Review of ’40/40 Vision’ by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty


40-40_Vision_book_350Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty, 40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Mission in Midlife (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015).

[Note: This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.]

An 80-country survey asked respondents, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” People in their 40s were least satisfied, with 46-year-olds being unhappiest. I am 46 years old. Needless to say, I read Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty’s new book with keen interest.

The forties are the decade when men and women experience midlife crisis. They are halfway through their lives equidistant from the start of their professions and their retirement. The twenties and thirties are predominated by questions of success. In the forties, however, questions of significance take the lead.

According to Greer and Lafferty, the kinds of questions 40-year-olds ask are these: “All this work, does it even matter? I’ve striven for so long, but I’m still not there—and now I’m losing interest. Why am I not happier? Is this my lot in life? Did I miss my calling? Is it too late for a do-over? Was all that I pursued in my thirties a mistake?” (emphasis in the original).

These are questions of meaning. To navigate the turbulence of the forties is thus to navigate the waters of life’s meaning. And few books of the Bible address the question of meaning more acutely than Ecclesiastes.

But wait, you’re thinking to yourself; doesn’t Ecclesiastes say that life is meaningless? “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (1:2). If you’re having a midlife crisis, that’s hardly the kind of statement to cheer you up.

True, but as Greer and Lafferty point out, Ecclesiastes’ perspective is that of a “functional deist,” that is, “a person who acknowledges God’s existence but suffers due to his apparent absence.” Such a person can experience great success and pleasure in life, and yet still discover that they don’t guarantee a meaningful life. What is needed is a larger worldview, an above-the-sun perspective.

An above-the-sun perspective gives meaning to an under-the-sun life not by pooh-poohing success or pleasure, but by qualifying them, by helping us see the goodness in life’s limitations. For example, chapter 6, “(Un)charitable,” deals with the concept of “true wealth.” Ecclesiastes 5:10 truly said, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves money is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”

But notice the parentheses in the chapter title; they are important. A person focused on getting is uncharitable. But place that negative prefix un- in parenthesis—qualify or limit it—and you discover that wealth isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of generosity. The authors write, “In the United States, we’ve developed super-sized appetites for pleasure, but we haven’t experienced a corresponding rise in our taste for giving.” Accumulating money doesn’t make you happy or filled with a sense of meaning. Being generous with what you have does, however.

The same can be said for all the goods we pursue in life. They’re not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they’re unalloyed goods either. A meaningful life recognizes their limited, qualified, under-the-sun goodness.

Only God, who lives “above the sun” is unqualifiedly good, so our search for meaning in midlife must inevitably turn to Him. Of one of the criminals crucified alongside Christ, Greer and Lafferty write: “In many ways, he typifies a wasted life, a nameless man engaged in senseless violence. But during his brief moment on stage, he said a line that goes down as one of the greatest in history: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42).” And that request saves him. “Boom. Immortal. One moment of clarity in a life of futility, and everything changes.”

Precisely because I’m in my forties, I paid close attention to the advice given in 40/40 Vision, and I recommend it highly, especially if you’re in midlife too. I want my next forty years to be even better than my first forty. I especially recommend reading the book to forty-something pastors. It’s hard enough to lead a congregation under normal circumstances, let alone on top of a midlife crisis. Get help early and often!

At the start of this review, I noted that 46 years of age was the low point of unhappiness in that global survey. If that’s where you are today, you don’t have to get stuck there! For, to borrow a phrase from Ecclesiastes, God will make everything beautiful in its time (3:11).

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Wealth, the Problematic Gift of God (Ecclesiastes 5:8–20)


In Ecclesiastes 5.8–20, the Preacher lists three problems with wealth but then, surprisingly, concludes that it is nevertheless a gift from God.[1]

The first problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is the unholy nexus between wealth and oppression. Verses 8–9 are notoriously difficult to interpret because the Hebrew underlying them is enigmatic. The English Standard Version translates them as referring to corrupt government officials who oppress the poor, but are protected in their injustice by their bureaucratic superiors. This is probably the best reading of the text, and it highlights a perennial problem with government. In the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The antidote to corrupt government is not anarchy, however, but good government: “a king committed to cultivated fields.” A good government official desires that both the capital (land) and labor of his nation be fully utilized.

