Overcoming Boredom

Ecclesiastes 9:10; Colossians 3:17

November 17, 2002 | Ray Pritchard

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A ten-year-old boy was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Influenced by the threat of nuclear war and the reality of terrorist attacks around the world, the boy thought for a moment and then replied with just one word: “Alive.”

All of us join him in his wish. The love of life lies deep in the human soul. Jesus summed up his mission to earth with these famous words: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 KJV). One man said that he used to hate getting up in the morning because he didn’t like his own life. Sin had gripped him so deeply that he didn’t care if he lived or died. Then he met Jesus. “Now I love my life. I love my family and I love my work. I’m overwhelmed everyday. I know that Christians are supposed to look forward to heaven, but I don’t want to die yet because I’m having so much fun.”

Yet many people, including many Christians, are utterly bored with life. One survey reports that 54% of all Americans go to work primarily to escape the boredom of life at home. And 70% of American teenagers say they are bored with school. The survey also reported that 25% of teenagers said they got drunk on the weekend because they were so bored.

Boredom is a combination of weariness, listlessness, apathy and unconcern that causes a person to feel like doing nothing. Related words include dreariness, flatness, lethargic, and dull. To the bored person, the world is all shades of gray. When you are bored, there is nothing to do because there is nothing to do that matters. To the younger generation, one word encapsulates boredom, the all-purpose answer, “Whatever.” “Did you hear what I said?” “Whatever.” “I thought that was a great movie.” “Whatever.” The word “whatever” in that sense means, “I don’t even care enough to give you an answer.”

There are two primary causes of boredom. The first is overstimulation. We live in a society that encourages us to believe that more is better. If a little of anything is good, then more will always be better. If one drink is good, two is better, and five will send you to heaven. If one pill helps, two is a kicker, three is a party, and five will knock you out. We see this in relationships as people jump from one person to another. We see it in the pressure to constantly move “up the ladder,” so people hop from one job to another, hoping to find the perfect fit. And we move from city to city, and from church to church. We make friends, keep them for a while, get to know them, and then we move on to someone else. Advertisers prey on this tendency when they urge us to buy more, buy new, buy now. We are so bombarded with images, with lights and sound and noise that we’ve grown accustomed to it. Why it is that the TV must always be on in the average American home? Why is it that we must have noise in the background or we feel uncomfortable? We are a TV-addicted generation. According to the Center for Media Education, most children watch three to four hours of TV a day, approximately 28 hours per week. “Watching TV is the #1 after-school activity for 6 to 17 year olds. Each year most children spend about 1,500 hours in front of the TV and 900 hours in the classroom. By age 70, most people will have spent about ten years watching TV.” By age 21 the average viewer will have seen one million TV commercials. Teenagers see 100,000 alcohol commercials before reaching legal drinking age. “Children who watch four or more hours of TV per day spend less time on school work, have poorer reading skills, play less well with friends, and have fewer hobbies than children who watch less TV.” We are so overstimulated by TV, radio, music, movies, the Internet, and by video games, that we are hyped up, tense, wound up tight, and as a result, easily bored and quickly distracted.

The second cause of boredom is undercommitment. This is partly a result of the massive overstimulation. Too many people live at the 20% level of commitment. We’re like the man who, when asked what he believed, replied, “A little bit of everything.” We are like customers in a cafeteria line. We have a “little of this” and a “little of that” and not much of anything. We are 20% committed to our marriage, 20% committed to our work, 20% committed to our relationships, 20% committed to our families, 20% committed to our careers, 20% committed to our church, and we end up being 20% committed to Jesus Christ. No wonder we are frustrated. No wonder we are antsy. No wonder we are bored. We aren’t committed enough to anything to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Underneath all this is a deeper problem. Boredom comes from an excessive self-focus. Bored people are essentially selfish people who view the universe through their own stunted perspective. The reason you are bored is because you have become a boring person. To be truthful, you are bored with yourself. The problem is not “out there” somewhere. Look inside if you want the answer. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not think busyness is the answer to boredom. Busy people are often very bored. They use their busyness to mask their inner emptiness.

