“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. …Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4, 10).
“A wise believer is a man who knows the length of his tether.” (Douglas Wilson).
David Gibson quotes these words as he reflects upon what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches us about living life. I shared last post about the theme of ‘preparing to die’, here is an excerpt from Gibson about learning to live.
“The reality is, we spend our lives trying to escape the constraints of our created condition. Opening our eyes to this is a significant breakthrough. To be human is to be a creature, and to be a creature is to be finite. We are not God. We are not in control and we will not live for ever. We will die. But we avoid this reality by playing ‘let’s pretend’.
Let’s pretend that if we get the promotion, or see our church grow, or bring up good children, we’ll feel significant and leave a lasting legacy behind us. Let’s pretend that if we change jobs, or emigrate to the sun, we won’t experience the humdrum tedium and ordinariness of life. Let’s pretend…Let’s pretend that time is always on our side to do the things we want to do and become the people we want to be. Let’s pretend we can break the cycle of repetition and finally arrive in a world free from weariness.”
Gibson here is clearly expounding verses in Ecclesiastes 1 like: ‘All things are full of weariness’ (1:8) and ‘There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.’ (1:11).
He continues to expound upon our longings and actions:
“We long for change in a world of permanent repetition and we dream of how to interrupt it. We long for lives of permanence in a world of constant change and we strive to achieve it. We spend our lives aligning our better selves with a different future that we envisage as more rewarding. And in it all we are simply trying to make permanent what is not meant to be permanent (us), and by constant change we are trying to control what is not meant to be controlled (the world). The seasons and natural cycles of the world are content to come and go, but we sweat and toil to make believe that it will not be so with us.
Ecclesiastes urges us to put this behind us once and for all and adopt a better way of thinking. Stop playin ‘let’s pretend’ and instead let history and the created world be our teachers. Think about the generations who lived before us. Look at the tides and the seasons and the patterns which God has stitched into the very fabric of creation. Things repeat themselves over and over and over again, and so it is time to learn that life has repetitiveness built into it which we are not meant to try to escape. The very rhythms of the world are a pointer to what it means to be part of the created order as a human being. Stop thinking that meaning and happiness and satisfaction reside in novelty. What is new is not really new, and what feels new will soon feel old.”
Gibson goes on to unerline this further by quoting from CS Lewis’s book ‘The Screwtape Letters’, where Screwtape counsels his junior devil nephew, Wormwood:
‘The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart – an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.’
The path of evil is to distort that which is good including even ‘change’ itself. As Screwtape goes on to expand in the strategy: ‘so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.’
Gibson comments: “Where we are unsatisfied with the rhythmical repetition of our lives, it is because we are pretending that things should not be like this for us as human beings. To want infinite change – in other words, to ‘gain’ something – is to want to escape the confines of ordinary exisence and somehow arrive in a world where, on the one hand, repetition does not occur and, on the other, permanence for our lives does. But neither is possible. As we search for something new under the sun, so we are searching for absolute novelty, and it does not exist: ‘The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns.’ (again quoting CS Lewis.)
“When you think that at last you’ve made a decisive change in your circumstances, you will soon want to change something else. Whatever it is you think you’ve gained, it will soon vanish from the earth like morning mist, and you along with it too. Part of learning to live is simply accepting this. One day you will be dead and gone and the world will go on, probably without even remembering you. A hundred years after your death the chances are, no one will ever know you lived.”
Gibson is aware of how bleak this might sound. He comments:
“If this depresses you, then keep reading. There’s still a lot to learn. But if it cracks a wry smile on your face, you’re halfway to happiness. For the Teacher is going to show us what we should, and should not, expect out of life. He is not just saying there’s no gain after we’ve chased the wind; he will insist there’s no need for the chase in the first place. There is no gain to be had under the sun, and that’s precisely the point.
None need be sought.” (Gibson, Destiny, pp 14-18).