Qoheleth’s Quest: Discovering the Meaning of Life

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14: 2:18-23

1:2  “Vanity of Vanities says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

1:12-14 “I, the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

2:18-23 “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.”

——-

The middle section of the bible is often called the Wisdom section. It is comprised of the Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon.

  • In the Book of Job, the reader learns how to suffer well.
  • In the Book of Psalms, the reader learns how to worship well.
  • In Proverbs, the reader discovers how to use knowledge well.
  • In the Song of Solomon, the reader is shown how to love and have relationships well.
  • in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the reader discovers how to live a well-lived life.

Except for the book of Job, Solomon had a part of writing each of the wisdom books. If there were ever a man who could find meaning outside of God, it would be King Solomon. In terms of intelligence, industry, and accomplishments, it would seem reasonable to assume that Solomon had it all. He was the son of King David. He was raised in a palace with everything he desired at his fingertips for the taking. Solomon enjoyed the best education, the best training, by the best teachers available. Solomon then used these gifts to accumulate vast wealth, discover incredible knowledge and wisdom, and experience pleasure of all kinds. And he didn’t do any of this in moderate, but to extreme excess. If Solomon couldn’t discover the secret and meaning to life, who really can?  (Nelson, 3).

Solomon wrote the Song of Solomon earlier in his adult life, reflecting upon his first love Naaman. He wrote Ecclesiastes in his elder years, as reflections of a man who played the fool, who had it all and lost it all, and then discovered what was worth having anyway.  One writer on Solomon asserts,

In Ecclesiastes, the covenant name of God, Yahweh, is never used. Instead, Solomon

refers to God euphemistically by other references and names. Some scholars believe

that this book is written with the nonbeliever in mind. Ecclesiastes addresses someone

 who has sincere questions about life and the nature of God. It’s a book to the nations,

and it is certainly a book for our generation” and current times.  (Nelson, 3-4)

In Hebrew, the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes is called Qoheleth, or the Preacher. Solomon is not just a philosopher in the sense of a thinker, he takes on the role of God’s spokesman to herald what the truth is. Author and Pastor Tommy Nelson of Denton Bible Church states that if the world’s view of wisdom is personified by Rodin’s “The Thinker”, then biblical wisdom is personified in Solomon as “Qoheleth, the Preacher.”  That’s a great analogy!  But Solomon is not like so many modern philosophers who only pontificate about what might be true; instead Solomon tells us the facts of life. These facts instruct us who we can choose to live even when faced with continual disappointment, and yet still be fulfilled personally and spiritually.

Solomon uses a sequential approach to the writings and systematically works through all of our human attempts to find meaning and purpose in life. Solomon starts Ecclesiastes by describing his efforts at intellectualism, then he works through his pursuit of hedonism for meaning and life satisfaction, Finally, he examines materialism, greed and what really has his opulent wealth and vast empire given him?

In Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth examines the best thoughts of men and then shows us why they won’t work. He proves that in and of themselves, these ideas cannot truly satisfy and ultimately bring happiness and meaning to man in his human condition. In contrast to pagan naturalism where all that man does is good, Qoheleth discerns that there is nothing in man that is good. Qoheleth discovers that individuals have to go outside of their selves to find something that is infinite good and whole.  In the end, by Solomon’s witness, humanity has to look to God.

But even for believers in a monotheistic God, Solomon is realistic and talks about life having much inequality and struggles. Life with God can be as troubling and problematic as life is with atheists.  But life with God can give humanity hope that man is not alone and that there is someone greater and Divine who is at the wheel, guiding and leading us as we live each day.

In essence, Ecclesiastes is a written narrative of Qoheleth’s quest is in discovering what is his worldview. Since the Garden of Eden, humanity has wanted to become God, to change the order of not only being the created – but to become the Creator.  This is the same battle which Solomon fought with all his materialism, hedonism and intellectualism, he still experienced a lack of meaning and purpose in his life. This the same battle each of us face, whether we realize it or not!

We each have a worldview. It colors everything at which we look. There is a distinctive Christian worldview that is uniquely Christian way to think and act. The tragedy is that research from the Barna Group reveals that only 8% of evangelical Christians have a Christian worldview.  The Christian worldview stands for absolutism in a world of relativism; supernaturalism over and against naturalism, and exclusivism in face of growing religious pluralism. (Phillips, vii)

Worldviews are not the same as formal philosophy. All people have a set of convictions about how reality functions and how they should each live. A worldview is “the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions” (Phillips, 8).  Your worldview is your blueprint, or map, for reality – to help you explain and interpret life and the world, but also it is a starting point which you apply your view to life through your decisions and actions.

