Look at the woman in the picture. What do you notice?
Longing, perhaps. Someone who is on the outside and wants to be on the inside. Frustration with life, maybe. Some who is upset enough to lean their forehead against a door. I wonder if something happened on the other side of the door that is bothering her. Is she feeling angry? There doesn’t seem to be joy radiating from her. Her posture suggests that she is discontent, wishing for something better.
This week we’ve been studying Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, a poem in which the Teacher shares very practical wisdom about how to have what he called a “better than” kind of life. In the poem there are seven couplets, each featuring a description of the “better than” life. The fourth “better than”, is found in verses Ecclesiastes 7:7-8: the final outcome or the result of a matter is better than its beginning.
Both the beginning and the ending of a journey have their own unique kinds of joy. At the beginning you’re excited to start off on a new venture. I’ve noticed at the beginning of a race, there is a lot of nervous excitement at the starting line, as you’re stretching, bouncing, waiting for the official timer’s gun to go off so the crowd of runners can begin. At that moment, you are energized, you are filled with adrenaline. The finish line is very different. You’re wiped out, you’re exhausted, you’re spent, emotionally, mentally. And yet as you cross the finish line, there is a new joy, a deeper joy, a joy of accomplishment and completion. That is a better joy. In fact, a big part of the joy we feel at the starting line is the anticipation of that greater joy at the finish.
This principle is true of more than just running in a race. This relates to a building project, a task at work, a report for a class at school. It relates to parents raising kids, seeing them graduate and get married. It relates to a sports team, to an art project, to practicing a musical instrument.
The wisdom in this is the wisdom of focusing on the goal, even if the journey is long. The Teacher is also saying that on the journey, the better way is the right way. Verse 7 illustrates two common ways people try to cut corners to get to the end faster, to avoid the hard work of the journey. They want all the joy of the beginning and the end, and they want to beat the system and avoid the travail of what can be a long middle journey. They bribe, they cheat, they manipulate, they intimidate. They know the tricks. They know if they use the right phrase, the right tone of voice, they can get what they want. The Teacher comes strongly against any underhanded method. Instead, the “better than” way, is to submit ourselves to hard work, faithful work, consistent work, which, when completed, makes the celebration even sweeter. As the Teacher says, “Patience is better than pride.”
The fifth “better than,” surprised me. He says, the “good old days” are not better than the present. Read Ecclesiastes 7:9-10. I thought for sure the Teacher would say the good old days are better. But he doesn’t. He says, “Don’t say that the good old days are better.”
That really jumped out at me because we often hear in our evangelical Christian subculture that the good old days were way better, and that parents and kids have it terrible in our day. The insinuation is that there was a time in the USA when it was better than it is now. The Teacher would respond, “Don’t say that.” Why? He simply says it is not wise to say that. What’s not wise about it?
My suspicion is that the teacher is referring to discontentment. By saying that the old days were better, we reveal a discontentment that is at work inside us. When we are discontent, we can have a negative view of society and culture around us. Examine yourself. Have you heard yourself say, “I miss the good old days when…? This world is a mess.” If so, is it possible that you’re seeing some discontentment seeping out of your heart. Pay attention to it.
Another way we show our discontentment is anger, as the Teacher mentions in verse 9. Anger can fly out of us in harsh words, in passive aggression, even in the silent treatment. Pay attention to it.
Anger is tricky. Anger can be used for good, to motivate justice, but it is such a powerful emotion that can also cause great damage. I think we see the Teacher hint at that when he says, “Do not be quickly provoked.” He could have said, “Never get provoked.” Or “Anger is always wrong.” Instead he says, “Fools let anger sit in their laps.” So we should be very cautious about anger because it is rather easy to express anger sinfully, hurtfully, to produce emotional and physical injury in another. Instead, the Teacher is suggesting the wisdom of learning to control ourselves so that when those angry feelings rise up inside us, we can observe them and interpret them before we act.
At its most basic, anger is just a message our body is sending us, saying, “Alert, Alert, be careful about the danger around you.” It could be relational danger, it could be physical danger, but most often anger arises when there has been some kind of experience where we feel our will is being crossed. To this intense emotion, the Teacher says, don’t be quick to anger. Fools are quick to anger, causing all kinds of damage in their wake. Instead, wisdom is found in self-control, putting a lasso around that anger, taming it, correctly corralling it in a healthy, productive way. For most of us that means biting our tongue, taking deep breaths, sitting on our hands, or something that helps us pause a response until we have settled down emotionally and can actually communicate in a loving way. Anger and love are not opposites. When we are settled down, rational, and calm, we can actually channel our anger toward love of another, which goes back to that truth-telling we talked about in the previous post.
So…are you feeling discontent in life? I often feel it. Do you need to make any changes to follow the Teacher’s description of a “better than” life?