Continued from previous blog post…
With the charge to not be overly righteous or overly wicked, we do see evidence of people in the church and the culture at large not taking Qoheleth’s wise advice to moderate these two contrasts.
In the church, overt righteousness may be seen as a kind of spiritual class system. We would have the super spiritual and great Christians in the upper 1%. The people that, at least outwardly, really look like they are the strongest followers of Jesus and the people most prone to do righteous acts. Then there is the upper middle class. Maybe these people also look pretty good spiritually. They probably do not go full bore in like the upper 1% but they do a lot of things in church like leadership or singing or talking in front of the congregation or children’s ministry or other ministries. There is a middle class where people are viewed as the average or ‘normal’ believers. Then there are the spiritually impoverished. A grouping of people that has been judged to be in this group by others or have placed themselves there. Within this class system people, judge others and work to perhaps move up this ladder to impress others with their spirituality.
The people in the spiritual impoverished class may look around at other Christians who seem to have this superior righteousness and they may throw in the towel. They may completely throw up their hands and say, ‘I will never look like that.’ ‘I could never do those acts of righteousness’ or, tragically, they may say, ‘I will always be seen as this person without faith by these other groups of people so I’m not even going to bother.’ And the person in this category may drift toward overt wickedness having absolutely zero concern for doing what is right or pursuing righteousness at all. If someone cannot attain a superior righteousness, why even try? And this is what Qoheleth is warning us about the extremes of these positions.
People who may pursue an over righteousness may not say this out loud but deep down inside, according to their motivations, they may say that God owes them something. In their mind, they will suggest that if they do all these great acts of righteousness, God will give them a straight path in life, he will extend their life and give them prosperity and joy. According to their logic, God will bless those who work and sacrifice for righteousness while snuffing out the wicked who deserve to be condemned.
In the secular vernacular, Karma has mentioned. Some of us have probably heard about this around Seattle, right? The populist way to phrase Karma is , ‘what goes around, comes around.’ Whether good or bad and according to a person’s actions. Do we really believe this is how life works though? Has this been your experience? And yet, people in our culture do believe in Karma.
There are reasons why we have books published such as ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’ by Harold Kushner. That’s not the only one thematically. There are an incredible amount of books published with that theme. I’m not knocking this book (I have not read the book) but when we have a title like that written by the author and then the book sells a bunch of copies, there are assumptions people are making. The assumption is made that because I am doing all these righteous things, I should have nothing bad to me. Conversely, if one does evil things they will suffer in this life because of those wicked actions or end up in the next life as a small beetle trapped in the Rood’s backyard fire pit right before the roasting of marshmallows.
Qoheleth is a Karma atheist. Karma does not exist and does not explain why some righteous people die young and many wicked people live comfortable secure lives into old age.
The question remains: how do we find a moderation between righteousness and wickedness? What does this moderation practically look like?
Thesis: Through embracing the Teacher’s wisdom which turns us toward the gospel of Jesus, we can find a moderation between overt righteousness and wickedness.
We struggle sometimes to let go of our self-righteous because, let’s face it, rules (even ones that we completely make up) can be easy because, in our own minds, we think we know where we stand especially in relation to others- our own spiritual class system. The road to overt righteousness though will lead to shame, guilt and legalism. All of these things, as the Teacher mentions, can frustrate, ruin and destroy.
If we become obsessed with following rules and attaining on our own methods a standard of perfection, we will fall way short. Endeavoring in this can also crush our faith. Some of us break our proverbial backs, wrecked with anxiety. Maybe you are trying to be a perfect coach, the most exemplar employee, an owner of your company where you always make incredible profitable decisions. Maybe you are trying to be the perfect parent always ready to say exactly the right thing or have the best response to any given situation that comes up. I struggle with this very aspect with Naomi sometimes. We’ll be walking around outside and she is so curious and exploring her world and I’ll be trying to explain everything and wanting her to pick up all this stuff, grow, learn, be brilliant. I don’t get mad at her or anything but I put this pressure on myself that if she doesn’t happen to be picking something up, that must mean I’m not a great communicator or teacher. It can lead me to going overboard.
