Solomon vs. Paul: gratitude, simplicity, the present, and meaning

Posts in the Sermon Prep: Contentment series

  1. This Week’s Sermon Will Be on Contentment
  2. Contentment and Gratitude
  3. Paul’s Writings on Contentment
  4. Solomon vs. Paul: gratitude, simplicity, the present, and meaning
  5. The Secret of Contentment

On the drive up to Santa Cruz this week, I read through all of Ecclesiastes in one sitting. The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on me, that I had wanted to read through the wonderful, and short, book on the futility of life’s frantic pace, and I couldn’t piece together 30 minutes to read quietly until I was locked in a metal box flying down the freeway for 6 hours.

A lot of my prep time for this sermon has been spent with Paul. It wasn’t until I read through Ecclesiastes that I started to see some contrast between how Solomon answers the questions of contentment, and how Paul answers the same question. Solomon’s famous refrain, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” is the slide into despair at the end of every passage. He samples every good thing in life, and finds that it turns to ash in his mouth. He has only 3 remedies for the state of discontentment: gratitude toward God (Ecc 3:11-13), enjoying simplicity (Ecc. 5:10-18), and being present-minded in your pleasures (Ecc 3:1-11). For Solomon, the best life possible is one in which a person finds satisfaction in their work, rather than in the benefit or consequence earned by that work, in which they are mindful of the good things of their present existence rather than anxious about their future needs, a life spent enjoying good food and good company, and in which God is acknowledged as the source of good things. Gratitude, simplicity, and present-mindedness.

Paul is not content (ha-ha!) with simply leaving it there. Paul also adheres to gratitude as an essential component of contentment, but I think he subsumes Solomon’s idea of preset-mindedness into a more fully-developed idea of “meaning”, the life consumed first by humility, and then by energetic pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Paul’s perspective seems to find contentment in the present by viewing it through a wide-angled lens, and seeing God’s overall plan. The present then finds meaning as a part of that larger work. When Paul says that he has learned the secret of being content in both poverty and abundance, he means (as Paul always means, one note samba that he is) that he has learned the secret of being dead to self and alive to Christ, the secret of belonging to the cross, of joining Christ in his kenosis and finding his purpose in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God. For Paul, even the good things of life (the things Solomon recommends) lie so far below humility and discipleship in the scale of meaning, that they become trivial, and to become content or discontent because of them is absurd.

My frustration with these two answers is this: Solomon’s answer seems accessible to everyone. You can substitute “gratitude to God” with “acknowledging the Universal Spirit”, or with a zen-like resignation to fate, and achieve substantially the same sort of contentment. His is not a “Christian” answer to contentment; it’s not even a particularly Jewish answer. It’s just … a good answer. Workable. Functional. Practical and beneficial.

Paul’s answer seems much less tangible. It’s more heady, seems more “right” (although that might only be the case because of 30 years of Evangelical backdrop to read it against), and a higher sort of answer. But it also seems less … learn-able. Less functional. How do you actually do kenosis? How do you gain perspective on this moment as a step of progression in the building of the kingdom when your kid is screaming his head off and the damn AC doesn’t work?

Solomon seems to give an answer that provides a workable pathway to some, limited, measure of contentment, along with a healthy dose of resignation to fate (or God’s unfathomable and unalterable will). Paul, on the other hand, seems to give a less workable pathway to all-consuming satisfaction in the service of great purpose.

By the way, I’m willing to go 9 rounds with anyone who says that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” is a simple pathway to contentment. It’s the most twisted, confusing, and unsustainable mindset ever. Yes, it’s also beautiful, and true, and empowering, but not simple. Never simple.

Previous in series: Paul’s Writings on Contentment

Next in series: The Secret of Contentment

9 thoughts on “Solomon vs. Paul: gratitude, simplicity, the present, and meaning

  1. michael lee Post author

    I think I can reduce Solomon’s answer down even further. It seems like he views simplicity as a part of present-mindedness – enjoy the thing right in front of you, instead of being consumed with what came before, or with what comes next.

  2. Blog Mama

    Hey there. First time reading your stuff. Truthfully, I’ve never been very fond of Paul’s writings. (It might have something to do with the fact that my father taught my Sunday school class and for some reason we were always studying Romans). I’m really preferring Solomon’s approach–it is much more accessible and is quite fitting with a lot of popular ideas right now. Paul does seem very abstract, I really don’t know what to make of it. I never get the sense that Paul wants us to be happy…

  3. michael lee Post author

    I read in Paul the same kind of frustration that I sense in a lot of highly intelligent people when they try to explain abstract concepts to people with less mental horsepower. “Why don’t you just GET IT! Just DO THIS, just think of it LIKE THIS.” And then they get all tied up in knots when the rest of us can’t.

  4. Leonard

    Nine rounds is tempting but I have too much to do to go nine rounds with someone much smarter than me.

    I think Solomon and Paul both advocate trusting God; period. Not for any reason other than He is God. Solomon reminds us how little control we have in life. It’s season come and go. Seasons of fighting, peace, gathering, pushing away, crying, laughing… He reminds us “under the sun” all these seasons have no meaning. All the activities “under the sun” have no meaning. He lets us know that under the son, the “gaining” and “losing” have no meaning. I might be tempted to read here “contentment” is not found under the sun.

    In the infamous chapter that reminds us there is a time and a season, we are also reminded that “In His Time” and by his wisdom and power “all things become beautiful. We are reminded that nothing can be added or taken away form what God says or does because God set it up this way so we would fear him. (read here; never get to big for our britches before God.)

    Paul gos from the general observation about God that Solomon makes to the specific truth about Christ. He in one sense says, here is how to live life under the rule of god while living under the son. He says when you do that… CONTENTMENT. A key to this in both Paul and Solomon is trusting God… The conclusion of the matter… Fear God and do what he says… This is the whole duty of men. Be rightly related to God and do what he says out of that relationship…that is what you were made for. Nothing brings contentment faster that being who you were made to be and trusting the one who made you was wise enough to know that this is best for you.

  5. Leonard

    BTW… What leaves me struggling with Paul is how much of a machine he is. The guy is so convinced which gives him his “right” tone in his writings. He was so lost and then so found that this before and after never seems to be far form his thoughts.

  6. michael lee Post author

    Long. So Long. So very, very long.

    Doug keeps getting on my case because I usually write out every single sentence of my sermons, and he says I should switch to outlines so that I can be more spontaneous and interactive. As a result, I ended up preaching for like 96 minutes.

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