Earlier this week, I found myself awake and unable to sleep at 3:15 AM. This happened not once, but twice. And I have no idea why. My alarm both mornings was set to 6:00 AM. Maybe I just needed to drink more water the day before. Or maybe God had other things for me to do besides sleeping. Honestly, it could have been either or both, or something else besides.
Regardless, I was awake.
As is my custom in such times, I got out of bed and went downstairs. Why lie there staring up at a dark ceiling for hours?
My thoughts bothered, I turned to the Scriptures. More specifically, I turned to Ecclesiastes. And I read the whole book. After all, it is not a terribly long book, and what else did I have to do?
Perhaps it would sound strange to some people, but I found comfort in Solomon wrestling with questions of purpose, justice, and wisdom. Why are we here? Why is life unfair sometimes? What is good?
Maybe I am just glad God is okay with us asking such questions. And perhaps this is because such questions are often on my mind too. I would not want to think God was upset with me about that.
Regardless, wise old King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” And he proceeds to list off the various seasons and times in life. There is “a time to be born, and a time to die.” There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” He says there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”
I could add to that list: ‘a time for sleep, and a time for reading Ecclesiastes.’
Good and Bad Impulses
Similarly, I also just finished reading Mere Christianity for the second time last month. And as with Solomon, it is comforting to read someone who loves God and is not afraid of asking life’s big questions, or actively engaging his faith with his mind.
I think it takes faith to sincerely ask God our big questions. To ask requires that we believe God can answer, and that we are not only prepared but wanting to know and accept his answer.
But something C.S. Lewis writes – an observation of his – really caught my attention.
“Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think…of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts. The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which won’t make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.”
This sounds an awful lot like Ecclesiastes and all that talk of life having seasons. And it makes sense if you think about it. Genesis says after God made man and everything else ‘in the beginning,’ he saw that everything was very good. That means nothing God made was inherently bad or evil at the start, including our impulses.
Good For Food And Pleasing To The Eye
God had given Adam and Eve just one prohibition, yet he had given them the fruit of every other tree in the garden to eat as they pleased.
Considering how lengthy the Law God later gave Moses was – not to mention all the additional traditions the religious leaders had added by Jesus’ day – it sounds marvelously uncomplicated to have only one rule to follow. Yet as you probably know, Adam and Eve did not even keep that one rule. They sinned and were kicked out of Eden. The rest, as they say, is history.
But why did Adam and Eve sin?
Neither Eve’s hunger nor fruit in general were themselves inherently sinful. Eve’s environmental factors and lack of education were not to blame. It came down to this: the serpent tempted Eve to take the one fruit God had not given to Adam and Eve to eat – the one he had moreover forbidden them from eating. And Eve made a choice to give in to that temptation.
Just so, Adam listening to his wife was not itself the sin. And the impulse to pursue harmonious agreement or fellowship with Eve was not itself the thing at fault. Rather, Eve gave Adam the fruit and he chose to eat it despite God’s clear command to not.
In both cases, the sin was not the impulse to eat or to listen. The sin was allowing impulses – impulses which would have been good and proper under other circumstances – to override obedience to God. Put simply, Adam and Eve made a choice to let other desires preside over their desire to obey their Creator.
There Is None Who Does Good
Yet some people believe man is inherently good. They say evil stems from a poor education, environmental factors, and chemical imbalances. Man’s nature is never to blame.
In sharp contrast, many Christians hold to the doctrine of Total Depravity. And the Bible does say that, though Adam and Eve were originally good before the Fall, we are now born into sin because of the first Adam eating that forbidden fruit in Eden.
And the Psalmist writes:
“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity;
there is none who does good.
God looks down from heaven
on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
Some believe this means everything a man does or wants to do is wicked, or stems from wicked motives. Even the good things people do only appear to be good things. On closer examination, they are like apples that look fresh and delicious outside but are wormy and rotten inside.
Someone may do good for their neighbor, but they do it because they wanted to feel superior, not out of love for their fellow man. Someone else may pray, but they do it to cultivate a convenient reputation for piety rather than out of love for God.
And Jesus says,
“When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Righteousness Like Filthy Rags
Jesus also says,
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
That is to say, not all who pray or are charitable are doing so because they are good. It is possible to do what appear to be good deeds with selfish motives.
And here I am reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet.
“We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
Again, as with Psalm 53:1-3, those who believe man is totally depraved quote this passage to prove that no one ever does anything that is truly good. All our good deeds are tainted.
Yet how many times does Jesus command us to not be like the hypocrites? Is not Jesus giving us a choice? If God commands it, it must be possible. We therefore not only should, but can pray and be charitable from pure rather than selfish and corrupt motives.
Otherwise we must circle back to Ecclesiastes again and echo Solomon’s question.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
What benefit is there to being righteous instead of being wicked? And what advantage is there to wisdom over folly? “The same event happens to all,” as Solomon writes.
A New Creation
Yet Ecclesiastes does not end in despair. Neither righteousness nor wisdom are vanity and a chasing after the wind. Otherwise God would not tell us to choose them. This is the conclusion Solomon ultimately comes to.
Apart from Christ, the verdict of Ecclesiastes would be that life is meaningless and frustrating and hopeless. And we would be fools to restrain ourselves from doing whatever pleases us. This is why Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:19, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Yet we do have Christ. We are not without hope. “The same event happens to all” only applies to the first death – that of our physical bodies. Yet in Christ we have been invited to become sons of God and heirs. In Christ, by God’s grace, we will be resurrected from death to live forever in a world where sin and selfish motive does not taint the good we ought to do and want to do.
Indeed, the Apostle Paul writes:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Lastly, consider also what Jesus says about good deeds and righteousness in the chapter before he warns against being like the hypocrites.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”