The Protestant ethic aside, religious thinkers have mostly viewed worldly striving with a jaundiced eye – perhaps none more jaundiced than the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. He introduces himself at the outset as the “son of David, king of Jerusalem.” This identifies him as King Solomon,* builder of Israel’s first temple, who is both wealthy and wise and who doesn’t mind saying so. But where does it get him? He complains there is nothing new under the sun, and life is a wearisome business. He has pursued pleasure to no good end. Wealth has provided no satisfaction, and even wisdom has brought only vexation. He has toiled ceaselessly with wisdom and knowledge and skill for riches that will eventually go to someone who did not toil for them and may be a fool besides. In the end, the wise man dies just like the fool, and both are soon forgotten. “All is vanity and a striving after wind,” he laments over and over.
Next to Job, Ecclesiastes may be the least uplifting book in Scripture. Solomon certainly can’t be accused of sugar-coating anything, although biblical scholars now strongly suspect he had nothing to do with writing it. Textual analysis suggests the book may date from the second century BCE, long after Solomon’s reign but before Judaism had evolved well-defined beliefs in an afterlife or resurrection from the dead. This latter point is significant, because it would account for the author’s strong sense of futility about all forms of striving. If we all wind up dead anyway, why bother?
The prospect of eternal life throws a different light on the matter. New Testament writers, who believed in an afterlife and resurrection of the dead, were no less dubious about the merits of worldly striving but took the long view on matters of the spirit. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” wrote the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, employing a metaphor that was also used by St. Paul. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things,” Paul admonished, his eye firmly on the prize. “They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”
As it turns out, even some who take the long view have had their doubts about viewing matters of the spirit in this light, imperishable or not. Various mystical traditions have questioned whether any sort of spiritual striving is compatible with complete surrender to God. “Why do so many believers hinder the Lord’s deeper work within their lives?” asked the 17th-century Spanish divine Miguel de Molinos in his Spiritual Guide. “It is because they wish to achieve something, because they have a desire to be great.” Molinos, founder of the Quietist movement, soon ran afoul of church authorities for seemingly abandoning outward displays of piety in favor of silent contemplation. The Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade, born the year Molinos’ book was published, fared better, although his views were not all that different: “All individual ideas, understanding, endeavors, searching, or argument become a source of fantasy….Those who damn their souls do so by attempting to achieve through their fantasies what those who save their souls achieve through submitting to [God’s] will.”
Such sentiments present a large dilemma to those in search of God. "Seek and ye shall find," Jesus said. Yet how do we find if we aren’t supposed to seek? The fantasies that de Caussade warned against are based on an even grander illusion, which is that we exist apart from God. We are like an explorer in search of an exotic and faraway land that turns out to be the ground on which he is standing. Every step that we imagine brings us closer to our destination only takes us farther away. All our prayers and practices are a distraction to the extent they are directed elsewhere. We must come full circle. “Cease striving and know that I am God,” the Psalmist wrote. The phrase translated here as “cease striving” means “to sink down” in the original Hebrew. In this case, we sink down into the ground of our own being, which is God.
I Cor. 9:25
Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment