What gives your life meaning?
Conventional wisdom abounds telling us how to find meaning in life. You’ve probably heard some of the following advice for how to make your life meaningful:
- Find a fulfilling job or something you are passionate about.
- Be happy even when things don’t go well.
- Do the things you enjoy.
- Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.
- Make a plan for your life.
- Do good deeds.
On the surface, many of these sound like good advice. The problem is, every one of them will ultimately fail to bring meaning and satisfaction to your life.
Searching for meaning in a messy life story? Read Ken Boa’s Rewriting Your Broken Story: The Power of an Eternal Perspective.
A Futile Quest for Meaning in Life
What if I told you that there is someone who has tried not just one or two of these pieces of conventional wisdom, but all of them, in a quest to find meaning in life? And what if I told you that this person, after his decades-long quest, did not experience a meaningful and satisfied life but completely despaired of finding true meaning or satisfaction in any of these things?
That person did exist, and he gave us a detailed account of his experience.
Before we plunge headlong into our own quest for meaning in life, it would be wise to listen to what that person has to say.
That person is King Solomon, who was not only the king of Israel for forty years but also the most prolific author of wisdom literature in the Old Testament. He was endowed with wisdom beyond all his peers (1 Kings 3:12). He accumulated as much wealth, power, and prestige as anyone could ever desire. He had the world at his fingertips.
And yet, at the end of his life, Solomon realized that he had not found meaning or satisfaction in any of these things. And to make sure those who came after him would not make the same mistake, he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon looks back at his lifelong quest for meaning “under the sun” and essentially asks the question: “If this were all there is to life, would it be enough to make my life meaningful?” In every case, his conclusion is the same: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2–3).1
How Not to Find Meaning in Life
Let’s return to those seemingly useful tips for how to find meaning in life and compare them to what Solomon has to say after he has tried them all.
1. “Find a fulfilling job.”
Solomon’s Response: “I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18–19)
Solomon reminds us that no matter what work we accomplish on earth, it will only last as long as the next generation allows it. We only need to look at the constant changing of the cultural tide to realize the truth of this. It did not take long for Solomon’s own work of building up the kingdom of Israel to come crumbling down. One of his sons caused the kingdom to split in two (1 Kings 12:1–20), and another king led the northern kingdom into idolatry (1 Kings 12:25–33).
2. “Be happy even when things don’t go well.”
Solomon’s Response: “Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1–3)
This is a heavy pronouncement, and it is important to remember that at this moment Solomon is speaking of the state of things apart from a solution to the meaninglessness of life (more on this below). But the point he is making is this: the evils of this world are too severe to be dealt with by the power of positive thinking. Instead, if we look at the state of the world soberly, we will see that the evil in it, unless that evil is dealt with, is enough to cause us to despair completely over finding meaning in life.
The evils of this world are too severe to be dealt with by the power of positive thinking.
3. “Do the things you enjoy.”
Solomon’s Response: “All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:10–11)
If you only did the things you enjoy for the rest of your life, would it bring meaning to your life? According to Solomon, it wouldn’t. He built himself a palace (Ecclesiastes 2:4). He accumulated multiple properties and many desirable possessions (vv. 5–7). He took all the wives he wanted (v. 8). But with all of that, Solomon still says there is “no profit under the sun.” Why? Because none of it lasts more than a moment. It is “a striving after wind.” If we are to find meaning in life, it must come from something more enduring than our fleeting pleasures.
4. “Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.”
Solomon’s Response: “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. … A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction. … I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him. There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 13, 15–16)
At first, Solomon seems to commend this piece of conventional wisdom. He says that it is better to spend life with a friend than alone and for a king to surround himself with advisors than to rule alone. But even this, he concludes, will not last long. No matter how many people make us feel good about ourselves at the time, there will always come a day when no one remembers us anymore (either in this life or after death). As good as it feels to have affirming friends surround us, they cannot provide the ultimate meaning in life that we long for.
