The World According to Sisyphus

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king, punished by the gods in the afterlife by being forced to roll a boulder uphill for eternity. As it got close to the top, both the increased slope and the gods’ foreordained decree, took effect – and the boulder would slip away and roll all the way to the bottom. Thus Sisyphus was condemned to an endless sequence of repeated, meaningless effort.

My first exposure to this story was when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed” in 2002. Here she references the myth not so much to emphasize punishment, but to call attention to the repetitive drudgery that seems to consume so many people’s working day.

Repetition fills our lives. How many times have you put on socks, started the car, ate breakfast? More importantly, in the realm of emotions and relationships, how many times have you laughed and cried, felt hurt by an unkind remark, or had regret for something you’ve done or left undone? Repeated tasks, feelings and human interactions pretty much dominate our waking hours, and how we think and act in these processes is definitive of who we are – both in our personality and our ethics.

As we get older we gain skills, like when we learn to tie our shoes, as children. But we also learn to generally navigate life, to try and handle all those Sisyphean tasks that crowd our days. And we also gain knowledge. Facts of course, like 2+2 = 4, or the correct spelling of Sisyphus (which I had to look up J). And we learn physical laws, like touching a hot stove burns or jumping off a high cliff is not a healthy thing to do. Such knowledge does indeed feed back into our repetitive life, but in varying degrees. Some of this knowledge might be considered esoteric – info that is limited in its applicability to daily living. And, human hubris being what it is, we can sometimes think that more knowledge equals more wisdom. But wisdom is generally practical, and operates as part of our decision-making, notably in the realms of ethics and inter-personal relations.

Applying this to the religious sphere we’ve probably crossed paths with people who thought they had a lot of God-derived knowledge, which they considered to be correct and important. And some people in this category are, consequently, not shy in telling others what is the right way to live. When you look at the information found in the Bible, it might be loosely categorized (certainly with overlap) as wisdom material and knowledge material. With the wisdom category intended to be infused into the repeated thoughts and actions in our lives. The knowledge stuff provides revelatory information otherwise unavailable. Like how we humans, under a universal death sentence, might have a pathway to eternal life. Or, less crucially – apocalyptic prophecy, details of heavenly events, or a God-chosen human rest day.

I see two important characteristics of the “wisdom” material in the Bible. First, it largely already syncs with our internal moral compass; and second, it has more usefulness in a Sisyphean life, where understanding how to interact ethically with those around us matters more than, for example, determining the start and stop points of Daniel & Revelation’s 1260 days.1

But generic morality (first characteristic) can, to some extent, be discerned and practiced by those beyond the boundaries of Christianity, let alone Adventism. There are, for example, versions of the Golden Rule in other religions.2 And it would also be both arrogant and ignorant to hold that only non-atheists can act morally. But now we come upon a dilemma for any denomination, and certainly for Adventism. What is there to motivate a potential convert to join our team rather than some other church down the road? The temptation is to over-focus on whatever is unique and, by implication, better, about us. This has come across historically, in SDA evangelism, as demonstrating how Biblically correct our doctrine is. With less emphasis on the non-distinct, central components of Christianity, and still less on the broader scope of ethics/morality.

This is ironic, given biblical priority toward practical, moral living. And the reality that our lives are dominated by the repeated tasks and interactions for which this counsel has deep and abiding value. It seems to me that, roughly, SDA evangelism has historically emphasized biblical information in inverse proportion to its practical value in daily life3.

Now, it is important that my readers don’t think I am constructing a False Dilemma here. That is – do this, not that, and there are only two choices. I haven’t forgotten that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 NKJV) But this does not declare that “all scripture” is of equal value.

And it is also quite valid for evangelism to give focus to what the Bible does and does not say. So if a church believes a particular Biblical understanding is true, and something else is false, it is obviously God-honoring to argue for that which is true. Then we humans can evaluate the arguments and hopefully move further away from error and into more truth.

But there is a danger in emphasizing an organization’s knowledge understandings, at the expense of the wisdom ones. This is a mistake made in early Christianity by the Gnostics. One of their core teachings was that, to achieve salvation, one needed to get in touch with “secret knowledge”. And, of course, this knowledge was dispensed by, and central to the identity of, the “true church”. Thus, a persuasive attraction to joining is to be part of this “inside information” group. An obvious boost to the ego – knowing secrets that those uninformed “others” don’t know.

Now I am not accusing SDA evangelism to ever have come close to this extreme. But the danger is attitudinal. It can be kinda cool thinking you’re “in the know” and part of “the remnant”. God’s A Team, as the Second Coming approaches. Real Christianity, conversely, fosters personal humility, while simultaneously helping us to see our worth in God’s eyes. And salvation is tangential to anything special we might know. It’s a gift, through faith.

The bottom line here is a “how should we live” question. It’s a Sisyphean world and the Bible’s primary value, on a daily basis, is the ethical help we get from its pages. This is not to devalue the specific knowledge parts – especially the story and pathway toward salvation. But let us not miss the “wisdom forest” for the “informational trees”.

1 See Daniel 7:25, Daniel 12:7, Revelation 11:2, Revelation 11:3, Revelation 12:6, Revelation 12:14, Revelation 13:5.

2 See where it discusses the range of religions which express this principle in some form.

3 I do think, however, that the emphasis has shifted considerably, back toward the center, across the past 50 years of my adulthood.

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at:

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We seem to be leaving out the “living water” that sustains both.

