Part of being human is about knowing ourselves, even why we are here. The beloved Jewish philosopher and theologian, Abraham Heschel, asserted this very thing:
- It’s not enough for me to be able to say ‘I am’; I want to know who I am and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?
Life is filled with suffering and injustice. The innocent become victims in what seems to be a senseless flow of snickering events. These force us to re-ask Heschel’s question – “What am I here for.”
Solomon’s life had been devoted to answering this question:
- I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge. "Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18)
As hard as Solomon tried, he was unable to grasp life’s meaning. It was like trying to grasp “the wind.” Instead, his wisdom-quest produced “much sorrow” and “grief.” Why? Normally, he extolled the value of wisdom. However, when it came to grasping ultimate meaning, he was frustrated. He needed to know about the afterlife. Only this knowledge could give him the understanding for which he searched. However, his intellect was unable to pass through the curtain separating this life from the next. From the perspective of his limited wisdom-quest, it appeared that there was no meaning to life:
- For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. (Ecclesiastes 2:16-21)
Without the confident knowledge of life’s meaning, which requires the big picture, Solomon hated life. However, he wasn’t alone. Even secularists have expressed our utter need for life to having meaning. Psychologist Arthur Deikman writes:
- Human beings need meaning. Without it they suffer… Western Psychotherapy is hard put to meet human beings’ need for meaning, for it attempts to understand clinical phenomena in a framework based on scientific materialism in which meaning is arbitrary and purpose nonexistent.
According to Deikman, meaning could not merely be subjectively created. For “Western Psychotherapy… purpose [is] nonexistent,” and we are not able to create what is “nonexistent.” Even the atheist and Christianity-despiser, Frederick Nietzsche, wrote that “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how!’” However, once we reject the afterlife, that “why” becomes unattainable.
Despite all that he possessed, Solomon could not bear life without answering this “why.” This is why the Christian is so blessed! Alluding to Solomon’s perplexity, the Apostle Paul wrote:
- If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:19)
- If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (1 Corinthians 15:32)
Without heaven, life has no more meaning beyond a mad rush to fulfill ourselves. However, self-fulfillment will not satisfy, even in this life. Suffering is inevitable! How do we deal with it? Paul declared that we can only remain joyous in the hand of suffering as we look beyond it:
- I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)
It is only the fragrance of our confidence in the next life that will enable us to look beyond the suffering. Why then are we here? It is eternity’s boot-camp!