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 favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11 (NIV)
I realised another thing: that in this world fast runners do not always win the race, and the brave do not always win the battle. The wise do not always earn a living, intelligent people do not always get rich, and capable people do not always rise to high positions. Bad luck happens to everyone. Ecclesiastes 9: 11 (GNB)
Well, that’s depressing, isn’t it? Just what you need to cheer you up if, like me, you’re in the middle of a cold, grey, gloomy English winter.
In essence: life has no meaning – “time and chance” make nonsense of our hopes and plans. Even worse: life has no fairness – you might get something like what you feel you deserve; and then again, you might not. Nice if you do; tough if you don’t. That’s life, folks!
Examples come tumbling into one’s mind. Like the Manchester schoolboy, way back in the days of Charlton, Best and Law, who was offered a trial by Manchester United. His mother picked up the letter, read it and decided that she wanted her son to get a proper job – none of this football nonsense – so put it in the bin. The boy never knew that offer had been made, not at least until it was far too late. Who knows what might have been!
Or the nuclear scientist, a world-leading authority in a Russian university in the days of the Soviet Union. He fell foul of the authorities and spent much of his life as a lavatory superintendent. (Nothing against lavatory superintendents, of course, but… well, you get the point.) Oh the meaninglessness! Oh the injustice! Oh the stupidity!
You could go on… The teenage girl who develops a debilitating illness which, while it doesn’t threaten her life, renders her unable to go regularly to school, sit her exams and explore all the options her school-mates are getting excited about. The person who just happens to be born into one of the world’s most needy countries and ends up risking their life to migrate to another part of the world…
Ecclesiastes 9:11 is, of course, simply an elaboration of the bald statement with which the book starts: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’.”
But if we are Christians, something in us protests at this. “No!” we want to cry, “everything isn’t meaningless! If there is a God in heaven who made the world and who sent his Son to suffer and rise again to save it, then there must be a meaning!” At the deepest level this is surely right.
But those words “at the deepest level” are important, for the fact is that, however strong our faith, and however close our walk with God, there are times when the “meaning” is completely lost to us: we simply don’t understand. And if we are honest – which I assume we should be – we ought to frankly say so.
It’s hard to draw many positives from this train of thought. But there is, I think, at least one which is particularly important: the meaninglessness of life puts us on all fours with our non-Christian friends.
In other words, when these things happen, whether to us or to our friends, we don’t have to pretend to a certainty we don’t honestly feel. We don’t have to find something profound to say. Above all, we don’t have to – indeed, we mustn’t! – trot out the pious clichés which convince nobody.
Certainly, we will want to share the fact that we do believe in God, and that therefore we cling to the hope that one day we will understand. But I suspect we will carry more conviction with those who don’t believe if we also frankly say, in effect, “Look, you and I are in the same situation here. I don’t know why this has happened, and it’s only my tried and tested faith in God as my heavenly Father that keeps me holding on. ..”
(Depending on the nature of our relationship with the other person, that might be a suitable moment to suggest something like this: “I wonder if you would be happy for me to say a short prayer on behalf of both of us…?” Might that not be a real breakthrough moment?)
In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul makes one of his great statements of faith: “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face…”.
I’m no expert, but I do wonder if the use of the English word “mirror” is slightly misleading here, for modern mirrors do of course give us a virtually perfect image. But the whole point Paul is making is that the “mirror” into which we look in our perplexity is not perfect: no, it gives us only a “dim” or “obscure” image (Paul uses a word which literally means “enigma” or “riddle”).
In fact, I must admit that I prefer the way The Message puts it: “We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist…” And then this: “But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then…”
Yes! Meaninglessness will finally give way to meaning. Faith will give way to sight! Thanks be to God!
Lord God, help me to trust you through thick and thin, even when everything seems to be a senseless, meaningless mess. Amen.