When you’re bored with life, everything seems like a drag. But boredom can be a blessing if it gets us looking in the right direction.
I am speaking today to you who at times, or perhaps right now, are just plain bored with life. You know the symptoms of that. You hardly feel like getting out of bed in the morning. Time hangs heavy on your hands. You have no zest; you can’t think of a single prospect that excites your interest or even sounds pleasurable. The color has gone out of your days; everything seems a dull gray.
WHY WE’RE BORED
Why are people bored? Some of the reasons are obvious. You’ve been ill, beset by infirmities or perhaps confined in a prison. Your activities are limited, to say the least. And there doesn’t seem to be much that you can do even if you wanted to. In a nursing home or a jail, it’s not surprising that you begin to feel restless, that apathy grows.
Maybe your job seems stifling. You go through the same petty routines every day, and you feel like you’re dying inside. Your potential isn’t being realized; your gifts aren’t being used. You still go through the motions, you put in your time, but you hate what you’re doing. You feel that your spirit is stagnating right there on the job.
Some of you, oddly enough, are wishing you had a chance at that very rat-race again. You’ve found that if work is a drag, it’s even more boring to be out of a job. You thought your days were long then; they seem endless now. You’re sick of sitting around, fed up with television, cross with everybody, restless and miserable.
Those aren’t the only causes of boredom, are they? You don’t have to go to dreary institutions, to assembly lines, or the homes of the jobless to find it. It can haunt you at banquets and board meetings, in a palace or an executive suite. In fact, the man who has written most searchingly about life’s weariness and staleness was a wealthy king in ancient Jerusalem. Listen to his complaint:
This made me hate life. Everything we do is painful; it’s just as senseless as chasing the wind.
(Eccl. 2:17, cev)
Think of it: he had riches, many sources of stimulation, limitless opportunities to be creative, but it all came to taste like sawdust in his mouth. The man who seemed to have everything moans, “I hated life” (v. 17). He was searching, as much as anyone ever did, for what dispels boredom. He wanted desperately to find meaning in his life, adventure, fulfillment. And he had, more than most of us, the time, energy, and means to pursue all that. But every promising avenue he explored led at last to disappointment.
Maybe knowledge is what I’m after, he thought. Maybe wisdom is the road to the good life. Listen:
“I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” But afterwards, he said to himself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.”
Those who look for the meaning of life in increased knowledge sooner or later make an unsettling discovery. Did you ever dig out an old jigsaw puzzle and apply yourself to assembling it again? At first, you’re caught up in the project, fascinated by it. But when you’re about the half-way mark, you notice something that cuts the nerve of effort. A number of the pieces are missing! You aren’t going to be able to finish the job after all. Somewhere, somehow, vital parts of the picture have been lost. After all your effort, you still can’t put everything together. Just so, the final answers to our deep questions seem to elude us, the keys to life’s mystery. However much we learn in books and classrooms and laboratories, something to tie it all together is always missing.
Now the king took a different tack.
I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure. Enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”
This is a boredom, a drooping of spirits, which many have experienced. After the revels, after the merriment, then the letdown. The more we seek to serve the appetites, the more satisfaction seems to recede. It’s a kind of law of diminishing returns. “Pleasures are like the poppies spread. You seize the flower; its bloom is shed.” To make diversion the goal of life, to try to escape boredom that way, seems to be self-defeating. The pleasure addict can’t escape the “morning after,” the backwash of excess, the jadedness of overstimulation.
Again, he thought, maybe if I can be creative, I can find what I’m searching for; if I can give myself to the arts, if I can shape the culture around me. Listen again:
I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees . . . I got singers, both men and women . . . .
But even that didn’t do it. Gazing out over his impressive handiwork didn’t satisfy his heart.
. . . I considered all that my hands had done and the toil that I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
So you may have established a business. You’ve built an enterprise. You’ve made your mark. No one doubts that you are an important, influential person. The fruit of your labor, the output of your life, is there for all to see. But comes the quiet hour of reflection and self-questioning. “In this, have I reached life’s goal? Have I won its true prize? Is what I have done worth the toil and trouble of it? What keeps all of this from being at the last ‘vanity and a striving after wind’?”
