Hey friends! This one’s for the weary… So pleased to team up with The Gospel Coalition today for this article. You can check it out here, and while you’re at it, peruse their site for deep thoughts, strong encouragement, and a good theological shot of espresso.
Grisham, Hemingway, Melville, U2, The Byrds, Dave Matthews, and debatably, Pink Floyd. What do they all have in common? They’ve all borrowed (stolen?) from Ecclesiastes. Who can blame them? What is not to love? This is the book for our times: from drinking to free love to despondent fatalism, it’s like the lyric sheet of our postmodern age. And yet…
My husband Michael says every time he embarks on preaching a new sermon series through a book of the Bible, that book becomes his new favorite. So when I gush about Ecclesiastes lately, he sorta smiles with that knowing kind of smile you reserve for the little kid who’s going on about Spiderman. “It’s good, right? And next month when you’re reading Ephesians, it’ll be good too.” But oh my goodness. I love this book.
I have always had a soft spot for Ecclesiastes, ever since writing a paper on The Sun Also Rises in college. Hemingway was such a peacock, strutting around with his pithy declarations about the vanity of life—how could a 20-year-old English major not have a literary crush on the man? He spoke for a jaded generation, much like my own. How can there be meaning in a world of war and suffering? How can our sadness and loss be redeemed? Hemingway would probably say, it can’t. And yet…
You gotta love a book that grapples (in the place of justice, even there was wickedness—3:16), a book that doesn’t pull punches (all things are full of weariness, a man cannot utter it—1:8), a book that dives deep (In the day of prosperity be joyful and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other—7:14). When non-Christians sneer at my Pollyanna faith, let them take a crack at Ecclesiastes. It’s more bracing than a bottle of whisky, more honest than their “find your own truth.”
Philip Ryken says, “Ecclesiastes is not the kind of book that we keep reading until we reach the end and get the answer, like a mystery. Instead, it is a book in which we keep struggling with the problems of life and, as we struggle, we learn to trust God with the answers even when we do not have all the answers.” Like the difference between art and propaganda, Ecclesiastes has no problem leaving you with your mouth ajar. It presents a puzzle to be solved, a question to be considered. It is not easy. And yet…
I love Ecclesiastes, because it is a book of joy. It is a book which lets you fall down the rabbit hole of our culture’s hollow promises and see them for what they are—empty. Then, just when you’re starting to feel serious vertigo, it lands you on solid ground—real truth and beauty. Like Bunyan’s Christian crying out to Hopeful as they cross the river into Heaven, Ecclesiastes says, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”
You won’t find any answers in pleasure, treasure, philosophy, or toil. Just ask Tom Brady. Ask Jack from 30 Rock, or John D. Rockefeller, or anyone who’s ever won the lottery. Hang out in a nursing home, and ask the residents what mattered most. And then ask Ecclesiastes. Bring your doubts, your fears, your losses, your dreams. As Derek Kidner put it, “in the final chapters he has good news for us, once we can stop pretending that what is mortal is enough for us, who have been given a capacity for the eternal.”
What is mortal is never enough for a person with the capacity for everlasting joy.
Ecclesiastes is like the pretzels freely given at a bar to make its patrons thirsty. If you aren’t thirsty yet, a few verses in? You will be.
Do you remember that scene from The Hobbit—when Bilbo and pals were lost and woozy from the suffocating air of a cursed forest? Bilbo groggily climbed a tree—up and up until he broke out above the canopy and sucked in fresh air with a gasp. His head cleared; he spotted in the distance their destination; and suddenly he understood what to do. Sometimes you have to get a better vantage point to see the big picture. As I said in Thirty Thousand Days, “In all the days of our earth-bound lives, there is only one thing essential to the journey, one thing which is the solution to all our woes, one thing capable of bringing light, clarity, joy, purpose or meaning into our existence. God alone is not bound to the sour sadness of the fall. He is above, beyond, and outside this sin-sick planet, not stuck ‘under the sun’ with us.”
I am so thirsty. You?
Way back in 2002, my husband and I happily went to see the first of The Lord of the Rings movies. Aside from all of the swashbuckle and magic, the moment in the movie that struck me most forcibly was when old Bilbo, the hobbit, says that he is spread too thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. Maybe you can relate.
Maybe you’ve been overwhelmed or anxious, easily angered or chronically late. Maybe you teeter on the edge of burnout, exhausted and discouraged. Or maybe you just wish you weren’t so busy.
