One of the interesting things about becoming an adult is that I find myself asking fewer questions about the meaning of life. When I was a child, I lobbed a constant barrage of “whys” at my parents from the backseat, the dinner table, or our nightly check-ins before bed.
Why is the sky blue?
Why can’t I play with fire?
Why do I have to grow up?
As a teenager, the questions got bigger and I realized I wasn’t the only one asking them. At school, in the back row of youth group, from our beds at summer camp, my friends and I began to exchange “whys”, explaining what we knew with the kind of enthusiasm that comes from being 16 and sure of yourself yet utterly confused at the same time.
Why does God allow suffering?
Why should we trust the Bible?
Why does Jesus care who I sleep with?
In college and into my 20s, there were long conversations at coffee shops and over beers, debating worldviews and wrestling through the complexities of a world that seemed more wonderful and more terrible the closer I came to standing on my own inside of it. I read books and went to church groups, seminars, religious meetings, expanding my search for meaning.
Why do Christians think there’s only one path to God?
Why would a good God allow us to not choose him?
Why do I exist?
Eventually, after many years of searching and thinking and asking questions everywhere I went, I made a decision as an adult to become a Christian, to trust that Jesus is the best revelation of who God is and that the Bible is the primary way we can understand God and human experience. In the process of making that decision, I settled on working answers to many of my big questions about life.
And then I moved on.
I got a job, then another job, a graduate degree. I moved to a new city, joined a church, got married, had kids. In other words, life happened—and it keeps happening. I continue practicing my faith, growing in my understanding of God as I study Scripture or talk to him in prayer. But most of my theological time these days is not spent trying to answer big “why” questions. Instead I find myself turning back to my faith to help me make sense of important life decisions or to find wisdom for dealing with hard relationships.
Here’s the thing though, those questions are still there—not with the aching urgency of adolescence, when it felt like I needed to solve the world’s problems before I could sleep at night. The questions don’t loom large like they did in young adulthood, as if finding the right answers would open certain doors to the future. But they’re there. It’s just that the rush to answer them, the curiosity with which I approached the universe seems to have waned over time.
This is why I love what happened to me when I took the time to re-read Ecclesiastes last year. It’s a fairly short book, tucked in the middle of the Old Testament, and it’s unlike anything else in the Bible. The author, thought by many to be Solomon but never actually named in the book, opens with a pretty bleak thesis—maybe you’ve heard it?
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
(Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV)
Not exactly what you might expect to find in a Holy Book meant to give instructions on matters of faith and God.
But the Bible is more than an instruction book for living; it’s a collection of stories meant to ultimately point us to the greatest story of all, the life and death of Jesus. As one of those stories, Ecclesiastes is timeless, as fresh today as it must have been to the ancient ears that heard it first. It’s the musings of a man near the end of his life. He’s enjoyed great wealth, taken many lovers, known success in work and yet, as we see in his opening above, all of it taken together doesn’t seem to amount to much.
The book continues with observations on everything from the problem of human suffering and the frustration of perpetual injustice to why relationships matter and how to find joy in hard circumstances. As the author unspooled his ideas through sermons and proverbs, I found myself nodding along, realizing that as much as I’m thankful for the spiritual encouragement that comes from Paul’s letters and Jesus’ teachings, this book offers something else I need.
In Ecclesiastes there is a place to doubt, to again examine my position in the universe. It’s a spot to face the harsh realities of life on earth and not have my reactions to them minimized. I’m so used to answering my own questions with predictable answers from Scripture. Feeling sad? Rejoice in the Lord always! Struggling to make sense of your situation? Cast your cares on God.
Those answers are true and good. But sometimes, before we get there, we need a friend to sit with us, to acknowledge that life is unfair and messy and confusing, even painful. Ecclesiastes is that friend. Telling the truth about life under the sun. Allowing us space to tell the truth too.
It’s not all bleak observations and declarations of meaninglessness. Like every good story, there’s hope there too. Ecclesiastes 9:4 reminds us that as long as we’re among the living, we have hope and, as the book goes on, the author reminds us what that hope looks like. It’s a hope that learns to enjoy life in a harsh world, to fear God when he resists being understood.
These are the lessons of Ecclesiastes, a book worth a second look for anyone who’s brave enough to ask life’s big questions and willing to face the realities, good and bad, of human existence.