Posts Tagged Death

Life and Death and Language

I recently had a conversation with some friends about foul language: what defines foul language and why it is bad. I thought it would be profitable to share some of our conclusions and my own thoughts on the subject.

What defines foul language? There are few rules in the Bible that are culturally defined; adultery is adultery, no matter what your culture says about it. Language is different. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear”, he meant to them something different than it does to us; few of us curse in Greek. Nearly everything God commands is the same throughout every age: adultery is adultery, period. This issue of foul language, however, works a little bit differently.

The simple fact is that words have meaning. These meanings have changed over time and have been corrupted, to be sure. However, they have meaning to people, today. Every culture has words that are regarded with esteem, and other, crude language. Some words have originally true meanings that were not foul (one such word appears in the King James Version 90 times – I leave it to you to figure out which); others are simply crude words used to describe things in a crude way. In either regard, they are not words that in our culture “give grace to those who hear”.

Especially in our Southern-Bible-Belt culture, it can sometimes seem that foul language is a cardinal sin, worthy of capital punishment, or at least a good whippin’. However, as one of my friends pointed out that night, it does not matter how “clean” your words are. You may never say a single foul word in your life, but you will still violate the principle Paul gives us. On the other hand, someone who struggles with saying foul words could still impart great grace with their words. Neither is excused, but the one who acknowledges it is still better than the one who does not.

(As a random thought on the side, let me ask you, dear reader: is it stranger to you when a young lady utters a foul word than when a man does? It is to me, and I think it is because of the simple stark contrast between a beautiful appearance and a rotten tongue. I have often been tempted to say to such a young lady, “You know, such ugly words should not come from such a pretty face.”)

Why is it bad? The real question being asked here is, “Why does it matter?” First, because of all that I have said before. Words have meaning; they are like vessels that carry something to the recipient. We decide whether the vessels we send out smell like manure, are loaded with poison, or carry healing balms. As a writer, I understand that one small word can change the entire meaning.

More than that, however, it is because our words have great power. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”. James alludes to the tongue as the spark that can start a forest fire. When we speak, write, or use language of any sort, we are always either communicating life or communicating death. The reason foul language, biting words, or a deceitful tongue are so wrong is because they are imparting death to the hearer. It is as though a deadly miasma is proceeding from your mouth, and all within inhaling distance are catching it.

C.S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “The Weight of Glory” that everyone we meet is an eternal soul. Absolutely everyone, from that man who cut us off in traffic to the sour-faced cashier at the grocery store, will live on in eternity. They are on their own journey, either progressing towards life or death. Whether they may only enter into our lives for a short frame, or they will be beside us for many years, we will are either a help or a hindrance. We either bring them up to life in Christ, or down to death. This is why language is so important, because of the destruction it can cause.

But the emphasis is not just negative. Sure, death is in the power of the tongue; but so is life! What a miracle it is, that we can impart life and grace to listening ears! Our words could be the spark that burns down their idol temples, that are a breath of fresh air in a miasma ridden world. By the grace of God, our tongues can be used to bless. That does not mean that our words will never hurt; but when they do, it will be done like a gardener’s pruning: only to bring about more and more life and fruit.

It is an oft repeated maxim, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Too often those closest to us are the victims of our cutting words, and we the unsuspecting assassins. It seems that often any type of sin can be excused so long as it was “in jest”. Let us begin with those nearest to us: parents, siblings, children, lovers, or friends; then, we shall work outward to bless the whole world. Instead of a sarcastic insult, insert a kind compliment or encouragement. It may be an unexpected treat, like finding a dollar in your pocket. Unlike the dollar, however, it will be worth far more.


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(Not So) Pointless Work

“Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labor which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knows whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? Yet he shall have rule over all my labor wherein I have labored, and wherein I have showed myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity.”  – Ecclesiastes 2:17-19

Solomon has a lot to say in the book of Ecclesiastes about the vanity and meaninglessness of labor. It was one of the many things he tried to find true inner satisfaction in his soul: he was the definition of our modern term “workaholic”. In chapter two, he even breaks down his thoughts in the above depressing manner. So working hard can be pointless because you are leaving it behind to someone else; the more you leave behind (such as an entire nation, as Solomon did), the worse it can be. Solomon also says that another type of work is vain: working for your own selfish desires.

“There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he has neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labor; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither says he, ‘For whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.” – Ecc. 4:8

He goes on to talk about how two are better than one, including the famous phrase, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken”. Thus we see the pointless life of a man who works for himself. He has no children who will inherit his gain; he has no partner who will also benefit; he simply works day in and day out unceasingly for himself, never stopping to ask, “What’s the point of all this, again?” I see this sort of attitude in many, not just rich people (though it is often evident in them as well). Each day has no purpose, no excitement; just “another day, another dollar”. They wake up, go through their routine, sleep, and repeat. Let us break from this cycle.

But how? If work is vain, then should I stop working hard? On the contrary. Solomon tells us this in chapter nine:

“Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor wherein thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand finds to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest.”

Though this is a somewhat depressing reason for why we should work hard, it offers a unique perspective on why we should work. The average lifespan of a human being is around 70 years, often higher. Yet none of us know what will happen tomorrow; people perish at all ages from seemingly random causes. We cannot delay our work, saying that we’ll do it tomorrow. Since we can’t work when we die, we must work every day as hard as we can.

But what are we working for? Why work is riches and possessions are vain? Solomon’s perspective doesn’t help us much here, for it ends with death. You see, the book of Ecclesiastes is the thoughts of a man who looked at life from “under the sun”. His eyes were cast downward; our eyes ought to be cast upward.

