Our Great Mistake: Pursuing Temporary Distractions From Unhappiness

What’s the greatest mistake anyone can ever make?

If we were to step way, way back, and try to take an objective look at the world we live in and single out the most foolish thing we all sometimes do while living here, it might be: We chase after the things that will temporarily distract us from unhappiness, rather than the things that will create lasting happiness.

This is perhaps the greatest mistake anyone can ever make. It wastes and then destroys lives. It takes all life should be, turns it inside out, and tramples the remains into the dust.

Ecclesiastes 2:1-20 “I (Solomon, perhaps the most powerful and wealthy man who ever lived) said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless… what does pleasure accomplish? I tried cheering myself with wine… I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well – the delights of a man’s heart… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor… Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom… Then I said to myself… ‘What then do I gain by being wise?… This too is meaningless.’ So I hated life… All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for… So my heart began to despair…” (NIV)

The dirty little secret.

Look into the heart of anyone who knows only success as the world defines it and you will find a dirty little secret: All their dreams have come true, and they are still empty and unsatisfied. The things of this world (like money, fame, power, promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.) each have a very powerful effect – they can temporarily distract us from unhappiness. But they cannot make us happy, and there is a big difference!

Ecclesiastes 6:2 “God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them…” (NIV)

Ecclesiastes 5:19 “Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil – this is a gift of God… because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (NIV)

Psalm 128:1,2 “How blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways. When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you.” (NASB)

2 Corinthians 4:18 “… what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (NIV)

The key word.

The key here word is: Temporarily. This distraction the world has to offer does not last, and when the newness of fame, fortune, or whatever wears off, it leaves us more desperate and alone than we were when we started. Then it takes a bigger dose to get the same distracting effect. The cavity in our soul steadily becomes deeper and wider, so it takes more stuff to try and fill it up.

Isaiah 9:18-20 “Surely wickedness burns like a fire… On the right they will devour, but still be hungry; on the left they will eat, but not be satisfied…” (NIV)

A terrible cycle then develops where our lives become about one thing, and one thing only: More. More money. More fame. More power. More sex. More drugs. More alcohol. Our spirits become addicted to distraction the way our bodies can become addicted to alcohol. At first, it only takes a couple of beers to get us drunk. Then it takes a six pack. Then a twelve pack. Then a fifth of scotch. Then our liver dies. Then we die.

Habakkuk 2:4-17 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright… he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied… You will be filled with shame instead of glory… The violence you have done… will overwhelm you, and your destruction… will terrify you.” (NIV)

It starts out as a whirlwind of excitement, lifting us up and out of our discontent. But it ends up as a whirlpool of despair, sucking us down deeper and deeper into loneliness and fear, all in a desperate attempt to distract ourselves from the ultimate problem.

Deuteronomy 28:62-67 “… because you did not obey the LORD your God… the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening, ‘If only it were morning!’ – because of the terror that will fill your hearts…” (NIV)

The ultimate problem.

As human beings living on planet earth, our ultimate problem is this: Nothing on planet earth can make us happy. Everything the world has to offer at the end of the day amounts to nothing. When all is said and done, we receive from the world only emptiness in darkness, “sound and fury signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote.

Revelation 3:17 “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (NIV)

We feel this emptiness deeply. It’s part of the way we are created. Each of us knows a certain restlessness in this world, a sense that something is missing. And apart from God, this restlessness is insatiable and unstoppable. It builds as we journey through life, and what started out as an irritation deep down inside becomes more and more pronounced, along with the thundering knowledge that something desperately important is missing. So we go looking for it, and all too often we look in the wrong place – the world in which we live.

One day, if we are humble of heart, we come to the realization that if the things of this world cannot make us happy, then maybe we should look outside of the world, to the spiritual, rather than the material. And this leads us to God.

Then we have a choice. We can seek the things of God that will create lasting happiness, or we can stick with the things of the world that will only distract us from unhappiness, for a time – a brief and ultimately unsatisfying time.

If we seek God, we find Him, and the Joy and Peace for which we long. We gain an intimacy with the Creator of the Universe and find something that not only fills the empty place within us, but also does so to overflowing. We are complete. We are fulfilled. Instead of restless, we are restful.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” (NIV – 1984 ed.)

Isaiah 57:15-18 “For this is what the high and exalted One says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite… I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort…’ ” (NIV)

Psalm 23:1-6 “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” (NASB)

Romans 15:13 “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (NIV)

If we seek the world, we find it, and the distraction that is its only gift. And we gain an intimacy with the base and degrading things of a fallen world. All the while, still empty. Still alone. Increasingly frustrated. From restless, to rabid.

