“God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.” (Ecclesiastes 3:14)
The author of Ecclesiastes, (aka “The Teacher”) provokes us to examine our lives. Today we’re discussing Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, which is actually a poem, and the most well-known part of the book. Seasons in this context aren’t like the seasons we think of regarding weather patterns. Chapter 3 focuses on seasons of life, and the events we encounter, and how our lives are really a series of seasons
In this poem, the Teacher basically lists different events that all humans are likely to experience. All humans are likely to know times of war, and to experience birth and death within families. We will plant and harvest through our vocations. We will build some things and will disassemble other things. Our lifetimes are more accurately marked by the seasons we experience than by just our birthdate. The seasons of our lives are not always predictable, and often the times of season changes are unforeseen. In fact, we can wake up one day expecting everything to be routine like yesterday, and in a moment everything changes.
What does the Teacher in Ecclesiastes have to say to us today? The spiritual journey is a life lived in tension. We enjoy many blessings but being a part of the kingdom of God is not an everlasting spa day. This divine tension is found in balancing the things we are unable to understand with the eternal truths we should always hold onto.
What we don’t know or understand – The “What, When and Why?”
We cannot always predict the what- what season is coming next. We cannot always know the when- when a season may suddenly burst in and disrupt our lives. Things like pandemics, accidents, natural disasters, and medical diagnoses, can come about unexpectedly. Even when we have a hint that something is on the horizon, no amount of imagination can anticipate the dozens of ways a single event can alter every part of your life. Living through a traumatic season will have residual effects throughout the remainder of our lives.
We are living in a season of COVID 19, a pandemic. While some seasons change with the fading out of the old season and the phasing in of the new, some seasons abruptly bursts through the front door and takes its seat right in the middle of our living room, without allowing us time to process it or to plan for it. Now, in 2020, we find ourselves in a season to “refrain from embracing,” (v 5), it’s a time to refrain from congregating, it’s a time to refrain from carelessly moving about in our community, it’s a time of job loss, it’s a time of anxiety, and for many, many people- it’s a time to die.
Not being able to anticipate the what and when of abrupt changes makes us feel increasingly unsettled the more we think about it. We can develop a heightened fear about what may come next, or we “wait for the other shoe to drop.”
The popular author, social worker, and researcher, Dr. Brene’ Brown, speaks about this. She explains that many people develop a mindset of what she calls “foreboding joy.” That’s when you won’t allow yourself to fully experience love and joy because you fear loss. She uses the illustration of a parent looking in on their child sleeping and thinking of how much love they have for the child. As the parent begins to feel the joy of that whole-hearted love, suddenly they imagine how horrible it would be to lose their child. That moment of joy triggers an immediate moment of dread. The fear of loss prevents us from feeling love and joy whole heartedly. In fact, many of us will obsess over that fear of loss, trying to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario. Dr. Brown, who has interviewed thousands of trauma survivors, points out that there is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for that terrible call, or that dreaded news. When we forbode joy, we waste time that we can’t get back being fearful of loss, instead of freely loving and enjoying our relationships.
We can’t know the “What?” and the “When?” The final thing we can’t know is the “Why?” In my opinion the why is the most haunting question we face. Why does the Lord allow certain things to happen or why doesn’t the Lord step in and fix things? We won’t understand the why because our minds can’t comprehend how God is orchestrating things for everyone involved. Many of us have lived bitter days obsessing over the question “Why?” My experience has taught me that when you hear someone asking “why?” about a difficult time, the most loving thing you can do is admit that you don’t know, because you don’t. When faced with someone who is hurting, well-meaning people often will say, “It’s the Lords will,” because that seems like a perfectly sound spiritual answer. That’s the kind of answer that can wrap doubts and messy feelings into a pretty package with a bow on top. But that answer isn’t comforting at all to a person struggling through the most tortured days of their existence. In fact, a response of “It’s the Lord’s will” sounds like a diversion to pivot the conversation toward something more comfortable for the listener. When we’re hurting, we are in tension, and we struggle to find meaning. We need to speak and express our pain. One of the reasons that people are often discouraged from speaking about their difficult feelings is that it’s hard to find someone who is willing to listen and to sit in that uncomfortable space with you. One of the bravest and most helpful things you can say as a listener is “I don’t understand what you’re going through or why you’re going through this, but I know you’re hurting and I’m going to stick with you through it.”
