Do not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise – why destroy yourself?

Do not be over-wicked and do not be a fool – why die before your time?

It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other.  The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.

Ecclesiastes has long been my favourite book of the Bible.  The verses above from chapter 7 are a great reassurance to me.  I am a bit of a striver, and I like to keep my options open.  I find myself driven and restless, as if there is always something more I should be doing.

In the language of Ecclesiastes I am getting caught up in ‘chasing after the wind’.   This means a futile and exhausting striving that steals me away from the simple things of life (which might just be the real essence of life).  It steals a lot of things, this kind of striving – joy, peace and clarity of mind.  And in it’s most poisonous form it masquerades as godliness – a delusion of God-given purpose, or the nobility of a cross to bear.

When we drift away from a simple and humble walk with God, we can be tempted to cloak our own mixed motives with a veil of spirituality.   The biggest trap for me is seeing the Godly life as a matter of great and significant callings to be discovered as opposed to faithful, joyful service, here and now.  A preoccupation with ‘God’s plan’, without a calm reassurance of God’s presence, can lead to a stifling fear that we might miss it and take a ‘wrong’ path, or that we are not doing ‘enough’.

I would rather be like the Psalmist:

I have stilled and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child with his mother, Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

And I am reminded of the much-quoted contrast between the sisters Mary and Martha in Luke chapter 10.

Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I sympathise with task-focused Martha, but I can see how much I need to start prioritising relationship instead, like Mary.  The desire to do things for God, without spending time seeking His transforming presence, can be the start of a dark path that leads ultimately to the worst excesses of religious fundamentalism.

I recently heard it said that religion, (in it’s more destructive forms) is obedience without identity.  The burden of having to do or not do certain things, trying to find our worth in these rules, instead of living in the freedom and peace that come from believing we are loved just as we are.

Still there has always lingered in me the question ‘but what should I do?’ (in terms of work/vocation) because I know I can’t just sit around focusing on relationships all day.  There are bills to be paid etc, and if my job is going to take up the most hours in my day, hadn’t I better be certain it’s the ‘right’ thing?  So this is why Ecclesiastes comforts me, because it answers that question very simply:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.  (Chapter 9 verse 10)

There is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot (Chapter 3 verse 22)

Don’t get hung up on calling or vocation.  Get to work with what’s in front of you and enjoy it as best you can.  And if it’s really not what your heart yearns to do, or indeed what you may ultimately be called to, be at peace that getting on with the present thing will not jeopordise your true calling – it will come about in good time.  (Probably sooner if you get on with things than if you fret about it all!)  But, it is my conviction that our real calling is not so much about what we do, but who we become – people of peace, love, joy… and all the fruits of the spirit.  And it seems to me that a humble calling is often the most fertile ground in which these fruits can grow (see sketch).

Growth in Humble Soil

Growth in Humble Soil

I have heard some people claim Ecclesiastes is a depressing book.  But from where I am coming from, to read the repeated claim that ‘everything is meaningless’ is a huge relief.  Instead of thinking there is some burdensome eternal significance in what I do, I find it tremendously freeing to think it doesn’t really matter all that much – I can do what I want (in terms of work); the important thing is to remember God in it and to be a loving, happy and giving person while I am doing it.  Much better (and more effective) to live that way, than to be engaged in some ‘high calling’ with no joy!

I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in his toil – this is the gift of God.

Or as Jesus put it, according to the paraphrase of the Message translation:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

(Matthew 11:28-30)

Living freely and lightly – that’s what I want.  And it doesn’t come by an immature fleeing from responsibility, but by a steady and faithful commitment to the responsibilities in front of me now, with a quiet humbling of my soul before God, and a watchful eye for His presence in all things.