We often attempt to avoid the very situations that help us the most.
You’ve probably heard the term “Helicopter Parent.” It describes a parent who tries to protect a child from adversity, or even to do things for the child that he or she can already do. I recall having had a little bit of a reputation for this early on. I’m thinking about the year my daughter was introduced to backyard fireworks—firecrackers, and sparklers.
I stepped up like a champ to coach my daughter, and thought I was doing a bang-up job, when I looked around to see my sister, and nephews, and various family members all laughing at the way I was interacting with her. I had gone beyond the fundamentals of safety, and had become hyper-vigilant, and doting. I guess I was determined to keep her from becoming the world’s first sparkler-related fatality.
I had forgotten that most of what I personally knew about fireworks, I had learned through first-hand trial-and-error. Like for instance, if you see a firecracker laying on the ground unexploded, and it has a fuse 1/16 inch long, don’t assume you can pick it up, light it, and have time enough to throw it away before it goes off. I learned that principle the hard way, while nursing a burned and throbbing hand for an hour after a firecracker had gone off in it.
Here’s another helpful one: When somebody lights a bottle rocket—say, ahem, a younger brother—do not bend over and put your head in the flight path of that rocket. I managed to do this, and the rocket hit me in the head and then exploded. My point is that the knowledge base I had accumulated was basically all personal experience. I can’t remember even one flip-chart presentation or workbook exercise on gunpowder compression.
Still, I assumed, as well as a lot of parents, that I could help my kid bypass non-cognitive learning, and just listen to the lessons I taught. But the fact is, some things in life can only be learned through experience, and a fair amount of those will be negative.
I’m afraid that in certain places, Christian teachers poorly prepare believers for the future. They tell them to expect good times, all the time. But when difficult or painful times come along, and end badly, they say it means a person didn’t have enough faith, or that God was getting back at that person for something.
Under closer scrutiny, though, this explanation doesn’t hold up. The God we serve was incarnated as a man, roundly rejected, and then unjustly executed. The apostles who came along after Him, who delivered to us such a wealth of spiritual revelation, suffered, and most of them were killed. In these cases, God was doing something completely different than granting creaturely blessings.
And similarly, during times of adversity in our own lives, God is not only after good, He’s after better.
Ecclesiastes 7:1 begins by saying, “A good name is better than precious ointment.” A good name means a good reputation built up around positive character. Character is better by far than an oiled, perfumed, polished external appearance. This principle will set the stage for all the following thoughts in the first half of chapter 7. This is why some of them seem counter-intuitive, like the very next phrase, “the day of death is better than the day of birth.”
How could a funeral possibly be better than a childbirth? Remember that this chapter is written from the standpoint of character formation. Birth is an unknown quantity. We don’t know what that child is going to do, or who he will be, or how he’s going to live. Will he be a follower of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, or simply a wretch who lives for evil? We’re not sure. But one thing is certain. When a life has been well-lived, and a man or a woman has faithfully followed Jesus, their final breath is like a seal of God’s work. As the coffin lid closes, it is like God making a statement, saying, “My work in this person’s earthly life is over. His cooperation with me and what I attempted to do ends here.”
If a good name has been gained, truly the ending has become better than the beginning. This person has gained a testimony under the shaping hand of God. Not only so, but it has a significant effect upon those who continue to live.
Which brings us to another “better than” statement: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind and the living will lay it to heart” (v. 2). Those who remain alive, who saw the good name and its end, will be called to a certain sobriety, perhaps asking, “What about me? What kind of life am I living?” Birthday parties don’t refocus people this way. Funerals do.
Verse three continues the thought with another “better than” statement: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” How could laughter be inferior? Because it tends to shield us from reality. It’s a self-defense mechanism that protects us from pain. But sadness teaches through adversity the kind of lessons that lead to gladness. No, it obviously does not deliver a dose of instant feel-goods. Instead, sadness invites sober reflection, and correction that builds the scaffolding for a glad life.
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (v. 4). You will find more wisdom in a hospital, or in a funeral parlor than in a nightclub. In the place of mourning, God stitches character together inside of a person, as surely as the embroidery work of the curtains of the tabernacle in the Old Testament. In the house of mirth, though, human beings are at work numbing themselves.