The things we can’t know about seasons of forced change can be haunting, but the Teacher of Ecclesiastes gives us 3 eternal truths that strengthen and encourage us.
The first eternal truth we find in verse 11 is that “God has put a sense of the past and the future in the human mind.” In a different translation it is worded as we have “an awareness of eternity that we can’t comprehend.” Here we go again…. another thing that we can’t understand. No wonder the spiritual walk is a journey through tension because we want certainty without having to depend on anything. I think the sense of eternity is best understood as we have an awareness that we are part of the greater story of God and humanity. We know that our days on earth are numbered, but maybe the work we do or the influence we have isn’t limited by the days we live. The book of James reminds that our life is like a mist, here one moment and gone the next. We all know people who may have passed on, yet they still influence our lives. In the same vein, our influencers had people in their past who influenced them. These are glimpses of how time fits together beyond the days of a human life. This sense of eternity is among our richest blessings, even though we don’t see the full picture. God has invited us to participate in the work of the kingdom that stretches way beyond us.
The second eternal truth also found in verse 11 is that God makes all things suitable for its time. Another translation of the Bible says that God makes all things beautiful in its time. So lets talk about suitability. All things being made suitable in their time is a promise that no matter what season we face, it will be made suitable. It is going to serve a purpose.
So what about COVID 19? What is that suitable for? We don’t know, and that is part of the tension we live in. As much as we like to be optimistic, the data suggests that we’re not near the end of this season yet. Once a vaccine is found and this illness becomes non-threatening, we are still going to have multitudes of people suffering with residuals effects. There will also be decades of grief from the lives lost and there will likely be decades of latent economic effects on many people. Of course, just as with most disease and economic hardship, it will be the poor who will continue to suffer the most long-lasting impact of this pandemic season. Christian author Bob Goff says, “In God’s economy, nothing is ever wasted. Not pain, nor disappointments, nor our setbacks. These are tools that can be used later as a recipe for our best work.”
The final eternal truth is found in verse 14 and repeated many times throughout Ecclesiastes. The Teacher reminds us repeatedly, that only the work of the Lord will last. We live in a series of seasons, we gather, we build, we plant, we procreate, we celebrate, our life is full of activity. The only things that matters are the things we do for God, things that have eternal value. Is there anything wrong with enjoying “non eternal” things? No, in fact Ecclesiastes reminds us that there’s nothing better than to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Celebration and enjoyment are gifts from God. But we are quickly reminded that the fruits of our labor, our stuff, our celebrations, won’t be where we find our purpose. Chasing after such things is like chasing the wind. We weren’t created to accumulate. We were created to be in relationship with God and to love people. I don’t want to limit my legacy to passing on a bunch of stuff. We were created with the image of God imprinted on us. We are equipped to do work with eternal value. The world needs the best of us, not our stuff, we have too much stuff already. It’s ironic that in many places around the globe people die from not having enough, while in the US the leading causes of death can be attributed to our insatiable desire for excess.
In verse 14 we see it written, “God has done this so that we will stand in awe before the Lord.” What that is saying is that in all the things we experience, we are reminded to remain in the place we were crated to be in. Recognizing that God is God and we are not, is the natural order that God set in place from the beginning. It is the safest place for us to dwell. Why are spiritual disciplines important? Activities like prayer, Bible study, stewardship, worship and living in community are where our spirits get exercised and trained. In these holy spaces, our spirits train to be in the posture we were crated to live in. It’s a posture of submission and dependence on God, the posture that the disciples of Christ are called to.
Rejoice in the Lordship of our Creator. We’re not responsible for having all the answers- and that’s great because we don’t know them. We are not responsible for everyone’s health, safety and happiness- and that’s great because it’s beyond our skill set to provide those things. The Lord has woven together a safety net for us. Some of the things that our safety net is woven from is our community, scripture, prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit. That safety net saves us from ourselves.
In these days and always- may we look for opportunities to love and comfort others.
May we discipline ourselves daily- to be centered on the Lord and to be about the eternal work of the kingdom.
As we live in this tension- may find peace knowing God is with us- in all the painful and exhausting places this season calls us to.