Vanity of vanities. What’s the point? Nothing matters. How is this possible? How can things that initially seem so enjoyable and look so good end up being so unsatisfying in the end?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus helps us understand what lies at the root of Solomon’s unhappiness—and our own. “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” he says, “. . . but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In other words, the reason Solomon became dissatisfied with consumption, the reason we will also find it unsatisfying, is because it cannot offer the deeper, richer, sustainable goodness that our souls seek. When we invest our hearts in temporary things, things that John describes as “passing away,” we must constantly replace them to maintain our joy. And so we’re constantly looking for newer, better, faster, and flashier and will gladly pay for them even if we don’t need them.
Happiness: Made to Break
Understanding how our hearts relate to possessions helps explain cultures marked by consumerism and driven by the belief that new is always better. Giles Slade, the author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, writes that part of what motivates consumers to keep purchasing is that they are in “a state of anxiety based on the belief that whatever is old is undesirable, dysfunctional, and embarrassing, compared with what is new.”
So in order to be happy, we keep consuming, keep buying, keep indulging—but the whole time, the things we gain leave us empty even as we crave them all the more. We’re not victims of planned obsolescence as much as partners in it.
In order to find lasting happiness, we must invest in things that last, we must store up “treasures in heaven.” Because what ultimately makes something good is not whether it brings us momentary pleasure but whether it brings us eternal pleasure, whether it satisfies both our bodies and our souls.
Unlike modern gadgets that become outdated on release, the technology that allows me to play my Sidney Bechet album is the same basic technology that Thomas Edison patented in 1878. To look at it, a record is nothing more than a hard, flat disk with thin concentric circles, but the circles are actually grooves with microscopic variations that the record needle “reads.” The resulting vibrations are translated into electric signals, amplified, and as if by magic, make my living room sound like a 1940s nightspot.
Spiraling Toward God
Another surprising thing about records is that while the record itself is spinning in a circle, the needle is actually moving closer and closer to the center with each spin. The circles that appear concentric are really one continuous spiral that begins at the outer edge and slowly loops toward the center.
We often think of life on this earth in a linear fashion, a road that leads straight off into eternity. Because of this, when we think about investing in heavenly treasure or things that last, we could easily assume it means forgoing anything but necessities here on earth, that we should only invest in things of an obvious religious or spiritual nature. But Solomon presents a different vision of our time on this earth—one that simultaneously complicates and clarifies the search for good things.
Having realized that seeking pleasure itself is not good, Solomon, began to understand that his problem wasn’t so much what he was pursuing as how he was pursuing it. He had been pursuing good things apart from God, the Giver of good things. But “apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” he asks.
This leads Solomon to an equally profound thought: “For everything there is a season,” he writes, “and a time for every matter under heaven. . . .”
He has put eternity into man’s heart. . . . there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
What Solomon realizes is that our life on earth, all the things we experience, all the work we do, all the good things we enjoy, aren’t simply a hurdle to the next life. They are designed by God to lead us to the next life. They are designed to lead us to him. Like the grooves on a record, God’s good gifts are designed to draw us closer and closer to the center, to draw us closer and closer to eternity and him.
A Broken Record
But sometimes the record is scratched. Sometimes debris gets lodged in a groove. And when this happens, a record can play on a loop, repeating the same musical phrase over and over and over again, never moving forward. This is what happens when we seek God’s good gifts as ends in themselves.
When we give ourselves to pleasure without acknowledging God as the source of it, we get locked in an earthly, worldly mindset. We begin to believe that this present moment is all that matters. And we run in circles trying to satisfy ourselves, never getting any closer to where we need to be. Never getting any closer to true goodness.
Instead of forgoing good things in this life, we need to let them do what they were designed to do: draw us toward God.
In 1 Timothy, Paul writes that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4). Paul is not suggesting that we can indulge in anything we want as long as we pray over it; he’s teaching how a posture of thanksgiving and submission to God’s Word puts us in a place to know God through his gifts.
From this posture, we acknowledge that all good things come down from him, that without him, we would have nothing. We submit ourselves to his plans and purposes for our lives, even if they run counter to what the world tells us will bring happiness. And we confess that he is our ultimate good.
So that by this turning, turning, turning, this always, only, ever turning toward him, we will come out right.
Excerpted from All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson (©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.
Hannah Anderson lives in the haunting Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She spends her days working beside her husband in rural ministry, caring for their three children, and scratching out odd moments to write. In those in-between moments, she contributes to a variety of Christian publications and is the author of Made for More (Moody, 2014) and Humble Roots (Moody, 2016). You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com and on Twitter @sometimesalight.