Death’s lessons on life
Books | Seeking wisdom instead of escapism at funerals
by David Gibson
Posted 4/07/18, 12:19 pm
David Gibson’s Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End—WORLD’s 2017 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category—reminds us how we should act at funerals. Instead of racing away to resume our normal activities, we should linger, realize it will all too soon be our turn, and ask ourselves, “What will my life have been worth?” This excerpt, courtesy of Crossway, points out the difference between wisdom and escapism. Realizing in the depths of our being that life is finite pushes us not to morbidity but to an eagerness to use each day for God’s glory. —Marvin Olasky
Wisdom vs. Escapism
Once we grasp the big message of Ecclesiastes—that life in this world eludes our control—how then should we live?
There are two options. When we realize that we cannot explain everything, that the people we love will become ill and die, and we don’t know why God could allow this to happen, once we accept there is injustice and oppression, or we have to face the fact that there is a throbbing hurt at the core of our soul that won’t go away, one option is to try to flee reality and numb the pain to avoid the problems. Party as hard as we can, laugh as loud and as often as possible, drink ourselves into oblivion, live in the past or a land of make-believe instead of the present—that’s the route of escapism.
The other option, the one on offer here in Ecclesiastes 7, is wisdom. Learn to live wisely in God’s world in the midst of all the brokenness. But there’s a big surprise with this alternative. The wisest thing you can do is to realize that not even being wise will tell you everything you want to know.
The message of the chapter is this: be neither an escapist nor a theological snob, for part of living wisely is learning to live with the limitations of wisdom itself. This is a consistent theme in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature. It is what Job understood:
From where, then, does wisdom come?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.”
God understands the way to it
and he knows its place. (Job 28:20–23)
So you think you’ve got wisdom? You think you’ve got your life in order, got it nailed down—you think you understand how the world works? If death and destruction come knocking on your door on a Tuesday morning completely out of the blue, if the doctor tells you that your own end is near or the phone rings with heartbreaking news, then at that moment you will realize the control you thought you had over life was just self-deception. Thinking you know enough to have control of your own life is just an illusion, but the tears on your pillow at night are real. When we try to get a fully satisfying handle on how things work, we discover that wisdom seems to live on the other side of the world. We chase it, but we just can’t get the full measure of it.
So look, the Preacher says to us in this chapter, you can learn to love the fact that life is limited in this way. All the pithy sayings of Ecclesiastes 7 are like little gems, each powerful in their own way, but they aren’t randomly arranged or completely disconnected from one another. They are each here to set out an alternative way of living under the sun once we see that controlling every part of our lives is impossible.
There are two parts to the chapter. First, we need to realize that as we go through life, death is holding out an invitation to us. Second, as we go through life we need to realize that wisdom is good: it’s sensible, it’s upright, it’s often beautiful—but God has limited our grasp of it.
1. The Invitation of Death (vv. 1–6)
These verses tell us that life is limited by death. Your life won’t go on forever. But death is not just a line you cross when your time is up. Death is an evangelist. He looks us in the eye and asks us to look him right back with a steady gaze and allow him to do his work in us. Death is a preacher with a very simple message. Death has an invitation for us. He wants to teach us that the day of our coming death can be a friend to us in advance. The very limitation that death introduces into our life can instruct us about life. Think of it as death’s helping hand.
Look how the Preacher makes this point: “A good name is better than precious ointment” (v. 1). We understand this, and we think it’s a lovely proverb. There’s no point smelling like a bed of roses if every time your name is mentioned at the dinner party people feel the emotional equivalent of nails screeching down a blackboard. Don’t be the kind of person who makes others wince, even though outwardly you look great. No—your reputation, your character, the things you are known for—these things are so much more important than mere superficial trivia. So far so good.
But look at the second half of the verse. In just the same way, “the day of death [is better] than the day of birth” (v. 1). Maternity wards can be some of the happiest places on earth. Even if we haven’t experienced it for ourselves, we can imagine the joy a baby brings. All that life, all that hope, all that potential stretching ahead—so how can the day of death ever be better than the day of birth?
We might think the clue is in that word potential. Birth is all about potential, but death, for the believer, is all about fulfillment. Christian parents might have hopes and dreams and prayers for their children, but at the moment of death, and only at that moment, does anyone perfectly receive all that Christ has won for them. Death is the fulfillment of life, and fulfillment is better than potential. That is a rich reading of this verse, and it’s certainly in line with the rest of the Bible. But I think our writer means something different.
In my opinion, the Preacher is saying that the day of your death is a better teacher than the day of your birth. When a new baby is born, there is virtually nothing we can say about her, beyond vague impressions of physical resemblance to one of the parents or grandparents. “Oh,” we say, “she’s so like her mom.” Possibly. But that’s about it.
Now fast-forward to the day of that baby’s death. Age eighty-six. What can we say about her then?
“She was so like Jesus.”
“She was so kind, so generous. What depth there was to her as a person.”
“She loved her garden.”
“She loved her knitting.”
“She loved her bingo.”
“She loved …”
You choose something to fill in the blank that really isn’t very much at all.
“She didn’t really love anything or anyone very much apart from herself.”
“She lived for herself alone.”
The day of death is better than the day of birth—not because death is better than life; it’s not—but because a coffin is a better preacher than a cot. When life ends, or is about to end, absolutely everything else comes into focus. The things that don’t really matter, but which we gave so much time to, now seem so empty and pointless. The lives we touched and the generosity we showed and the love we gave or received now mean so much more. That’s what the Preacher is saying: a coffin preaches better sermons than a cot. “Look forward,” he says as he grabs us by the shoulders. “Don’t be a fool! Stop trying to escape life’s agonies by drowning them away, by laughing them off and pretending they don’t exist. Look forward to the day of your death and ask yourself, what kind of person should I be? For one day I will be dead.”
