Ecclesiastes and the Post Modern Teen: Letting Go of ‘Hevel’
Follow along with us this week and next as we delve into various aspects of the book of Ecclesiastes, and the many ways it speaks to the life of the post-modern teenager.
Stress. Anxiety. Depression. Sadly, these words too often describe the state of today’s teens. Depression is reported to be at an all time high on university campuses. And the rate that even younger kids are being affected by mental health concerns is rapidly increasing. In my own online anonymous teen survey (conducted in 2015), over half of all surveyed indicated feeling a moderate to high level of stress and/or depression.
Many of the teenagers suffering from depression and other mental health issues are not necessarily the ones you might stereotypically expect. Actually, many are those you would never suspect; students in the top percentile of their class, involved with an array of extracurricular activities. They are the kids projected to be successful future leaders who (from the world’s point of view) have it all – appearance, popularity, perfection.
Despite such accomplishments, these same “perfect” teens are struggling with feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and the constant pressure to be or do more. No matter how many achievements (from the number of social media “likes” to the perfect ACT score) nothing satisfies for long. The happiness and contentment they crave remains just out of reach, but sends them on a tailspin trying to grab hold.
I believe this cultural epidemic points to our selfie-centered value system; but it doesn’t tell us anything new about the condition of our human hearts. We know from the book of Ecclesiastes “there is nothing new under the sun.” In fact, in Ecclesiastes the future king who, even before his ascent to the throne, had everything in terms of power, wealth and intellect held similar sentiments to that of a modern-day striving teen.
“I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind…” Ecclesiastes 2:11
As we keep reading through the next chapters, his despair only increases. Nothing he does brings lasting contentment, so all his effort seems to be in vain. We understand this, don’t we? We too grow disillusioned by jobs, relationships – life – when our efforts don’t fill us in the way we think they should.
The problem lies with our turning good things into the ultimate thing (a god replacement) by looking for it to deliver us in ways only God can. Stuffing our ‘soul hole’ with these countless temporal things serves to only enlarge the hole or expand the emptiness. What we thought would fill us can’t. And with each failed attempt, desperation/depression settles on us like it did the king in Ecclesiastes.
Because this is true of us, we can identify and enter in with our teenagers who also try to make life out of hevel. “Hevel” is the Hebrew word for “vapor” or “breath,” meaning emptiness, fleeting, fraud – vanity. The things we chase after, looking for identity and worth, will never satisfy because none of it is big enough or valuable enough. It’s all hevel.
The words of Jesus in Mark 8:34-35 gives a better way – the only way to find life and satisfaction.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:34-35
Contrary to what many think, Jesus is not demanding we give up worldly things, nor is he using guilt to motivate us into obedience. What Jesus is teaching us in Mark is what it means to truly follow him as a disciple. To be his disciple means finding life in him. Another way of saying this is to find our identity wrapped up in his.
Trying to find our identity in anything else will lead to constant disappointment. But here, Jesus calls us to deny seeking an identity in this way, because true life can only be found in him.
Who Jesus is for us because of his worth and work in his life and death is what secured our right standing before God. Therefore, in him we are fully and forever loved, accepted, and redeemed. In him we are made perfect. In him we are filled. We can’t fill the soul hole in any other way.
How might things change for our teenagers if they understood who they were in Christ; if their soul felt its worth?
By God’s grace, our kids would see the vanity in pursuing more “likes,” the perfect artsy photo, popularity, a particular dress size, more material possessions, a test score, or a significant other as the basis of their worth.
By God’s grace, standing secure in who they are in him would free them from the narrow lens of self and provide a readjusted focus on life. Instead of living consumed with themselves and the things of this world, they might see God giving meaning and purpose to their time and place in this world. And because he does, every encounter, connection, and situation holds a grander purpose beyond themselves.
With a redemptive mindset and a heart bent toward eternity, we can all be encouraged knowing that there is One who promises life far beyond the here and now, and the vacant hevel we so often hope in.