The Agony of Vanity
Saturdays in autumn serve as one of the last bastions of vanity in this world for me. Despite the disposal of interest in all other sports, in five decades of exposure, I languish in love with college football. I wish it were not so. Even after suffering four autumns of exile living in Europe, I could not purge my passion for this tradition, this ritual. Why am I so double-minded about college football?
First, it must be noted that my favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. This may sound odd; but having lived in this world for fifty years, I appreciate a true perspective on vanity. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity (1:2)” is the mantra of “Qohelet,” the preacher (another name for Ecclesiastes). Everything in the world is futile, including college football. One reason I love Ecclesiastes is that its truth sets me free from rivalry and competition (Eccl 4:4).
My former high school recently decided to honor exceptional alumni by creating a hall of fame. You know the routine. There will be banquet of lukewarm food, speeches, roasts, picture slides, and a list of honorable accomplishments. An alumni or two, having lived lives of great worldly accomplishment, will have yet another trophy for their shelf. The newspaper will run a litany of achievements and a professional photograph. I suppose some altruist will suggest the hall of fame will inspire the next generation of super-achievers. Frankly, it makes me feel inadequate and embarrassed. I am a worm.
Ecclesiastes is God’s Word. It is a gift for mediocre performers like me. It tells me that despite all of the achievement around me, no one is getting ahead. No one means “no one.” Whether the field of competition is wisdom or work or wealth or wielding power, the preacher tells me it is meaningless…all of it.
When Christ saved my soul, he gave me spiritual sight, for I was blind to these matters. My preferred college football team, and how it fares on Saturday afternoon, is nothing. I used to think it was something truly important. The world told me it was important. Bruce Springsteen warned me before I had ever read this book that “glory days” were a problem. I should have seen it. Botox was invented for the cheerleader who could never move on with reality. Viagra, too, must sell very well because the volume of their commercial spots. Clearly, dysfunction’s lesser version, 5 Hour Energy, is sufficient for men under forty. It must sell well, too. What’s in my wallet? Nothing, if I buy into these lies.
Ecclesiastes exposes the phrase, “truth in advertising,” to be pure perversion. Everything is a problem, but our product is the solution to your problem. Got mesothelioma? Do you want six pack abs? And don’t forget the Lions versus Seahawks on Monday night football, so we can sell you more.
Actually, the Detroit Lions are more of a solution to my problem, than anything I could buy from consumer product manufacturers. Growing up in Michigan, the phrases “rebuilding season” and “there is always next year,” were common. I actually believed it when a man told me that the 1975 move to the Pontiac Silverdome required a name change to the “Pontiac Pussycats.” I was only nine years old, but I was learning what Qohelet meant with his phrase, “lifetime of futility.” Futility brings clarity. The Lions eventually destroyed my interest in the NFL. I am free.
Ecclesiastes indirectly, and sometimes directly, states that everything is in God’s providence. Terms like, “proper time” and “proper procedure,” speak of man’s fate being in the hand of God. “It’s anybody’s game” is what the sports media tells us, but Ecclesiastes informs us that the day of prosperity and adversity are both made by God (7:14).
Vanity is agonizing. The reason is that stadiums, lots of stadiums, are filled with idolaters (maybe not in 2020). There is a far greater army joining them in the living rooms of America. “I’m just so proud of our boys,” is countered with, “There has to be some dimension of pride in order to win, and we did not have that today.” Pride goes before destruction and comes before the fall. Have you not heard? Is it not written? Why are you striving after the hurricane? It was the hurricane that helped cause your defeat. Will somebody just wallop Ohio State? Please.
When one has been delivered from the vanity of say, college football, he only has a world of other vanities to contend with, in his vaporous life. Some guy in Three Rivers, Michigan, won the lotto worth $310 million. He probably thinks his life of worries is over. He thinks he has been saved from vanity and futility; but he has no idea the hell he just invited into his life. It is God who gives riches and wealth, but sometimes God does not allow a man to enjoy them. Qohelet says this is vanity and a severe affliction (6:1–2). Who knew?
Seven billion of our current earthling population will be dead in one hundred years. 14 billion will likely replace us. Did your field goal try hit the goal post and careen away? Are you considering suicide tonight because the whole Dr. Pepper nation hates you? Take heart, it is all vanity. Isaiah 65:17 tells us that the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
The futility of the human mind will continue to the end of time, and of course, what could be more futile than an eternity in hell? The sluggard and the workaholic are both on course for eternal vanity. The war hero, the pro athlete, the corporate giant, and the politically savvy have all made a name for themselves here on earth. They will be followed in every generation, by their kind. History will forget all but a few of them. Usually, the fame of these few is connected with body counts of the carnage, created by meaningless attempts to conquer the world. At least college football is safer than quests for world domination. Ugh! I am rationalizing again. No man is justified by faith in a football program.