This week I was asked if boredom is a sin. Good question. After contemplating the matter, I think the answer is that sin and boredom go together, but I would rather say that boredom is a disease of the soul. It is a warning sign from God that there is a “dis-ease” in your heart that must be faced. Boredom is a sign that your life is moving in the wrong direction.

How can we overcome boredom? It requires a reorientation of the way we approach each day. I’d like to combine two very familiar verses—Ecclesiastes 9:10 and Colossians 3:17—in order to find a biblical answer to boredom.

We overcome boredom by …

I. Doing whatever lies close at hand.

“Whatever your hand finds to do” (Ecclesiastes 9:10a).

Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) offers a punchier version of this phrase: “Whatever turns up, grab it and do it.” I like that because it emphasizes the unpredictable nature of life. No matter how well planned your day may be, something unexpected is always bound to “turn up.” When it does, grab it and do it. That’s good advice. The deeper meaning of this phrase challenges us to take hold of the ordinary responsibilities of life and make sure they get done. It’s easy for any of us to live in the never-never land of what we plan to do tomorrow. So we dream about starting a diet or getting a new job or buying a new computer or meeting the person of our dreams or somehow finishing that term paper or painting the living room or learning French or calling on a new client or applying for a grant or going back to college, or any of a thousand other worthwhile ideas. Meanwhile, there is work to be done, much of it tedious, that somehow gets left undone while we are dreaming about what we are going to do “someday.” Unfortunately, someday never comes for many people.

“One good deed is worth more than a thousand brilliant theories,” said Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Better to do what you need to do than to waste four hours dreaming about what you would like to do. When Solomon says, “Whatever your hand finds to do,” he doesn’t mean, “If your hand happens to find something to do, do it, and if not, then take the day off and watch TV.” No! Your hand will always find something to do. There is always work to be done.

Someone has to clear the table.

Someone has to take out the trash.

Someone has to walk the dog and clean up the poop.

Someone has to pay the bills.

Someone has to get to the office early.

Someone has to check the invoices.

Someone has to prepare the lesson plans.

Someone has to replace the oil filter in the car.

Someone has to greet the customers.

Someone has to be on call this weekend.

Someone has to stay late and lock up.

Someone has to teach 4th-grade Sunday School.

Someone has to run the soundboard during the second service.

Someone has to go to band practice.

Someone has to file the papers.

Someone has to review the loan application.

Someone has to drive the carpool on Thursday.

And so it goes. That’s what life is—a whole bunch of duties large and small that “someone” has to do. It won’t do to complain and say, “I don’t feel like doing it.” Your feelings don’t matter. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it! This is the Word of God. We all have work to do, we all have chores, jobs, responsibilities, assignments in life. No one gets a free ride. You can’t stay in bed forever.

There is a further implication here. One of the best cures for boredom is to get involved helping others. One doctor said that whenever a patient comes to him complaining of vague symptoms with no medical cause, he tells them to “crawl out of yourself.” It means to crawl out of the cave of self-pity and get involved in the world of hurting people. Recently I watched a PBS special on the life of Prince Charles. The documentary noted that Charles was devastated by the death of his great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, who was murdered by the Irish Republican Army in 1979. Lord Mountbatten was the only man who had truly been a father figure to Charles. After the death of his mentor, Charles consoled himself by recalling the advice his great-uncle had given him. “Banish your sorrow through service to others,” he told young Charles. That is very wise counsel. Famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger was once asked, “What should you do if you feel a nervous breakdown coming on?” Everyone expected him to say, “See a psychiatrist,” but he replied, “Lock the door of your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need and do something to help that person.”

You’ve probably seen the following quotation many times. It’s over 200 years old and comes originally from the Quakers. “I expect to pass through the world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

It is very difficult to be bored when you are giving yourself to help those around you. Boredom comes when we focus on our own needs. Crawl outside yourself and your problems will seem smaller and your boredom will soon disappear.