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart. (v. 2)
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (v. 4)
The Preacher has learned that there are two types of people at the funeral. The fool sits there thinking how unbearably grim this is and can’t wait to be outside in the sunshine and back to what he was doing, and to get out to the pub in the evening. But the wise person sits in the funeral home and stares at the coffin and realizes that one day it will be his turn. The wise person asks himself, “When it is my turn, what will my life have been worth? What will they be saying about me?” He loved his bowling and his partying and his holidays. Is that it?
I’ve been to some parties, says the Preacher, and you wouldn’t believe the half of it if I told you about them, but I tell you this: I never met anyone drinking himself under the table who was dealing with life’s big issues. Listen, he says, better to have a friend sit and list out all your faults in front of you than to spend your life trying to be on The X Factor (v. 5). The Preacher says he’s never met a wise pop star, but he has seen many others discover wisdom at their funerals. Laughter, pleasure—well, nothing wrong with them in themselves, of course—but amusement like that disappears as quickly as kindling sticks when you start a fire (v. 6). But, says the Preacher, let me tell you this: I put my life in order when I went to the funeral home. When I went, death said to me, “Come in and stay a while. Have a seat and stop and think.” And I listened to what death said to me.
It’s very important to be clear: the person who lives like this is not morbid. On the contrary, what characterizes a person who lives like this is depth; they have depth of soul, depth of character. But superficiality is the mark of the escapist who is living in denial. The tagline to the film Fame is, “I’m gonna live forever.” But it was also the tagline to the original film many years ago, only now the remake of the movie uses different actors—because they don’t live forever. The original dancers have now got cellulite, and their legs don’t do what they used to do, so we need new, younger, prettier dancers who are going to live forever. And so it goes on.
If you live in denial of death, what is there to do but eat and laugh and drink and party? Instead of being superficial, death invites you to be a person of depth. Only someone who knows how to weep will really know what it means to laugh. That’s the message of Ecclesiastes. It’s an invitation to be a person who realizes that living a good life means preparing to die a good death.
Have you ever met people like this? They’re actually fully alive, engaged with the world and their family and the goodness of creation because they know that they have it all on loan—it’s a gift—and that one day God will simply call time, but when he does, they’re ready to go. Will you let death teach you the limitations of your life? Will you let it reshape your goals, your attitudes, the things you long for and work for and pray for and hope for the most? For if death is not your lord and does not own you— it never, ever can be if you are in Christ—then it can teach you.
And it is not only our own future death that can teach us. We can learn from death through the ways others have already been deeply shaped by it. No one who tastes death up close and personal is ever the same again.
One night in the autumn of 1991, in rural Idaho, Gerald Sittser was driving with his wife, his four children, and his mother when their car was struck by a drunk driver and, in a moment, he lost his wife, his mother, and his four-year-old daughter. In the aftermath, Sittser wrote a beautiful and profoundly moving book on loss and sorrow called A Grace Disguised. His reflections portray an unspeakable agony from the inside while powerfully describing how he and his surviving children slowly began to piece their lives back together again.
Eight years after A Grace Disguised was first published, Sittser had the opportunity to comment on how far he and his children had come in the time since the accident. In the preface to the second edition of his book, he reveals that his “rawness and utter bewilderment … have given way to contentment and deep gratitude.” His story has turned out to be “redemptive, not only for me and my children, but for many other people as well.” And then he says, “As strange as it might sound, I wish that every man could experience what I have, though without the acute suffering.” That Sittser was ever able to describe his trauma as a grace disguised is remarkable, but that he is now standing in a place where he has received the kind of gifts from it that he wishes others could share is surely a profound surprise. You will need to read his book to see what these gifts are.
People who survive catastrophic loss often say that they survived by coming to see, in time, that they somehow had to take the loss into themselves and allow it to enlarge their heart so that their capacity to live well and to enjoy simple things and to know God intimately increased in a way they never thought possible. It is as if God somehow stretches a person to the breaking point, and then she discovers that because she has been stretched, there is now room in her heart and mind for God and for life and for others that was not there before. Gerald Sittser even writes of the sickness of the soul that can “only be healed through suffering.”
Death has the capacity to teach us things about love and joy that we could only learn because of death, but it does not mean that the experience of learning them is lovely or joyful. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s meditations in Lament for a Son on the death of his twenty-five-year-old son in a climbing accident are the most moving evocations of grief I have read. I wept when I read them for the first time and then guiltily felt somehow voyeuristic for entering the emotions of shattering loss without experiencing the loss itself. Recently, however, I noticed at the start of his book that Wolterstorff comments on another father’s strange habit of giving this book to each of his children. He does so because it is a love letter. That is precisely why it is so powerful and so painful: lament expresses love. Someone else’s lament can give voice not just to your own grief but also to your love. It can teach you the language of your heart, which you did not know you knew.
Death dons a preacher’s robe to teach us that life is finite and we must use it well. It leans down from a pulpit to impress on us that those whom we love are finite, that we love them more deeply than we realize, and that we must love them well. The sermons death preaches—if we choose our sermons wisely—can tell us more about the way we love and the way we live than we ever realize is actually going on while we love and live.
Content taken from Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End by David Gibson, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
 Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996).
 Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss, preface to the 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 15.
 Sittser, A Grace Disguised (1996 ed.), 10.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).