Reading Time: 3 mins

Not in Vain

Reading Time: 3 mins

Paul knew that, without the resurrection, the Christian life was a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the greatest music videos ever. I have a strong 90s bias, but I believe it. Permit me to play the old man. Back in the day, we didn’t have music videos on command. There was no YouTube. We had to watch them on MTV or VH1 at designated times, and we had to have cable to get them. I didn’t have cable. I had network television (which thankfully included the Canadian channels). So I wasn’t completely bored, but watching music videos was a big deal when I was with friends. 

Grunge was a big deal. Alternative music was all about disillusionment. No one can say “whatever” like Gen X could say “whatever.” I did a lot of the stupidest things in my life, some of them my fondest memories, to disillusionment anthems. Nirvana was peak grunge. In the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt Cobain and the guys are playing in a high school gym. It’s a pep rally. Everyone is half-heartedly, ironically, going through the motions. The cheerleaders are trying, but to little effect. The janitor is into it, but few others. And then the song picks up and the disillusionment takes over. Everyone rocks out in “whatever” fashion. What did the lyrics mean? We didn’t know. We liked that, too. It was perfect. 

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. I’m sure part of the reason is the “whatever” vibes. Solomon knew what it was to be disillusioned. He’d tried everything, studied everything, experienced everything, at least he thought, and he found it all wanting. He began his book, “Vanity of vanities…. All is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). Cue the power chords. 

A fulfilling life requires at least three things: source, meaning, and purpose.

Gen X loved itself some disillusionment. We were ahead of our time. We couldn’t have imagined, though, how quickly that music video would seem like hopeful nostalgia. Our western culture is one that’s tried it all, studied it all, experienced it all, at least we think, and found it all wanting. Our cultures are tired, ironic, and disillusioned. If you didn’t tell people it was from the Bible and cut it into short clips for social media, Ecclesiastes would be a huge hit.  

A fulfilling life requires at least three things: source, meaning, and purpose. Without these three the only paths forward are living on borrowed philosophical and theological capital, not thinking about stuff too much (limiting ourselves to the material stuff of life), or admitting our dilemma and creating meaning and purpose on our own. The first approach doesn’t last and the last two turn me in on myself and cut me off from my neighbor. People need source, meaning, and purpose. 

Paul knew this. Paul knew that, without the resurrection, the Christian life was a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. He knew the temptation to disillusionment, and he thought such disillusionment was rational apart from Christ and Holy Week. He wrote to the Corinthians earlier in this chapter: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:13-19).

Paul knew our need for God. He knew our need for God in Christ, crucified and risen, served in the person of our neighbor. He knew we needed something more than merely the present, the penultimate. 

There are lots of beautiful assertions in the Bible, but today we have one of the most beautiful. Did you notice it? Here it is: “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”(1 Cor. 15:58) Why is that? God has come in Christ. He’s come to make the perishable imperishable. He’s put death to death. He’s taken away the sting of sin, silencing the accusations of the law. He’s made all things new. He’s made you new. And he’s given us hope—sure and certain hope. 

Your life isn’t in vain. Your service isn’t in vain. You’re not in vain. Why? Because you’re in Christ, your source, your meaning, and your purpose.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a great song. I still rock out when it comes on. Make no mistake about it, however, disillusionment will never inspire as many great songs as hope, and there’s no greater hope than what we have in the resurrected Christ. Kurt Cobain can’t compete with Paul Gerhardt and the great lyricists of our Paschal Lamb. Whatever can’t beat Alleluia: 

My heart for joy is springing and can no more be sad;
My soul is filled with singing, sees only sunshine glad.
The sun that cheers my spirit is Jesus Christ, my King;
The heav’n I shall inherit makes me rejoice and sing (Christian Worship Hymnal 819).