Relaxing Our Control Grip

From Zack Eswine’s new book, Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (P&R, 2014), 188–9:

If something goes well in your day, no matter how small, celebrate over it! No more wondering if you can be happy about good things. No more needing to wait and pray to discover whether it is okay with God whether you smile or not. “In the day of prosperity be joyful” (Eccl. 7:14)!

In college, when our team won a big game, our motto sounded something like this: “In the day of prosperity, get drunk and destroy stuff!” You may need to learn again what it means to truly celebrate something. God will teach you. Each day becomes full of small but genuine smiles when we take up joy in response to good things. A great deal of happiness is passing some of us by because we think that when a good thing happens we are supposed to consider it rather than get on with rejoicing over it.

In contrast, “in the day of adversity consider” (Eccl. 7:14). Let the tough stuff sink in. Don’t run from it. Don’t use god-talk to pretend it doesn’t exist. Set your heart and mind on the awful thing. No evil thing can ultimately win. The foulest thing will reveal something true about the nature of life and the nobler purposes we were made for. Take time, lots of time, the time needed to grieve, ask questions, wrestle with it, work it out, and come to terms.

Why? Because though this is a mystery, we need to stand on this truth, that no matter what happens in our lives, God holds on to us and maintains his purposes for us. “God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Eccl. 7:14). We cannot make crooked things straight. We can’t fix everything.

Now the Preacher humbles us to free us again by telling us that we can’t know everything. A certain amount of ignorance attends everything we do — particularly when it comes to trying to figure out how it is that God governs and ordains both the good and the bad that happens in our lives and in the world. Solomon doesn’t attempt to answer what we cannot know. Instead, he focuses on what we do know. Both good things and bad things happen to us. God is within the thing either way. This means that something larger than our prosperity and something larger than our adversity has a hold on us.

What does this mean? We get to lighten up. All our energy spent in trying to control and preserve our lives is next to worthless. “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Eccl. 7:15). There is no secret formula to life that if you could just figure it out or get in with God well enough, you could make everything happen the way you hope. . . .

The whirlwind in your mind constantly trying to figure out everything in order to hold everything together is like chasing after the wind. We add wear and tear to our lives that God does not ask of us. “Why should you destroy yourself?” (Eccl. 7:16).

For others of us, we can stop acting as if, because we don’t know everything and can’t fix everything, nothing matters. We can stop with the excuses we use to justify the constant wandering and harm that we inflict on others and ourselves.

God has the last word on our pain. God has the last word on our joy. Behind every pain, God is there letting nothing and no one separate us from him in Jesus. Behind every joy, God is there generously and graciously giving us something to rest happy about.

Easter and Ecclesiastes

The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes tackles the tricky subject of the vanity or meaninglessness (Hebrew: heḇel) of life in our fallen world. In this fallen world there are many disappointments and injustices and so much brutality and pain. So much of life in this fallen world just doesn’t make sense to us. In fact even the ‘progress’ of life can so often feel like a mere chasing after the wind. Unhappiness abounds, even in the lives of who have all the worldly comforts imaginable and have every situational excuse to be happy. Even worse, we know that everyone in this world will die, enter into the ‘darkness,’ and be buried in a grave, an inevitable progression that is starkly contrast to God’s original design for the man and woman he created in His own image. Death is heḇel’s ultimate triumph (Ecc 3:18–21, 11:8, 12:1–8). In the New Testament the Apostle Paul picks up and builds from this heḇel theme when he writes about the “frustration” of the creation in Romans 8:19–24. There we find that this vanity is clearly cosmic in scope, reaching deeper into the soil than tree roots and stretching higher into the sky than mountain peaks. The vanity reaches all points of creation. Here Paul not only deepens our awareness the vanity of the fallen world, more importantly he sets the creation’s frustration within a redemptive framework (Webb, 108). Within this framework we see that in Christ’s death and resurrection the vanity of Ecclesiastes is being undone. In the redemption of our bodies, when our resurrection and the new creation will be fully revealed, the vanity we read about in Ecclesiastes will be completely undone. Easter marks the beginning of the end for heḇel. Meanwhile we live in hope. We have the Holy Spirit to intercede for us and we have God’s promise that although there is much about life that makes no apparent sense, everything in life is now working together for our ultimate good and according to God’s unassailable design for our lives (Rom 8:26–30). For now Christians await the final end of the heḇel by living by faith in God’s revelation: we fear God; we obey his commands; we partner together to build His church [an activity that is never done in vain (1 Cor 15:58)]; and we await our bodily resurrection by enjoying the abundant gifts that God offers us today (Ecc 2:24–25, 5:18–20, 9:7–9, 12:13).

