By Molly Jane Layton

I lost my keys this past week in a rather mysterious fashion. I arrived at work with them in hand, using my fob to buzz into the building and up the elevator. Our church office is open concept in style, and the elevator opens directly into it, so I can all but see my desk when I step out of the elevator. A few hours later, after back-to-back meetings at the table next to my desk, I got up to leave for lunch. My keys were nowhere to be found. We tore the office apart — twice! I spoke to every person who was present that morning. The maintenance team even opened the bottom of the elevator shaft, in the improbable chance I dropped them through a small slit in the floor. No keys anywhere. It was as if they had disappeared into thin air.

At one point mid-search, my boss looked at me and said, “This is so frustrating.” I immediately thought of a verse from Ecclesiastes I had read the day before:

Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (Eccl. 7:3, NIV)


Honestly, it just made me even more frustrated. How was this situation supposed to be good for me? Part of me wanted to cry — the keys weren’t that hard to replace, but because I’m an associate rector, anyone who found my keys would have access to most of the rooms in the four buildings on our campus. I felt irresponsible. Another part of me wanted to rage, but I had nothing to rage against. There was no explanation for where they had gone. And without an explanation, it felt like there was nothing to learn, no room for growth from the situation. It was just frustrating.

The Teacher, as the author of Ecclesiastes refers to himself, tends to make unexpected statements, espousing an outlook on the world that is unique in Scripture, and almost nihilistic. He calls things as he sees them, starting his teaching by stating that everything around him is meaningless, a vanity (Eccl. 1:2). But this verse felt opposed to that sentiment. It felt like the Teacher was asking me to see meaning in a situation that felt meaningless.

Now, the NIV is not a translation I use for serious study of Scripture or for exegesis and sermon-writing. But I do rotate through translations each year for my daily reading, which is how I read this particular wording of the verse. Looking into it more, I found that most translations use sorrow instead of frustration. Was this my out? Was the nuance of the NIV not quite right here? Sorrow makes more sense; it fits into the parallel structure of the verse, offsetting sad face in the second half. Also, the natural undulation between happiness and sorrow that we all experience in daily life keeps us rooted in reality. If we were all happy all the time in a broken world, we would never long for anything more. Was this what the verse meant?

But the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament would not let me off so quickly. The first meaning it gives the Hebrew root kā’as is “a sense of exasperation, a bad temper,”[1] which sounds a lot like frustration to me. It also notes “sorrow” as an appropriate meaning, so the general consensus of the other translations is not wrong. But there are clear connections between the sorrow denoted by kā’as and a sense of anger. The NIV, with its unique word choice, may very well be expressing a connotation present in the Hebrew.

What if the Teacher is actually saying that frustration is good for the soul? A week removed from the loss, with new keys in hand and no real harm done, it is a little easier for me to discern what might be going on. This verse may take the apparent nihilism of Ecclesiastes and turn it on its head. At times, frustration brings us face to face with the meaninglessness of our world. I like things to have an order and a rational explanation. Fortunately, they usually do!

But when they do not, when goals are blocked, and things do not make sense, I feel out of control and helpless. This is the essence of frustration: trying to make something happen and being stymied at every turn. It takes away our sense of agency and forces us to recognize that sometimes the order and value that we try to impose on the world around us does not work.

But if I pause in the midst of this frustration and acknowledge the apparent meaninglessness of the situation, I realize not so much that there is no meaning, but rather that the meaning I want to impose does not fit. When I sense a loss of agency, I am confronted with the limitations of my mortality. I am human, I actually do not have that much power in this world, and sometimes my immediate pressing problems are not all that important in the grand scheme of things. If that is all there is to this world, then that does feel meaningless.

This frustration becomes good for my heart when it reminds me to look outside of myself to an immortal, all-powerful, and loving God who orders and structures the world with his sense of meaning and value. We glimpse that meaning in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and in his death and resurrection. In the “already and not yet” that we live in, we do not see that meaning in its full glory, but one day we will. Any meaning that I try to impose on the world around me will always fall short of the glory of the cross. And this is why God allows my agency and meaning to be frustrated, so that I look to his instead.

[1] N. Lohfink, “kā’as,” TDOT, 7:np, citing J. Scharbert, Der Schmerz im AT. BBB, 8 (1955), 32.

About The Author

The Rev. Molly Jane (“MJ”) Layton is the associate rector for congregational care and worship at the Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan.


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