This may seem a bit strange, but when I was in college, I found that I was singularly productive when background noise was present. I would actually turn on the TV in my apartment as I arduously labored in reading my textbooks, highlighting key material, typing notes on my highlighted section, and re-reading my notes. Yes, I was that student...and remarkably I still had a boyfriend (now husband, go me!). So, it may or may not be of any interest to you that I am currently typing this post with Supernatural playing in the background. Despite the fact that I am neither watching it, or really listening to it, I find myself inspired and spurred on in my efforts (I guess Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki just naturally have that effect...).
Anyhow, to get back to the subject at hand, shortly after the birth of my beautiful daughter I began to think of my life in terms of “balance”. Specifically, I had this idea in my head that I could restrucutre my daily routine so that at the end of every day I would feel complete, satisfied, accomplished. And five or ten years down the road, when I looked back on my life, I would be pleased with the pattern that had developed and the long-term contentment I had enjoyed as a result.
I think I was looking at balance all wrong.
Not that those weren’t awesome goals, but in retrospect, I realize what I really sought was the contentment that results from balance. But to create that balance, I was trying to discover what I could do in my own life, what changes I could make, to reach a place of peace and contentment. As great as that all sounds, I think it’s a pipe dream.
A few months ago, my sister and I began reading a book entitled The Life-Giving Home, written by mother and daughter Sally and Sarah Clarkson. It challenged me to rethink the way I observe the “clockwork” of life. These lovely ladies point out that our lives have a natural sort of ebb and flow, with cyclical seasons of change, and that embracing these changes is actually a part of our God-given purpose. Furthermore it enables us, in many ways, to live the life that God always meant for humanity when He created the world - a life of peace and rest in His promises.
This “ebb and flow” principle got me thinking once more about the balanced life. And I discovered something: this pattern that was presented is actual proof that when God created the world He instilled a natural balance to everything.
Now, given the dilemma of how to find balance in our own lives, I have to wonder, is it possible to find contentment in this God-created balance as opposed to a self-created one?
I want to take a look at the totally over-used, over-quoted passage of Ecclesiastes 3, trying to do my exegetical due diligence to prevent taking this out of context. Before I lay out the passage however, I want to examine some of the history behind what Solomon wrote.
According to an article by Columbia University, ‘Ecclesiastes’ is a Greek translation for the word ‘Quohelet’ which is considered to be the proper name of the author and can here be translated as ‘Son of David’. This of course, supports the history that Ecclesiastes was, in fact, written by King David’s son, King Solomon. Before writing the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon penned two other books of the Bible. As a young man infatuated by love, he wrote Song of Songs. As a middle-aged man, he composed the Book of Proverbs. Interestingly, the themes of each of these previous books seem to correspond with the period of life in which Solomon wrote them. Ecclesiastes was written late in the king’s life, and so likely represents a reflection on life in a more existential sense. In other words, these are the words of an old man considering the meaning of life after years and years of observation and experience.
The above-mentioned article also explains that the book of Ecclesiastes is written about a kind of vanity, but not in the sense of narcissism or pride. Biblically speaking, the word vanity holds a deeper meaning from its root ‘vanus’, which means ‘empty’. Think of it in terms of doing something in vain. The end result is nothing - you do one thing and something else happens that cancels that out. It’s a balancing of the equation.
Now presenting Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 (ESV):
1“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
4A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
9What gain has the worker from his toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil - this is God’s gift to man.
Let’s revisit the fact that Solomon is an old man as he is writing this. He’s been around the block a time or two and seen (as well as done) a lot of interesting things. He was by no means a model citizen, but he had his virtues - one of which was wisdom. All this to say, he too probably felt, at one time or another, dissatisfied with his life and desired to change it in order to create a balance. He had experienced many different seasons in his life. And in his old age he could reflect on the over-arching balance that was present, perhaps to admonish a younger generation to perceive this balancing act and take comfort in it (verses 12-13).
The Matthew Henry commentary on Ecclesiastes 3 (specifically commenting on verses 1-10) seems to support this notion:
“That every change concerning us, with the time and season of it, is unalterably fixed and determined by a supreme power; and we must take things as they come, for it is not in our power to change what is appointed for us. And this comes in here as a reason why, when we are in prosperity, we should be easy, and yet not secure - not to be secure because we live in a world of changes and therefore have no reason to say, Tomorrow shall be as this day, and yet to be easy, and as he advised, to enjoy the good of our labour, in a humble dependence upon God and his providence, neither lifted up with hopes, nor cast down with fears, but with evenness of mind expecting every event.”
Ah, evenness of mind…that sounds nice.
Henry points out how this passage applies to times of prosperity and the importance of not getting too comfortable in that prosperity because we have no assurance that one day is going to be the same as the next. But I think he’s missing the other side of the coin, though, in that the same can be said for times when we don’t prosper and find ourselves discontented. Nothing is to be gained from wallowing in sadness and misery when our lives aren’t going in the direction we desire, because, same thing, the next day could be completely a completely different story. And Ecclesiastes 3 actually assures us that sooner or later, things WILL be different. In the super awesome moments when I’m trying to bake a cake, and my 16-month-old angel baby daughter decides it would be even MORE awesome to send my limited supply of eggs crashing to the tile floor, meeting their subsequent demise, thus crushing all my Betty Crocker hopes and dreams (deep breath)...it serves as a great reminder that for every instance of difficulty I face, I have experienced, and will continue to experience, many other moments of sheer joy and bliss. And I can face those rough patches with an evenness of mind because of the certainty I have in the balancing act of life.
The funny thing is, sitting back and being content to let God run the show and let His balance run its course totally sounds like it should be easy. But it’s not. Personally, I would love to just be able to do it myself. Give me the instructions on how to fix my life and make it flow the way I want, and watch me go to town. And I think if we’re honest, that’s kind of how we all feel.
I often ponder on the level of stress that I function at on a daily basis, and marvel at the limits to which human beings can be pushed before losing composure. When I think about what life would be like if I was the one who was ultimately responsible for creating balance, I know for certain that I would be nothing more than a mushy, slushy pile of goo smeared on the kitchen floor (hmm, much like the aforementioned eggs).
While there might not be anything poetic about goo per say, I’ll tell you that there is a real beauty to be found in recognizing the natural flow and order that God has created for each of us. As Ecclesiastes 3:11 points out, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” That beauty resides in all seasons of life: in the time to weep AND the time to laugh, the time to love AND the time to hate. It’s like the sun setting over an ocean horizon. The scene is breathtaking, both as the waves crash upon the shoreline and as they gently fade back into the depths. So it is with life.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do anything to try to make our daily lives a little more bearable, more often. But I think it’s important for us to take time to reflect on the balance that is already there, the balance that God has created for us, and learn to appreciate the good with the bad. To recognize that each has its place in our lives and each plays a role in making us the beautiful beings that we are - yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And we should ask ourselves how the activities of our daily lives are nourishing that balance and aiding us in our ability to rest in the promises of God and the balance that he has naturally created.