Posted by: 15shekels | September 13, 2009

A Chasing After the Wind

113-kings-queens-on-thronesI denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. -Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

“I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen.” -Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain, 960 C.E.

Two days ago, as I hiked up the final stretch of a uniquely beautiful hike in Haleakala Crater in Maui, I felt a pang of discontent. Immediately followed by bafflement. Discontent? But I’m on my honeymoon! I took a quick inventory — I had just married my best friend, who adored and supported me. Our wedding weekend, barely in the rearview, had far surpassed our expectations. I felt deeply loved by my family and friends.  I had a job that challenged and fulfilled me. Better yet, any stress that job caused was on hold, as I was on a two-week vacation in a tropical paradise. Nothing was out of place in my life; all sources of happiness were pouring out abundantly. And I was certainly happy. But underneath the harmony of nothing being wrong, there was an unmistakable melancholy. What the hell?

“To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” -Bertrand Russell, atheist, from “The Conquest of Happiness” (page 27)

Does Russell have a point? It certainly seems like it sometimes. Are we, as ambitious beings, driven by the tension of what could be, by the sweetness of striving? Is that why Abd Er-Rahman III only had 14 happy days? Because he had too much? Could I be feeling unfulfilled, not despite having everything I wanted, but because of it?

I don’t agree with Russell about many things, but in “The Conquest of Happiness,” he dances around a profound point:

“The typical unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this one kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction, together with a quite undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it.” (page 22)

If I didn’t know that Russell was an atheist, I would think this quote was intended to be about idolatry. Either way, he is right. The reason achieving our greatest desire leaves us feeling so empty is that we have put too much pressure on that particular “satisfaction.” And what Russell implies is that no single satisfaction can fulfill us. If it could, than why would an emphasis upon the achievement be “undue”?

And yet the missing piece of Russell’s puzzle is that there actually is one “satisfaction” that can fulfill. And there I was on that mountain, once again telling him, “No thanks.”

As I stood atop Haleakala, I realized that despite my greatest attempts to seek fulfillment only in God, I had yet again failed. I had fallen prey to the voices in my head that whispered, “Once you get married, then you’ll be happy”; “Once you get that vacation in Hawaii, then you’ll be happy.” I had placed the burden of joy on things that were, and are, good things. But I had forgotten that not one of them fulfills in a significant or lasting way. And the disappointment of getting everything we want, is that it shatters the lie that happiness is hidden inside those things. Getting what we want exposes our idols as frauds.

Even the best joys disappoint us when we bow down to them as gods instead of acknowledging them as gifts from the one true God, the one true king.

“She has not acknowledged that I was the one
who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil,
who lavished on her the silver and gold…” -Hosea 2:8

Silver and gold and husbands and vacations are nice. But God created them. They are good because He is good. And when we seek fulfillment in these things, it is like asking a puppet a question, when the puppeteer is standing right in front of us.

What happens when we reorient ourselves from seeking happiness, to seeking God, and to seeking God’s kingdom on this earth? Yes, we know we should be serving Him and our neighbors et cetera et cetera, but could it be true that the secret to joy is actually in the serving?

Since God is eternal and perfect, He is the only one who never disappoints or fails us. And through Jesus He redeems us and welcomes us into His kingdom as sons and daughters. So even if everything we want on this earth falls apart, we can cling to our inheritance as children of the true king. Furthermore, shockingly, He invites us, sinners and failures that we are, to participate in bringing His kingdom into this broken world. God doesn’t just move us around like pawns, or leave us to self-destruct down here. Instead, He sends Jesus to die so that He can adopt us, and then He entrusts us with building and cultivating His precious church. We have exhilarating and important work to do! Living in service to God may involve pain and suffering, but we have hope in Christ’s promises, and in the knowledge that we are fighting for something greater than ourselves. Why would we spend our lives sitting idly on a lawn chair while the greatest adventure of all time unfolds around us, and we are invited to join in?

When we make happiness our goal, we are aiming far, far too low. Shooting for happiness is cowardly and self-defeating. Let’s aim for God’s glory, and accept the pain that may come along the way. It’s far more exciting anyway.

All of this babbling is really to say that my baffling pang of melancholy may have been the best thing to happen to me all week. The thrones crumble around me, and I rejoice.


  1. […] will learn that striving for one’s own happiness and fulfillment is a Catch-22. As I learned on my honeymoon, the problem with getting everything you want is the realization that none of the things that […]

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