Time and Meaning | Its Futility and How to Redeem It

You’ve all heard the phrases, “Time is money” or “Time waits on no one”. Time is one of those things we always feel is slipping away and we never have enough of it. Our fast-paced world today doesn't help the dilemma either. Pings, dings, and rings call for our scarcest resource each day, and 24 hours seem to fly by as though they were only minutes. Before we know it, we're turning gray and remarking at how much our comments about time remind us of something our parents or grandparents would say!


But what about meaning? Is there even time for that? And how can the short period we have on this earth have lasting significance? Generations are forgotten to the past. You'd be lucky to find someone who knows even 4 significant facts about their great grandparents. Are we doomed to the sea of forgetfulness adrift in the vast ocean of time? The clock's hands can be a cruel taskmaster...

As we consider how Christianity helps us in the search for life’s meaning, we must first ask the important question...


Why is the search for meaning important?

For most of us, even if we don’t know intellectually, the need for meaning in life is something we instinctively get. It is a vital issue, since what you believe about the meaning of life will shape every area of your life - from your values, ideals, hopes, and even the types of bumper stickers you’ll put on your car (or not). Perhaps even more significantly, what we think about the meaning of life will profoundly shape how you deal with adversity and in our days of pandemics, lockdowns and many societal issues, there is much adversity. The philosopher, Fredrick Nietzche once said,

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

I think this is true. However, the irony is that Nietzsche was an atheist who popularized the phrase, “God is dead.” So, is it even possible for life to have meaning without God? If we are all simply the product of random chance and unguided evolutionary process - are we not just merely stardust in motion with no ultimate purpose or higher design? From whence does Nietzsche’s “why to live for” come? From whence does our “why” come?


As Christian apologist, Dr. Andy Bannister has noted:

“If there is no God, then humankind is not designed, purposed, or planned: there is nothing we are intended to be. All that we hold dear, all of our dreams, ambitions, goals and accomplishments are pure accidents of atoms.” (The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, pg 176)

This is why the question of God and faith is so important to the discussion of life’s meaning.


The Futility of Time

The book of Ecclesiastes poetically records the musings of one of the wisest, wealthiest, and most powerful persons of the time - referred to as “the Preacher” in the book. He withheld no pleasures from himself in his search for life’s meaning. He built buildings, and gardens, and amassed great wealth, servants, and lovers. In that book, the Preacher considers that after gaining all the activities and pleasures of life he determines that they are all ‘a chasing after the wind’ - like trying to hold on to a mist.


In chapter 3, he considers the mystery of time. He starts off by saying,

There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die... (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2a)

The Preacher notes that there are times and seasons to life which we all have to go through and over which we seldom have control. Your time to be born and your time to die are totally out of our control. The two most significant and important times in your life are out of your hands. No one has planned their own conception, and even those who attempt suicide, they are not always successful or able to control the outcome as much as they'd like. This fundamental aspect of life (time) is also something which is fundamentally out of our control. We notice this when we make remarks like “oh how the time flies” and “time waits for no one”.

“A while ago, according to a press dispatch in the U.S., two men, William Bell and Jacob Rosenwasser, who were under sentence of death at Ossining, N.Y., felt that they would be deprived of an hour of life if they were electrocuted on daylight saving time, and so they applied to the warden to have the clock in the death house returned to standard time. How precious even an hour may be under certain circumstances! It is said that when Queen Elizabeth I of England was dying she exclaimed, “All my possessions for a moment of time!” But time cannot be bribed even by a monarch.” (Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, p. 1483–1484)

It’s interesting how contemplating our death can change how we think about time. Though you may never have been in either of these situations yourself, you have felt this angst before. I’m sure that 100% of us have had regrets. Times that we wish we could go back to and have another go. Words we’ve spoken, things we’ve done or not done. How we wish we could go back and do it all over again the right way! We all wish for a great do-over.