Did you realize that each of us struggle, knowingly or unknowingly with ‘ultimate questions’ of life? These are questions, such as:

  • Why am I living?
  • What is the cause of my existence and that of everyone else?
  • Why do I exist?
  • Why is there a division of good and evil within me?
  • How must I live?
  • What is death – how can I save myself? (Phillips, p.9)

Theses ultimate questions speak our Origins, Meaning, Morality, Destiny, Identity. The answers we embrace to these ultimate questions (consciously or subconsciously) shape our assumptions about God, humanity, and nature. I believe that each of us also struggle the same way that King Solomon struggled with these same types of ultimate questions of life.

John Stonestreet of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview says that you don’t really have a worldview, it’s more like a worldview has you! (Colson Fellow Webinar, 2016)

Have you realistically sat down and analyzed that influencing your thinking? Movies? books? I’d like to unpack for you three basic worldview categories as related by Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet in their text Making Sense of Your World. There are subsets to these worldviews, but I’ll just speak to three broad categories:  Naturalism, Transcendentalism and Theism.

NATURALISM

If a person holds to the worldview of naturalism – they view the world as they see it. For them, the physical universe is all there is. There is nothing beyond or separate from that which they can see, touch, and/or measure. Matter and energy are the basic “stuff” from which all existence is derived. Such a view of reality implies that all obtainable answers for “the ultimate questions” relating to the universe and mankind can be found by the investigation of the physical world. Various ideas that stem from Naturalism are: Ideas that stem from Naturalism are: Materialism, Positivism, Secularism, Scientism, Atheism, Agnosticism.  These ideas are expressed as: Secular Humanism, Marxism/Leninism (ie. socialism), Existentialism, Nihilism and Hedonism. (Phillips, 24)

For contrast, if the Christian Bible says, “In the beginning, God…”, the naturalist mindset would want to re-word this by saying, “In the beginning, hydrogen.”  In Naturalism, the supernatural God is replaced by natural elements, so if there are no spiritual realities, then it is impossible for God to exist. For the naturalist, reality is understood only by the careful use of the scientific method, not wishful thinking (as they view Creationists and Christians).

Science had tenaciously held to a belief in God as the conclusion that the orderly physical properties of earth (i.e. gravity, etc.) served as a constant proof for an orderly God. Up until that point, “All truth was Gods truth”, and the starry heavens above blinked down God’s favor upon a grateful people.

So, what changed?  One thing that happened was Marquis de Laplace (1827) Laplace wrote essay titled, Celestial Mechanics. Leplace presented this work to Napoleon to read. To paraphrase, Napoleon responded, “You have written a large work on the universe without once mentioning its author.” Laplace replied, “But I have no need for that hypothesis.” From that point of time, a type of practical atheism began to influence the scientific community’s perspective. How can science explain life and existence without a divine Creator or an Intelligent Designer? Now, scientific methods and scientific fact became synonymous with absolute truth. Charles Darwin’s 1859 work Origin of Species added more skepticism in trying to explain the design of the universe without God as the Creator.

Also, for the naturalist, whatever promotes their happiness, self-consciousness and self-identity is considered ‘good’.  Whatever hinders happiness would be considered ‘bad.’  This has led to wide-spread ethical relativism, or situational ethics; the belief that morality depends upon the individual or situation, the ends justifies the means.

As stated above, various expressions of Naturalism are: Secular Humanism, Marxism/Leninism (ie. socialism), Existentialism, Nihilism and Hedonism. Let’s quickly discuss a few of these. Nihilism expresses that life is meaningless. It states that man’s existence and quest for purpose is pointless.  This is what King Solomon discovered about his own life 3,000 years ago. When God is excluded from the equation of life, everything is futile, meaningless and of complete vanity (Eccl 1:2; 12; 2:23).

In the expressions of Existentialism and Hedonism, the approach to life ventures to overcome the hopelessness of naturalism by creating one’s own meaning for life. Existentialist and Hedonist fill life with unending experiences of pleasure. In general, this group do not live by any guiding rules or absolute truths, but simply pursue anything that might give meaning to life. Qoheleth’s Quest did this to the extreme as well, but to no avail of any lasting life satisfaction (Eccl 2).

The last expression of Naturalism that we’ll review is Humanism. Certain naturalists choose to focus their energies on making the world a better place to live. Overcoming social injustices of poverty, disease, handicaps and other natural limitations of this life would be on the Humanist’s agenda. I would agree that all of these subjects do indeed need to be considered and helped by society as a whole. However, Humanism discards any ultimate meaning for life and places the needs of humanity as a whole at the center of all universal concerns, without a God of order, purpose and influence. Again, Qoheleth’s Quest discovered this also was meaningless and futile when life is considered outside and without God.