5. “Make a plan for your life.”
Solomon’s Response: “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them.” (Ecclesiastes 6:1–2 ESV)
The man Solomon tells us about (possibly referring to his own life) attained every goal he ever set for himself. His plan for wealth, power, and prestige worked to perfection. And yet these things did not satisfy him, because he was not given “power to enjoy them.”
Human beings have an insatiable appetite for more: more possessions, more pleasure, more prestige, more popularity, more promotion of themselves, more power, more recognition for performance. But more of any of these will never enable us to find meaning and satisfaction in life (see Ecclesiastes 5:10).
6. “Do good deeds.”
Solomon’s Response: “I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.” (Ecclesiastes 7:15)
Surely doing good deeds is not such a bad way to find meaning in life. But, as Solomon points out, good deeds do not necessarily lead to a satisfying life, and bad deeds do not necessarily lead to immediate destruction. Hugh Hefner lived to be 91 years old, while many Christian martyrs have died young. Good deeds are not always rewarded in this life, and so by themselves they do not bring satisfaction and meaning.
Listen in on how to transform futility into a living hope in Ken Boa’s study The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
How to Find Meaning in Life According to Solomon
Thankfully, Solomon’s message is not all hopeless. There is indeed a futile emptiness of trying to find meaning and satisfaction “under the sun,” so Solomon points above the sun to show us how to find meaning in life.
According to Solomon, two key truths must guide us if we are to live meaningful lives.
1. Worship God
First, we must love and worship God rather than all the things we think will give us meaning and satisfaction.
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
Fearing God means worshiping Him with a reverential awe, recognizing that He is far greater than anything in this world. When we worship and love Him in this way, we will also want to keep His commandments, which He has given us for our good (see 1 John 5:3).
The reason possessions, pleasure, prestige, popularity, promotion, power, and performance cannot satisfy our longings in this world is that they were never meant to do so. C.S. Lewis put it well:
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.2
God designed us to find satisfaction in Him alone, and He loves us enough that He will not allow us to be satisfied with any lesser thing. That is why Jesus tells us, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
God designed us to find satisfaction in Him alone, and He loves us enough that He will not allow us to be satisfied with any lesser thing.
When we trust in Christ, He transfers us from the “domain of darkness” to His own kingdom (Colossians 1:13). Apart from God, we live in darkness, and ultimate meaning and satisfaction in life is not possible. But when we place ourselves under the lordship of Christ, we will always be with the One who tells us, “He who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35).
2. Receive Life as a Gift from God
The second key to finding meaning in life is to see every day and every part of our lives as a gift from God.
I know that there is nothing better for [people] than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13)
We see here that Solomon does not deny that many of the things from the list above are good when done with the right perspective. He only denies that they are the means to satisfaction and ultimate meaning in life. In fact, when we entrust ourselves to God as the only one who can provide meaning in our lives, we can then receive all good things as gifts from Him rather than as the things that fulfill us.
- We can do meaningful work because our “toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
- We can rejoice in the midst of trials because God is using those trials to strengthen us (James 1:2–3).
- We can find joy in the good things of the earth not because our happiness is dependent on them but because “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains” (1 Corinthians 10:26).
- We can love not only our friends but also our enemies because “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Knowing that God loved us even when we were His enemies, we can extend that love to others without deriving our satisfaction and meaning from their response to us.
- We can trust that God’s plans for those who love Him are much better and much more certain than whatever we could have planned for ourselves (James 4:13–15; Romans 8:28–30).
- We can do good to all people not because we think it will bring meaning to our lives but because “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
From a temporal perspective, it is impossible to find true meaning in life. But when we adopt an eternal perspective—worshiping God for the salvation He gives us in Christ and viewing life as a daily gift from Him—God satisfies us with meaning and purpose that only He can provide.
Eager to learn more about Ecclesiastes? Purchase Ken Boa’s Talk Thru Ecclesiastes presentation.