Entrenched Eternal Echoes of Eden

We are confronted with the brevity of our life every time we encounter death. With the current pandemic, many of us are considering that these days. The Preacher acknowledges this deep angst we all feel:

“He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.” (v.11)

Here God’s Word, through the Preacher in Ecclesiastes reveals to us that God has put eternity in each of our hearts. We know that we are created for more than just this temporal and passing life. This is why when we encounter death and our own mortality it can be so jarring. There is still an echo of Eden entrenched in us. The Garden of Eden in the Bible represents life before our world’s Fall into sin, when we were created to live forever with God and enjoy life in His paradise. But since humanity sinned, it has brought death and all sorts of calamity to our world.


Ever since that day when we lost eternity and paradise, our souls have never lost the memory of Eden. That echo of Eden still rings in our souls - it is eternity in our hearts. You’ve heard this echo before if you’ve ever lost a loved one and said, “it’s not supposed to be this way.” You’re right. It’s not.


But even with this echo, “no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.” There is a mystery about God’s workings in time. Though we know this is not how it should be, we struggle to understand why things are as they are - what’s God doing?


The Preacher notes the sovereignty of God over time:

“I know that everything God does will last forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. God works so that people will be in awe of him.” (v,14)

And then he points out how to us, this life can seem cyclical:

“Whatever is, has already been, and whatever will be, already is…” (v.15a)

The Preacher's point here in Ecclesiastes is not to try to solve all the mystery, but rather to point out the futility of things that are like chasing the wind. This is not in order to be a downer. Rather by way of elimination, he is pointing us to the thing that really leads to life. In effect, he’s saying - stop trying to figure it all out, stop trying to figure out the workings of an infinitely wise, eternal and sovereign God. You won’t. Your tiny brain would explode trying! But, there is something you can grasp, and let me guide you there.


The End of the Matter

The whole rest of the book is the Preacher guiding us there. I’ll fast forward to the end for the sake of time. At the end of the book, he says:

“When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

After his thorough consideration of all of life, chasing everything under the sun, this was this great Preacher’s conclusion. “Fear God and keep His commands.” Why? Because “God will bring every act to judgment” even the hidden things. Everything. There's a day of judgment coming.


But we can’t perfectly keep God’s commandments… we can’t even keep the rules we make up for ourselves! Think about that. Even the rules you make up for yourself, you can’t perfectly keep them - and you invented them! So, what hope is there then if we have to keep God’s commandments?


Hold that thought.


Redeeming the Time

Our consideration, for now, is the futility of time and how it always seems to elude our grasp. Our time is short. Nothing lasts forever, and before we know it the years have passed. How often have you remarked, “how quickly she’s growing up!” or “I can’t believe it’s been 5 years already!” We know this, yet we’re always surprised by it. You never regain time lost. So how do we “redeem the time”?


The problem is not the amount of days in our life, but rather the amount of life in our days.

Really, that’s what we’re after. I cannot add a single second to your life, and neither can you. But, God has given us a way to add more life to our days. Many people think that Christianity is a killjoy religion - made up of many rules designed to kill our fun and bring the hammer of an eternally grumpy God who is waiting for us to mess up. Far from it!


Gospel Hope of Redemption

Christianity believes that Jesus Christ is God who became a man to dwell amongst us. In the first chapter of the apostle John’s Gospel - John’s story of the life of Jesus - he says that no one had ever seen God. But Jesus, being God who became a man, makes known the otherwise unknowable God (John 1:18). What does Jesus make known to us about God then?


If we look a little later on in John’s Gospel, in chapter 10, we see Jesus teaching that there are other religious leaders who will come to try to get us to follow them, but they only come to steal, kill and destroy. They say they know the way to God, but Jesus Christ is God himself who says, “I am the way!” (John 14:6) Jesus says in verse 10, “I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” Some translations say “life to the fullest!” Jesus here states that he has come to give us the fullness of life in our days. Following Jesus is the true way to the fullness of life.