We overcome boredom by …

II. Doing our work with passion.

“Do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10b).

Not only are we to do whatever lies close at hand, we are to tackle our work with gusto. The Puritans talked often about the importance of earnestness. That’s an old word, one we don’t hear much nowadays, but it perfectly describes how Christians should approach life. Life is too short, too fragile, and too precious to take lightly. Whatever we do, we should do it heartily, with enthusiasm, with passion, with zeal, with 100% commitment.

But most of us don’t approach our work that way. If you want to see how many people view their work, watch an episode of “The Simpsons.” To Homer Simpson, work is a joke, a place to goof off, a place where nothing really matters, and where breaking the rules is the order of the day. (And it is very telling that whenever Marge wants to have a serious talk with Homer about shaping up, he responds by saying, “Boring.”) How different that is from the biblical view of work, which is that all work is noble if it is done for the glory of God. Even the most mundane task is worthwhile if we do it in the right spirit. Martin Luther said that a dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God. If your job is shoveling manure, than do your best and shovel that manure for the glory of God. And if you do it well, you honor God just as much as the brain surgeon who saves someone’s life.

We all struggle with this on one level or another. Society tells us that some jobs matter more than others. Certainly some jobs pay more than others and some jobs gain much more praise than others. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, “I hate my job. I don’t feel good. I don’t like the place where I work. I’m surrounded by jerks. My boss hates me. The woman next to me is a big meanie. The pay is lousy. No one likes me. And besides, I’ve got a bad cough and a headache.” Poor baby. I’m sure that everything you’ve just said is true. Why should I doubt you? And the biblical answer is: Grow up! You’re not supposed to like your job every day. It’s not supposed to be fun all the time. That’s why they call it work. If work was supposed to be fun all the time, it would be spelled F-U-N. Many days you won’t feel like going to work, and if you go, you won’t enjoy it. Big deal. Go anyway. Do what you have to do. And do it with all your heart. Put your passion into your job and see what happens.

Read the text again. It doesn’t say, “Do it with all your might if you feel like it.” Or “Do it with all your might if you enjoy it.” Or “Do it with all your might if they treat you right.” God says, “Do it with all your might even when you don’t feel like it, you don’t like it, and you don’t want to be there. And then leave everything else in my hands.”

There is a huge theological truth underlying this principle. If you believe in the sovereignty of God, then it must be true that you are where you are because God wants you to be there, because if God didn’t want you to be there, you would be somewhere else. But since you are where you are right now, that must be because you are there by God’s design and when he wants you to be somewhere else, that’s where you’ll be. If you believe that, then you can do your work each day, even in a very bad situation, as unto the Lord, with all your might, for his glory.

We overcome boredom by …

III. Pondering the brevity of life.

“For in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10c).

Although the first half of this verse is justly famous and often quoted, the last half is virtually unknown. It’s easy to see why that is so since it appears to be such a downer. Who wants to hear that they are going to the grave? That’s a fact we’d all rather ignore. I found a different translation of this verse in the Contemporary English Version: “Work hard at whatever you do. You will soon go to the world of the dead, where no one works or thinks or reasons or knows anything.” When I read that, it made the hair stand up on my neck. “You will soon go to the world of the dead” sounds like something you would find in a bad Chinese fortune cookie. But it is entirely true whether we like it or not. We’re all going to the land of the dead sooner or later.

As I thought about this, my mind drifted back to a little incident that happened when my father died 28 years ago. Between his death and the funeral several days later, my three brothers and I along with our mother went to the cemetery to pick out the gravesite. I recall that it was a sunny November day as we toured the cemetery and eventually settled on a nice plot on a sloping hillside. The man who worked for the cemetery had a good sense of humor because at one point he looked at my mother and said, “Mrs. Pritchard, we’re going to bury Dr. Pritchard a little bit off-center. That way there will be plenty of room for you later.” My mother gasped but the four Pritchard boys started laughing out loud. I still chuckle when I think about it today. And of course, the man was right. There is always room for someone else in the cemetery. (The old joke goes like this: Why is there a fence around the cemetery? Answer: Because people are dying to get in.)