We can stress ourselves out with anxiety while going full bore ahead, in our own efforts, to strive toward these righteous things and we can punish ourselves mightily when we fail. All of these things are good. It is good to teach your children, it is good to be a hard-working employee, if you are a businessowner than you know that a profit must be made. When things do not go according to your plan, how do we react? Do we become anxious because we place so much pressure on ourselves while pursuing good things and while striving to attain a kind of perfection?
In the Middle Ages in Europe, there was a group called the flagellants. They demonstrated their considerable religious fervor while whipping themselves in public as a penance for sin. This was popular whenever drought, famine or sickness came and this group especially got into their perceived way of atonement while the Black Death was going on in the mid-14th century. These people were literally committing physical acts of violence against themselves trying to rid themselves of difficult times and crooked paths.
I hope you are not committing physical acts of violence against yourself, but do you do the equivalent emotionally or spiritually to yourself while desperately trying to obtain an area of perfection in your life?
Some of you may not struggle with the overt righteousness but may go the other direction- overt wickedness. You may think to yourself that living this Christian life is difficult, hard and seems impossible so you just give up. The person who does this does not even care about righteousness or following God’s commands. Internet pornography may be a huge area where people often give up. The lure of online porn is powerful but after a while, people get ensnared by it and trapped and many want out. They realize that porn will inevitably damage their view of women or men, it will give them unrealistic expectations sexually and become like the worst of drugs. Being overly wicked leads to hard-heartedness. It takes us down a path of not being sensitive to the Spirit.
Overall, not just porn but being overly wicked can lead to addiction, abuse of others and opens the way to all sorts of sins.
In a fallen world, how do we avoid these extremes when the extremes are around us? How can we avoid the temptation of our legalistic score card on how we think we are doing or avoid just giving up in our spiritual walks and not caring? What is the moderation?
Verse 20 moves us closer to the foundation of moderation. ‘Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.’ Think of a person you consider righteous. A great Christian believer. Godly. Maybe it is the Pope. Maybe this person is a superstar preacher you listen to on a podcast. Maybe it’s someone you know in this church. That person that you are thinking of is a sinner, just like you and me. They have fallen short or missed the mark.
Being that this is the reality with people, we are a part of this fallen world and we have no hope of transcending into the realm of perfection or working our way to God. By definition, after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit in the garden, we became sinners. An unshakeable label.
We can build Towers of Babel, we can obsess over perfection by pursuing righteousness in the most extreme way imaginable but remember what Qoheleth is saying here. This is folly. You will not get anywhere because we are a part of this world, of this reality. We cannot save ourselves, avoid crooked paths, guarantee happy days or seasons of life.
The only answer to being saved and to finding moderation is that Someone else comes from a different realm, Someone who is perfect by nature and Someone who can save us.
I have been studying Islam a little bit. Reading some books on Islam and a little bit of the Quran. Obviously there are nuances in any theology and some Muslim scholars may have different takes on this or emphasizes but in general, the Muslim is trying to work his/her way to Allah. Their theology of God involves God being far off, transcendent, all powerful but Allah has not himself broken into human history. He has sent prophets according to the Quran. What if we were to ask a Muslim, ‘What does Allah think of you?’ Would they know? There are all these good works and the 5 pillars of faith they are dutifully performing but what does Allah think of the fervent believer? Can they know for sure?
God has demonstrated His love for the world by sending Jesus. The starting point is not ‘what can I do to work my way to God’. The starting point of Christianity is God says ‘I love you. Here is my Son!’ To the person beating themselves up emotionally, spiritually, or physically trying to attain perfection, God says, ‘I love you. Here is my Son.’ To the person ready to give up, lost too many battles, thinks faithful living is impossible, God says ‘I love you. Here is my Son!’ And He says this to all of us I between the extremes.
A moderation between righteousness and wickedness is an embrace of the gospel. That we are all sinners in the same boat but that Jesus died for us and rose again so that we could follow Him.