All of these — overwork, fear, feeling like you’re just ready to snap — are symptoms of the same condition: humanity. They aren’t new to our generation, they are the perennial problems of all people everywhere. In fact, they are so pervasive, that sometimes we believe they aren’t really problems at all.
Maybe weariness is just life on Earth. Maybe worry and hurry aren’t things to even try to eliminate from our lives — maybe we’re supposed to feel this way. And if that’s the case, the best we can do is suck it up and power through. Work harder.
But contrary to what we often accept as normal and even good, the Bible is clear that God offers a different way. A more excellent way.
In Deuteronomy 28, God paints a startling contrast between His people, who worship Him alone, and those who stray away. In verse 64, He warns the Israelites,
There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening, “If only it were morning!”—because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.
Other gods offer us weariness, dread, and despair. Our God, on the other hand, offers us rest. And in the beautiful wisdom of our good Father, He offered us rest from the very, very beginning. Before we ever worked a day, He set aside the Sabbath.
The practice of weekly rest goes all the way back to Genesis 2. God, who clearly has greater capacity for getting a job done than we do, rested. For a whole day in the first week of the world, He rested. And then He blessed that day and set it apart. He called it holy, and commanded us to do the same.
It’s not some offhand comment that’s spoken just the once. In fact, the word “sabbath” appears 96 times in the Old Testament alone, mostly in passages that restate the commandment, “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” in one way or another. In Exodus 31:12-13, the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.’” Above all. Throughout all generations. We sanctify the day, because God sanctified us.
(And by the by, Sabbath-keeping does appear in the New Testament. I know there are pastors who dismiss it as an Old Covenant concept, but if you pay attention to the way Jesus talks about Sabbath, He never abolishes it, He affirms it. Now, He clearly doesn’t like all of the added regulations and rigamarole that the scribes and Pharisees have attached to it, but the way He deals with that is to say, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, “hey, people, this day of rest is meant to serve you, it’s not meant to master you.”)
I believe that Sabbath-keeping is important both for how we worship and for how we love our neighbor. If we choose to neglect Sabbath, we are in fact putting other gods before the Lord. Those gods may not be stone and wood, they may be our employer, our housekeeping, our important, busy lives. If we neglect it, no matter if we tithe our money, we aren’t tithing our time. And on the other hand, if we neglect it, we often force our neighbors to do the same. Hobby Lobby and Chic-Fil-A are unique even among Christian stores for shutting down on Sunday. Our entire culture has forgotten the Lord’s Day, and along with it, we’ve perpetuated an injustice: the poorest among us never get a break.
You may recall that the Ten Commandments are listed out twice in the Bible, and the way the two lists treat #4 is slightly different. The first time we’re introduced to them is in Exodus 20. There, we’re told that we are meant to practice Sabbath because God Himself rested on the seventh day of creation. That goes along with the Sabbath-as-worship idea.
But the second time they’re listed, in Deuteronomy 5, we get an additional insight. We remember the Sabbath because we remember that God delivered us from slavery. In this sense, Sabbath is an act of “holy defiance.” By putting down our tools for a day, we declare that we will not be slaves again, that we are incredibly, gloriously free. This is a freedom that we can extend to others, so Sabbath leads into loving our neighbor, too.
We tend to think of Sabbath as some kind of weird Plymouth colony thing that, if we really practiced it, would involve hour after hour on hard benches, absolutely no laughing, and all kinds of scheduling gymnastics revolving around being miserable all day on Sunday. Ironically, though, Sabbath was given to us as a gift, not as a burden.
Imagine your car had broken down. You’re pacing around wondering how you’re going to pay for a new car when you get a mysterious phone call from your Dad instructing you to meet him in a parking lot across town. When you get there, you see an absolutely giant box with a bow on top and your name on it. There’s your Dad, grinning. “It’s for you,” he says. “But Dad,” you say with a whine, “How am I supposed to get this thing home? I don’t even have a car! Whatever’s in there is bigger than a refrigerator — I can’t carry that!” You walk away, without even peeking inside the present, which of course, is a brand new car.
That’s kind of what we do with Sabbath. “But Dad,” we say, “I can’t even deal with that right now. It’s too heavy. I can’t carry it. Don’t you know how much I have to do this week?”
The beauty of Sabbath is that it offers us help in carrying our burdens. It gives us exactly what our hearts need to not break down in the first place.
In some primitive corner of our minds, we buy into the lie that we are too important to ever need rest. Sabbath forces us to stop working, cease striving, and be still. When we do, we realize that somehow the world goes on without us. It is humbling, and it keeps our hearts soft.