Job 15:20-26 “… the wicked man suffers torment… Distress and anguish fill him with terror; troubles overwhelm him… because he shakes his fist at God and vaunts himself against the Almighty, defiantly charging against him…” (NIV)

Isaiah 57:20,21 “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’ ” (NIV)

Job 18:5,11 “The lamp of the wicked man is snuffed out… Terrors startle him on every side and dog his every step.” (NIV)

Then the distraction we so desperately cling to reveals its fatal flaw: It doesn’t last. It can’t last. It’s like filling up the void with dry ice – seems like pretty solid, powerful stuff at first, but ultimately it just melts away and doesn’t even leave a puddle, only a mist that disappears in the breeze.

Job 20:4-8 “Surely you know how it has been from of old, ever since mankind was placed on the earth, that the mirth of the wicked is brief, the joy of the godless lasts but a moment. Though the pride of the godless person reaches to the heavens and his head touches the clouds, he will perish forever, like his own dung; those who have seen him will say, ‘Where is he?’ Like a dream he flies away, no more to be found, banished like a vision of the night.” (NIV)

Psalm 37:1-11 “Do not fret because of evildoers, be not envious toward wrongdoers. For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade… Trust in the LORD and do good… Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He will do it. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light and your judgment as the noonday. Rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who carries out wicked schemes. Cease from anger and forsake wrath; do not fret; it leads only to evildoing. For evildoers will be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD, they will inherit the land. Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more; and you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there. But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” (NASB)

Proverbs 11:7 “When a wicked man dies, his hope perishes; all he expected from his power comes to nothing.” (NIV – 1984 ed.)

But it leaves a mark, an empty place burned deeper and wider by something that for all its appeal is destructive when not used for its intended purpose. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with money, fame, or power, when they come from God as a part of His plan for your life. Nor is there anything wrong with a glass of wine with dinner or medically prescribed drugs. And sex within marriage is one of the greatest pleasures in life, designed by God for our delight. But none of these things were ever intended to be the source of happiness. They are to varying degrees the vehicles through which a pre-existing happiness may be expressed, but when we look to them to provide happiness, they morph from the blessings they were intended to be, to a curse by which we are maimed and finally euthanized.

1 John 2:15-17 “Do not love the world or anything in the world… For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (NIV – 1984 ed.)

Proverbs 5:21-23 “For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, and He watches all his paths. His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin… in the greatness of his folly he will go astray.” (NASB)

Psalm 14:4 “Will evildoers never learn… There they are, overwhelmed with dread…” (NIV – 1984 ed.)

Jeremiah 17:11 “Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay are those who gain riches by unjust means. When their lives are half gone, their riches will desert them, and in the end they will prove to be fools.” (NIV)

Psalm 73:1-28 “Surely God is good to… those who are pure in heart! But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling… For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked… their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men… pride is their necklace… They mock and wickedly speak of oppression… always at ease, they have increased in wealth… When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors!… When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant. I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from You will perish… But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works.” (NASB)

The ultimate truth.

As human beings living on planet earth, our ultimate truth is this: Only a relationship with God can make us happy! True, lasting happiness – the Joy and Peace we all long for – does not come from things, but rather a Person. Happiness is a relationship between Heavenly Father and earthly child that is deep, real, and abiding. It’s a friendship with the One who made the heavens and the earth and everything in them. Only our Creator can fill the void created in our hearts as part of our being. But when He does, He does not fill it half way or even to the top. He fills it to overflowing, until Joy “inexpressible” and Peace “surpassing comprehension” spill out, “like a spring whose waters never fail.”

Isaiah 58:11-14 “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail… not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance…” (NIV)

Romans 8:19-39 “For the creation was subjected to frustration… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved… And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose… What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NIV)

Psalm 31:14-20 “But I trust in you, LORD… my times are in your hands… How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear you… on those who take refuge in you. In the shelter of your presence… you keep them safe…” (NIV)

Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (NASB)

John 10:10 “… I (Jesus) came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (NASB)

Isaiah 43:1-5 “But now, this is what the LORD says – he who created you… he who formed you… ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you… Do not be afraid, for I am with you…’ ” (NIV)

May we all seek to find the Joy and Peace for which we long in our relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ!

Psalm 62:1 “My soul finds rest in God alone…” (NIV – 1984 ed.)