Verses 5-6 says, “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart.”
Sometimes we would prefer fools singing to us, because they sing our praises with a lot of empty flattery. The end result according to verse 7, is that listening to these “songs” will corrupt you, turning you into the same kind of manipulative person who “sings” to others. The rebuke of the wise is better.
Rebukes sting. Even if delivered with grace, their effect can still be humiliating. Yet they enrich you with the correction of character. Yes, rebukes hurt, but only because they heal, like the setting of a broken leg. Fools will sing to you about your broken leg, but the wise go to work setting it. It is a pain that leads to positive outcomes.
“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” It doesn’t take a lot of character to start something. All you need is self-confidence, a certain amount of pride, and skill in making noise.
For instance, everyone knows how to start a romance—a few dates, some sparks, a change in your Facebook relationship status, and the proclamation that, “My love is stronger than the universe.” But to get to the end of a marriage—’till death do us part—takes something else. Not pride. Actually, pride will short-circuit the whole thing. It takes patience, a character trait built up over years of time. The patient ending is more glorious than the proud beginning.
Verses 9-10 add, “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools. Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Almost everybody over a certain age has asked this question, but hidden in it is a barbed remark toward God—You’ve let the country fall apart. You used to do a much better job in my marriage. You don’t seem to be doing as much in my Christian life anymore. You used to be with our church back in the good old days. Be careful with such assessments. Perhaps God has purposely allowed adversity of some sort to build up a weak segment of character, like that of patience, or endurance.
“Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun” (v. 11). With this statement, Ecclesiastes begins to sum up all the various character strengths inside of the one word, “wisdom.”
“The protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it” (v. 12). In a certain way, wisdom is cash. It is the currency of daily life in the kingdom of God, and can offer you long-term protection. An important application of it shows up in verse 13. “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?”
God has made some things in a way that we think we could have done better. But have you ever heard of the Serenity Prayer? It’s a prayer for wisdom to know the difference between things you can and should change, and things you cannot change, no matter how hard you try. Verse 13, therefore, corrects those who foolishly try to fix the acts of God, thinking they have the power of God at their disposal to alter things any way they want.
What things? Verse 14 says, “In the day of prosperity, be joyful.” Don’t try to take the happy days God has created, and make them sad. Instead, go with them into joy. On the other hand, “in the day of adversity, consider.” Don’t try to get rid of bad times. Instead, consider, reflect. Maybe repentance is appropriate, or maybe it’s time to learn something of God you’ve never known before. At any rate, “God has made the one [day] as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.”
We have to admit that God works in ways that make it hard for us to predict what He will do from one day to the next. Sometimes He will do exactly the opposite of what you confidently thought. However, we can know for sure what He always prioritizes—the formation of character and wisdom in us. This He always wants, and especially uses adversity to get us there.
Paul spoke of this in the early verses of Romans 5 when he mentioned those who had believed in Jesus Christ. We have been justified by faith, and now we stand in this grace, and boast in the hope of the glory of God. But he says in verse 3, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings.”
We’re not running from adversity, but we rejoice in it, because to us, nothing in life will now be wasted. “…knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” We won’t arrive at the end of our lives, and suddenly realize it was all a pipe dream. “Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who’s been given to us” (v. 5).
These thoughts show us that what we saw in Ecclesiastes chapter 7 is not some new-age, optimistic “It will all turn out in the end!,” or some kind of fatalistic “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” No, only the love of God, the plan of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit can make bad times better than good ones.
Consider this poem, often quoted in discipleship circles:
When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man, and skill a man,
When God wants to mold a man
To play for Him the noblest part,
When He yearns with all His heart
To build so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Then watch God’s methods, watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects;
How He hammers him and hurts him
And with mighty blows converts him,
Making shapes and forms which only
God Himself can understand,
Even while His man is crying,
Lifting a beseeching hand…
Yet God bends but never breaks
When man’s good He undertakes;
When He uses whom He chooses,
And with every purpose fuses
Man to act, and act to man,
As it was when He began,
When God tries His splendor out,
Man will know what He’s about! 1
1 Composed by Dale Martin Stone