Maybe your life has been just one steady climb, rung by rung, up the ladder of success. Maybe the soundtrack of your life is filled with only happy songs.
But maybe that doesn’t adequately describe your journey. Maybe, you’ve experienced your share of ups and downs. You’ve been blessed and you’re grateful. But, frankly, sometimes life stinks. You feel like you’ve had more than your share of suffering, and the soundtrack of your life could be filled with sad songs.
Either way, it is possible to live well even when life stinks, to face the worst circumstances without losing hope. Some keys can be found in an ancient book of the Bible. Ecclesiastes is attributed to King Solomon, a man who had tried everything — wine, women, song, money, sex, and power — in an attempt to figure out life. The book never minces words. Some Bible readers find it too blunt, some too cynical. But anyone who values transparency, honesty, and real-life experience will appreciate Ecclesiastes’ gritty and straightforward depiction of a world that is not for the faint of heart.
God inspired this book no less than the rest of the Bible and preserved its candor and humor for thousands of years so that people caught in the tornadic twenty-first century could read and learn from it. Among the things we can learn from its pages is how to react when life stinks.
Many people know and love the poem in Ecclesiastes 3, which begins:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance (vv. 1-4).
Some of those words seem too harsh for our delicate modern ears. A time to die? To kill? To weep? But those verses aren’t telling us what to do (if so, some of them would contradict clear commands of Scripture). They are simply telling it like it is.
Ultimately, we don’t decide the time to be born or die, to plant or uproot, and so on. Those things come to us at times of God’s choosing. And while we all want to pray, “God, please let my life be one long string of happy days,” we really know better. Or ought to.
Even for the richest, wisest, most educated, and comfortably situated person of his time, life held seasons of good and bad, up and down, blessing and tragedy for Solomon. We should not expect otherwise. “The truth is,” said poet and novelist Anatole France, “that life is delicious, horrible, charming, frightful, sweet, bitter, and that it is everything.”
Birth, death, weeping, laughing, acquiring, and losing are all part of the normal course of things. We cannot completely avoid any of them; we shouldn’t expect to. But we can cultivate the faith to accept God’s timing.
Are you in a season of gathering? Praise God . . . and cultivate the faith to accept this season as well as the next, which may be a time of scattering.
Are you enduring a period of loss? Lean on God . . . and cultivate the faith to accept this season while awaiting the next, which may be a season of joy.
Are you suffering through discord and division? Pray for faith to see God’s purpose in it all, even as you look for the dawn of a new era of peace in your relationships.
Rather than complaining when the cycles and seasons of life hit us hard, we should cultivate the faith to believe that God knows what He is doing, His intentions are good, and His timing is wise.
After cataloging the ups and downs of human experience, Ecclesiastes 3 goes on:
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil — this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him (vv. 9-14).
Picture the great King Solomon at the end of his life, looking back on all he’s worked for, all he’s built. And as he does, he frowns. Shakes his head. Maybe even groans. He thinks, Only what God does really lasts, and I should have enjoyed life more. I should have found satisfaction in working hard, doing good, being happy, living in the moment instead of always stressing about the future.
If your priorities are fortune or fame, you’ll end up like Solomon someday, asking, What was I thinking? If you’re focused on winning awards or getting a promotion, or absorbed with wild living, you’ll end up asking, What was the use? Nothing like that will satisfy.
We are wired for so much more than we realize. We are intended for eternal purposes. So we should cultivate the wisdom to accomplish God’s priorities. To be happy and do good while we live. To enjoy what we have while we have it. To live our lives and do our work in the light of eternity, because “everything God does will endure forever” (v. 14).
The corollary is that the things we do won’t endure. Not my job. Not my home. Definitely not my paycheck. But my wife will. My children and grandchildren will — and friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Eternity knocks on our doors every day in the form of the people God places in our paths. If Scripture teaches us anything, it says that people are important to God. When we make others a priority, we can more heartily enjoy all of God’s gifts — eating, drinking, working — because we are pursuing God’s priorities.
The wisdom keeps coming in Ecclesiastes 3, this time regarding wickedness, judgment, and justice (vv. 16, 17).
There’s probably not a man or woman among us who hasn’t complained about little injustices. Life stinks when it seems as though wicked people are whizzing by you on the ladder of success, when your lazy neighbor wins the lottery, when your roommate who never studies gets a scholarship. Which is why we need to cultivate the patience to await God’s judgment. Don’t expect God to sort things out right here, right now. The author of Ecclesiastes promises “There will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed” (v. 17).
But that time is not yet. So pray. Wait. And cultivate the patience to await God’s judgment.
When life stinks, and even when it doesn’t, we can cultivate the hope to anticipate God’s reward. Ecclesiastes 3:18-22 says:
I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?
Like an old man who senses death approaching, the author waxes philosophical about the immortality of the human soul: “Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal” (v. 19). At the time he wrote Ecclesiastes, belief in life after death was not widespread. But just a few verses earlier he wrote, “God has . . . planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (v. 11, NLT).
From an earth-bound perspective, we have no way to conclusively determine that we’re any different from the animals. We live on the other side of the Resurrection from King Solomon, but we still “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). The only way to see eternal life is by faith. As the Bible says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”
So when life stinks, it’s helpful to cultivate the hope to anticipate God’s reward. If this life “under the sun” is all there is, it’s all meaningless. But as Thornton Wilder expressed in Our Town:
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
Living in that hope is one of the keys to living well, even when life stinks. It’s possible to live day by day, not seeing “the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NLT) but still resting in the hope that “goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).