Actually, it was a call from Gallup, doing a survey about health and happiness in the UK; I came away from it feeling pretty good about life. As it was a series of Yes/No questions it was not possible to give the nuance, qualifications, and caveats that I would normally offer in response to a question like, “Do you feel safe walking alone in your city at night.” So my answers tended towards the positive rather than negative and I guess I sampled as someone who is healthy, happy, prosperous, educated and optimistic – and when the results of the “best places to live in the UK” survey are next published I expect Poole/Bournemouth to feature even higher up the rankings than it normally does!
Rather than an inconvenience, this phone call was thus a rather helpful reminder about the many ways in which I experience God’s grace on a day to day basis: “In the last 30 days have there been any days when you have not been able to afford enough to eat?” No. “Is healthcare affordable in your city?” Yes. “Do you have cancer?” No. Man – I’ve got a lot to be grateful for!
It is easy to lose track of how much grace we receive. It is so easy to be more aware of the things we lack (or think we lack), of the things that annoy us, of the constant drip of bad financial news in the media, than it is of the things that make life good. As a Christian pastor I believe that one of my primary tasks is to keep reminding people of this – to keep pointing them to all the blessings we enjoy by the grace of God alone. Our default position should be one of gratitude. If it is not, we are likely to become miserable ingrates who do little to glorify the name of Jesus.
Yet at the same time I also believe that part of my task is to keep pointing out the reality of the bitterness of life – that stuff happens that stinks, that there is much injustice in the world, and that the sound of war and famine and disaster should rattle in our ears. Without this reality check we are liable to become superficial or sentimental. We are likely to get knocked off course when the day of trouble comes, or to fall for the illusions of the ‘health and wealth’ gospel. And we are unlikely to be motivated to live with generosity and compassion towards those in genuine need.
Perhaps the most helpful Bible book that wrestles with this tension of grace and sorrow is the little oddity of Ecclesiastes. I spent fourteen Sundays preaching through the thoughts of the Teacher seven years ago, and am now picking it up again at Gateway. (Although this time round I am only giving it half the number of sermons.)
Because he recognises the realities of both life’s pleasure and its pain the Teacher is able to make the apparently contradictory statements that, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and striving after the wind…There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” (Eccl. 2:17, 24) The Teacher is quick to commend joy and pleasure, but also brutally honest about the transitory nature of even the most satisfying human pursuits.
Ecclesiastes, then, is a book that helps provide an accurate assessment of life. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “It is an exposé and rejection of every arrogant and ignorant expectation that we can live our lives by ourselves on our own terms.” And as Luther advises, “We should read this noble little book every day because it rejects sentimental religiosity.”
It is a book that helps make sense of many a Gallup poll.