So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun. Ecclesiastes 8:15.
Reading this for the first time my reaction was different than it is today. In the beginning, when I was a young man and fledgling Christian, my take on everything filtered through the heroic stories of martyrs, missionaries and sacrifice for God. I wanted to be one of those heroes, ignoring whatever didn’t seem to support “self-denial”.
Time passes and either we become more entrenched in our beliefs or we adjust to the reality around us. I’m attempting to do the latter while holding onto certain ideals of the former from Scripture which I believe are true, albeit holding them lightly since I know my interpretation of the facts could be skewed by bias undetected. I’ve come to understand self-denial differently for one thing. The underlying teaching we are to be unhappy here so that we can experience the joy of eternity has lost its grip on me because I see God differently now. Where before I interpreted Solomon’s words as earthly (Christian catch-word meaning sin-infected or base) and lacking the message of Jesus, I now understand Scripture through the eyes of my Master a little better, which is to say He taught this happiness stuff too in a clarifying way.
The idea that suffering for Christ is somehow more worthy than being happy in Him has been steadily growing silly to me. I know, I know, the preachers of all stripes teach us there’s a difference between joy and happiness…but there really isn’t. Where the problem lies with us is our sinful nature not the mores of God. In the beginning He created us to be happy, productive and to live a long time, we are the ones who messed this up and lost track of His intentions. Where we go wrong is narcissism, selfish ambition and a host of other things we would rather do than conform to the Author and Finisher of our faith. Now this is not to say we hate God, rather our self-absorption gets in the way of being our true selves.
For instance there is absolutely nothing wrong with being good in business, making lots of money, living a comfortable life, and being happy. Where this style of living becomes harmful is when we come to the belief we are somehow the author of all of it rather than the recipient of God’s bounty. Then there’s the problem of attitude, where we come to the belief we are somehow deserving of all the bounty. And, when we take into account Solomon’s pretty sobering pronouncement that the race is not to the swift, the battle to the strong, nor does wealth come to the brilliant or favor to the learned or food to the wise but time and chance happen to them all, the reality of our place takes the edge off any form of conceit. It’s the luck of the draw or, rather, life hasn’t accosted some folks same way because they were—by chance of circumstance or choice—out of the way when the wind of change came around.
Solomon is an example of what wealth, power, and wisdom gone awry does to us. He wasn’t necessarily more evil than other people or weaker in certain areas than everybody else. No, what happened is he gave into evil by degrees until his wisdom did him no good. I believe Ecclesiastes is his attempt to shed light on hard lessons learned. The book becomes a confession of what lead to his own downfall, though not one of self-revelation, his rhetoric here reveals what wisdom can and cannot do for a person submitted to it.
This is the most compelling point he makes to me, because, let’s be honest, it appeals to my missionary/martyrdom conditioning: Even if we are poor and have barely anything to speak of, happiness can be an option if we keep it simple and decide to be satisfied with the essentials. The recognition that wealth and power are fleeting or tenuously held at best, can comfort those blessed with one or both by helping them live in contentment.
The recommendation in our text above declares happiness to be a state of being rather than the cause or effect of circumstances; a choice. I don’t believe Solomon is talking about all circumstances or every situation because he does say just a few verses prior that oppression can weigh heavily on people. I do accept, however, a person can live in such an attitude of happy contentedness with what he or she has instead of being discontented with what isn’t. I might be wrong but I believe the message of Matthew 6:25-34 or Luke 12:22-34 at their essence speaks to this principle Solomon espouses.
In my short life I’ve met people representing all spectrums of human strata. I’ve met wealthy people who are happy or unhappy as well as the poverty stricken dominated by either state of mind. Some people are happy in nature because that’s how they are wired, I get that, but some choose to find satisfaction in with what is in front of them. Others of us struggle because of our “wish list” of things we think will fulfill us.
Let me speak to a couple of mine.
I am a romantic soul.
When you read the word “romance” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Love, marriage, hearts, flowers, kisses, etc? Hmmm…then you don’t grasp the real concept of romanticism. For instance, I read Huckleberry Finn nearly 10 times by the age of 12 or so. Forget the lack of food, income or anything else, I wanted to float down the Mississippi River on a raft lost in the idyllic life of adventure. So, when I say “romantic soul” understand it encompasses more than just love feelings for a woman.
How this works out is my perception of a music career. I romanticized the rock n roll lifestyle to the point of putting it up on a pedestal with the belief that the only place I would ever be satisfied would be there. I was wrong of course, in the process of growing up I found satisfaction in other places as well. Yet (and this is a big addendum) I’ve experienced the musical stage and know it is about the only place I’ve ever felt at home. Some of you might look at artists as odd and strange, which many of us are; but what you find uncomfortable is my comfort zone. I have never felt as at home in the company of people until I began to hang out with other people who were creative in the arts. For me it represents that life of floating down the river with Huck and Jim, free of the worries of politics, slavery, oppression and judgmental attitudes.
The other area of romanticism is marriage. While I was married, I loved being married. Yet it was a troubled union and not very fun to be with a woman who claimed she loved and liked me but did everything to undermine the man I am. Still, even after that disaster, I put marriage up on a pedestal in my emotions. Intellectually and spiritually I know real life is nothing like my imagined relationship, but my emotional/passionate side still hopes.
I guess what I’m driving at here is that happiness can be a state of being rather than tied conditionally to a situation or lifestyle. I’m happy in a general way. I don’t like being single—and in saying that I’m not advertising—but I’m still happy. It’s been a condition of mine for years. I’m not always in a good mood, joyful or even satisfied with things around or inside me, but I default to happiness—by choice if necessary.
We can’t do very little about the tide of human opinion, the political leanings or even the choices our spouse, children and extended family will make. However, we can choose to be content with our internal world, and at peace with God and mankind as far as it depends on us. In this, I believe, is the source of all happiness.