The book of Ecclesiastes is a wonderful read when I get overwhelmed with the big questions—what’s the meaning of life, what does God want from me, how should I react to this or that situation? The author of this book asks questions like mine: What is the meaning of life? If we all end up dying, what’s the point? What things really matter, and which don’t? The style is beautiful, but the overall tone is somewhat pessimistic; for example, the famous phrase “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” is also translated as “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”1

But in its last verses, the book strikes a more positive note: “Everything you were taught can be put into a few words: Respect and obey God! This is what life is all about. God will judge everything we do, even what is done in secret, whether good or bad.”2

That’s the clincher. “Everything you were taught: Respect and obey God.” Four little words that remind me to recenter God as the focus of my life.

So far, so good, but do we even know how to obey God? You can hear a lot of people sharing their views of what God wants from us, but you get the feeling that not all of them have actually taken the time to study and understand what’s at the heart of God’s instructions in the Bible.

God gave an impressive set of specific commandments to His people in the Old Testament to guide them in every aspect of their lives. Yet they continually disregarded what He’d instructed and reaped the negative consequences over and over. In the New Testament, Jesus taught that all the laws and the prophets depended on just two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”3 But that can sound kind of vague, and we can tend to interpret the word “love” to mean whatever seems convenient or fits our personal worldview.

Sometimes, trying to figure out the right thing to do in every given situation can be pretty complicated, and I just want God to say, Yes, you can do this, or, No you can’t do that. But then I’m back to realizing that didn’t work too well for the children of Israel. So what’s the answer? How do you “respect and obey God”? I have concluded that part of the reason God didn’t just give us a list of rules to check off is because what He really wants is our hearts, our time, and our efforts to love and get to know Him and pattern our lives around what we know about Him through the life and words of Jesus.

As complicated as the world seems, as hard as making decisions can be, and as much as I want to know how to navigate it all, things get easier and clearer when my deepest desire is to know and love God. Every time I prioritize that, things become clearer and simpler.

  1. Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV
  2. Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 CEV
  3. Matthew 22:36–37, 39