TRANSCENDENTALISM

The second worldview of discussion is Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism views that humanity is God. Transcendentalism sees the world as you want it to be. Ideas of Transcendentalism as seen in Pantheism, Panentheism, Polytheism, Animism, Panpsychism, New Age. Transcendentalism is described as “a melting pot of mystical and psychic movements” (Phillips, 33).  Expressions of Transcendentalism are: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hare Krishna, Baha’ism, New Age, Scientology and Wicca.

Transcendentalism promises a progression toward universal unity. And modern society is enamored with the concept of progression. Who wouldn’t like a belief that the world is ultimately moving toward global unity? That’s a much better solution than a biblical Armageddon. The most positive aspect of transcendentalism is the promise of a “New Age” of global harmony and peace. However, scholars observe, “As mankind progresses toward this unity, the shackles of theistic religions and atheistic naturalism must be removed” (Phillips, 38).

Transcendentalism replaces the theistic view of man’s depravity with a positive acclamation of man’s divinity. Such a view fits in well with an American culture that prides itself on individual determination and accomplishment. Actualizing one’s divine nature results in breakthrough experiences for individuals in their careers, health, and relationships.”   Transcendentalism views that man is God.

THEISM

The third main worldview is Theism. Theism sees the world from God’s hands. Theism can look to many gods (polytheism) or toward one god (monotheism).  We will quickly delve into the worldview of monotheism, whether the God is only distant or extremely relational, personal and engaging. Expressions of Theism are: Islam, Judaism, and Biblical Christianity.

Surveys have noted that 3/5 of our world population believes there is a personal deity.  While naturalism builds its system on the assumption that the material universe is all there is; transcendentalism assumes that all reality is of one great mind or spirit. Theism begins with the assumption that God exists. Judaism believes in one God, but not that Christ the messiah has returned.  Islam believes in one God, Allah, but this is not Christianity’s triune God that is comprised of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. One should not say that all faiths lead to heaven and to the same Creator Lord. But many do. That premise may help everyone feel good, but that is not theologically correct per the Torah, the Holy Bible, and the Qu’ran.

King Solomon’s life reflection as Qoheleth described in Ecclesiastes brings out the ways the pagan and later Greek vs. Hebrew worldviews existed in ancient times. Solomon battled against life philosophies which either included God or tried in every way to explain life without God’s existence. Qoheleth discovered that life with God was a life well-lived.

Theism holds that real things do exist beyond the physical realm; God, angels, the human soul, immortality, and the like. Christianity speak of eternal things not seen which naturalism cannot and even avoids (Genesis 1:1; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Hebrews 11:1). Theism sees the created world as a work of art from the hand of the Creator. Christian Theism also delivers an indictment against man because of his personal rebellion against the truth revealed by God.

WRAPUP

The naturalistic, humanistic and transcendentalist, existential worldviews haven’t worked too well over the past four to five thousand years of recorded human history. Yet, man keeps on trying to find some secret that would ultimately replace GOD… but there always tends to be a point of reckoning. Seeking pleasure and satisfaction outside of God is meaningless.

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias recently commented, “Meaninglessness of life does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness of life come from being weary of pleasure. And that’s why we are bankrupt of meaning in a land of so much.” (RZIM)

The actor Brad Pitt “I had a crisis of faith. I thought you had to experience things if you want to know right from wrong. I’d go to Christian revivals and be moved by the Holy Spirit and I’d go to rock concerts and feel the same fervor. Then I’d be told, “That’s the Devil’s music! Don’t partake in that!’ I wanted to experience things religion said not to experience…When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me, it was a discover of self. I had faith that I’m capable enough to hand any situation” (Parade Magazine 2007).

Actor Shia LeBeouf stated similar feelings as Pitt.  “Sometimes I feel like I’m living a meaningless life and I get frightened…I have no idea where this insecurity comes from, but it’s a God-sized hole. If I knew, I’d fill it and I’d be on my way…I have no answers to anything.  None. Why am I an alcoholic? I haven’t a clue!  What is life about? I don’t know…. The best I can do is learn from my mistakes and move forward.  And that’s what I’m trying to do” (Heaven4Sure, Sept 2009).

These celebrities struggle just like you and I about our meaning, our purpose, about the ultimate questions of life when God is removed from life’s equation (not that you really can). But like an ostrich with its head in the sand, our culture is doing everything it can to live life ignoring God. As this is occurring, there is now a foundational shift in world thinking.

