“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
Strange as it may seem, Ecclesiastes is one of the books I most appreciate in the Bible. When I read it, I try to see it from the vantage point of a person who’s had it all: fame, fortune, love, material prosperity… but has found it to be “meaningless”. How many Hollywood superstars have concluded the same, and tried to end it all?
Rather than accumulating wealth or prestige, King Solomon recommends we “eat, drink and be glad”. We know he’s not referring to drunkenness here, as he also wrote the Proverbs, which warn that: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). Instead, this message is an encouragement to spend time with our friends and loved ones, enjoying the fruits of our labour.
How many rich people spend their lives overwhelmed by the stresses of work, unable to participate actively in the lives of their family? How often do stinginess and the love of money prevent people from throwing parties, simply to celebrate life?
One of the most striking and unexpected things about Jesus’ time on earth is his propensity for joy and communal gladness. We often forget that his first miracle was to turn water into wine, and we read in Luke 7:34 that he had something of a reputation as “a gluttonous man, and a winebibber”!
His Kingdom parables include stories of banquets and feasts, to which all will be invited, even the people the “world” has forgotten about, such as “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ (Luke 14:21) What a celebration that will be!! As Christians, we’re commanded to love and to sit at table in full equality with people from all backgrounds, races, nationalities, religions, and walks of life. If Jesus can walk into the home of a mercenary tax collector and extend friendship to lepers, beggars, and even prostitutes, why can’t we? There is joy in celebrating our common humanity. Without the rigid structures of protocol, hierarchy, and self-importance, we can reach out to each other in gladness.
I find it fascinating to discover that certain sociological studies have shown that “more equal societies almost always do better” (The Spirit Level, by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett). A wealth of statistical evidence bears witness to the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety, and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. Frankly speaking, when we fear our neighbours, we all suffer.
When Jesus invited one rich man to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow him, he wasn’t suggesting a life of mean and miserable poverty; he was offering him the opportunity to enjoy freedom and newness of life in a relationship with Him, without the extra baggage and worry that wealth can bring with it.
Have you ever met a very wealthy person? I have. I can tell you that in my experience, they tend to be weighed down by fears and anxiety about how to protect, increase and safeguard their money, rather than enjoying its fruits. This is a generalization of course, and there is no Biblical mandate for extreme poverty, just the warning against the love of money, and the reminder that “those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction”. (1 Timothy 6:9)
Sometimes it seems that for many people, the whole of life is one, long, pursuit of wealth. From a young age, they struggle to get good grades, in order to get a good job, with handsome benefits and a juicy retirement plan. There is nothing wrong with this of course, and those who provide for their families and give generously to those in need will reap great satisfaction from their hard work. However, when we strive for money for money’s sake, we often lose sight of its purpose.
There is a certain freedom that comes from not being tied to the love of money. We become immune to the pull of advertising and are not easily manipulated or silenced by the prospect of material gain. Imagine: how many people across the world are afraid to denounce or uncover corruption or injustice at work, because they fear ending up destitute? This thing I can say for certain: if you lose your job because you refuse to do something illegal or immoral, God will provide for you. Although you may suffer momentary hardship or discomfort, you will find another job, and be rewarded with the invaluable prize of the deep peace that comes from knowing that you didn’t go against your conscience.
I have found in my own life that when I prioritize well-being and balance, everybody benefits. As I work freelance, I have the temptation of working extremely long hours, just to draw in a larger paycheck. But I ask myself: what is the point of earning more if I am constantly tired and have no energy to enjoy life? As Proverbs 15:17 states:
“A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”
Maybe sometimes I can only afford vegetables or beans, but I eat them with joy in my heart with those I love, rather than working myself into the ground.
This kind of realization takes time, and some people do go to extremes. We’re not all called to sell everything and go and live in a caravan/trailer, the important thing is to check our motivation to see that our heart is in the right place.
The legendary Charles Dickens left us with a simple but rather accurate recipe for human contentment, in the words of Mr. Macawber (David Copperfield):
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six: result misery.”
The message is clear; when we’re drowning in debt, we can never be truly happy. The Bible also warns us: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.” (Proverbs 22:7)
Sadly, modern society is designed to get us enslaved to our credit cards from a fairly young age. We’re surrounded by a culture of consumerism and incessant advertising that fills our minds with unnatural desires that they have placed within us. This leads to dissatisfaction, restlessness and the constant “need” to purchase more and more because ultimately, nothing satisfies us. Psychologists often talk of a “hedonic treadmill“, whereby we feel we are making steps towards our goals of happiness and contentment, but never seem to get there. Whenever we reach the objective we’ve been striving for, we find it is an empty feeling; “meaningless, utterly meaningless”. We may experience a brief sensation of pleasure or excitement, before quickly returning to our previous state of mind.
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong for Christians to take out a loan or use credit cards. The key, of course, is to owe a manageable amount and to know where to get help if things have gotten out of hand.
Debt can put a strain on individuals, marriages, whole families and even subsequent generations. There is also a lot of shame associated with indebtedness, although this is an increasingly common issue. People are often so afraid of being labeled “irresponsible” or judged harshly that it’s very hard for them to admit to close family or friends about the struggles they are facing. This can lead to a general avoidance of the problem, aggravating the problem still further.
Similarly, the desire to “keep up with the Joneses” can be the catalyst as to why some people continue to spend beyond their needs. What if you’re invited to a birthday party, wedding or baby shower and expected to take a gift? Do you stay away in shame, or clock it all up on your credit card and go anyway? These are not easy decisions to make.
Being in an environment in which people value designer clothing, fast cars, ostentatious jewelry and exotic foreign vacations can be very difficult for those who are struggling financially, or seeking to lead a simple life. I’ve been invited to events such as these, and have attended wearing my cheap, comfortable (but clean) clothing, no perfume, and very inexpensive jewelry. But I was accompanied by my big smile, my love of life, my intention to listen to and communicate with others, and the love of Jesus. I can’t say I had a wonderful time because I generally find such environments very superficial and tedious, but I didn’t feel “less than” anyone else because of my lack of material wealth. In fact, my personal knowledge of the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) gives me such a profound degree of satisfaction and inner contentment, that I feel no lack at all.