The Power of Negative Thinking

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The author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes generally is considered the pessimist among the stable of biblical writers. His entire book is framed by the dirge, "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity," probably better translated, "The greatest futility: everything is futile!" Sincere readers of the Bible tend to functionally write off our depressed pre-Prozac author, relegating him to the category of "one of those poor pre-Christian people who knew not Jesus nor the power of the resurrection."

However, we write off our curmudgeonly friend at our peril. His sometimes heavy-handed talk of futility and death—and his graphic and poignant descriptions of the limits of human achievement, pleasure, religion, and knowledge—all have one sharply pointed end: to motivate his reader to enter his or her life to the absolute fullest.

The refrain throughout Ecclesiastes—between six and eight times depending on how you count—is: "There is nothing better in this life than to eat and to drink and to find enjoyment in all your toil." He concludes that life's meaning and purpose are not a despairing throw of hands in the air, an Epicurean/Bud-Lite plea to grab and get what you can now because it's going to all be gone soon when you're dead. His position, rather, is profoundly theological, achieved by hard living, hard working, striving with all his might to make a difference in the world, to succeed, to win, to live ultimate excellence. AND YET at the end of the day, he discovers that certain things still elude his grasp. Some of the things he worked hard and long to gain remain out of reach. At the brink of despair, at the brink of futility, at the edge of realizing his own finitude, he makes a profound discovery: The gift of life from God is something to receive and live every, every minute (to recall Emily's words from "Our Town"). This is biblical existentialism, if you will—a life perspective radically serious about the moment in which one lives, framed with a perspective that remembers God and God's created and creative purposes for human life and relations. It's existentialism with a conscience. LIVE NOW, for God's sake, for your sake, for the sake of life itself.

The Apostle Paul is famous for saying, "Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters . . ." (Colossians 3:23). Most do not realize that Paul was, in all likelihood, reflecting the Ecclesiastes' writer's very words and sentiment.

Snoopy's favorite verse in the Bible is Ecclesiastes 9:4— "Whoever is joined with the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion." As long as you have time, you have life to live. As long as you have life to live, you have something to hurl yourself fully into. Death is unavoidable—don't let our culture fool you—but death does not rob us of our life right now. Listen to our wise friend:

"Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that you are given under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

Should we who believe in the resurrection listen to a man who clearly knew nothing of it? I believe so. In fact, I believe that knowing that the resurrection is real and true only heightens the impact and importance of his words, especially for those who think they have an excuse to check out of living now because they're waiting for the resurrection. The resurrection is not only hope of life after death. It is a promise of life that begins even now. The resurrection is a power that injects and infects life now, so that our hand grabs hold even now of the gift that life is today.

"For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Wisdom knows what time it is and lives that time to fullest. The reality of death only punctuates our need to take seriously our current season of life, for life's limits remind us ironically of life's sweetness too.

What season is it in your life? Discern your life's season, and then—with God's help—grab hold for dear life.

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