can we talk about political progress if, given an evolutionary explanation for all things, we can’t objectively make a value distinction between good and bad governments? (To use an extreme example, how can you know that Hitler was bad for humanity and it’s not just your opinion? He certainly thought he was progressing the human race!)
Given an atheistic, evolutionary view of the world, you cannot talk objectively about progress. Things just are. Remember Hume’s guillotine. If we get our knowledge only from what we can observe, we can only make fact statements, not “ought” statements. We can’t just call something “progress” and say this is the direction in which we should be going.
But if we see life within the biblical metanarrative, we can talk in those “should” and “ought” ways. As Chesterton says elsewhere, “Without the doctrine of the Fall, all idea of progress is unmeaning.” The Bible tells us that this is a story in which things are not as they should be. We have already discussed how Solomon himself writes, “God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Because of the fall, that is, because of humanity’s first rejection of God’s love, so very many things now need to be set right in this world.
And because God has given us all consciences that tell us (albeit imperfectly) how things should be, even people who don’t know the Story have the ability to make meaningful choices that God desires—choices that help to set things right. We have the ability to see this as a world in which progress is desperately needed, and our consciences tell us we ought to be engaged in that progress.
Solomon echoes the Bible’s clearly stated diagnosis that it won’t be possible to recreate the Garden of Eden, to make a world free of political corruption, famine and poverty, abuse and neglect, inequality, and pollution. He reminds us, “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). We won’t be able to comfort every victim: “I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter” (4:1). We won’t get rid of injustice entirely: “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things” (5:8). We won’t make a perfect government: “There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions” (10:5,6). Still, Solomon says, we ought to know that these situations are in fact “evil.” They are worth deploring. Therefore, we could rightly conclude that we indeed ought to be seeking out better ways to govern, better ways to deal with famine and poverty, better ways to deal with emotionally and psychologically broken people, better ways to encourage the respect of women in the workplace, better ways to take care of the environment—you name it. This helps our neighbors. This undoes evil. This is progress.
But Solomon does not draw that conclusion in Ecclesiastes. He does not issue such a call for progress. The Teacher pulls no punches in his assessment of the problems of this world, problems that cripple even the very institutions that should be working justice: “In the place of judgment—wickedness was there” (3:16). Yet instead of responding with an ethic of working against oppression, injustice, and violence (which Solomon could have provided; his book of Proverbs has a good deal of this kind of encouragement), his goal here is to lift our gaze higher, above the things “under the sun,” to think more deeply than simply about how to fix things. God’s understanding of progress is far greater and far more epic than we could ever imagine.
The all-too-evident pain and suffering we see in this world (a topic we explored at length in the previous chapter)—the evil that humans commit against one another and the general hardships of life—are signs that there’s actually a deeper problem. The reason things are not as they should be between us fellow humans is because things are not as they should be between us and God: that fall did not simply bring pain and suffering into the midsts of our relationships with one another, but it brought a divide into our relationship with God. Our whole race walked away from God’s love. Real progress, then, begins with that relationship being restored—finding that love again in the face of Jesus. Restored to God’s love, understanding the Story of his love for our world, we see everything and everyone with new eyes. In the midst of all this world’s pain and suffering, we see glimpses of the richness and beauty God wanted humanity to enjoy all along. But also we begin to understand so much more deeply why we desire to bring even more richness and beauty into our pained and suffering neighbors’ lives. We begin to understand how God has placed us as agents within this world to reflect his love for us through how we love one another. The healing this can bring to our lives (or to our world) is far from perfect. We still carry within us the selfish natures of our parents who first rebelled against God. And that part of us still—just like our first parents—would always rather play God than enjoy (and spread) God’s love. But God presses on. He does not stop working to motivate us to be his healers. He does not stop appreciating even our smallest acts of healing. He does not stop delighting whenever another hurting human is brought to recognize his love—this delight is, after all, what he created the world for. And he himself, even through the pain and suffering of this world, does not stop working toward a good ending for our Story.
WORK IS MEANINGFUL
Back to 100-year-old Marion. She didn’t know why God was keeping her alive. But because she was a Christian, deep down she knew she didn’t need to know the reason herself. Instead, because she knew there is a God who is working through history for all his beloved children, including her, I encouraged her that she certainly had meaningful work to do. But the key is that meaning in life for the Christian doesn’t flow from doing work. Rather, think of it the other way around: We know all the work we do is meaningful because it flows out of God’s metanarrative. God makes the whole universe meaningful, and so the work within it has to be meaningful. We are not meaningful because we work. We work because we are meaningful, living within a meaningful world. Or another way: it isn’t our work that gives our story meaning. It’s our story that gives our work meaning.
The Bible teaches Christians that all the work they do in life is of the greatest importance. There’s no such thing as work that is insignificant, random, or of small consequence. But what is the nature of this significance? Is it something that the work of non-Christians has too and they’re just unaware of it? Or does becoming a Christian add new meaning to one’s work that wasn’t there before? It is both. God’s hand is working through people in two ways.
