I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet, when I surveyed all 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 3:10, 11
These words from the mouth of Solomon, a man who appeared to have it all-wealth, fame, power, but who comes toward the evening of his life and discovers he has nothing. He is full of what theologians and those in the field of Spiritual Psychotherapy call “existential anxiety,” an anxiety rooted in the knowledge of the reality that we are mortal beings. Being “human” is both a blessing and a curse, a blessing because we are the crown of God’s creation; we are above every other living creature (Gen. 1:26). But one could interpret humanness as a curse because with it comes knowledge of our mortality; we know that we are going to die.
One of my favorite quotes concerning the knowledge of our mortality comes from the theologian Martin Heidegger.
“Our knowledge that we must die is the background music that plays faintly in the distance all during our lives; At times we blot it out, but there are other times when it swells in volume and tempo, and
we cannot be unaware of it.”
Solomon was now an old man, unable to block out as a young person could, the reality of human finitude. Depression had set in as the thought about how he wasted his early years. This is wise advice for those who still have the vim and vigor of youth: Don’t waste your life on things that do not matter. The pleasures of this world have no eternal value. What really matters is making sure your life has meaning and purpose and you can’t have that apart from God. So Solomon reminds those who are still young: “Remember the creator in the days of your youth…(Eccl. 12:1). It’s not a sad thing to grow old, but it is a sad thing to grow old and bitter!
Solomon’s words in Eccl. 3:10, 11 are the words of a very anxious man. How do we avoid this? How do we make sure we have no regrets when the sun begins to set on our lives? As a young man, Solomon had no awareness of the “ticking clock” called mortality. Most young people don’t. When we are young, we are strong, robust and infallible. And because we hold these notions, we think we can spend a lot of time on the trivial.
Solomon said he “denied himself nothing and refused no pleasure.” I think we have all behaved like Solomon. Think about the times when we woke up and all of our actions in a given day were geared toward satisfying ourselves. I often say our calendars and our checkbooks say more about us than we care to know because they tell us how much of our day was for God and how much did we spend on others or causes that contribute to “kingdom building.” I have to check myself at times because it is easy to adopt the mores of the culture: “Eat, drink and be merry.”
Existential Anxiety, anxiety over our finitude, becomes the wakeup call to start “living our purpose.” It never happens for the “rich fool” in Luke’s Gospel. He never contemplated or mulled over the fact that his time was running out, he never had this kind of anxiousness that would motivate him to root out the trivial in his life. German theologian Soren Kierkegaard said:
“Anxiety is the teacher who searches ones Life thoroughly and roots out the trivial.
Thus, existential anxiety become the mother of the drive to know.”
The rich fool died never having truly lived. He, like Solomon, had it all, but really had nothing. At least for Solomon’s sake he lived long enough to become aware of his mistake, repent of it, and write a book so that generations of others won’t do as he did. I know he learned a very valuable lesson about squandering his early years because he concluded his writing by saying:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments for this the whole duty of man (Eccl.12:13).
It doesn’t pay to ignore the fact that we will die. If we ignore it, we face a fate that will be similar to Solomon’s: All your life was meaningless! I believe as Heidegger alludes to in the earlier quote that the fact that we must die plays faintly in the background or it swells in volume or tempo, but nonetheless it plays! For many of us it is background music and we have our creative way of making sure it never swells in volume.
We are spiritual beings and because we are, we spend our lives in pursuit of God, whether we realize or not. Religion is the means by which we pursue God and, consequently, relieving our existential anxiety. Unfortunately, for some, possessions, drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex, any addiction becomes our way of escaping this anxiety and these become our “religion.” When we make these things matters of what Paul Tillich calls “ultimate concern,” they are in fact our religion. We escape to them as a way of dealing with the threat on non-being. Ironically, the very reason- non-being, which is why we sought the cover of these addictions ,bring about the very thing in which we are trying to avoid!
Solomon came to God in his last days evidenced in his admonition to “fear God and keep His commandments.” The way to come to grips with our mortality is not to run from it but to embrace it. We do that by coming to the realization that not things, but God is of ultimate concern. Here is the conclusion of the matter:
“Fear God and keep His commandments…”
When we understand that we are divine and eternal beings, placed in time by God, but ultimately time comes to an end and we must enter back into the eternity from which we came, then the Fear of death is conquered. It loses all of it’s power! Our mortality can serve as a tool to bring us to God and with that comes a certainness of faith that cannot be shaken, not even by the threat of dying and the knowledge to make the best of our short lives. Solomon said it best when he wrote:
“Remember the Creator in the days of thy Youth (and let me add those who are not so young but God has blessed you where you can still come and go) before the days of trouble come and years approach when you will say
(like he did) I find no pleasure in them…(Eccl.12:1)
Instead of living to die, let us begin, if you have not already, to live with purpose!!!
Reverend Darryl R. Williams
St. Mark A.M.E Church
1616 West Atkinson Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53206
Phone: (414) 562-8030
ORDER OF SERVICE
Sunday Worship Service 8:00 a.m.
Church School 9:15 a.m.
Worship Service 11:00a.m
Wednesday Intercessory Prayer 6:00 p.m.
Bible Study 7:00 p.m.
You are always welcome at St Mark!