The entire book of Ecclesiastes paints a vivid picture of the futility of human efforts all by themselves. Any form of subtlety or tact is totally missing from the author’s opening lines: “Meaningless, meaningless…Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” He goes on to explain how wisdom, work, pleasures, money, prestige and success are entirely without any real value in and of themselves. This is not unlike the story of Sisyphus, who was a Greek mythological figure known for being extremely smart and cunning. Ultimately his self-centeredness led an eternal punishment in which he was forever condemned to roll a large boulder up a steep hill. But each time he would get steps from the very top the stone would inevitably slip from his fingers and roll back down to the bottom. This futile, unending task was his fate for all eternity. The legend of Sisyphus is entirely fictitious, of course, yet it captures well the assessment of the human condition that we find in scripture.
Whereas it’s easy to measure success by our own achievements, the Bible tells us that nothing we do in our own strength carries any real value. What a remarkable contrast to the narrative all around us. If self-empowerment and ego were an industry, it would be worth billions. From the home improvement stores that tell us that “you can do it” to the motivational speakers who remind us that they can help us unlock our true potential, we are bombarded with messages that it’s all about us and that we are in control. If we just do this or that then we will achieve the results we really want. Lose weight to be more attractive. Work harder to get a promotion. Get a raise and be able to afford that house or car that will make you feel important and happy.
It is just as easy to assume that this way of thinking about ourselves is the same way God thinks about us. Maybe if I pray and read my Bible more, God will bless me. Maybe if I tithe more, I’ll be in God’s good graces. Perhaps if I’m a better person and sin less then I’ll earn God’s love. In short, it is easy to feel as though we don’t fully need God. It may be that we need Him 98 or 99%, but surely we contribute something, right? This is the way our culture and economy work: the more you invest the more you’ll get the results you want. Yet Scripture tells us that when we view ourselves in this way, we are just like Sisyphus, proudly pushing around our stones over and over again but without ever really achieving anything at all.
He gives us everything
Fortunately, God sees us very differently. God showed His love for us in that Christ died for our sins while we were sinners with nothing to offer. In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul emphasizes a “trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” In this passage and elsewhere Paul is eliminating our own sense of self-worth, achievement and merit in somehow earning God’s love. Paul reminds Timothy that he was not only once a blasphemer but also a violent man who persecuted Christians. Ironically, he goes on to say it was “for that very reason that I was shown mercy, so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
A well-known pastor summarizes the truth and the tension in how we see ourselves versus how God sees us in this way: “we’re far worse than we ever imagined and far more loved than we ever could dream.” It doesn’t matter how beautiful, smart, wealthy or talented you are. From God’s perspective it is precisely because we have nothing to offer that He abundantly gives us everything we need.
How do we respond?
From here comes the difficult challenge of how we respond. Do we choose to believe that our success, love and value are defined by our own achievements? Or do we let go of everything we hold onto so tightly, receive the free gift of God’s grace, and see our identity as defined by Christ? If we choose the first, we mistake our own identity by minimizing our own sin, esteeming our own self-worth and thereby diminishing the grace of God. If we respond the other way, we understand that the true glory lies not in ourselves but in the accomplished work of Christ. That is our true identity. As such we can join with the Apostle Paul in praise, “to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Dr. Scott Manor is assistant professor of historical theology, vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty at Knox Theological Seminary. He can be reached at [email protected].