Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Do good and be happy?

Ecclesiastes 3:9-14 (NIV)

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil — this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
Chalk me up as a big believer in the “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” concept. I mean this quite literally. It’s why I bristle whenever someone suggests something unexplainable — be it tragedy, triumph or simple happenstance — is all part of God’s plan. If you’re willing to accept that every single thing that happens on Earth is preordained and orchestrated by God, that’s one thing. Then you can tell me you narrowly escaped a car accident as part of God’s plan, your grandfather succumbed to cancer as part of God’s plan, the Celtics won game five as part of God’s plan and the pizza guy brought sausage instead of pepperoni as part of God’s plan.

I’m not saying God isn’t in some way involved with our physical world. It’s just that I believe in a God so powerful — powerful enough to become fully human, suffer physical death and then come back to life — that there’s no sense in trying to wrap a feeble human mind around the power of God. The great mystery of life (and afterlife) is something no one will ever be able to comprehend while constrained by human life. And I’m totally OK with that.

What really stands out in this passage (which, by the way, comes immediately after the “a time to be born, a time to die” part of Ecclesiastes 3) is something I’d never before considered. While God has set our mind on eternity (Jesus discussed everlasting life quite a bit, you know), it also is possible for us to find satisfaction in or regular existence. That’s never really struck me as a significant gift, but in a way it makes perfect sense.

We are told so much about the perfection of Heaven and being fully in God’s presence. The concept of Heaven on Earth is pure folly — nothing we can envision or experience can in any way compare to the world beyond. So how terrible would it be to go through life being dissatisfied with even the highest of highs because you’re trying to measure it against something promised to be better, yet inconceivably so?

Taken by itself, verse 12 (I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live) seems to be staggeringly simplistic, likely to a fault. Surely Jesus’ teachings did not tell people to just try to be happy and good. He demanded we offer God our absolute best at all times, in many cases instructing people to do things that would run counter to personal happiness. Living up to those exacting standards is an exhausting pursuit, one we (hopefully) approach despite (undoubtedly) knowing we’ll come up short many, many times.

And yet if you ask me what I want for my children, my initial response almost certainly would be either, “I want them to be happy” or “I want them to be good people.” Ideally both. Probably a better answer is along the lines of “I want them to believe in God, accept and follow the teachings of Jesus and accordingly live lives worthy of God.” And I guess if I want that to be the case, I could do a lot more on the front end to encourage them to move in that direction. If I’m content with just “happy” and “good person” for myself or them, well, I feel like I’m kind of missing the point.

Once again, it looks like I’ve got some work to do.

A prayer for June 6:

Lord, thank you for setting eternity in our hearts. I know we cannot begin to understand your power and glory, yet I am grateful for the promise of everlasting life with you, given to us through the grace of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. I ask you to help me teach these lessons to my children, that they too may come to understand the importance of the life beyond and not just the matters at hand. Amen.

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