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Why Chasing Your Dreams Can Leave You Feeling Empty

Why Chasing Your Dreams Can Leave You Feeling Empty

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.”

Ecclesiastes 12:1

I was a college ministry pastor for nearly a decade. During those years, I preached hundreds of sermons from nearly every part of the Bible. But I never preached a single sermon to those college students from the book of Ecclesiastes, and now I wish I had.

These days, I’d recommend Ecclesiastes to every college student and young adult. Ecclesiastes is directly addressed to an audience of young people (11:9; 12:1) and it contains wisdom that most of us eventually learn from the painful school of life experience. The “Teacher” – widely believed to be King Solomon – wrote a book to tell his young readers what he had learned about life, before they were forced to learn it the hard way.

Suffering and Success

It has been said that there are two major threats to our relationship with God: suffering and success. The Bible has a lot to say about the problem of suffering, of course. But suffering is not the primary focus of the book of Ecclesiastes.

Instead, Ecclesiastes emphasizes the other major threat to our faith: success. Sometimes actually getting what we want can be tougher on our faith than not getting it. For one thing, when we achieve our dreams, we start to question whether we need God at all. But also, when we get what we want, we often look around and say, “Now what? Is that all there is?” That was the primary source of the Teacher’s angst in the book of Ecclesiastes: He had it all, and it didn’t feel that amazing. He had riches, girls, fame, and power, but he still felt empty. In fact, “empty” is the key word in Ecclesiastes: the Teacher repeats that word 37 times.

Every year, there are thousands of commencement speeches about how to chase your dreams and never give up. But I have never heard a commencement speech about what to do when you catch your dreams and find that they leave you feeling empty. To be fair, that would make for a depressing graduation.

Having It All?

I have a friend in his 40s whose life is everything he dreamed it would be when he was a young man. He’s near the top of his profession, he has a wonderful wife and healthy children, he works in a job that he loves, and many people admire him. He is grateful to God for everything he has. Still, he tells me that his life does not always feel amazing. Even a great life can be hard sometimes, and even the best things the world has to offer us don’t fill up the deepest places in his soul.

There are so many voices that assure us that reaching the top of the mountain will make us happy. If we can just work hard enough, we will achieve our goals, and then we won’t feel empty anymore. Occasionally, some sage will warn us that nothing in this world will truly satisfy us, but we don’t hear it often enough, and we usually don’t believe it anyway. This is where the book of Ecclesiastes can help us.

Social researchers tell us that happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve throughout our lives. We are fairly happy when we’re in our 20s and early 30s, imagining the unlimited possibilities ahead of us – we believe we will beat the average in terms of career and family success. When we are young we have so much time still ahead of us to make our dreams a reality.

In middle age, though, our happiness takes a plunge when we realize that we won’t beat the average after all, or—maybe even worse—that we did beat the average, and it doesn’t feel as great as we imagined it would be. Our time horizon also shrinks, and we start to grasp our own mortality. In old age, though, our happiness goes back up. We look at our lives and say, “OK, there’s actually a lot to be thankful for here. This is not that bad after all.”

The Wisdom of Solomon

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes essentially tells us to try to understand the far side of that U-curve while we are young. “Remember your Creator while you’re young,” he says. “Before you get all droopy and gray and blind and deaf. Understand that much of your life is out of your control, even though you think can conquer the world. And know that even if you do conquer it, you’re still going to die. But that doesn’t mean life is pointless. You can make the best of what you’ve been given, and honor God with it. You can trust Him to take care of what you can’t control. You can work hard and enjoy your life, but don’t assume that catching your dreams will make you happy. And you can be grateful for what you have, remembering that life is short and eternity is forever.”

For Christians, of course, we find our hope for eternity in knowing Jesus. So Ecclesiastes isn’t the entire message of the Bible, of course, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.

So go read Ecclesiastes. Not to depress you, but to help you find their center in the things that really matter. To find your hope in the things that will last.

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