The second problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is that the desire for more is unquenchable. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (verse 10)—a thing that goes “Poof!” The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; the Joneses cannot be kept up with. Any person, therefore, who measures his life by how much stuff he is accumulating will be eternally disappointed. To think otherwise is foolish.

The third problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is the difficulty of keeping what you have earned: “riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture” (verses 13–14). The picture seems to be of a man who has saved up all his money to invest it in a single venture, which goes bust, costing the man everything. He has spent hours, days, weeks, months, and years accumulating his wealth, but loses them in an instant. In a larger sense, of course, this is the course of everyone’s life: We are born possessing nothing but our own skin and we die the same way. So why spend our few hours on earth working, when its only result is “darkness…vexation and sickness and anger” (verse 17)?

Having identified these three problems with wealth, however, the Preacher comes to a surprising conclusion—at least in my mind. Wealth is “the gift of God,” and everyone to whom God has given “wealth and possessions and power” ought to “enjoy them” (verses 18–20). There is, you see, nothing inherently wrong with having abundant material possessions. God, after all, created a very material world, pronounced it good, and invited us both to enjoy and cultivate its bounty. Wealth becomes a trap to its possessor when he uses it to harm others, makes its acquisition an ultimate priority, or lets its maintenance cause him great anxiety of soul.

As Americans, we are very wealthy people, comparatively speaking. But we ought to make it our aim to avoid the dangers of wealth by earning it honestly, investing it wisely, sharing it generously, and above all remembering that, in the words of Jesus, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12.15).

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Mean What You Say, Then Do It (Ecclesiastes 5:1–7)


One of the great things about being a minister is the ability to officiate at weddings. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to lead a young couple—and a few not so young—in vows of lifelong love. Of late, older married couples have begun to ask me to renew their vows as part of the celebration of their fiftieth anniversaries. Presiding over such ceremonies is both a joyous and solemn experience. The joy is self-evident; the solemnity requires some explanation.

Marriage—if the vows are any guide—is a very serious commitment. I ask the bride: “Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?” Then I ask the groom the same questions. Later, I ask the husband to say after me: “I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.” Then I ask the bride to repeat those same words. They are promises of unconditional, lifelong love, which are not to be broken.

Sometimes, I wonder if we are as serious about our relationship with God as a bride and groom are about their vows on the day of their wedding. Do we vow to love God “from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death”? I think some people do, and I think they often follow through on that vow to God. More often, however, I think we take our relationship with God a bit unseriously.

We make bargains with God that we quickly break when he comes through with his part. “Dear Lord, if you help me get this job,” we pray, “I’ll start attending church regularly.” Or, “Heavenly Father, if you help me lose 25 pounds before my high school reunion, I will volunteer to teach Sunday school.” When we get the job and lose the weight, however, we quickly find good excuses for slacking off on our church attendance or filling our weekends with anything other than screaming Sunday schoolers.

Ecclesiastes 5.1–7 warns us about such laziness in keeping our promises to God.[1] Basically, the Preacher’s message is, “If you really love God, shut up. He is not impressed by your endless empty promises.” Instead, what God desires most from us is our silent, rapt attention: “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools” (5:1). He also desires our simple obedience: “God has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (5:4).

Making promises, taking vows, is a normal human thing, whether we make those promises to one another or to God. But in a day when words are cheap and plentiful, such as ours certainly is, the most spiritual thing to do is to keep silent or at most use words very carefully. Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). In light of all this, I guess my advice to you (and to myself also) is twofold: Mean what you say, and then do it. That is what God requires.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Better Than (Ecclesiastes 4:1–16)


Ecclesiastes 3:22 declares, “there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.”[1] We Americans bristle at the notion that we have been assigned some lot in life with which we must simply make do. If we do not like our current situation, we change it. Ours is a country of self-made men and women.

And yet, there are some things that no amount of self-making can undo, such as the facts that everything under the sun eventually goes “Poof!” and that we all die. Admittedly, neither life’s ephemerality nor our personal mortality are pleasant to think about, but they are real, and we must learn to live our lives based on reality. According to the Preacher, the first application of reality to our lives is that we learn to rejoice in our work (3:22). Ecclesiastes 4.1–16 offers four additional applications of reality to our lives, using the formula, “better than.” Let us take a look at each one.