But once you find yourself, what will you do with yourself? Will you even like what you find?

The social analyst Daniel Yankelovich states, “If you feel the imperative to fill all your needs and if these needs are contradictory or in conflict with those needs which are simply unfillable, then frustration inevitably follows.” To progressive couples, “self- fulfillment means having a career and marriage and children and sexual freedom and autonomy and being liberal and having money and choosing non-conformity and insisting social justice and enjoying city life and country living and simplicity and graciousness and reading and good friends and on and on.   The individual is not fulfilled by becoming ever more autonomous, indeed to move too far in this direction is to risk psychosis, the ultimate form of autonomy!“ (Psychology Today, April 1981).

To this statement by Yankelovich, Ravi Zacharias responds, “The injunction that to find one’s self, one must lose one’s self, contains the truth any seeker of self-fulfillment needs to grasp.” He later states that the Gospel of Christianity “contradicts us in the way we experience ourselves as alive and compels us to drastically redefine what we mean by life” (RZIM, 1998).

When I study these types of things, I ask myself, “Without a true compass and rudder to guide me in life, how will I ever get anywhere and experience a truly satisfied and fulfilled life?” What’s the solution? The solution in Colossians 3:2 is a great answer; “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”  Verses 5 and 6 of that same chapter fleshes out this thought even further; “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming…” These words by the Apostle Paul speaks to Qoheleth’s Quest of where ultimate meaning of life is discovered: God.

The Christian or Biblical Worldview of Theism is the worldview that gives humanity the most life satisfaction and fulfillment. As a chaplain, I have officiated my fair share of funerals. It is my opinion (by first hand observation), individuals who lived by the values, virtues and tenants of the Christian faith exit a life that is often described as having been well-lived. They left live legacies which earned respect because their lives were full of honor and integrity which many attendees are inspired to emulate. I suspect this is what Qoheleth’s Quest was all about, discovering the best way to life-life well. For him (and me), it is a life with God.

– Keith Evans

References:

Gary Phillips, William E. Brown and John Stonestreet. Making Sense of Your World, 2nd edition. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co, 2008.

Tommy Nelson. The Problem of Life with God. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, “An Ancient Message through Modern Means, to a Post Modern Mind”, September 1, 1998. http://www.rzim.org

 

excerpt, What Is A Spiritual Assessment?

[This is an excerpt from The Chaplain Skillset Series, Vol 3: Understanding the Spiritual Assessment. A complimentary copy is available as an e-book on Amazon.com thru April 24, 2016.]

Chapter Two: What Is A Spiritual Assessment?

Rev. Keith A Evans DC, DMin and Zacarias C Buhuro MA, MDiv

For chaplains in any setting, the unspoken protocol is to assess the spirituality and beliefs of the individual which they are ministering. Completing a spirituality assessment allows the chaplain to see what spiritual or faith-specific resources the individual may need for the situation. To do this well, one must understand what spirituality is and what the objectives of completing a spiritual assessment might be.

For a quick review of how spirituality is defined, Christina Puchalski MD of George Washington Institute of Spirituality and Health states,

Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred (Puchalski, 2014, p. 642).

Stephen R. Covey states, “The spiritual dimension is your core, your center, your commitment to your value system. It’s a very private area of life and a supremely important one” (Covey, p. 170).

One can quickly assess from just these two definitions of spirituality that spirituality is multi-faceted and complex.

Chaplains are often asked, “Is there a difference between spirituality and religion?” Some may disagree but my generalized answer is, “Yes.” First of all, everyone has a spirituality within them, whether they personally recognize it or not. People are spiritual in nature. Secondly, I view religion as the way an individual or group determines how they learn and practice (rites, rituals and worship) their spirituality, beliefs and their theologically-based faith. Religion is where your theology, doctrines and dogmas are developed. However, I do not believe a person can commit to and authentically practice a religion without a sense of their own spirituality or spiritual needs. But one may express their spirituality outside of traditional religious practices.

George Fitchett’s book Assessing Spiritual Needs: A Guide for Caregivers (1993) has become a classic among professional chaplains and as a vital clinical pastoral education resource. Fitchett’s work revealed that many approaches were being used to accomplish a spiritual assessment. He discovered that chaplains were using a broad range of spiritual assessments from informal and personal methods to very precise, impersonal “diagnostic” surveys.

