I’ve never been surfing, but it looks really fun. Riding a wave must be thrilling. I imagine, though, that successful attempts only follow many failed ones. Ups and downs, like the waves. I suspect that surfing is a study in extremes, from the bliss of great ride, to the suffering of a rough crash. In our blog series this week on Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, the Teacher is saying we should not be surprised at life’s extremes.
CS Lewis talks about this tendency in his book The Screwtape Letters, calling it the Law of Undulation. Undulation is a fancy word describing how waves of all kinds go up and they go down. Whether we are talking about waves at the beach, or electromagnetic waves like microwaves, light waves or radio waves. They have crests and they have troughs. Crests are the peaks, the high points, and troughs are the low points. The Law of Undulation states that a high point will follow a low point and after that another high point will arrive and then another low point, over and over and over, just like the unending waves on the seashore.
Of course, life isn’t exactly like that. We use the phrase, “When it rains, it pours,” to talk about how sometimes we get three or four low points in a row. Or we get a number of high points in a row. I wonder how history will remember 2020?
Yet the law of Undulation remains true, because inevitably, the streak of bad will end, and something good will happen. We can expect it, and know that it works both ways. After a season of blessing, we might have a tragedy. This is not a guarantee, by any means, but we can expect it. In fact, Lewis says, we should expect it, so that we are not rocked by it, so that we are not thrown off kilter as if the tragedy that just happened was impossible.
That’s one way we can learn from the Teacher’s poem: Do not be surprised at the ups and downs of life. If you embrace the cyclical, fleeting nature of life, you will be much, much more prepared to handle difficult times when they come.
Christians can become confounded by this tendency when we have an amazing spiritual experience. It could be a youth retreat, a camp meeting, a men’s retreat, a particular worship service or a mission trip. This could also be true in a non-spiritual sense with vacations. On those special events, we can experience what we call a high, a feeling of deep emotional joy and excitement, and we love it! We are riding the crest of the wave. Maybe we experienced great musical worship, maybe we really enjoyed a speaker, maybe we had more time alone with God, or maybe our eyes were opened to a new culture halfway around the world. Maybe it felt amazing to serve sacrificially. There are many ways that we experience the wonder of the mountaintop.
And then we come home. We’re still very excited at home, and then we go back to work, back to school, back to the chores of dishes and laundry and the car breaking down. What happens? We can quickly crash into a serious disappointment, and we can start to call into question the validity of the high. Maybe that mountaintop experience was false, we wonder. It sure didn’t seem false at the time, but why, then, is it gone so quickly? Shouldn’t a genuine spiritual experience last longer than that? So we hunger for another mountaintop. We seek another spiritual high. We want a repeat. It’s a lot like an addict who wants another hit. It is very human of us to want nothing but the good stuff, the joys, the highs, the excitement, as if that is where truth is found. As if the mountaintop experiences are what God wants us to have all the time.
The Teacher, through the 7 couplets of opposites in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, reminds of the Law of Undulation. Highs naturally lead to lows. Rather than be frustrated by life, we can view the ups and downs as okay. The opposite or extreme nature of life is to be expected. When we come home from the powerful retreat, and we are faced with our struggles, and with boredom and with the daily grind of school and jobs and chores, if we start to feel like something is wrong with us, if we start to feel like failures, if we start to feel like spiritual nobodies, we can remember that nothing is wrong. Instead, the Law of Undulation is at work. The troughs, the low points, will not last forever. There is a time for joy, and there is a time for pain. Life is cyclical.
So how do we respond to the Law of Undulation?
The teacher tells us, and we’ll discover what he says in our next post.