Over the weekend my friends Angellah, Nana and I got into a discussion about materialism. Basically, it wasn’t so much about whether or not Christians should be wealthy or have nice things, but about where the thin line between enjoying God-given wealth and materialism lies, and how we can make sure we’re not crossing it.
Closer to the end of the discussion I voiced something that’s been on my heart for about a week now – something I’ve personally been struggling to come to terms with – and the moment I voiced it, I knew it was something I’d have to really process and come to terms with for myself:
The love of life can and will distract you from the love of God.
If you follow me on social media, or happen to know me personally, you know I love life. I love travel, and eating, and shopping, and hanging out with people. And that’s no surprise because we are a generation who loves enjoyment. ‘Turn up.’ ‘Slay.’ ‘It’s lit.’ All phrases that litter our vocabulary because we, unlike generations before us, are determined to make the absolute most of our time on earth and the resources and opportunities at our disposal. We are not satisfied with reading about others’ experiences – we want to have them for ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. But if I’m being honest with myself (and if I am honest with no one, I must at the very least remain true to my own self), loving life has often gotten in the way of me loving God.
It’s not that enjoyment in itself is wrong – far from it. God created the earth for man’s enjoyment. God has no use for fish and mountains and sunsets and hot springs – they are all for the pleasure of man. Because God does obtain pleasure from ours. The problem arises when we look at these things and make them the focal points of our lives, finding pleasure in and of them on their own, as opposed to recognizing their origin and the glory of the Giver. When things and experiences become our fulfillment and our lives begin to revolve around getting pleasure and identity from them – around the gift and not the giver – then we risk turning the things God created to give us pleasure into gods of their own.
And let’s be honest with ourselves – there is no real lasting pleasure in any of these things. We come back from vacations jet-lagged and exhausted and more than ready for the next one. We drink ourselves into a stupor, then wake up the next day feeling like we’ve been in an elephant stampede. We spend money on clothes and shoes, then throw them out because we’ve spent so much on lavish food that we don’t fit into them anymore. While I love to travel, I hate flights, and I hate the unexpected expenses that creep up on trips. And yet these are all addictive experiences and I leave them wanting more – and never of God. The focal point of my life becomes, what do I buy next? Where do I travel next? Who do I meet next? This, I’ve come to accept, cannot be healthy.
So what do we do? Give up on all the things we love in exchange for a humdrum life? Stop traveling and dancing and shopping because they are meaningless and distract from a meaningful God?
No. We do not need to give up on these things, but rather re-evaluate how we look at them.
There is no place better in the Bible to come to terms with our own shallow desires and better understand how to frame them in a way that is healthy for our faith than Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes might very well be my favorite book in the Bible because it is so very counter to what many have believed the Bible to be – a feel-good narrative with no real analytical or logical contributions. It is one of the most difficult books to digest because it is filled with hard truths about life, about how bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and how life isn’t always ‘fair’. But more than that – and most important to our discussion today – is that it chronicles the search for the meaning of life by King Solomon.
Now, if you know anything about this man, you’ll know that he was not only the wealthiest man to ever live but also the wisest. He amassed wealth, and books, and experiences, and adventures. He threw lavish parties and had enough wives and concubines to make a Love and Hip Hop reunion look like a kindergarten play date. By all human measures, Solomon had everything we’ve ever dreamed of or worked towards in our lives.
And yet, somehow, he still found himself coming up empty. So he decided to set out on a journey to find out what the point of life was – to find out what thing man needed to truly become fulfilled. I encourage you to read his findings for yourself because they truly are brilliantly thought-provoking, but the summary is this: no matter how much he obtained, no matter how much pleasure he found or how much wealth he amassed, the satisfaction he found in them was fleeting. The word he uses to describe them is ‘Hevel‘: transitory, vain – a whisp of smoke, very real, but also very temporary.
He found that too much wisdom brought trouble and that there was no ending to the writing of books (aka, everyone has an opinion).
He found that while it was wise and good to amass wealth, the rich and poor, the wise and foolish, both ended up in the same grave with nothing to show for it.
He found that building houses with beautiful things brought no lasting pleasure.
He found that no matter how ‘good’ you were and how much good you were doing, bad things happened anyway, and life was out of man’s control.
‘Hevel, Hevel – everything is Hevel!’ He cries.
But amidst his doom, gloom and despair narrative, Solomon places these nuggets of hope:
“The best you can do with your life is have a good time and get by the best you can. The way I see it, that’s it—divine fate. Whether we feast or fast, it’s up to God. God may give wisdom and knowledge and joy to his favorites, but sinners are assigned a life of hard labor and end up turning their wages over to God’s favorites. Nothing but smoke—and spitting into the wind.”
Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 MSG
“After looking at the way things are on this earth, here’s what I’ve decided is the best way to live: Take care of yourself, have a good time, and make the most of whatever job you have for as long as God gives you life. And that’s about it. That’s the human lot. Yes, we should make the most of what God gives, both the bounty and the capacity to enjoy it, accepting what’s given and delighting in the work. It’s God’s gift! God deals out joy in the present, the now. It’s useless to brood over how long we might live.”
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 MSG
“Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, Drink wine with a robust heart. Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure! Dress festively every morning. Don’t skimp on colors and scarves. Relish life with the spouse you love Each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange For the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one! Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily! This is your last and only chance at it, For there’s neither work to do nor thoughts to think In the company of the dead, where you’re most certainly headed.”
Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 MSG
There is a recurring theme throughout the book of Ecclesiastes and it is this: These things we desire are not bad. Wisdom, wealth, experiences, enjoyment – they are all great and we should take advantage of them. But there is no point in striving to find meaning and purpose in life in them because there is none – everything is out of our control and only temporary. There is no point in trying to find true satisfaction in them because the way these things work is that we never have enough and always want more. Where we CAN find meaning and satisfaction, he concludes, is in acknowledging that anything good we have is a gift from God, and to find our pleasure and satisfaction in God’s goodness and not the gift. If we do this, we will spend less time acquiring more and more of stuff, and more time acquiring more and more of God, and end up actually being fulfilled.
A practical way of doing this is through gratitude. The next time you’re sitting on a boat in Hvar, thank God. When you’re hanging with friends, thank Him for their lives and bringing them into yours. When you’re popping a bottle, raise a glass to the real OG who invented the glorious grape, and to His son who had the bright idea of turning water into wine, thus endorsing the necessity of the occasional turn up. Next time you’re doing anything that brings you joy or takes your breath away, in the moment, while the smoke is still visible, practice the art of thankfulness – it will serve as a reminder to you of where your true identity and satisfaction lies, and please God that you understand that every wonderful thing you get to enjoy is not the sum total result of hard work or planning, but really just the goodness of our God manifest in the physical.