As a junior and senior in high school, I contemplated the meaning of life from the McDonald’s drive-thru. Customers squawked in my headset ordering varieties of nuggets and dipping sauces, barged into the restaurant calling me an idiot when they got the wrong number of cheeseburgers, and acted like they didn’t know me when they were with friends they wanted to impress.
All the while, as timers announced that fries were done and the grill cover rose to reveal sizzling burger patties, I wondered, What’s the point?
This weekend, as many of my good friends are graduating college and I’m reaching my one-year anniversary of walking across the stage, it seems an appropriate time to revisit this question and look at it in the light of Scripture.
There really is nothing new under the sun, and this question is no exception. It’s the exact question Solomon pondered in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
What profit has a man of all his labor which he takes under the sun? (Eccl. 1:3)
Solomon considers the varying aspects of life from which we derive meaning—work, pleasure, riches, wisdom—and comes to the repeated conclusion that this too is vanity. Work brings no rest, pleasure passes with the seasons, riches don’t satisfy, and the wise die and are forgotten same as the foolish.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity (Eccl. 12:8)
The world we live in proclaims a different message. Work harder, it tells us. Make more money. Get fame, get fortune, and only be a friend to the friendless if it makes you feel good. Happiness is the goal, so pursue that—do whatever makes you happy. The world ignores Solomon’s revelations that everything we pursue is hollow.
But why is everything hollow?
Solomon’s consideration of work, pleasure, riches, and wisdom examines man building his identity around those things. He doesn’t work to glorify God; he works to boost his ego and his worldly status. He doesn’t thank God for what pleasures he’s been given; he pursues pleasure after pleasure like a gluttonous animal. He doesn’t share his riches in order to bless others with what was entrusted to him; he shows them off to brag about himself. He doesn’t seek wisdom in order to know God better; he seeks wisdom to impress those around him.
In and of themselves, all of these things are meaningless. And in and of ourselves, the lives we live are meaningless.
I am the vine: you are the branches, Jesus says in John 15:5. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, Solomon writes, but those aren’t his final words.
As he sees the futility of human life apart from God, he begins to see the greatness of God. He recognizes God’s timing: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. (Eccl. 3:1). He considers the excellence of God’s work: I know that whatsoever God does, it shall be forever (Eccl. 3:14). And he meditates on the mystery of God: When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth . . . . then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun (Eccl. 8:16&17).
Recognizing the emptiness of life without God moves Solomon to a posture of worship. He sees the greatness of God and the finiteness of man, and concludes that the only fulfilling life, the only life that is not vanity, is the life lived for God:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man (Eccl. 12:13).
Knowing God gives every aspect of our lives— work, pleasure, riches, wisdom—meaning. When it’s done for His glory rather than our own, it has eternal implications, regardless of what the payoff may be for us today, tomorrow, or ten years from now.
I never arrived at this conclusion while working the McDonald’s drive-thru. I focused on escaping the golden arches, getting to college, and fulfilling my dreams. Now a college graduate afraid of settling too soon, I’m realizing like Solomon that my dreams aren’t worth it if they get between me and God. He, of all things, must be first and foremost.
To my friends graduating this weekend, as you step into the mystery of the future, remember in whom you live and move and have your being (Acts 17:28). Live your life—the wild, exciting moments as much as the mundane—in fellowship with Him and don’t stress about not having everything figured out. You’re connected to the only One who does.