Fitchett discusses the importance of the spiritual assessment. For the chaplain, the spiritual assessment becomes the foundation for developing an action plan which will direct soul care, as well as to promote intentional and effective spiritual communication, as well as a way to evaluate chaplaincy interactions, maintain personal accountability, quality assurance, and establish the role and purpose of the chaplain. But whichever spiritual assessment model that is used by a chaplain, these objectives should be foundational to the model’s overall purpose.

Through Fitchett’s research and personal experience, he developed his own spiritual assessment model called the 7 x 7 Model. This model is conceptual, functional, holistic, and provides a great framework for chaplains in any setting for spiritually assessments. In brief, he states that holistic wellness is built around seven dimensions:

  1. Medical
  2. Psychological
  3. Psychosocial
  4. Family systems
  5. Ethnic and cultural
  6. Societal issues
  7. Spiritual dimensions

One can easily see the influence which each of these seven dimensions has upon an individual’s life and perceptions of holistic wellness.

Within the Spiritual dimension, Fitchett’s 7 x 7 Model describes seven smaller categories which give the broader perspective and complex intricacies for an individual’s overall spirituality:

  1. Beliefs and meaning
  2. Vocation and consequences
  3. Experience and emotion
  4. Courage and growth
  5. Ritual and practice
  6. Community
  7. Authority and guidance

In Douglas Edward Robinson’s doctoral work on spiritual assessment and his evaluation of Fitchett’s 7 x 7 Model, he states,

For review, the two hemispheres of assessment are the Holistic and Spiritual…It is likely that you will not gain all the information you seek in the first visit, or during all of your visits. Time does not always permit this thorough an assessment. Remember that hospital patient needs and challenges can rapidly change. Hospitalized patients may present with multiple issues. When this is the case, you may first need to address the most crucial issue, before tending to the others. The important thing to remember is that spiritual care in the hospital is need-based and fluid. Let the patient direct you to the areas in greatest need of intervention. Spiritual welfare and appropriate intervention is always more important than getting all the information. Promoting such integration requires an appropriate assessment of patient spirituality, and definition of conditions for spiritual interventions, that improve patient care (Robinson, 2012).

Fitchett’s 7 x 7 Model seems daunting at first glance, but it actually is a common-sense and thorough approach. It hits upon all aspects of life. If a chaplain, or any person ministering to another, can remember to utilize just a few of these sections, they will more than likely have a meaningful encounter. Of course, the inclusion of all seven areas of the spiritual dimension remains the objective goal.

The next chapter will review a few of the more common spiritual assessments which are in the literature and being practically used in different clinical and public ministry settings. But first, let’s hear about some of the benefits of a chaplain using spiritual assessments.

The Practical Benefits of the Spiritual Assessment

Performing a spiritual assessment should not be about imposing a set of rigid questions on an individual. It should be an interactive conversation between individuals. This discussion will center on healthcare settings, but the spiritual assessment can be administered in any setting with individuals who may be hurting spiritually.

Buhuro: Upon admission to the hospital, patients may undergo a spiritual screening, which is generally very short in nature. The spiritual screening simply asks questions such as, “Do you have spiritual beliefs? Do you have a faith or church preference? Do you want a local minister or church to visit you while you are admitted?”

However, as the patients stay for one or more days, there is a need for a professional chaplain to do the spiritual assessment. A spiritual assessment helps to address the patient’s needs in a more holistic way and also to engage the patients on the meaning of their life as they are dealing with an illness.

One may not claim to belong to any organized religion or may even claim that they are “atheists.” What is important to know is that the spiritual assessment taps into the core of what and who the person is, in terms of meaning making of what is happening in their life.

What does it mean, for example, for a mother that is accustomed to waking up every morning, going to work, taking care of her family and so on…but now she is in the hospital facing a serious illness? What does she make of news about a new diagnosis that may interfere with her daily life? How does she cope with that? Who supports her? How can others be of support to her?

The spiritual assessment deals with the ultimate meaning of life regardless of the person’s religiosity. In my work with hospice patients, one of the dominant issue which often needed to be addressed was their pain. The pain here is not only physical, but emotional, psychological and spiritual pain…..

References:

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Signature Edition 4.0. Salt Lake City: FranklinCovey, date not listed.

Fitchett, George. Assessing Spiritual Needs: A Guide for Caregivers. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

Puchalski, Christina M., Robert Vitillo, Sharon K. Hull and Nancy Reller. “Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care: Reaching National and International Consensus.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 17, no. 6, 2014: 642.

Robinson, Douglas Edward. “Pastoral Care: A New Model For Assessing the Spiritual Needs of Hospitalized Patients.” D.Min. dissertation. Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, August 2012: 111-112. http://www.digitalcommons.liberty.edu