Most of us discover at a young age that life is not always fair, and we don’t always get what we need or want or even deserve. As children, many of us came to realize that other children may have come from better families, lived in better homes, wore nicer clothing, played with better toys, or were more healthy, attractive, athletic, intelligent, outgoing, or personable. If you were fortunate enough to have been blessed with any of those qualities, eventually you may have figured out that not everyone had been blessed like you….
Until we first experienced unkindness, hatred, or betrayal, we lived in an innocent, kind, loving, and just world. It was probably as close to heaven as most of us have ever seen.
The differences we discovered as children most likely became more pronounced during our difficult teenage years as those who were below average struggled to get by in a world that values the best, the brightest, the attractive, the athletic, the talented, the articulate, the extroverted, the gregarious, the popular, and the well to do.
As adults, most of us have faced unfairness, injustice, discrimination, disappointment, selfishness, cruelty, and hatred. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the talent, resources, or the opportunity to be financially successful. Life and work can be analogous to four-letter-words at times. Whether we came from humble beginnings, we were handicapped in some way, we made some poor choices in life, we experienced broken relationships, or we were victims of circumstances beyond our control (sadly) we all say to ourselves at times: life is not fair!
But certainly not all of life is drudgery and misery. If that were the case, we’d all be in a hopeless situation. With all its ups and downs, life can indeed be beautiful when we experience the wonders of nature, the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the stars in the night sky, the love, support, and fellowship of family and friends, the excitement of romance, the birth of a child, the unconditional love of a pet, the kindness of strangers, the excitement of something new, the joy of learning, the satisfaction of accomplishment, or the pleasures of good food and drink....
Life can be blessings and curses, joys and sorrows, comforts and sufferings, pleasures and pains, health and sickness, fairness and injustice, love and hate, good and bad, successes and failures....
But the unkindness and injustice of life takes on a whole new meaning when we see the rich, the powerful, the attractive, the eloquent, the articulate, or the talented rewarded for their immoral, unethical, or dishonest behavior. And it’s hard to understand why those who habitually mistreat and oppress others are rewarded with greater wealth, power, or prestige. Sometimes good people are punished while bad people are rewarded. It’s one of life’s great mysteries.
So maybe if we petitioned our government they could pass laws making life more honest and fair for everyone? Maybe we could pass a constitutional amendment that will ensure that everyone treats everyone decently? Unfortunately the government couldn’t possibly pass enough laws or hire enough people to enforce honesty, decency, and fairness. In fact, the government suffers from the same problems we do because people are people regardless of who they are or where they work. Anywhere you go in the world you’ll find dishonest, immoral, and unethical people. (Sadly, even in sacred places.) It’s quite impossible to force people to treat others well and to live honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good lives. What the world really needs is a change of heart…and only God can do that!
Ethical philosophers and thinkers throughout the ages (like the famous Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno) have pondered why and how we should live honest, ethical, virtuous, and decent lives. Marcus Aurelius, a famous Roman Emperor from 161-180 A.D. and a practicing Stoic philosopher, wrote in his book Meditations, We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne. In other words, living a good and decent life is self-evident in nature (or natural law). We don’t need laws to be written to tell us that lying, cheating, stealing, or killing is wrong.
The famous philosopher Plato (a student of Socrates) wrote in his book The Republic (circa 387 B.C.) an allegory called The Cave (which is probably the basis of all Western philosophical thought). In the story, Socrates has a conversation with Plato’s brother Glaucon in which he describes a prehistoric theater deep inside a cave where the audience members, since their childhoods, are chained and held captive watching a shadow puppet show (similar to a movie theater today). The show the captive audience watched were images of the real things and events in the world outside the cave.
So one day an audience member was set free and told that the shadow puppet show he’d been watching since childhood were not at all real but merely illusions of reality. At first he was skeptical and didn’t believe it. So to prove it to him, he was shown the puppets and fire that produced the shadows he’d watched since childhood, but he still wouldn’t believe it. Finally, he was forcibly dragged out of the cave into the sunlight of the real world.
Initially he was shocked by what he saw as his eyes painfully adjusted to the bright sunlight. But after awhile, he came to see and appreciate the beauty of the world as it really is outside of the cave.
Later on, however, he started to feel pity for the captives still imprisoned deep inside the cave. So after much thought, he decided to venture back inside the cave in order to tell them the truth about the cave: that it was all a lie and a poor reflection of reality.