The first is what’s called God’s providence: God has oversight over all things, moving them toward his good ending, and this involves working through the choices people make to take care of people. The food we eat is given to us by God, but through farmers, grocery cashiers, and those who prepare our food. And so when the farmer, cashier, and cook do their work—whether they care about God or not—they’re taking part in God’s overarching care of the people of this world. He’s literally at work through them. Their work, therefore, is part of a cosmic story and thus has cosmic meaning. The same goes for the doctors who seek our good health, the government workers who give us security, and the teachers who give us an education. All the people in your life who give you these things are taking part in God’s plan of caring for you and meeting your needs. Provid-ence is about provid-ing. It’s God’s way of working through all of us to give us good things (James 1:17).
When people do things clearly wrong—when the doctor slacks and gives bad advice, when the government worker uses power for evil ends, and when the teacher neglects students—even though God is not the author of that evil (evil is an action that these individuals chose to carry out; it is not something created by God), God in his providence, as the Bible teaches, works through these events, like the evil in the plotline of a story, toward his good ending. He promises an ending where both justice wins and God’s love reigns. And so this means God is working even through your terrible choices. Remember, this is a metanarrative we’re talking about—a story, the Story. And though there’s evil that must be dealt with within the story, God makes sure it all serves his narrative’s purpose. I once heard a professional psychologist and Christian put it this way to a young woman struggling with her traumatic past: “God does not waste darkness.” Even the dark moments of our life—although he never wanted them—God will use to bring an unimaginable amount of light into this world. He will use them to make “every- thing beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
And when the farmer, cashier, or cook discovers this Story, God’s rescue plan, she discovers something else: God has been using her all along too. God has been using her through his providence to give good things. Her work is important. Her work is part of the God of the universe’s plan. Her work has meaning. And the meaning was there in the work all along because God was using it all along. But how much more satisfying the work is when you know God is using it for good!
That’s God’s providence. But there’s another way Christians can see everything they do in life as significant. Providence is about God’s guidance over all of human history. What we’re going to talk about next is how God especially uses Christians to carry out some of that providential work—work done now in his name, for his name, by his agents.
The Bible teaches that Jesus died for all people, to bring all imperfect humans back into union with a perfect God. And so the story of our lives and of all history is God working out this rescue mission, this undoing of the enemy’s discord. And so when a person finds out how God has rescued them and brought them back into union with him, their life is no longer the same. With this new knowledge, the person is someone new, and that new identity changes the way she sees what she does in the world. She sees herself functioning, as the Bible calls it, as “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). In other words, Christians function as rescued and reclaimed and redesigned children of God—children who have learned through the Bible who their Father is, how they’ve been brought back into his family, and how he has now given them work to do on his behalf as his family. What we now are in Christ (a new creation) radically changes how we understand what we do for God (good works prepared in advance). And if this work has been prepared in advance, we know it is not random, inconsequential, or without purpose. The Master Storyteller has written the good works into the story for a purpose. And that purpose is incomprehensibly meaningful.
This work has been called being a mask of God, that is, God making himself known to the world through Christians living out their lives. Or call it being the hands and feet of Jesus. Christians, now knowing the great acts of love Jesus has shown them through his rescue mission of self-sacrifice, want to mirror that love through their lives.
That work is broad, from doing as best as you can the work within all your roles in life (sister, brother, father, mother, employee, employer, neighbor, citizen, etc.) to especially sharing the good news of God’s metanarrative of salvation, that God sent Jesus to save us. The former work Christians call their vocation, that is, the specific work God has called us to do in this world. (We’ll talk a bit more about this in the next chapter.) And maybe this work looks the same as what they were doing before they became Christians. But God says it’s not: It’s new work prepared for the Christian to do as a Christian, that is, as a mask of Christ. The latter work the Bible calls sharing the gospel, a fancy way of saying you are simply telling people what God has done for us through Jesus.
And so Christians believe every sleeping and waking moment is a gift from God to be his mask, his hands and feet. We believe God is working through all people for our good (despite the evil and suffering we’ve created), but we also believe God has called each Christian to do special work as his agent of love in this world.
That is how Christians understand their work within God’s gospel metanarrative. Without the biblical God, as Solomon says, it’s all ultimately meaningless: there’s no possible good ending to contextualize the work we do, and there’s no overarching good story that gives our work transcendent meaning. Given atheism, we just are, and so our work is valueless with no trajectory, like endlessly rolling a stone up a hill. Given a typical religion where the goal is to appease an angry god, our work is insufficient, hopelessly imperfect, and so has no hopeful future. But the Bible teaches the opposite. Our work can feel meaningful because God has built us to do meaningful work for him—work that we’re not required to do to get on his team, but work gifted to us to do because he’s already done everything to get us on his team. Through Christ it’s possible to rediscover the work we do out of love for a Saving God and therefore find that work transcendently, cosmically meaningful.
Return to that young woman and the Christian psychologist. “God does not waste darkness.” The psychologist actually meant it to hit the woman in two ways: On the one hand, her past traumatic pain is not meaningless and accidental. God will use it. On the other hand, how is he going to use it? After weeks of counseling and healing, the young woman and I talked often about what that psychologist said. The young woman said to me, “I know I can now help others find meaning in their similar trauma.” And as her pastor and friend, I had the honor of watching her do just that with many people for many years. God uses it all through his providence for good. And that means God uses you for good.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.” Lewis’ bold claim is that everything we try to accumulate in this world has no value at all, at least in comparison to having God. Solomon learned this the hard way. Hopefully it won’t need to be as hard for us to learn.
End Chapter Four