Where do Americans find meaning?

By Mark A. Kellner

For decades, centuries even, the people of the United States have been characterized as much by their religious faith as anything else. French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville emphasized the religious roots of the then-young nation’s government in his classic book Democracy in America, suggesting that much of the contentment found with Americans came from their spiritual connections.

Fast forward to modern times, and Americans are finding their grounding not in God, but in mammon—to be precise: in cold, hard cash.

In a survey released by the Pew Research Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., 23 percent of those responding said “money” is the thing that “provides them with a sense of meaning.” While that’s only one-third of the percentage saying family does this (69 percent), it’s also three points higher than the number of people saying “spirituality and faith” lends meaning to their lives.

When asked to choose from a list of fifteen potential answers regarding the main source of fulfillment in their lives, family again came out on top—at 40 percent. But religious faith now came in second place, at 20 percent. And, the survey found, “among those who do find a great deal of meaning in their religious faith, more than half say it is the single most important source of meaning in their lives.”

Survey respondents included a number of people who call themselves atheist or agnostic when it comes to religion. Some 37 percent of atheists said finances and money gave their lives meaning, while 32 percent said it was their hobbies.

Finding meaning in life can be a lifetime quest for some people. More than one individual in history as well as present day has sought meaning in all sorts of pursuits apart from God, and many of them have come to regret their choices.

A staple of today’s media is the story of a celebrity, a business leader, or politician who “had it all,” only to hit “rock bottom” when the attainments they sought either proved illusory or triggered an addiction that wreaked havoc in their lives. More than one such story, including the dramatic “comeback” episode, has made it into movie theatres or bookstores to much public acclaim.

Your Bible also contains the memoir of someone who learned, much later in life, that true contentment is found only in a relationship with God. Solomon, who is said to be the wisest man who ever lived and who reigned as king of Israel for 40 years, had plenty of opportunity to seek meaning in the delights of this world.

He was, after all, King David’s son, and as such grew up in a royal household. When he succeeded his father on the throne, Solomon humbly asked God for the wisdom to govern the people properly. So impressed was the Lord with Solomon that He not only blessed Solomon with that wisdom, but also with wealth and honor “so that there shall not be anyone like [him] among the kings all your days” (1 Kings 3:13). Indeed, Solomon built a temple for God in Jerusalem that his father, King David, wanted to construct, but he was denied that privilege.

However, Solomon also had something of a complicated life: He had 700 wives and 300 concubines, something that probably made birthday gift shopping troublesome. He held back nothing in his search for pleasure, as we read in the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, verse three: “I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.”

Yet those pursuits did not bring Solomon lasting happiness. Indeed, he began his biblical lament with this stark declaration: “ ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ ” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

All is vanity, Solomon tells us—all, that is, except for obeying the Creator: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all,” is how he summarized it in Ecclesiastes 12:13. True happiness, Solomon learned, came not from a thousand wives and concubines, but rather from a right relationship with God.

Would you like to know more about Solomon and how he lived his life, as well as what he learned? Pastor Doug presented a five-part series about King David’s successor. It could very well open your eyes to the true meaning of life!

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