Our flight from Seattle to Ethiopia had an overnight stop in Dubai where we walked through the world’s largest shopping mall with over 1,200 shops and gawked at a fish tank with a 90-foot wide viewing window as sharks and all other manner of fish swam by. As impressive as that was, it was fish food compared to the Burj Khalifa, better known as the tallest building in the world, standing 2,717 feet high. Describing Dubai as impressive seems a bit understated, but for all of the impressiveness of this wealthy city, the people who walk its streets seem underwhelmed.
From marble halls to mud huts
Ethiopia, in contrast, is a country where just having a mall would be impressive. Our eight-hour bus ride from the capital city of Addis Ababa to Dilla revealed a world where storefronts were made of mud and, if you had a readable sign that described your business, you were doing well for yourself. I don’t recall seeing any fish tanks, and the tallest building in the entire country is only 430 feet tall. For reference, if you cut Seattle’s Columbia Tower in half, it would still be taller than the tallest building in Ethiopia.
Yet, with all of this lack of luxury and the inability to impress, the people of Ethiopia were some of the happiest people I’ve ever seen in my life. They have a joy for life and a richness in their relationships that was more overwhelming than the Mall of Dubai and the Burj Khalifa combined.
One of the reasons I think that I, along with many people who live in the modern world, live without this sense of joy is our feeling of entitlement. We feel and live as though we are owed a good life, a good job, a good spouse, a nice home, a nice car, well-behaving kids. And we haven’t even begun to list off all of the wants and desires we feel entitled to enjoy. I think we’re so busy chasing our entitlements that we’ve missed the joy of just living, the joy of friendship and relationship with those we love.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon sums up the pursuit of life as three things: to eat, to drink, and to be merry. All other pursuits, when done with selfish ambition, will lead to no good end. While I do believe we should have godly ambition to use our lives effectively for the glory of God and for the mission of Jesus, I also believe that we should enjoy the simplicity of life—to eat, to drink, and to be merry in the relationships we have with one another. I saw this in Ethiopia and it made my heart glad.
As we returned to Dubai before heading home, I noticed again the complacent and empty expressions on many faces and wondered if the pursuit of what we think will bring so much joy is actually the thing that brings us so much sadness, pain, and even despair.
If you find yourself without joy, take a look in the mirror and evaluate what you are pursuing in life. Maybe these pursuits are actually the problem and not the cure. Could that be why you have a sad face?