Imagine what it’s like to be the leader of a democratic country. You are elected to power, and you make progress implementing what you believe to be the best policies for your country. But unless you’re a fool, you know that most likely, sooner or later, someone with a different political philosophy will replace you, and much of the headway you have made will be undone. Your legacy may well be destroyed by the one who comes after you. It’s simply the way it is in our fallen world—a world with in which there are deep disagreements about the best way forward and no perfect governmental solutions.
The writer of Ecclesiastes (most likely King Solomon, but possibly some other “king in Jerusalem”) understood this. He held more power than an elected leader of a present-day country, and he probably stayed in power for longer, but still, eventually, his accomplishments, he writes, would be left
to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:18–19 ESV).In a fallen world, even the work of a king may be an exercise in futility.
It's not much different for us. We may start out hoping to right some of this world's wrongs, but over the years, we begin to see that the problems we're trying to solve are more complicated than we thought, and real long-term solutions may be beyond our capabilities. Progress is slow—if there is any progress—and there are unforeseen difficulties with every step we take. And in the end, our accomplishments, if there are any, may be left in the hands of a fool. All our work may only be “striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11 ESV).
We live in a broken world, or more precisely, we live in a world that is cursed by the God who made it. The word “futile” is written across everything in this world, and there’s not much we can do about it. It's foolish for us to place too much hope in what we or our leaders can accomplish.
But the God who cursed this world is gracious, and he has given us a way to find joy in the midst of life’s inevitable futility. He has given us a way to make the best of things as they are. The writer of Ecclesiastes, who foresaw that his hard work might come to nothing, has this bit of wisdom to share:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment (Ecclesiastes 2:24–25 ESV)?And this too:
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun . . . (Ecclesiastes 9:9 ESV).For the one who pleases God, for the person who recognizes his gracious hand in tasty food and refreshing drink, in opportunities to work hard for the good of others, and in a loving spouse and/or family, these simple pleasures bring true joy. All these things are good gifts from our good God, gifts that remain with us even when our circumstances are difficult. When our life seems senseless, God sustains us with his small mercies, and by enjoying them, we please him and make the best of things as they are in our troubled world.
Of course, our ultimate hope is in a future world, in the new heavens and new earth, when this cursed world is set free from its bondage to futility (Romans 8:20-21), and when our own personal re-creation is completed. On the basis of his Son’s work—work that will bring permanently perfect results—God will redeem our world, and us, too. But in the meantime, when we grow frustrated with events in our world, and when life seems like a struggle for nothing, we still have the little gifts.
When I’m asked, one piece of advice I give to someone who is suffering is to take time to savor the everyday blessings—a fresh loaf of bread, a bowl of homemade soup, a cup of tea, or loving family—and to keep busy with service to others. And to remember to thank God for these little reminders of his loving care.
I learned these lessons from life experience as I grasped for peace in the midst of turmoil, but I know now that they are also taught in the Bible. There is “nothing better” for us “than to be joyful and to do good as long as [we] live.” There is nothing better than to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all our toil” (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13 ESV). There is nothing better than to enjoy life with our families and good friends. These simple pleasures are God’s gifts to give us joy when we are surrounded by reminders that something is very wrong with our world as it is.
[I am indebted to James M. Hamilton Jr.’s little book Work and Our Labour in the Lord for many (maybe most) of the points in this post.]