First, the Preacher observes “the tears of the oppressed” and their lack of “comfort” (4:1). Seeing this, the Preacher concludes, “better than both [the living and the dead] is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (4:3). Now, at first glance, this seems like a counsel of despair, that nonexistence is preferable to existence. And yet, as Choon-Leong Seow points out, the Preacher’s counsel is ironic: “The alternative of not having lived is not an option that people can choose. The [better than]-saying thus points to the irony of human existence: what is really ‘better’ in this regard is not within the grasp of mortals…. What is better, then, is not to somehow be shielded from life’s painful realities but, as he intimates in 3:22, to enjoy oneself whenever it is possible to do so.”

Second, the Preacher tells us, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (4:6). In other words, having less is more, when it comes to material possessions, especially if having more makes you crazy. Why? Because the drive to possess more and more stuff often arises from envy of one’s neighbors, which can never been satisfied. The Joneses cannot be kept up with, and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. On the other hand, working hard to possess things—as long as it does not make you anxious—is better than the alternative: Only the “fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (4:5), a grotesque image of starvation resulting from laziness.

Third, the Preacher counsels us to get friends: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (4:9). Few blessings in life are as satisfying as heartfelt companionship. Friends help one another when one falls down, keep one another warm when it is cold, and protect one another when one is attacked. Moreover, friendship provides us a motivation to work, for through friendship, we have someone to share the fruit of our labor with.

Finally, then, the Preacher concludes: “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice” (4:13). Wisdom, which the Preacher closely associates with teachability, takes a person far in life. It is through wisdom—moral knowledge practically applied—that men and women become successful and achieve prominence. But it is always better to be wise than successful, moral than powerful. Why? Because even leading people is a thing that goes “Poof!” Wisdom, on the other hand, being an attribute of God himself, lasts forever.

So, we have a lot in life that we cannot improve. Under the sun, all is ephemeral and we are mortal. And yet, within the confines of life under the sun, we can improve our condition if we make the best of what God has given us, use our material possessions sanely, get friends, and above all, acquire wisdom.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Using the Time God Has Given (Ecclesiastes 3:16–22)


If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, then why is the world wracked by so much evil? Surely God knows what is going on down here. Certainly he has the power to change it. And we can be absolutely certain that he desires to do so. That being the case, why do we experience so much suffering and pain? Ecclesiastes 3.16–22 asks and answers this question, but its conclusions are surprising.[1]

The Preacher opens with a simple observation: “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (3:16). There is no substantial difference between justice and righteousness in this verse. By making the same statement twice, the Preacher is simply emphasizing that things are not the way they are supposed to be on planet Earth. Where goodness should be, we see badness instead.

Surprisingly, the Preacher does not speculate on the cause of the world’s moral pollution. Elsewhere, the Bible plainly states that the parlous state of the world is the result of human actions: “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5.12). But here in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher is more interested in how we live a sinful world than in how the world came to be sinful in the first place.

First, he teaches us to live in light of the coming judgment. “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter for every work” (3:17). The end-times judgment of us and our deeds is a fundamental article of the Christian faith. Summarizing the biblical evidence, the Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ will return from heaven “to judge the living and the dead” (Matthew 25:31–46, 2 Thessalonians 1:5–12, Revelation 20:11–15).

Although we experience evil at the present time, we know that evil will not hold sway forever. In between that time and now, we must be patient. God has appointed a time to judge the world, but it is not now. Instead, in the present, he invites us to repent of our own wickedness and turn to him for forgiveness. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise [to return and judge the world]…but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Second, the Preacher reminds us of our humble place in the cosmos: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts” (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Do you remember how the Serpent tempted Adam and Eve to sin? He said, “God knows that when you eat of it [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The first and perpetual human sin is idolatry, trying to replace the Creator with a creature. From idolatry flow all the injustice, wickedness, and death we see around us. So, for our benefit, the Preacher reminds us that we are just creatures—beasts. Like them, we die. Like them, we do not know what the future holds. By reminding us of our similarity to animals, the Preacher humbles us. Therein lies our salvation: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4.10).

How do we live humbly and mindfully of the coming judgment? The Preacher tells us: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot” (3:22). In one of my favorite classics, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, thinking about the evil that has descended upon his little Shire and the attendant responsibilities thrust into his hands, says: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which the wise old Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Today, how do you decide to use the time God has given you?

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What Do We Get from Our Toil? (Ecclesiastes 3:9–15)


What gain has the worker from his toil?

