We all find ourselves sharing a very unexpected world and community circumstance. We’ve all struggled at many levels of wonderment with how this tangle of physical threat and social menaces has congealed into what is a frightening stranglehold for millions. I will not here wade into the deep waters of opinion and controversy. Instead, I find myself asking a spiritually intimate question of myself. As I, loved ones, and communities face this bewildering threat, where are my heart and mind?
A darkness pervades today. Uncertainties abound. These uncertainties are felt in our bones—believers and unbelievers alike. It occurred to me that the writer of Ecclesiastes, Solomon (Keholet), has grasped the uncertainties of the world in a spirit not unlike those forced upon us today by a deadly contagion.
Solomon’s deeply pessimistic vision of life can be disturbing. Some would argue that the picture of human existence Solomon paints is unnecessarily dark. They would argue that the redemptive promise and provision of God that the New Testament presents offers us much more than does Solomon’s picture. I agree that Christ’s promise ultimately and gloriously overcomes Solomon’s incomplete and pessimistic picture. Clearly, however, the New Testament pictures struggle, pain, suffering, and only fleeting kinds of fulfillment this side of the resurrection. Believers today just have a clearer picture of God’s solution to the futility Solomon poetically described.
Solomon’s vision of life and human experience in this world is a universal and overarching picture of the futility to which we are ultimately bound in this present life. We share the same world with Solomon, where the peril of something like COVID-19 derives its energy and existence, where plagues have their permission to exist within the inscrutable will of the transcendent Creator. God does not withhold tragedy, failure, and complex dilemmas from the lives of believers today. God does not guarantee believers a kind of health and success in this world that can be compared to the existence that awaits us. This world, the Bible makes clear from Genesis through the New Testament, is “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:18-25). And this futility—“wired into” a fallen, rebellious creation—results in an uncanny void of deep and lasting fulfillment in all human relationships, things, and accomplishments. Elements within this creation grant us fleeting tastes of beauty and good things, but the lasting things—things that stand the test of eternity—will not be ours in this world. For those who look to God for ultimate peace, we must live with the antinomies of death and God’s love and promise of eternal life.
Seen through the lenses of faith though, futility (and pandemics) can become my spiritual tutor. The impact and our experience of the existential-spiritual pain from COVID-19 can remind me that living in this world—even as a believer—offers only a pale fulfillment when compared to the kind awaiting me.
Solomon’s cry, “Futility of futility, all is futility,” exudes the pain of uncertain meaning when it rides the waves of what may be an unstoppable threat. In these conditions, we all tend to look beyond ourselves for safety and hope. In today’s world, that search for comfort takes many forms. For those of faith formed from the truth of the Scriptures, we desire that hope to be in our God and Christ our savior. So let it be.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.