For all of us, whatever our circumstances, whenever boredom troubles us, the anxious question surfaces, “Is this all there is? Is there nothing more to life? Is this the best it has to offer?” Do you remember that plaintive song from back in the sixties, “If that’s all there is”? “If that’s all there is, my friends, let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is.” Boredom comes to all of us, emptiness, when we try to find it all here and now and discover that we can’t. Nothing in this world does it. There has to be, we tell ourselves, something more.
WHAT WE’RE MISSING
Can it be that boredom is a blessing in disguise? Is it a whisper from beyond that we’re on the wrong track? Is it a pointer to that “something more”?
This king in Jerusalem, the one who gave us the book called Ecclesiastes, was not really as cynical as he sounds. He wrote this because he had actually found what gives life meaning and wanted to share it. But first, he had to shoot down our false expectations. He had to show us that whatever we do and wherever we search, we won’t escape meaninglessness, we won’t be freed from boredom, without the living God.
The pursuit of knowledge, of wisdom, is a noble quest. It answers to a yearning placed within us by God himself. It turns to ashes only when we leave him out of it. True wisdom begins with “the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1:7), with taking him into account, knowing that we have to do with him. Knowledge starts with listening to what he has revealed, building on the foundation of his truth.
We humans could establish a valid, systematic world-view only if we occupied the center of things, from which we could survey the whole and see it in its true proportions. But that is the place of the Creator, not the creatures. From our position under the sun we see only the outskirts of his ways, the reverse side of the tapestry he’s weaving. When we try to interpret it from our standpoint, we never see it all. We may even miss the main design and fail to understand what it all means. For our search, we need his perspective, or as John Calvin once put it, “the spectacles of the Scriptures.” “In thy light,” says the Psalmist, “we see light” (Ps. 36:9)
What about this quest for pleasure, for satisfaction, the craving in our hearts for laughter? Nothing wrong with that. God made us seekers for happiness. This so-called cynic in Ecclesiastes saw that.
There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
That’s the question without an answer. “Apart from him,” who can? He made all the pleasures there are. He gave to them whatever power to satisfy they may have. They pall on us only when we expect from them more than they can give, when we make of them substitute “gods.” For lasting pleasure, abiding joy, we need above all thankfulness, a recognition of the Giver in the gift.
What about the urge to be creative? Again, that’s one of God’s best gifts, one of the signs that we are made in his image. It’s only when we glory in our handiwork as though it were a tribute to our own greatness, only when we forget that we are co-creators with him, that our work loses meaning. Fulfillment comes not only when we make use of all our powers but when we direct them toward something higher than our own security and advantage.
The way out of boredom, friends, is to accept all of life as a gift from God and to live it in fellowship with him. Here’s one of the most marvelous challenges I know to that boredom-free life. It’s from Psalm 118:24.
This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Life comes from God, not just as a large general gift, but in day-sized packages. Wherever you are right now and whatever may be your situation, this day of experience comes to you fresh and unique from God’s hand. Whether you’re behind prison bars or in a wheelchair, in an office or on a throne, what can redeem the day from emptiness is for you to lift your heart in it to God the Giver, to welcome it as from him and to walk through it in his fellowship. And because he makes our day, it’s possible for us even in the most limited circumstances, amid the most humdrum routines, to live it with zest.
I suppose the deepest cause of emptiness in our lives and the final threat to meaning is the prospect of death. The king in Ecclesiastes saw that clearly.
The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet I perceived that one fate comes to all of them . . . For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten . . . the wise man dies just like the fool.
After remembering that, he said, “So I hated life” (v. 17). But before his book was done, there was given him a glimpse of a great hope. “I know that it will be well with those who fear God” (Eccl. 8:12).
In that, he saw a glint of resurrection. That’s what the psalmist saw too. “The stone which the builders rejected” would become “the head of the corner” (Ps. 118:22). God’s purpose of love in this world would triumph. The coming One, the Messiah, would conquer death. The last great enemy, the power that seemed to rob life of joy and meaning, would be completely overcome.
That has happened, friends, in Jesus Christ. In him, crucified for us and risen from the dead, God has ushered in a new age; he has created a new day. Those who trust in Jesus, who make him their treasure, partake now of eternal life. They taste already the coming gladness. And that makes the present moment, however tedious, bearable – even lights it up with adventure. He is for us. He is with us, now and forever. What a great message! “This is the day which the Lord had made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Ps. 118:24).