An excerpt from the introduction to my recently released book Nothing New Under the Sun: A Blunt Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes:
You won’t like this book. Ecclesiastes is gloomy, skeptical, and irreverent. It is caustic and drolly splenetic. It is unapologetically human. It refuses to abet our hunger for clean narratives and happy endings. It is a hopeless book. Insisting on life’s futility, the world’s capriciousness, and God’s inscrutability, it deliberately cultivates despair. It sees such bone-deep hopelessness as the only cure for what ails us. Ecclesiastes is a hard book full of hard sayings. It is an anvil against which our hearts must be hammered.
No wonder we avoid it.
But the cost of avoidance is high. As Paul insists, in order to become Christian, we must first learn to be hopeless. Hopelessness is the door to Zion. Hopelessness is crucial to a consecrated life. Before we can find hope in Christ, we must give up hope in everything else. Nothing can save us from the cross. Abraham, Paul claims, learned how to trust God by learning how to hope against hope. Abraham, “against hope, believed in hope” (Romans 4:18). Or, as Joseph Spencer more clearly renders it, Abraham was “hopeless but hoping.”
Life in Christ doesn’t overcome this hopelessness. It doesn’t replace it with hope, trading one for the other. Rather, life in Christ baptizes hopelessness and then draws strength from it. It practices a rare kind of messianic hope that is rooted in futility and grows only in that bleak soil.
As sinners, we resist life in Christ by resisting the hopelessness that conditions it. We resist Christ by refusing to give up. We are too proud. But to find Christ, life must be surrendered. All of our projects and plans and vanities must be surrendered. And not just once, but continually. Surrender isn’t just the gate to a Christian life, it is the mode of that life. Living life in Christ means performing life as a continual act of surrender—each plan, each loss, each trophy; each breath, each sight, each thought; each mother, each husband, each child. It means performing hope in Christ by way of an ongoing confession of hopelessness.
“All of this is empty, futile, and vain,” Ecclesiastes continually intones.
Surrender. Let go.
Everything is on fire.
In Ecclesiastes, this hopelessness takes a number of forms. Satisfaction, for one, is hopeless. Satiety is a mirage. The world is inadequate to our immoderate desires. The book’s narrator has, he insists, tried everything. Solomonic, he has reigned as a king, accumulated all wisdom, achieved all forms of worldly success, and exhausted every form of pleasure. Wealth, sex, drugs, beauty, skill, power, knowledge—he has drained all these cups to their dregs. And what did he find? He found nothing that endures, nothing that is substantial, nothing that could satisfy. At the bottom of every cup he found the same thing: life insatiable and time inexorable. Hunger is eternal. This truth is hard to concede but, having seen it, he wants to show it. Satisfaction is a lure and any life caught on this hopeful hook will be filled with frustration and disappointment. Lives lived in hope of satisfaction inevitably unfold as a kind of death, as a kind of half-life in which people never quite start living—always waiting, always hoping, forever suspended between what they want and what they don’t have. This is spiritual death.
You are not different and you are not special. You will not succeed where everyone else has failed. The world cannot give you what you want, no matter how hard you squeeze. Hope is not the answer. It is, rather, the veil through which you must pass in order to see (and love) the world as it is and, thus, step into the blazing presence of God. Then—singed, hopeless, consecrated, and empty handed—you can come back to life. This is what it means to take up your cross and follow him.