When we slow down, we’re able to see God. You can’t really see Him if you can’t be still. But this sacred pause in the middle of the week offers you an opportunity to worship, to gaze in wonder, and to reorient your life around the One who makes it matter. Obviously, going to church is part of that. We set aside all of our busyness and gather together to remember what Christ has done.
But allowing your soul to linger in that place long after the church service is over allows God to speak to you individually, in that quiet whisper He uses that’s so easy to miss. Setting aside not just a couple hours but a whole day to listen allows God to fill up what has been emptied in us over the course of a grueling week. As Psalm 46:10 puts it, “Be still, and know that I am God.” One day of rest is enough to remind us that God is our refuge and strength, no matter what we have to confront the other six days.
Practicing Sabbath provides much-needed rest for our body and soul. Without rest, we will most assuredly burn out. Any doctor can tell you what wonders stress works on the body. Rest is physically and mentally necessary if you want to flourish. Building a rhythm of rest into your family gives your children a lifelong gift as well: teach them by example that God never expected them to toil without ceasing.
Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Give your children the gift of learning that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light. Receive for yourselves the gift of Jesus’ sweet rest.
So what does it mean? Consistency is key, the setting aside of one repeating day each week. Sunday (unless you’re married to the pastor) works well, because you already have Sunday set aside for church, for worship. At our house, we try to give the kids a happy, restful Sunday, but Michael and I celebrate our day of rest on Fridays most weeks, when the kids are at school.
Does it mean we sit in solemn contemplation all day? I hope not! Do what is worshipful and restful for you. Go outside. Sit by a lake. Take a walk. Tickle your children. Laugh a lot. Enjoy a feast. Play! Read a book. Take a swim. Take a nap.
You might be like me. You really want to practice Sabbath. You want — no, you long for — that day of rest. But you’re busy. You scramble and hustle all week long, and when Sunday rolls around, you realize that you haven’t planned ahead at all. You children, for some reason, expect you to feed them. The things you procrastinated on all week are clamoring for your attention. It won’t just happen, this Sabbath thing, unless you are intentional about it.
So today the gals from church got together and did a little work to make Sundays a little easier. We’re prepped five meals that we can pull out five weeks in a row, so that for one month at least, we can gather our favorite people around a table, laugh a little, and pass the yumminess. Or if we want, we can save aside one of these meals to share with someone who’s hurting — a neighbor, a family member who’s been in the hospital, somebody who’s had a baby. It might mean that we show up at church one week with dinner waiting in the crock pot, and we’re able to invite a lonely person to come home with us for lunch, without even stressing us out a tiny bit.
It’s really not that hard to plan ahead in such a way that rest becomes possible, it’s just remembering to do it. Having a go-to meal on hand won’t solve all our problems with slowing down, but hopefully it will be a tangible step in the right direction.
My prayer for all of us is that we can in some way recover the lost art of Sabbath, the unopened gift of rest that God offers us.
I pray that our church can slow down, that God can unwind the kinks of stress and worry that knot our muscles, that we can be known as a people who play, a people who laugh easily.
I pray that we can recapture our awe of this Creator, who made a beautiful, over-the-top world for us and then set aside one day a week for us to enjoy it, to enjoy Him.
I pray that our hearts never stray after other gods that mercilessly drive us past the breaking point, but that instead we would remember our first love, and freely give Him our hearts in worship.
- If your children (or friends) were to closely watch the way you live for many years and then set about to imitate your life, would you anticipate that they would live in a way that is joyfully refreshed or in a way that leads to exhaustion?
- What do you think would be the impact on your life of stepping up Sabbath? What would be the result at Wellspring if, as a church, we began to incorporate more healthy Sabbath practices in our families?
- What are some practical steps you could take to intentionally carve out a “sacred pause” in your week?
- One reason for practicing Sabbath is as an act of “holy defiance,” a refusal to be enslaved again. What are ways we can slip back into a life of slavery if we aren’t careful?
Little man really wanted to try some of that vanilla I was putting in the banana bread. “It’s yucky, buddy,” I said. “Yummy in the bread, not so good by itself.”
“You won’t like it.”
“But Mom, can’t I just learn the hard way?”
Oh my gosh, he is just like me! How many times have I struggled and strained to have my way against all warnings and my own better judgment? Course, I am not usually so honest about my stubborn streak; it takes an eight-year-old to be that forthright. Me, I justify. I give my arsenal of good reasons and my own persuasive puppy-dog eyes. “Pleeease?”
