For months I had been planning a short sermon series on one of my all-time favorite books of the Bible—Ecclesiastes. But then COVID-19 hit, the church building closed and I found myself preaching to a video camera, wondering why I was talking about the meaninglessness of life to a socially isolated church-body worried about a pandemic.
Should I cut the series short? Change topics? Maybe jump over to Psalm 23? I took a deep breath, said a prayer, and plunged ahead with the series.
Then a surprising thing happened. Emails, texts and phone calls began to trickle in from church members, each saying that rather than being unsuitable or worse yet, irrelevant, Ecclesiastes was teaching them to live well amidst the storm of COVID-19.
At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. Ecclesiastes is an odd book. While Psalms repeatedly proclaims the faithfulness of God and Proverbs gives advice for wise living, Ecclesiastes talks about darker matters, like death, futility and the random, mysterious nature of life. Not exactly comforting material.
Yet when we read closely, we see that the main speaker in Ecclesiastes — someone who calls himself “the Teacher” —isn’t bemoaning the harsh reality of life on this earth, or “under the sun” as the Teacher calls it. Rather, he’s simply observing it. He’s observing it in order to answer an unspoken question that broods beneath the surface of every verse. The Teacher’s question is this: How do I live well despite the random, uncontrollable nature of life?
And that, my friends, has everything to do with life during a pandemic. Consider three ways the Teacher answers his question and how we can apply them to our current situation.
Focus on What You Can Control Rather Than What You Can’t
Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, advises her readers to not “waste energy on things they can’t control.” Long before Morin, the Teacher gave similar guidance. Only he phrased it this way: “time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
What did the Teacher mean by this? First, understand that lack of control is a major theme in Ecclesiastes. Again and again, the Teacher points out that circumstances conspire and many times there’s no way to influence their outcome. Almost as if he’s throwing up his hands in exasperation, he says, “As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). Or elsewhere, “Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come?” (Ecclesiastes 8:7). But remember, the Teacher’s goal isn’t to complain. His goal is to thrive despite the uncontrollable nature of life.
This is where we need to take to heart his observation about time and chance. He’s essentially saying that random things are going to happen in your life that you have no control over. (COVID-19, anyone?) The solution: Stop agonizing about circumstances beyond your ability to control and focus instead on what you can control—your response.
Appreciate Each Day
So how should we respond to the COVID-19 lockdown? Or, for that matter, any uncontrollable circumstances disrupting our lives? Per the Teacher, a healthy response begins by remembering life is short: “for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). In other words, remember your pending death so that you appreciate each day of life.
I have a friend, another pastor who I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. I called him because the pandemic was making my life hard and I needed someone to whom I could whine. He answered my call and the first thing he said was, “Isn’t it great we get to work from home? I’ve been loving all the extra family time!” Boom. Conviction. Whining averted.
Here’s what my friend understood and what I needed reminding of: No matter the circumstances, each day is valuable and a gift from God. If we have the right attitude, we’ll see God’s goodness in every situation, and we can daily choose to focus on the good rather than obsessing over the bad.
But be careful—this doesn’t mean we become mindlessly happy. Some circumstances, like COVID-19, are tough. It’s has caused physical suffering, financial upheaval and massive disruption to daily routines. It would be silly to pretend otherwise. Yet within this pandemic, there are daily joys. Maybe more time with family. Maybe respite from an otherwise dizzying pace of life. Maybe, due to the hard circumstances, an opportunity to depend on God like never before. Don’t wish it all away. Appreciate each day and notice where God’s goodness is shining through.
Enjoy the Present for All It’s Worth
Lastly, the Teacher tells us to live in the present and, when the present is good, focus in and enjoy it. “But,” you might protest, “thanks to COVID-19 the present isn’t good. It’s bad!” See the explanation above. But also pay attention to which kind of moments the Teacher tells us to savor.
If you’ve read Ecclesiastes, you know that the Teacher had everything a guy could want. Literally everything. Money, success, power, beautiful women, influence, respect—all this and more. Yet pay careful attention to what he deems the best moments in life: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart…Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).
What should we notice about this list? First, notice the simplicity. Happiness doesn’t require a yacht in the Bahamas. Per the Teacher, the best moments are found in things like a good meal with family or friends, time with your spouse, and the satisfaction of a job well done. Second, notice that, in order to enjoy these moments, we have to live in the present. It’s difficult to enjoy a good meal when distracted by tomorrow’s work presentation (via Zoom, no doubt). It’s hard to appreciate a walk with your spouse in the spring sunshine while worrying about the future. The satisfaction of a job well done is lost when all you can think about is the next project. Enjoying the present requires our attention to remain on the present.
Finally, notice that COVID-19 doesn’t stop us from cherishing these sweet moments for all they’re worth. Yes, because everything is closed you can’t do something grand like take a vacation to Disneyland. But you can be grateful for time with your family, perhaps even more time than ever before. You can soak in the pleasure of a simple but delicious meal at home. You can relish a quiet evening with your spouse. Per Ecclesiastes, if we have the eyes to see it, these sort of moments are some of the best life has to offer.