So last night as part of my sermon preparation I watched part of a football game. South Carolina was playing Florida. I had no interest in the game, really, but it’s football so I watched it for a few minutes. Lou Holtz, who once coached at Notre Dame, is the head coach for South Carolina. He’s been a winner everywhere he’s been, but this year the Gamecocks are mired in a four-game losing streak. The announcer said he had asked Coach Holtz how he handled the losing streak. He replied that it wasn’t that difficult. He added that he thinks everyone should go to one wedding and one funeral each year. The wedding gives you hope for the future and the funeral reminds you that so much of what we worry about doesn’t really matter.

An old invitation hymn (“Softly and Tenderly”) offers this sobering verse:

Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing,

Passing from you and from me;

Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming,

Coming for you and for me.

Life is not a dress rehearsal. We only get one chance to do whatever we’re going to do on planet earth. Soon enough, sooner than we think, our moment in the sun will be over. Do you recall how on September 11, 2001, after the planes hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, millions of people picked up the phone to call each other? Parents called children, brothers called sisters, friends called friends, long-lost relatives called to make sure everyone was okay. One of the ironies of it all is that it takes a tragedy to force us to face the brevity of life.

Do not think you are immortal. When you die, we’ll take your body, put it in a box, and we’ll put the box in the ground. We’re all going to do some serious “box time” before it’s over. No one will escape “the box” unless you happen to live until the Rapture. The point is, do whatever you’re going to do now. If you intend to do some good deed, do it now. If you have some great plan, work on it now. If you intend to do something or be something or try something, do it or be it or try it now. You don’t have time to be bored. You can take it easy in “the box.” Does that sound macabre to you? It shouldn’t. I submit that what I am saying is precisely the meaning of Ecclesiastes 9:10. Martin Luther said a man should live with the day of his death placarded before his eyes. Luther managed to turn the world upside down. Would that we had the same realistic view of life and death.

We overcome boredom by …

IV. Remembering you represent Jesus in everything you do.

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17a).

The New Living Translation puts it this way: “And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus.” What if you had to sign your name to everything you said and everything you did? Suppose that somehow a nametag attached to every one of your actions—good and bad—so that everyone could see who did it: “Jane Smith.” “Carlos Garcia.” “Rick Tozer.” “Amanda Gipson.” Sometimes we are sloppy about what we say and do precisely because we don’t think anyone notices what we are doing. Let’s take this a step further. What if Jesus had to sign his name to everything you say and everything you do? For every careless word, the name “Jesus Christ” was attached. And for every careless complaint, the name “Jesus Christ” was attached. That might stop us in our tracks if we thought his name was attached to our words and our deeds.

Here’s the kicker: His name is attached to our words and deeds because his name is attached to us! We are “Jesus people” who claim to walk the “Jesus road.” We call him our Master, our Savior and our Lord. We tell the world that we have left everything to take up our cross and follow him. We even call ourselves “Christians”—”Christ-followers.” Whether we like it or not, his name attaches to everything we say, even the foolish remarks, the unkind words, the angry insults, the swear words, the threats we utter, and all the rest. And his name attaches to our complaints, our excuses, our boasts, our lies, our flattery, our moral compromise, our laziness, our dishonesty, and even to the worst sins that we can commit. If we go into a brothel, the name of Jesus goes with us. If we steal money, the name of Jesus goes with us. If we abuse our children, the name of Jesus gets dragged down with us.

We would be more concerned about the details of life if we remembered that we are the face of Jesus on the earth today. We like to say that Jesus is the light of the world, and he is. But we are also the light of the world. As the saying goes, we’re the only Bible some people will ever read, and we’re the only Jesus some people will ever see.