When I know I should just say no instead of adding one more thing to my plate, I have to learn the hard way. Why not rest when I need to?
When I know I am going to regret that second doughnut in about 5 minutes, I have to learn the hard way. Why don’t I stop when I’m full?
When I’m smack up against a closed door I don’t like, do I listen to that still, small voice saying turn around? Nope, not me. I have to learn the hard way. Just… gotta… force… it… open — there!
And unlike little man and his vanilla craving, my learning-the-hard-way tends to hurt. Bad. I burn out, dry up, lose faith, lose heart. I trade freedom and joy for shame and a dark pit. Why do we make it so hard on ourselves? The funny thing is, God’s way — that narrow way we tend to associate with deprivation — is always the best way. I never regret obeying him in the first place.
You ever have to learn the hard way?
January 2 ought to be known as Anticlimax Day. The turkey is getting a little… ripe, the lights are coming down, the New Year’s Resolutions have already been broken, the batteries in the new toys have died. The parties are over, the eggnog’s run out, the radio is playing the same old songs from October — well, September, maybe. So now there’s nothing for it but to sink into joy.
January is slow and calm, a return to normal, the “big reveal” of how your heart was before the holiday madness. Some see it is a let-down, but what if it is the best saved for last? In January you can rest, take stock, appreciate, feel your life full. This is joy:
Happiness: bubbly, shiny, peppy, laughing, spinning, dancing, merry, gone in a flash. Joy: deep, still, beautiful, haunting, persistent, light shining down into dark places.
May you have a truly joyful January.
for the small things: light on water, shaded forest, laughter ringing
clear my mind to see your beauty
make me thankful, Lord
for the moments gone forever, conversations, love so fleeting,
give me power to remember,
make me thankful, Lord
all the gifts declare your kindness,
joyful Father, loving Friend,
make me long for you, my portion
sweeter, higher, without end
for the shocking incarnation, setting glory to the side,
Jesus, King come as a baby
make me thankful, Lord
for the shocking death you suffered, love propelling Love to die,
Jesus, King killed as a pauper
make me thankful, Lord
all the gifts declare your goodness,
humble Savior, loving Friend,
make me long for you, Redeemer,
sweeter, higher, without end
for the breath of God upon me, blowing through me, to renew me
in my weakness, grace unstinting,
make me thankful, Lord
for the suffering, give me vision of your purpose, of your wisdom
tease out meaning, comfort me
make me thankful, Lord
all the gifts declare your mercy,
tender Spirit, loving Friend
make me taste your kind compassion,
sweeter, higher, without end
for the final destination, journey ending, sailing home
rest and healing, joy and beauty,
make us hopeful, Lord
for the moment we will see you, hear you calling, “welcome home!”
feel your arms in love surround us,
make us hopeful, Lord
all the gifts declare your brightness,
glimpses in the dreams you send,
make us thankful for a future
sweeter, higher, without end
“Best part?” he asks every night at supper. And the kids shout out, especially the happy ones,
“Playing with Legos and building a Star Wars/Lord of the Rings/Velociraptor!”
“Eating doughnuts for breakfast!”
“Being here with you, Dad.” That one makes a regular appearance, equal parts delightful and deliberate.
But some days the kids are grouchy, ungrateful, little fists holding their grudges tight. And some days you wake up to gray skies and the dread in the stomach, and the hours stretch in front of you scary. There isn’t liable to be a best part those days.
So what happens if you stack your odds? Make a moment that will make the list, on purpose. Gonna be a crummy day? Let’s have pancakes for breakfast. Pancakes are good. Or I’m not going to get it all done anyway, so let’s take 30 minutes to head to the park. That’s worth a smile. Light a candle, play an 80s song, eat chocolate, wear the funny socks, send a card… And what if you don’t save the best for last, but grab the best first?
I am learning, day after homeschooling day, that being stingy with rewards — the nice thing will come after I get the desired results — is usually frustrating. I am rewarding something that’s not really good enough, or withholding a reward that someone self-righteously feels they deserve, holding the stick and carrot high all the day, wheedling. Why not give big first — this is grace — reap the smiles, sail into the hard things with a breeze at your back and the sun on your face?
I learned this first as a writer from Annie Dillard. In The Writing Life, she says: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
So wise. The manna hoarded for the next morning turned to rot. The laugh withheld turns to sighs. Might as well start your day happy, and who knows? Maybe that will change the whole day.