Wise counsel from Ecclesiastes about the “if only” seasons in your life.
by Philip Nation
“If only…” is how I’ve started so many sentences in my life. After all, I’m human and it is our nature to crave more. We constantly strain for meaning in the everyday grind of life. It is the search for margin so that we can take a breath, grab a moment to rest, and find some peace. The “if onlys” are the desperate longing for God to make His presence abundantly clear in the ordinary parts of life. If only that could happen.
Living an “If Only” Life
I’m a believer who works hard all week in two jobs that normally equal 65-75 hours a week. I’m a husband who wants to provide better for my wife and not be a knucklehead in our relationship. I’m a parent to two teenage sons and would like to not mess up their launch into manhood. If only I could do better by them, then life would be at least okay. But I’m busy with so much on the periphery of my core relationships that I feel sucked into vortexes of busyness that hamper everything of importance.
Often, my “if only” statements come because I’m greedy and arrogant. Go ahead, admit that it happens to you, too. It’s good for the soul. It is often the exclamation that I deserve more. If only life were fair to me. If only I got the promotion instead of [insert name of your nemesis at work]. If only I had more. But the demands we make on life are simply short-sighted. More now might be distracting. The job you think you want today might be a detour to the plan God has for your future. And that is the painful reality of most “if only” statements — they are distractions to what your life truly needs.
But our “if only” phrases are not always in a bad, negative, sinful way, but in the “I know there is more to life than this” kind of way. Sometimes, they come out in really beautiful sentiments. Just lately I said, “If only I gave my son better direction for his first year of college.” It was a recognition that I missed at first, but I’m going to change. In other seasons it has been focused on caring for a neighbor that motivated me to dig in deeper with my relationships. Best of all, it has come at the times where I knew there was a great deal more to experience with Christ. The “if only” turned me toward the “Now, I must.”
Learning from The Teacher
The Teacher is the central character of Ecclesiastes. It is the book that is often in the clean, white pages of our Bibles where the gilded edges are still stuck together. But, we need it today more than ever. It gives us the story of a man (who, if not King Solomon, portrays himself as such) has everything in life until he realizes he is horribly mistaken.
Ecclesiastes is filled with an ancient kind of “if only” set of circumstances. He has plenty enough power, money, pleasure, and knowledge to last several lifetimes. But he wants more, only to discover that the “more” he craved actually left him dissatisfied. Throughout the book, we get the phrases of: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (KJV). “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (NIV). “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile” (HCSB).
It is the signal that we need to look at life through a new lens. The things we lay our hands on, try to seize and hold onto — it all is temporary. They are here for a moment and then gone. The impulse dovetails into The Teacher’s reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that we see today has happened before and will happen again (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10). In other words, everything is on repeat. The human experience is cyclical. All of the curiosities that we invent to entertain, explore, and bide our time — it is just a version of what others have done and will do.
We intuitively know it and yet fight against reality. Every solution we drum up that is earthbound is just that… earthbound. It has a limit as to what it can accomplish. It has an expiration date. It has a shelf life. What is required of us is to experience something greater. We need to stop looking at life through the glasses of the temporary and take up the lens of eternity.
Entering the Silence
Ecclesiastes is an ancient answer to our modern lives. As The Teacher moves from issue to issue, it all seems so similar. He is describing the rat-race we all face. The culture is different, but the circumstances are not. We fight to get ahead financially. We position our kids to be the most popular, best athletic, Valedictorian-like pupils possible. We look for peace but, like The Teacher, we find futility. In the end, the solution is quite simple. We are looking for eternal among the temporary. It is why, in the middle of the book, The Teacher does the unexpected. He silently enters the presence of God.
The fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes begins with what seems to be an out-of-place paragraph about how to approach God. Everything preceding it and following it (for the most part) is a commentary on the futility of chasing after any meaning. Then, in what feels a bit like scriptural whiplash, we are thrust into the house of God. But, it is such a necessary redirection. While The Teacher has been chasing the world’s solutions, he’s only been chasing his tail because there’s nothing new under the sun. What he needs — and what we need — is a dose of reality. The truest reality is the presence of God. So, he reminds us that when you approach God, do it silently.
Why the need for silence? It is not for just a mental health break. It is not because we live in an ocean of noise with the oh-so-occasional respite of quiet. It is because we should not dare to bargain with God for what we want. The only true solutions to life’s mysteries of enjoyment, acquiring necessities, and gaining wisdom are found when we are silent before the Lord.
The point that he makes, and that we need to hear, is that the best route to take in the presence of God is silent obedience and loving awe. When we rush in to prayer, worship, devotions, or any religious activity, we are tempted to do so thinking that we are the main attraction. We think God must be so pleased that I showed up to pray to Him today. Not even close. If we get this wrong, we get it all wrong. The hasty list of wants and the half-hearted devotion toward obedience will cause us to write a check that our account can’t cover. Instead, we enter His presence in loving awe of how God’s majesty outshines every toy, hobby, and accomplishment in this life.
Discovering the Answer
Interestingly, when we couple the need for silence before God and living in worshipful adoration of Him (“fear the Lord”), then we can actually enjoy life. By the way, it is much of what Ecclesiastes is about. In the middle of marriage and parenting, work and hobbies, winning and losing at our endeavors — we are searching for how all that is temporary connects with the eternal. We want a resolution to the eternity that is in our hearts (3:11). Coming face to face with the overwhelming presence of God and being silent while He directs, then we come to the same conclusion as The Teacher: “Fear God and keep His commands, for this is for all humanity” (12:13). The God-shaped vacuum in our hearts, described by Blaise Pascal, is yearning for something that can’t be filled by the stuff of earth. The craving that we have attempted to feed through drink and sex and money and entertainment is not satisfied so easily. The fellowship and following of our great Savior, however, will. Fear God and keep His commands — six simple words with the deepest of meanings.
It is a command beautifully set in the landscape of the gospel. Jesus completely sets our relationship status right before Himself so we can find enjoyment in the very issues over which The Teacher struggled. In Christ, work is set in its proper place and we can enjoy the accomplishments that occur. Pleasure is seen in a new light of foreshadowing eternal glories. All of our relationships become people to nurture rather than pawns to control. We can enjoy people and have our appetites whetted for knowing God and fellow believers forever. All the things that we used to chase after are now signposts for higher realities.
Now, whenever I bump against the abrasive parts of life, my “if only” is stated with a longing for the eternal. I know that life will brutalize me, but it is all a temporary setback because of Christ’s wounds that have brought me healing. Every task at work, diaper changed, teenager launched into quasi-adulthood, fender-bender survived, and relationship navigated with some level of success is a signal of greater things yet to come. Today, when I stare into the Word or into the world, I think of heaven and know that there is a great fulfilling moment arriving soon for my “if only.” •
Philip Nation is a publishing director for LifeWay and teaching pastor for The Fellowship in Nashville, Tenn. He has authored numerous books and Bible studies including Compelled: Living the Mission of God and Storm Shelter: Encountering God in the Psalms. Philip and his wife Angie have two sons, Andrew and Chris. Find out more about him at philipnation.net.
This article originally appeared in HomeLife magazine (April 2015). For more articles like this, subscribe toHomeLife.