After he went back into the cave and told the others about the real world outside the cave they just laughed at him and said he’d lost his sight and his mind. He desperately tried to prove it to them, but they still wouldn’t believe him. And eventually they killed him since they didn’t want him to lead others astray.
The protagonist in the allegorical story represents the countless prophets and sages throughout history that have tried and failed to enlighten society by speaking the truth (e.g. Socrates, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, Gandhi, or Mother Theresa). Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860 A.D., a famous German philosopher) wrote, All truth passes through three stages: first, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
The writings of the Greeks and many other philosophers throughout history continue to be studied to this day, but as we look around us we can see that most of their common sense ideas of how to live rightly haven’t been universally embraced? Since honesty is rarely rewarded and unethical or immoral behavior is rarely punished, there’s little reason why any of us should strive to live honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good lives. The fact is that nice people—more often than not—do finish last! And it is this sad fact of life that makes our lives so frustrating and meaningless at times!
Around the same time as the famous Greek philosophers, a little known Jewish philosopher and sage named Qoheleth (or the Preacher) asked these same questions in his Biblical book of Ecclesiastes: what is the meaning of life and what is the best way to live?
Qoheleth explored the benefits of a pleasure-seeking, hedonistic lifestyle; he explored the benefits of wealth and success; he explored the benefits of hard-work and academic pursuits; he explored the benefits of power and weakness; he explored the benefits of knowledge, wisdom, and foolishness; in fact, he explored the benefits of just about everything imaginable and he still came to the same conclusion—they’re all pointless, futile and ultimately meaningless!
The reason Qoheleth believed that life (apart from God) was so futile and meaningless was that, ultimately, nothing lasts forever (including us). Nothing we learn or do or pursue or build or accomplish will have any lasting consequences and eventually everything will be forgotten. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person or a bad person, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, smart or stupid, rich or poor, a success or a failure, moral or immoral, honest or dishonest, ethical or unethical; ultimately we all suffer the same fate. So it is death and our fear of death—Qoheleth believed—that makes our lives so pointless, frustrating, and meaningless!
So Qoheleth despaired of life and wondered (like we still do) if it would have been better not to have been born than to live a meaningless life? Socrates had a similar thought when he said: The unexamined life is not worth living!
But then in a moment of clarity, Qoheleth realized the obvious: that the reason life was so unfair was precisely because of all the unkindness, injustice, and evil in the world! Evil, injustice, and oppression are perpetuated by the dishonest, unethical, and immoral ways people behave towards each other. And it is these that make life so pointless, frustrating and meaningless.
Yet as surely as there’s evil, injustice, and death in the world there’s surely divine justice and retribution, Qoheleth believed. Despite life’s unfairness, it’s still a very precious gift from God. And God wants all of us to enjoy our lives, our relationships, our work, and all the other blessings He has given us, but He also wants us to live honestly, decently, ethically, virtuously, and morally good because living this way makes life more meaningful for all of us.
And in the end when we all have to stand before God, our creator, and give an account of our lives, what will He say to us? Did we love Him? Did we love others? Or did we live self-centered, sinful lives, and treat others poorly?
It’s all right to search for purpose and meaning in our lives, but it doesn’t exempt us from obeying God’s moral and ethical commands. The meaning of life, Qoheleth believed, is not found in any human endeavors; rather, it’s found in our faith in and our obedience to God and his moral edicts for our lives. We still may never completely understand why life is so unfair, but our faith in God’s eternal plans, in His divine providence, and our obedience to His moral edicts will give us joy, peace-of-mind, and true and lasting meaning for our lives.
Life’s meaning is not found in accumulating material possessions, accomplishing great things, or becoming rich and powerful but simply in how well we live our lives and how well we treat other people.
We should strive for goodness not only because we believe that God will hold us all accountable for the way we lived our lives, but more importantly because only God can make our lives truly meaningful. And when we live honestly, decently, ethically, virtuously, and morally good we’ll not only make our own lives more meaningful, we’ll also make it more meaningful for everyone else we come into contact with.
Qoheleth beautifully summarized his thoughts in this way (excerpts from Ecclesiastes chapters 9, 11, 12 NIV): So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad… [So] go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do… Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. I have seen something else under the sun: the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all… However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all… Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Marcus Aurelius wrote something similar: Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone's lips…. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are 'out of sight, out of mind.' In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.
Part 2 to be posted next week....
Part 2 to be posted next week....