How does Jesus give fullness of life to us?


In verse 11 he says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Here Jesus is talking about what he came to do - to lay down his life for the sake of those who would follow him. By going to the Cross, Jesus pays for the sins and wrongdoings of those who put their faith in him. He takes on the curse of sin that brought death and robbed us of eternity. Not only that, but Jesus also keeps all of God’s commandments which we could not do ourselves. That’s the meaning of the Cross. Jesus takes our place and bears our curse.


Jesus is the great “do-over” we’ve all been longing for.


The Great Do-Over

How is Jesus the great “do-over” we’ve been waiting for?


Well, the first try was when humanity had failed through Adam in the Garden and lost paradise and eternal life with God. As our great “do-over”, Jesus is the Second Adam. He lives life perfectly. He perfectly keeps every commandment and lives a sinless life on our behalf. If there’s anyone who has earned eternity, it’s Jesus. He succeeds where all the heroes of the stories of the Bible and throughout history have failed - where we have failed. And he not only offers to cover up our sins through his sacrifice on the Cross as our substitute - but he also offers us his perfect righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that,

“For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This is how salvation works in Christianity. It is not based on our performance or perfection, but rather on Jesus Christ’s. Salvation is offered to us freely as a gift to be received by faith.

But how does this solve our problem of time? People still die even after they’ve believed in Christ.


It solves it because there is coming a day when Jesus Christ will return to set all things right again, bring perfect judgment and justice and resurrect those who have put their faith in him to live eternally in the paradise of God as we were meant to from the beginning. God has guaranteed this by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. Acts 17:30-31 says,

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Resurrected Hope

The resurrection is an attested fact of history. Christianity is not like some other religions which are built on myths or stories that are not able to be historically investigated. Christianity hinges on a historical event. It has been 2000 years now, and though there have been many who have tried, the resurrection still stands in history as the vindication of all that Jesus had claimed to be and done.


The hope of the resurrection is the hope we all long for.


It is a better hope than what any other religious system can come up with - such as reincarnation - because, in those systems, you are reincarnated to pay for the bad karma of a previous life. Not only that, you don’t remember that life, so in what true sense are you, you? Reincarnation does not really solve our desire for eternity. It offers an endless cycle of rebirths, but they’re not do-overs really, they’re just paying off your debt which you can never surely know how much more you have left or if you’ve done enough. My family comes out of Hinduism on my dad’s side, so I know the true hopelessness of that system though it can be idealized in the West.


The Christian hope of the resurrection is the only ultimate hope of redeeming the time. Jesus Christ offers to us redemption of the time (eternity) we lost when humanity fell into sin in the Garden of Eden and brought death into the world. Even if we were to die in utter squalor, miss out on that trip to Bali or that fantastic experience, or were to lose all that we have for the sake of Christ - it is the resurrection that guarantees that God will make all things right again and we’ll have all of eternity to enjoy pleasures forevermore at His right hand. Furthermore, it gives us hope in this life that none of our efforts and labours in the Lord will have eternal meaning. It is why Paul said,

"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Ecclesiastes helps us to see that what our hearts truly long for is eternity because that is what we were made for. By the end of the book, it tells us that at the end of life, there is a judgment and if it were up to our performance - we’re in bad shape because every deed will be brought to light. But with Jesus, we see that the hope of redeeming the time is not found in us and what we do, but in him and what he’s done.


He calls us to give him our life and promises that we would find life to the fullest!

 

Reflect

Take some time to consider these questions:

  • Have you ever wished you had a “do-over” in life?

  • How have you felt the “echoes of Eden” in your own heart? What are the things in life that make you feel, “it’s not supposed to be this way…”?

  • Have you ever thought of Jesus Christ as the great “do-over” we’ve all been longing for? Explain.

  • How does the hope of resurrection to those who believe in Jesus Christ for salvation intrigue you? What about it is compelling? What is not?

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