I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind:
God gives some people wealth, possessions and honour, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2, NIV)
Have you seen Orson Welles’ epic film Citizen Kane? It ends with Kane living in his vast castle, surrounded by beautiful objects, but miserable. He is unable to enjoy any of his wealth. This is just an extreme example of what the writer of Ecclesiastes notices: we can have tons of stuff, but for one reason or another be completely unable to enjoy it.
We can learn from this sad, but realistic, observation:
1. This should check us in our covetousness. The world about us shouts that there’s only one thing we need if we’re to enjoy stuff – and that’s more stuff. But Ecclesiastes reminds us that we also need something else: the capacity to enjoy that stuff. Who says, as we long for that extra thing or house or experience, that we’ll actually be able to enjoy it? All sorts of things may, in fact, prevent that: a change in circumstances, or the novelty wearing off, or the permanent dissatisfaction created by the thought we might have something even better, or the damage this acquisition might do to our family life, and so on.
2. This points us to the gospel. Ecclesiastes is a book exploring the world of Genesis 3:17-19. It’s a world in which God has introduced an element of spoiling into the blessings he has given us – so that we’ll realise there is a problem between us and Him. This is how it’s possible to have marvellous things, and yet not enjoy them! This strange experience should point us back to the Giver of all good gifts, that we might seek Him and not find a substitute in our stuff.
3. This should make us seek what Paul, writing to Timothy, called godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6:6). “Contentment” is the capacity to enjoy what we have. It’s the bit we forget about as we believe the lie that simply having more stuff will always bring pleasure. Rather, practising contentment (which is fuelled through thanksgiving for what we do have) will lead to genuine enjoyment of what God has given us. That’s why Paul calls it great gain.