This week we’ve been following the Teacher in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes try out seven roles or personalities, all in an attempt to find the meaning of life. It’s a kind of ancient personality test. So far the Teacher has introduced us to the Philosopher, the Student, the Party Animal and the Addict, but none of them have provided the meaning of life. The Teacher, in the final three roles, definitely makes a turn toward roles that seem very positive, but as we’ll see, they have a dark side too. The next role can be described two ways: either the Workaholic or the Aristocrat, as we read in Ecclesiastes 2:4-11.
This person attempts to find the meaning of life by accomplishing much, becoming wealthy, filling life with pleasures.
We Americans know this person well. This is the person who seeks to find meaning in work, and they work and work and work. This person works on their days off, and they work on vacation. They are checking their email all hours of the day and night.
This role is deceptive because people actually do gain from this. The money is nice. They know how to make money, and they do make money. They work hard and they seek to provide meaning, not only from the accomplishments of the work, such as the promotions, the connections, and the power, but also through the purchases. Nicer cars. Nicer homes. Nicer vacations. They are the people who upgrade their lives. This is perhaps the epitome of American life, and we Christians, by and large, have bought in to this so-called American Dream, thinking it will bring meaning to our lives.
The Teacher, however, discovers it to be not a dream, but a nightmare. One’s accomplishments and wealth, while enjoyable for a time, fail to provide lasting meaning or significance to life, and as so many in our day and age have found, leave us bitter and in ill health, wondering why we burned ourselves out all those years. Discovering the meaning of life goes beyond just responsibly holding a job.
That brings us to the sixth role the Teacher takes on, the Puritan in Ecclesiastes 2:12-16.
Perhaps the Teacher has finally found the role that can give him the meaning of life. The Puritan attempts to find the meaning of life by living wisely. Sure seems like this is the way to go: wisdom!
I once had a book called Life’s Little Instruction Book: 511 suggestions, observations and reminders on how to live a happy and rewarding life. On each page the author wrote a sentence or two of advice that he wanted to give his son who was headed to his freshman year of college. It was a modern day book of Proverbs in the Bible.
I’ve often thought about what I would write in a book like that if I was making one. The first page would be “Wait to write a book of wisdom at least until you turn 40.” There’s at least a slice of wisdom that only time and experience can provide.
Here are a couple of mine: “At some point, delete your social media accounts, and go without them for a year.” “Leave the USA at least once every 24 months, and visit a country where there is great poverty and choose to educate yourself on the systems and issues there.” Or “Leave your local community at least once every 24 months, and spend time serving in a ministry in a different city – for the purpose of understanding something new.” “Eat foods from other countries and cultures on a regular basis.” “Always be reading at least one book. And mix it up between fiction book, biography, and the spiritual life…all the time.” “Regularly hear from sources of media that you would normally disagree with. If you’re a CNN kind of person, listen to Fox News too, and vice versa. Make sure your social media feeds include both.” “Build relationships with people of a different color.” “In a conversation, listen more than you talk.”
We would probably all do well to try to create a book like that to pass on to our kids and grandkids, right? What would you include? On the last page, though, after trying out the Puritan role, seeking wisdom, the Teacher would include: “trying to live a wise life is a dead end.” Well, then, what’s the purpose of writing a wisdom book???
The Puritan is correct that trying to live wisely is generally advisable for anyone at any time. The problem is trying to answer what wise living actually entails. There are so many disagreements, such as we see in our divided culture. Should we live according to the conservative point of view, or should we live according to the liberal point of view? There are disagreements about nearly everything. Pro-choice vs. Pro-Life. Gun laws. Death penalty. Jail sentencing. Go into debt? Or don’t buy until you have the cash to pay in full? These disagreements are why it is called the culture war.
The Puritan is the one who believes extremely strongly in their own point of view as the right one. You can be a puritan conservative or a puritan liberal. You can be a puritan Christian, which is where the name comes from. The pure ones. They were Protestants trying to live a faithful Christian life in Europe, but when they were persecuted, they emigrated to New England because there was freedom of religion in the Colonies.
The problem with puritanism is that it often becomes self-righteous. Elitist. The person who says boldly, “My way is best, and unless you follow my way, you are wrong.” “Guess what?” the Teacher says to the Puritan, “You will die, too.” So while it is generally advantageous to seek to live wisely, in the end the result is the same.
The Teacher has one more shot. The seventh and final role. Will he finally find the meaning of life? Check back in tomorrow to find out!