I ran across this verse a couple days ago while reading. Paul is writing to the Corinthian church, and near the end of his first letter, says this:

“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” – 1 Cor. 15:58 (emphasis added)

I hope you see what I’m hinting at in this connection. But first, let’s turn back in the chapter. One of my favorite hermeneutical maxims is, “If you ever see a ‘therefore’, you need to find out what it’s there for.” So what is the therefore pointing to in this verse? To sum up:

“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Cor. 15:54-57

In this beautiful passage, Paul reminds us of the fact that life does not end with death; there is an eternal weight of glory beyond the grave.

These two perspectives together work like this: God has given us a short amount of time to live on this earth, and no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Therefore, work as hard as you can each and every day. Don’t just work for the sake of working, however; work for the things that matter: eternal things. It is not possessions that matter, but love. The thing that will be remembered in your life is not how many toys you got, but how you loved. How well have you loved God today, with your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself? That is what matters, and that is what will impact eternity.

Though life does not truly end at death, our work on earth will. What are we doing with the time that God has given us? What are we working for? Jesus’ model prayer was, “Thy kingdom come.” Let us work to build His kingdom.

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The Vanity of Life

Lately I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s one of those books that many of us have looked at with a sideways glance, not quite sure what to do with it. It has gained the reputation of being the most depressing book in the Bible, and thus many avoid it. Yet even in just a week of studying Ecclesiastes, I have discovered great treasures. Often the hardest of grounds yield the greatest of gifts.

Most people accept the fact that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, King David’s son and some hold the belief that it was written after Solomon repented of his grievous sins before God. John Wesley held this view, writing, “Who was not only a king, but also a teacher of God’s people: who having sinned grievously in the eyes of all the world, thought himself obliged to publish his repentance, and to give public warning to all, to avoid those rocks upon which he had split.”

The premise of the book is stated in the second verse: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The word vanity here does not mean what it means today. Then it meant meaninglessness; Webster defined it as “emptiness; want of substance to satisfy desire; uncertainty.” And when the Preacher says “Vanity of Vanities”, he means the same as Holy of Holies (utterly holy) – utterly vain, utterly empty.

But what does the author mean when he says life is utterly pointless? He does not say that life isn’t worth living; what I think he means is that we cannot understand all of life. The Preacher says that he “gave [his] heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven…” In other words, Solomon was trying to understand all the purposes of God and everything that happened to men while they lived, including death, riches, oppression, and much more. He realized that he was far too small to understand it all. It reminded me of something Dinesh D’Souza, Christians author and speaker, said in a debate I heard. To paraphrase, “We must understand the limits of logic and reason. We are like little ants on a street corner, asking why the street corner is the way it is, when there is a whole neighborhood behind us we can’t see.”

Realizing that he was unable to find satisfaction in wisdom, Solomon turned to pleasures of every sort. He says in the second chapter, “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.” I emphasized that part specifically, because it shows what Solomon’s purpose was in doing all that he did: he wanted to know how people ought to live. In wisdom, in pleasure, and in materialism Solomon finds no peace and no purpose to his life.

Solomon comes to this conclusion, which is often repeated throughout the book: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy food in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” He exhorts the listener over and over again to enjoy his own lot; not to give himself to futile work which shall fade after death; but to enjoy the life that has been given him from the hand of God.

So how are we supposed to live, and what can we learn from Solomon’s travail? There are three main points he makes throughout the book that I want to highlight.

Enjoy the life God has given you.

Solomon tells us in chapter 4 of a man who, because of envy for another’s good, becomes a great workaholic. He says, “There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good?” He is working hard, but one must ask, for what? Why is he working? At the end of his life he shall look back and see that his whole life is pointless, because he sought to gain something transient and passing.

So often in our lives we are struck with a sort of discontent. It is not a holy discontent that makes us seek the more after God and righteousness, but the sort that makes us seek worldly goods. Instead of enjoying the things that God has given us, we are always looking ahead to something we don’t have. Instead, let us vigorously strive to enjoy and be content with our lot in life, and praise God for the life we have. He didn’t have to wake us up this morning, but He did; and may our lives be used to praise Him continually.

Live in light of man’s ultimate destination.

In chapter 7, Solomon says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to heart.” Every man must one day face death: old and young, man and woman, rich and poor, wise and foolish. Life is but a breath, here one day and gone the next. Solomon exhorts us that we are to live in light of death: “Whatsoever thy hand findest to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 10:31 – “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

God has given us this short time to live upon this earth. How will we spend our days? Will we spend them in the same vain pursuits as Solomon – pleasure and material goods – or in the eternal things that really matter? Whatever work God gives us to do, whether we are on the frontlines of the ministry or at home working a corporate job or flipping burgers, we are to do it to the best of our ability and give our all to it, because once our life is over, that’s the end. There is no more chance to work.

Live in light of God’s judgment.

The last two verses of the book end this way: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” There is not much more that can be said. Paul says, “… For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10).

The question we must all ask is, “How will my life weigh in the balance? Have I given my life to worthy pursuits? Or have I spent all my days pursuing pointless, frivolous things?” We all shall be judged.

What shall you stand upon? For I know that in me there is no good thing, and that if I were to be judged, I would be counted as evil. Solomon says that every secret thing will be judged. Perhaps you’ve done good deeds; but were the secret intentions of your heart any good?

There is only one hope for man to stand before the judgment seat of God, and that is Jesus Christ Himself. He offers to man His perfect righteousness, that we might be clothed in it, and not be found wanting in the scales of justice. Come, abide in Him today, give your whole life to Him, and allow Him to transform you inside and out. Only then will you be free from the vanity of this world and more, the judgment of God.

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