Christians must read Ecclesiastes (Old Testament wisdom literature between Proverbs and Song of Solomon). If Proverbs makes a believer wise and wealthy, then Ecclesiastes will temper him. Far from being a book of fatalism, Ecclesiastes is a book of liberation. It sets the Christian heart and mind free from searching for meaning in the world. What is the meaning of life? How should I live? What should I prioritize? There is a plethora of answers to life’s most important questions found in these writings of Solomon. The battle is not to the strong. The world is not owned by the rich.
Solomon was king of Israel, following the reign of his father David. Solomon asked God for wisdom to judge rightly. God granted that blessing to Solomon. So when wealth came to him, it was meaningless. When 900 cheerleaders came to his stadium, he deemed it vanity. When his labors began their decay in his own lifetime, he recognized the futility of statistical analysis. He came into the world with nothing, and he would soon leave the world with nothing. This, too, confirmed the meaninglessness of it all.
Truly, he who increases in knowledge of truth about this world, increases his own grief. Solomon had the American dream before America existed. He must become one of our wise counselors before we expend ourselves in vain pursuit of that which never satisfied this wise and wealthy king.
There is a theoretical Christianity and a practical Christianity. In theory, we can agree with Qohelet, but in practice we suffer with the apostle Paul in Romans 7. Paul knew what was best in his mind, but in his flesh, he did that which was not profitable. This should not dissuade Christians from learning the truth about all things, virtuous and futile. Practicing vanity will produce agony for you, so rejoice in doing truth. Observing others, wallowing in meaningless pursuits, will also produce agony, if one loves that person. Still, it is the responsibility of all people to know the truth for themselves. It is a world of lies.
Christ Jesus is not just the redeemer of our souls. He is the Savior of our lives, mired in meaninglessness. Every dimension of this sin-soaked world promises a sort of salvation from the mundane and fruitless endeavors of man. The point of futility is that it can never produce satisfaction and contentment in this life. All people die in vain, except Jesus Christ. This is why He is our only hope.
Ecclesiastes is all bad news for humanity, but this is good news for Christians. If everything is vanity, then we are forced to know what is meaningful. Jesus Christ is the only thing that has eternal meaning. He is alive forevermore. Heaven and earth will pass away, but He will live forever. He is the Word of God that remains immutable and indestructible. He is the embodiment of reality. He is the wisdom of God. He is the power of God. He is what every person wants to be in his dreams and aspirations. He is God, and He is victorious. Ecclesiastes exposes every man, as falling short of the glory of Jesus Christ. We do not even approach His glory. We are vain, He is perfect. We must be recruited for a place on His team.
Thank God for Sunday morning. It is the Lord’s Day. It is a day of rest from vanity. Our endless ambitions and labors on the gerbil wheel can take a day off. More meaningless football games can be consumed by the reprobate, but we have an option for our time and labors. Learning Christ can deliver us from evil. Worship can raise us up to the precincts of heaven. Our hearts and minds can be cleansed of meaningless thoughts. Our bodies and souls can prepare for an eternity of glory. We can learn from one another because the Spirit of Christ has been given to us to overcome foolish human existence in a sinful world. Those in Christ Jesus know and relish Sabbath rest.
God has exposed evil. He has shown us the ploys of our adversary. The subterfuge of the angel of light is known to us. His dark works are legion against us. There is a time for everything. We must consider this time of liberation because there is no new thing coming under the sun. Today, may be the day of your salvation. This is an illumined day. We have been given light in these matters. Everything that is to come will be futility (11:7). Death is creeping ever-closer (12:1–8). We will never understand this world (11:1–6), and we are too finite to understand the ways of God. Therefore, we have one option before our spirit returns to God…fear God and keep His commandments (12:13).
It is not a vain pursuit to take some time to read this glorious assessment of humanity and the world we live in. Our grief grows with every reading of Ecclesiastes, but it is grief and agony for the futility of the here and now. It is the agony of vanity. God has set eternity in our hearts (1:11), and Ecclesiastes helps to set our affections on heaven, on the things of God above.
O God, deliver us from that which has no meaning for us. Help us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. May Christ be our Sabbath rest for every vain day of the week, and may Your meaning and significance, goodness and mercy, be found with us in Your courts, which are better than any stadium anywhere else…a thousand to one. Go Jesus!
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
December 7, 2020