Poem: Ecclesiastes

This life, filled with vanity.
This life, filled with divine gifts to enjoy.

The enjoyment of prosperity?
A vanity, a vapor.
God’s gift to enjoy.

The experience of all pleasure and laughter?
A vanity, a vapor.
God’s gift to enjoy.

To experience our fill of bread and wine?
A vanity, a vapor.
God’s gift to enjoy.

To taste all the delights of life?
A vanity, a vapor.
God’s gift to enjoy.

To possess superior wisdom?
A vanity, a vapor.
God’s gift to enjoy.

The fruit of labor and toil?
A vanity, a vapor.
God’s gift to enjoy.

Better never to have been born.
So enjoy the beautiful wife you love.

This life, filled with vanity.
This life, filled with divine gifts to enjoy.

Look again at this contradiction.
Stare at these sentences
until the mind is baffled
and the eye grows weary
and the lines dislodge from the page
and move
and overlap
and join together.
One sentence from two
becoming a single, three dimensional truth.
No longer a contradiction.

If the eye can see both lines at once
it sees one reality
of what two sentences cannot say as two
and neither sentence can speak alone:
That to set eternal hope in what will never deceive
requires losing hope in everything that will deceive.

When harmonized, the contradiction brings liberation.
Freed from asceticism.
Freed from worldliness.
Freed from the sinful hopes that disappoint.
Freed to thank God for all things.
Freed to fear God in all things.
Freed to await the eternal.
Now free to enjoy the delicious moment.

Tom Brady, Super Bowl rings, and Ecclesiastes

Although he’s barely 30-years old, Tom Brady is the quarterback for the undefeated New England Patriots (16-0). Life seems to be going well for him. This year he set the NFL’s single-season touchdown pass record and you can add this season to his already stuffed trophy case. All before the age of 30, Brady won three Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVP trophies, named to the Pro Bowl several times. Even a bulleted summary list of his accomplishments on the football field extends for pages! He dates supermodels and has a contract in the millions, the things you would expect for a man some are saying may be the greatest in NFL history.

But after I started to assemble a series on Ecclesiastes, a keen TSS reader pointed me to a pre-Christmas interview Tom Brady gave on 60 Minutes. You can watch the interview here. During this clip―and it’s hard to determine the context―Brady makes the following statement:

“Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. I think, ‘God, it’s got to be more than this.’ I mean this isn’t, this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be … I love playing football and I love being quarterback for this team. But at the same time, I think there are a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find.”

We can praise God that Tom Brady would humbly and publicly admit (at some level) to the emptiness of life. And to do it on national television is startling, too. I don’t think I would have the courage to say this. Brady clearly understands the harsh reality of this world that meaning and fulfillment cannot come through our accomplishment because we never will amass accomplishments enough. The vanity and emptiness of life are inescapable.

So please pray for Tom Brady. Let’s pray that he would find true rest and life and hope and fulfillment in the forsaken One who died a bloody death under the most profound and horrible experience of emptiness. And Pray for Walt Day, who I believe is still the chaplain for the Patriots and a man with a background at Campus Crusade. Pray that God will give him the wise words of eternal wisdom to share.

May we all, through Ecclesiastes, discover that “meaninglessness is the mother of meaning.”