In some respect, there really isn’t a big difference between “ethical help” (the HOW we should live) and “specific knowledge” (doctrine). Both leave out what waters both. For the “information trees” to turn into a “wisdom forest” we need a spiritual source - a cistern that springs from outside of our willful effort.

As we well know, there are plenty of non-religious people who live ethically; and who seem very wise in matters that make for a successful life. The missing element is the “living water” Jesus offered the thirsty woman. Jesus didn’t give her a lesson in ethics; nor a list of dates to put to memory. He offered Himself, in a way yet to be revealed as she struggled with her boulder.


Jesus said, MY ways are Truth, Life, and the Way to the Father.
The Commandments of Jesus were Very Short Listed.
Love. Love God. Love Others.
1 John is a whole sermon on the Commandments of Jesus by
the person “whom Jesus loved.”
The Gospel of John needs to be read with the same “Love
Eyeglasses” on.
1 John is just an extension of the Gospel of John.
“LOVE cannot be commanded.
ONLY a God who Loves can Command Love.
We can only truly love when we learn Love from the God of Love.”
Midrash – Siddur Sim Shalom

When we put RULES before LOVE we cannot love.

But if we forget the RULES in the name of LOVE this is not love…

Nymous –
Rules should be BASED upon Love.
Kid rules – Don’t jaywalk. Walk with the light. Look both ways prior to crossing
the street. Take care with strangers. Don’t touch the HOT stove. Don’t stick
things into the electric sockets. Other prohibitions.
Say, NO to drugs. Say, NO to tobacco products. NO to alcohol.
DO your homework.
Then there are Teen-age rules. Later, Adult rules.
Good RULES assist us to have JOY, promote HAPPINESS, promote PEACE.

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"And he said to them, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’ "

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and any other commitment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law [rules].”

Could we say there are no other rules where there is love? Love is the only rule. Love leads to an acceptable life and behaviors. Rules don’t touch the heart. ENOUGH WITH THE RULES! Rules cause self focus. Rules are much easier than loving, but can also be loveless. It is easier to be a loveless rule-keeper than actually loving God and people. What is the fascination with rules? Are you afraid to trust that love, all on its own, is an adequate guide to living? Do you need rules to supplement love’s guidance for fear you will stray without them?

Take a risk! Go without rules! Let love be your guide! Try it!


The myth of Sisyphus represents a life made meaningless because it consists of bare repetition. But repetition per se need not lead to a meaningless life and it is worthy to note that in Sisyphus case, his punishment of rolling the boulder up the hill only for it to fall back was a derivative of a deeper psychological meaning, the same issue that led Cain to kill Abel, unresolved sibling rivalry. Sisyphus and his brother Salmoneus were know to hate each other and Sisyphus even plotted to kill his brother. The development of Sisyphus’ sense of self emerged from a life-long struggle to outdo his brother Salmoneus. There are a number of theoretical formulations to explain the origin of sibling rivalry one of which is parental favoring of one child over the other. We see this in child psychiatric clinics, and is born out in the Bible Genesis 4: 4-5 “Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.”

Thus another lesson to be learned from Sisyphus is to teach children to develop self-confidence so that they may derive pleasure in life whether they are in professions that require “bare repetition” or not. This reasoning also lies at the heart of “preferential treatment,” such as acquiring “secret knowledge/inside information” over others (think Investigative Judgement).


Elmer –
Another Parent–Child problem is when parents encourage their child to be
like some other person – an Aunt, Uncle, Cousin, Older Sibling, even Dad or
That is taking away a child’s innate personhood.
A common Jewish Blessing for children, especially in group settings where the
parents put their hand on the child’s head and say," Be who you are… AND be
BLESSED." Done particularly at meal-time.
It is unfortunate that Christians miss out on so many fundamental blessings that
our Jewish brethren give to THEIR children.

Don’t forget the parental rivalry of Isaac and Rebecca with Esau and Jacob. That
tore the family up.
Growing up David, as the youngest, learned a lot of “bad habits”, learned to manipulate.
And followed him his whole lifetime to his detriment on many occasions.

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I agree. As I recall, the majority of scholars who wouldn’t lose their jobs if they said so, do not believe that 2 Timothy was written by Paul. In other words, the only statement in the entire Bible that states that all scripture is given by inspiration can’t be relied upon to tell us anything about the Bible if it isn’t really part of the Bible. This is a paradox that is not trivial.

If the Pastorals are counterfeit–or pseudepigrapha–their own self-endorsement doesn’t make them the word of God. We impute a level of authority to ink on paper that outranks the Holy Spirit.

Our bibliolatry goes too far.

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I agree with that. This is why Jesus said: “If you love me, keep my commandments”.


It seems that you are opposing rules and love. Why that?

First, I am not opposed to love. That would be silly. You lumped rules and love together in your question.

What are you referring to when you use the word “rules?”

Have you noticed that Jesus was taken to task by his church because he didn’t pay too much attention to their rules? Have you noticed that his church was often outraged when Jesus displayed love and compassion to “the other?”

The inevitable result of a rules-based regimen is focus on self and one’s performance against the rules. If, on the other hand, one is focused on being loving like Jesus, the focus is on others.

I choose to aspire to the latter focus. By the way, that choice is more challenging. It gets to the core of one’s being.



I didn’t say that you were opposed to love. I said that it seemed that you were opposing rules and love, as if rules were against love and love against rules.

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