Ecclesiastes 5:1: Listen

I read a good article this morning on the Atlantic about why we relate to crisis through humour. You can read it here. The short version is that laughter is a means by which we connect with other people through shared experience and a means by which the hoi polloi speak back to power. Having been disempowered by this virus, humour enables us to gain some sense of control of our circumstances.

The idea of control is interesting to me because I am aware of how closely tied control is to idolatry. Idolatry is an attempt to gain control of the uncontrollable–to know the future, to manipulate the fates. Idolatry is in many ways the antithesis of faith. Faith requires us to relinquish our control and to trust that God is ruling even when (or especially when) chaos overwhelms.

I also happened across an excellent piece that NT Wright wrote for Time magazine called, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” The point of it is that the Bible does not give us explanations or specific direction to help us navigate such disasters. What it does give us is a place for lament. The virus is an example of the uncontrollable, of circumstances that have no obvious cause or purpose. As with Job, who receives no explanation for his devastating trials, faith in God doesn’t give solutions or power or control. Rather, we learn to mourn; we learn our weakness; we learn to trust. What Scripture does give us is the assurance that trouble and pain and disaster remain in God’s hands.

It seems that some Christians didn’t much like Wright’s article. Though the reasons for this no doubt vary, some of the objection stems from the very human dislike of uncertainty. We do not like being deprived of reasons and answers. Many Christians see their faith as a way of having eternal answers, a way of having more control over a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense, not less.

Ecclesiastes 5:1 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.”

As I read this text (there are a few possible interpretations), the Preacher cautions us about our approach to matters of the Divine. The fools are there performing the expected sacrifices, but without the discernment even to know their own wrongdoing. Those who are religious are not immune from deafness to the things of God or to the truth about themselves and the world. For this reason, the wise person approaches with caution. God is not manipulated. Our circumstances cannot be controlled even by working for God’s favour. You are disciple, not master. The wise person approaches their worship and God himself with ears open. 

Whether we should expect God to speak audibly to us is an open question and not one that I think is relevant to this passage. What the Preacher would have us recognise is that we have a lot to learn. We are not in possession of all the answers, and our approach to things of God should be fearful, not presumptuous, and open to instruction, not convinced of its own rightness.

There is comfort in certainty, but there is wisdom to be found in these times that teach us our frailty.

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