Every Monday morning, millions of Americans ask themselves that very question as they once again start their workweek. It is a legitimate question. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, what do we really gain by working hard? A paycheck, a sense of satisfaction at a job well done, a measure of self-esteem, slight changes in the way the world works? These are all good things, but they are not permanent things. They are hebel, “vanity,” things that go “Poof!” At the end of their lives, most people realize that their lives are not more meaningful because they spent extra hours at the office.

Nevertheless, work is a good thing. The Preacher tells us four things about God that apply to our work-a-day lives (Ecclesiastes 3:9–15[1]):

First, work is God’s gift to us. “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (3:10). It is a gracious gift that causes us to spend our time on earth productive, honestly, and in a meaningful fashion.

Second, God has given us work for a good purpose. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). Sometimes, when our work frustrates us, we need to remember that it is a thread in the divine tapestry of history. We may not see that beauty at the present moment, when we are tired of toil, but that does not mean the beauty does not exist.

Third, part of the purpose of work is to show us that there is more to life than work. “Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). In other words, God gives us work—a hebel, a vanity, a thing that goes “Poof!”—to drive us to himself. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Precisely!

So, fourth, while life lasts, we ought to take pleasure in the work God gives us. “I perceived that there is nothing better for them to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (3:12, 13). Work may frustrate us; it may not be the source of our ultimate happiness—which is God alone—but it can be a penultimate joy.

The Preacher’s theology of work is a healthy tonic for the overworked American soul. I think many of us place far too much value on what we do, looking to work to fill a spiritual void that in reality only God can fill. Is work good? Yes. Is work frustrating? Often. Is that the way God planned it? Absolutely. He uses good, but frustrating, experiences to show us our need for him. He uses the time we spend on earth to direct our thoughts to eternity. Everything under the sun is vanity, the Preacher endlessly reminds us. But God is not. “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever…so that people fear before him” (3:14), i.e., approach him with reverence and awe.

So, what do we workers gain from all our toil? God, if we are paying attention and letting him accomplishes his purposes through our work.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Whole Duty of Man (Ecclesiastes 12:9–14)


Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 12:9–14.

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Today, we conclude our study of Ecclesiastes with, fittingly, a meditation on “the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:9–14 is a summary of all that the Preacher has tried to teach us in the previous eleven-and-a-half chapters. His lessons can be summed up simply enough: “Fear God and keep his commandments.”

By what authority does the Preacher sum up our whole duty in this way? It is not by means of prophetic authority, for the Preacher does not claim to be a prophet. It is not by means of priestly interpretation of the Law, for the Preacher is not a priest. Although the Preacher is a king (1:1), he does not use his royal power to promulgate his message. No, the authority of the Preacher’s message is the authority of common sense. He is “wise,” “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.” His authority is the authority of reason. Many people mistakenly try to oppose faith to facts, revelation to reason. But the Bible teaches us that both can be avenues to truth, if our hearts are pure. Both reason and revelation are “given by one Shepherd,” that is, God.

Wisdom such as the Preacher displays is an inherently good thing. It is a “goad,” encouraging us through “words of delight” to live well and truly before God. It is like “nails firmly fixed,” providing an indispensable, unchanging support for the good life. Wisdom both initiates change, in other words, and conserves blessings.

Wisdom also is simple and eternal. The Preacher contrasts wisdom and “making many books.” Making many books refers to man’s ongoing effort to understand himself and the world he lives in. Such learning is necessary. Often, as with the realm of the hard sciences, we make many new and exciting discoveries. But while knowledge of our DNA changes (thus requiring new books), knowledge of our moral nature does not. You would be a fool if you went to a doctor who studied only seventeenth-century medical textbooks. You would be an even greater fool if you ignored a moral writer like the Preacher, though he has been dead for millennia. Scientific knowledge changes; moral wisdom does not.

So, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” The notion of fearing God frightens us. We like to think of God as the God of love, not fear, and in a certain sense, he is. But God is so great and majestic, so holy and awe-inspiring, that we small creatures would do well to remember our place in the universe and show due respect for him and for his Word. Why? “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” A wise person always keeps this truth in mind.

The book of Ecclesiastes begins with a statement about the world that is, “vanity of vanities” (1:2), and ends with a statement about the world to come, the “judgment.” We live between these worlds and must make choices in the former to prepare us for the latter, so choose well. If you follow the Preacher’s common-sense advice, you will.