“Do not be upright to excess and do not make yourself unduly wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be wicked to excess, and do not be a fool; why die before your time? It is wise to hold on to one and not let go of the other, since the godfearing will find both.” — Ecclesiastes 7:16-18, NJB
Now that is an odd quote. Isn’t faithful life all about being as righteous as is humanly possible? Aren’t we to try to avoid intentional sin at all costs, as we are crucifying Christ again by our repeated iniquities (Hebrews 6:6)? Well, yes and no.
I have been asked a lot by students in ministry whether this or that is a sin, and if this or that will send us to hell, as if there is a list of actions that is so specific that if we so much as dip a toe in the pool of that particular wrongdoing, we go straight to the hot (cold in Dante’s Inferno) place. I always like to point to this quote from Ecclesiastes as part of my answer.
This quote can be misapplied, of course, to literally mean one should balance each good action with a negative one. Such a misinterpretation could have people seeking out wicked behaviors, which is probably (read, “definitely”) not what any of the biblical authors had in mind. So what are we looking at here?
My contention is that this is a discussion of trends. Wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Job,etc.) is concerned with how one lives “the good life.” This genre is concerned with what it means to truly live life, and to do so well. Wisdom literature readily admits the fallibility of people. We will all screw up sometimes. This is a fact. It is inescapable. With that being the case, how can we avoid a fiery fate?!
Okay, first of all, as addressed in a previous post, hell is not the reason to live a good life. Being overly concerned with the varying realities of hell is really no way to live a full and productive life of discipleship. Secondly, whatever side of God’s judgment you end up on certainly doesn’t depend on committing the right sins or not. It also doesn’t depend on you living the perfect life. It depends on your faithfulness to Christ and the trend of your life. No, I am not talking about how many re-tweets and likes you get. I am talking about whether the curve of your life tends more toward right actions and loving behavior in the name of Jesus, or… not. Remember, salvation, that is our renewed relationship with God by which we enter into eternal life, is found in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ evidenced in His sacrifice on the cross, that we may know the infinite love and victory of God (Romans 5:24-25). It does not depend on our perfection, but our lives should be outward expressions of our faith as often as we can do so, by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
So where does the Ecclesiastes text fit into this? The teacher speaking in this book of the Bible is concerned with the wasted efforts of those who place too much emphasis on their personal righteousness and wisdom, as they will eventually die, just as fools and the wicked will. It is not that righteousness and wisdom are bad, but they become unhealthy if the pursuit of them is taken to excess (7:16). Think about it. Have you ever been expected to be perfect, whether by yourself or others? It is impossible, and on top of that, because of its impossibility, it breeds resentment of ourselves, of others, even of God. Also, we waste life for fear of messing up. We avoid enjoyment because too much can lead us to sin, and while this is true, it is just as wrong to not enjoy the life which God has granted us, failing to help others do so as well.
Now, the teacher anticipates the opposite problem, which is why the very next verse explicitly forbids excessive wickedness and folly. As I said previously, we all mess up. We all take things too far, but these should be as unintentional as possible, and kept to a minimum. However, we can never fully let go of our selfish inclinations, and we really shouldn’t pretend that we can, as this is dangerous. Instead, as the third verse of our selection indicates, the best thing to do is acknowledge our faults, enjoy life, and ensure that the trend of our life is as positive as possible.
What does this look like?
Last night, I was sitting on the couch thinking about my life. I have cheated, hurt people, spoken harsh and cruel words, and participated in a large assortment of other sinful behaviors. However, I have also healed lives, brought hope to others, helped to break down barriers between communities, and served others. I realized that my life is a story within a story. My story is a part of the greater story of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, and it was up to me to decide how the rest of my story will go. Here is what I wrote in my journal last night:
“When I meet my end, whatever and whenever that may be, it is my goal to leave behind a story that, for all its twists, turns, and steep falls, has the ability to kindle hope and inspiration.”
You see, the life of faith isn’t about the amount of mistakes you do or don’t make. The life of faith is about the transformation of your story into an upward-trending testimony to the power of God to redeem and work through you. Yes, there is plenty of negative in my past. There is plenty of pain to deal with. However, I don’t have to deny that in order to allow God to redeem my story. Instead, recognizing it and doing all I can to both enjoy life and live it in a much more righteous way for what days I have left are far more realistic and faithful options for me to pursue.
As you take stock of your life, consider what you want your story to be. Don’t walk about living in fear of mistakes, and thereby denying the beautiful things in life that God has given for you to enjoy. Also, don’t seek out enjoyment so much that you go all, “Carpe Diem” on us all and live a life of selfish indulgence. Rather, balance. Enjoy, but also help others to do so. Live a life that is as giving, compassionate, and kind as possible, and keep yourself personally nourished so that you can sustain that work. Let your life tend toward righteousness and gratefulness, and you will be just fine.
Peace be with you!