We overcome boredom by …

V. Being thankful for things large and small.

There is one final way to avoid boredom—by cultivating a thankful heart in all the circumstances of life. Colossians 3:17b says, “Giving thanks to God the Father through him.” It’s amazing how well this correlates with the context of Ecclesiastes 9. If you go back and read verses 6-9, you discover that the writer urges us to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. You’re going to die soon so … enjoy your food and drink (v. 7), dress up and smell good (v. 8), enjoy your wife and the pleasures of married life (v. 9). All these things are gifts from God. They are simple pleasures—food and drink, nice clothes, a happy marriage. This is not hedonism—far from it. This is taking pleasure in the daily blessings of God. As we discussed this principle at my Promise Keepers meeting on Thursday night, one man made a novel suggestion. Why not spend two hours doing nothing but giving thanks to God? To most of us, the idea sounds foreign because we’re so overstimulated already that we can’t slow down enough to spend that much time giving thanks. Many of us would rattle off a few things and be done with our thanksgiving in five minutes. Then it’s on to the next thing on the agenda. Here’s how you do it. Think about your eyes. Give thanks for the parts of your eyes that God’s providence keeps in good working order. Thank him for the birds that fly overhead, the clouds that float in the sky, the snow that falls in the winter, the brilliant colors of the sunset, and the rain that waters the soil. If you think about it, you could spend two hours right there. Then go to your ears, your nose, your sense of smell, your sense of taste, the things you touch with your hands, the places you go with your feet. Think about your friends and family and give thanks for them by name one by one. Stop from time to time to sing praises to the Lord. The two hours will fly by. And when it is over, your heart will be refreshed and you will come away realizing how much you already have.

Folk singer Joan Baez once remarked, “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live now.” If you are bored, it is because you have chosen to live a boring life. Boredom is not an issue of bad circumstances. It’s a disease of the soul caused by excessive self-focus. And it comes from being overstimulated and undercommitted. Life is never boring when you commit yourself 100% to Jesus Christ.

Are you bored with life? Crawl out of yourself and make a new commitment to the Lord. Reach outside yourself to help someone less fortunate and your perspective on life will radically change. Boredom is a warning sign that we are living for self when we ought to be living for God.

“I had walked life’s path with an easy tread

Had followed where comforts and pleasure led,

Until one day, in a quiet place,

I met the Master face to face.

I had built my castles and reared them high,

Their towers had pierced the blue of the sky,

I had sworn to rule with an iron mace

When I met the Master face to face.

With comfort and wealth and ease as my goal,

Much thought for my body, but none for my soul

I had entered to win in life’s mad race

When I met the Master face to face.

I met him, and knew him, and blushed to see

That his eyes, full of sorrow, were fixed on me.

I faltered and fell at his feet that day,

While my castles melted and vanished away.

Melted and vanished, and in their place

Naught else could I see but the Master’s face.

And I cried aloud ‘Oh, make me meet,

To follow the steps of Thy wounded feet.’

My thoughts are now for the souls of men,

I’ve lost my life to find it again,

E’er since that day, in a quiet place,

When I met the Master face to face.”

Have you ever met the Master face to face? Do you know him as Savior and Lord? For many of us, the issue is this: Have you ever committed yourself 100% to Jesus? As long as we live at the 20% level, we will be miserable, unhappy, frustrated, angry, upset and bored. There is no one unhappier than a 20% Christian. As I close this sermon, I want to call out all the 20% husbands, the 20% fathers, the 20% wives, the 20% children, and all the folks who give 20% at work, 20% to their careers, 20% at school, 20% in the youth group, 20% at church, 20% to your ministry, and 20% to Jesus Christ.

It’s time to give 100% in every area of life. Most of us, I suppose, aren’t really at the 20% level. Some of us may be at the 98% level. After the closing service on Sunday, I met a very gifted young man who talked with me for a moment. “I’m learning that I can’t live at the 98% level. It’s got be 100% or nothing. There’s no other way to go.” God bless him and God bless every Christian who joins the “100% Club.” Commit all your ways to Jesus and your life will never be boring. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?