In response to Steve Jobs

It probably won't surprise you to learn that if you work at a software company with a few hundred other geeks, you soon encounter Strong Opinions on things like smartphones. However, in my own team this mostly consists of a variety of complaints about the way various manufacturers have implemented certain features, or how certain chipsets vastly underperform others graphically, and how all this makes mobile game development tricky.

On the one hand, I haven't encountered anyone at work who's excited about the iPhone X, the universal reaction seems to be "they're charging how much for it?" On the other hand, I do have colleagues who rushed out to buy an Apple Watch when they were first released in 2015. When I asked one why, he jokingly responded with "Steve told me to". He maintained a somewhat bizarre pretence of being on first-name terms with Steve Jobs (who, let's not forget, died in 2011). We got some low-level amusement out of it, so we played along.

Apart from wandering around a stage revealing new Apple products to the world, probably the speech Jobs is most famous for is the Stanford University commencement address he gave in 2005. The whole thing's up on YouTube if you want to give it a look. One of the more quoted excerpts from it is this:

Steve Jobs at Stanford University, 2005
Steve Jobs, addressing Stanford students
(Still from the Stanford video linked above)

...almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

— Steve Jobs, 2005

Prior to this, Jobs had been talking about looking at himself in the mirror every day and asking himself that if this was the last day of his life, would he want to do what he was doing today. In the context of his battle with cancer, at this point he'd had surgery to deal with his pancreatic cancer and, as far as I know, believed himself to be cancer-free (it would later turn out that it had spread to his liver).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this excerpt was widely quoted when Jobs died in 2011, which is when I encountered it for the first time. Although it was meant to be an inspiring speech for a new generation of students, I found it (or at least, this bit) depressingly hollow, and I asked myself what Jesus would have a Christian say to a group of students starting their adult lives. So, back in 2011, this is what I posted on Facebook alongside the original quotation:

But this is so tragically far from the truth. What Jesus would have us declare to the world is surely this:

“...almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of his death on the cross. Remembering that he died to give you life is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have nothing to lose. He loved you enough to die for you. There is no reason not to follow him.”

The basic concept of "don't let fear rule you, just get out there and do something" might be a helpful spur to some, but it's a two-edged sword; someone could come away thinking "yeah, why not, I will rob that bank". But what makes it really empty is that it argues from the position that this life is all there is. If Jobs wants us to go through life remembering we have nothing to lose, he wants us to go through life believing that we can't get hold of anything we can keep. If this life is all there is, of course, he's right. And I'm not suggesting that deciding a few short decades and then oblivion sounds a bit bleak is a good reason to believe in an afterlife — that's just wishful thinking. But Jesus, who showed that he'd conquered death by rising from the dead, holds out a promise of life to us when we turn back to him.

And so I broadly stand by what I wrote in 2011, as a brief counterpoint to Jobs' message, although looking back the bit about "thinking you have nothing to lose" suggests that we have to work hard at not messing up our salvation, when in reality it's something given to us by God. If I was going to stick with Jobs' structure, then avoiding "the trap of forgetting you have something you cannot lose" would have been better, although it's a bit of a mouthful. Christians have a perfect, unending eternity ahead of them, and this spurs us to live life to the full in God's service, enjoying our relationship with him now and anticipating a better one to come. This is what we were made for, and it should excite us, drive us, delight us, and shape us more and more into his likeness.

But there is a book of the Bible that thinks long and hard about that fact that we all die, and that what we do is transient — Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament. It was written before Jesus' arrival, even before many of the promises and prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament had been given, and so the author is working in the dark somewhat as he ponders eternity and how to live in God's world now. It was written by one of Israel's kings (he doesn't give his name, though Solomon is a likely candidate), and he describes getting up to various kingly things — enjoying his great wealth and the pleasures it can buy, setting out on grand building projects, and so on. And his conclusion, after all this, leads him to begin his book by declaring that everything is meaningless, a breath, like the steam on your mirror when you get out of the shower that quickly disappears:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 1:1-3

If you thought Steve Jobs was being bleak, the Teacher's in a whole different league. The first half of chapter 1 continues this theme at some length. In the following chapters he describes looking in various places for meaning, and after each attempt he comes back to the same idea: "This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." (Ecclesiastes 4:4, among others.)

Steam on a mirror — a metaphor for our brief existence
According to Ecclesiastes, this is what life is like
(Image: Chris Knowles)

The Teacher spends a lot of time musing on the fact that everyone — the good and the bad, the rich and the poor — all end up just as dead, and that this knowledge is a great burden. He even says wisdom isn't much help because it just helps you see the bleakness all the more clearly. You might suggest that he needs to live a little and lighten up. He tried that, it just made him depressed:

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?”

Ecclesiastes 2:1-2

And so I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that the Teacher's response to Jobs' speech would be to get up and tell the students "I've tried living that way, and let me tell you, it's meaningless, a breath. He's right, if you live that way you've got nothing to lose, but only because you've got nothing to gain."

So what would he say, in the end, to a bunch of students if he was in Jobs' place? You might think that someone who's come to the conclusion that "everything is meaningless" would be driven to despair, but he isn't. He hasn't heard all of God's promises, he hasn't seen Jesus' coming, death, and resurrection. He doesn't understand how eternity will work. But despite this, and despite being confronted with the same facts as Steve Jobs, that we're all going to die and we can't create anything we can keep, because of his view of God his conclusion is not the same as Jobs', although they do look pretty similar at first glance:

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

It's worth noting, especially as you read the first sentence, that the Teacher's talking to God's people, serious about living his way. Taken with the rest of the book, this is a calling to contentment and godly living, to a default position of enjoying life as we find it rather than chasing our dreams. When the Bible asks us to look in the mirror and ask if what we're going to do today is what we'd do if we were going to meet God tomorrow, it's to remind us to pursue living God's way, and to remind us that the time to tell others about Jesus is short.

The Teacher's conclusion still has the angle that says you're going to die and nothing you do will last, but you should get on and enjoy life anyway. But setting it in the context of whole the book is important. Repeatedly the Teacher states that it's better to be a follower of God than not, even though he can't really see how when everyone seems to end up in the same place. Chapter 8 verses 12-14 make that point — the Teacher trusts that it will be better for those who follow God, even though that often seems not to be the case. Indeed, he declares the truth that we all die, righteous or wicked, and that sometimes the wicked do better than the righteous, to be a great evil, because it seems to fly in the face of the idea of a just, sovereign God. The Teacher concludes what he does in chapter 9 because, as he says, "in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working...etc." He trusts God to deal with evil somehow, but he can't see how it'll happen because death appears to be the common end of everyone.

The Teacher doesn't see eternity clearly. There's still a lot of wisdom in what he says that it's worth a Christian taking on board, but in the Bible's way of thinking to merely say that it's good to live God's way and in contentment is a truncated view of the truth.

What is the truth? The Teacher says that pretty much everything in the world is meaningless, a "chasing after the wind". And as far as he goes that's true. But the greater truth of the New Testament is that Jesus came into the world chasing after us. Because he didn't make us to be meaningless, fleeting, a breath, but to have an eternal relationship with him. That's what we humans reject, that's what he died to restore, and that's what God raised him for. So I pray that whether or not those Standford students took what Steve Jobs said to heart at the time, that they'll go through life driven not by the thought of their impending death at the end of their meaningless existence, but by the knowledge that Jesus died to give them life. That way, they can turn to him in repentance, receive salvation, and then always remember they have something they cannot lose. Jesus loved them enough to die for them, and us, and there is no reason not to follow him.

Tagged in: steve jobs, ecclesiastes