Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.
Wisdom comes in quietly. She sneaks into the middle of your life, just when you’re least likely to notice her. She whispers in your ear that God is preparing you for another place, where none of the distractions that kept you from noticing her entrance will have any value. God hasn’t made you to last forever in this world; instead, you were made for something greater than you will ever attain in this business, in your career, in that body! In case you don’t believe her, she shows you to the mirror and points out the wrinkled skin and the pale hairs that persistently reappear... though you keep pulling them out. Don’t doubt her, or she may ask to meet you at the gym!
What is she trying to tell you? Why now - when you are so busy, so productive, and so “on the right path” to reaching your goals - are you being forced to see that you will likely not achieve them all? You stand face-to-face with your mortality. Your responsibilities are increasing, as are your skills and your knowledge. But your physical capacities aren’t what they once were. Time seems to pass faster than it ever has before, and you realize with clarity and force that many of the hopes and dreams that you’ve only just recently been able to define are going to go unfulfilled. This isn’t the time that Tozer talked about, when we will be forced to “lay our instruments down”; but you can see that such a time is coming. Why are you given this knowledge? Couldn’t you achieve more if you didn’t know?
This can be a traumatic time for those whose expectations are limited to this planet and its offerings; but for believers whose hope is in the character and promises of God, it can be a powerful reminder that it’s time to examine our paradigm again. Wisdom is God’s messenger. Remember her words: “You were meant for more than this!” How do we achieve the level of trust it takes to believe this is good news? How can a paradigm shift help us to transfer our affections and our ambitions to our true home, the kingdom of heaven?
There is a riveting scene in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. On the first day of school, English Professor John Keating (played by Robin Williams) directs his students’ attention to an old trophy case in a dramatic attempt to communicate to these adolescents the truth about mortality — a virtually impossible task, because adolescents have no consciousness of mortality. In the case are pictures of graduates from 70 or 80 years before. As he gathers them around the case, Keating asks one of the students to read a poem, Robert Herrick’s To the Virgins, Make Much of Time:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
He tells them that Herrick was right: “Believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is, one day, gonna stop breathing, turn cold and die. We are food for the worms, lads.” He’s right in one sense. From a human perspective, we are food for the worms. It’s a grim thought; but we must hold in mind that we believe there’s something more than this.
Keating goes on. As they all stand looking at the faces in the case, he moves behind them. The camera moves in closer:
They’re not all that different from you; are they? Same haircuts, full of hormones just like you, invincible just like you, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see, gentlemen, those boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on; lean in.
The students don’t know what to do. On this, their first day with him, he seems like a total nutcase. But the boys lean in, and Keating whispers in an eerie, rasping voice:
Carpe. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.
The following day, he quotes Walt Whitman’s O Me O Life:
O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless--of cities fill’d with the foolish....
The question, O me! so sad, recurring--What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here--that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
Looking away, Keating asks the students, “What will your verse be?”
Keating’s was not a bad way to try to communicate mortality to kids. His desire, inspired by Thoreau, was that they begin “sucking the marrow out of life.”
The problem with Keating’s speech is that it stops short. It’s insightful; but it’s fundamentally flawed, based on the proposition that this is all there is, that one should gather all the gusto he can get, because after death, there will be no more.
While that scene is very moving, it only presents part of the picture. A biblical perspective also invites us to come to an experiential awareness of the brevity of life, just as Keating invited his students to do. But, as Christians, we don’t stop there. We don’t see ourselves as food for worms; instead we understand that this life is incredibly important in context. To Christians, eternity does not begin when we die, but at the moment we choose to live in Him. We do not gather those rosebuds with the futile attitude that we will be food for a crow, but instead we embrace the fact that what we do now has ripple effects into eternity, and our time is meant to be invested.
At mid-life, the brevity of this sojourn is much easier for us to grasp than it was for Keating’s students. But the invitation from the world is to disregard what is becoming obvious; and with the invitation come the tools to do it. While our bodies are demonstrating for us that we are clearly not meant to live here forever, the responsibilities and pressures of this world clamor for our attention over seizing the day, in any way. They promise the reward of fulfilled dreams and provide ample distraction from the realization that could be leading us into a deeper trust in God’s promises. At this juncture, we must be cautious. Some responsibilities are unavoidable and important. But investing time in what will disappear can starve our souls, wither our hope, and confuse our value system. It is at this point, when we are busier and maybe more productive than ever, that we must force our attention toward what lasts. Reminders of our mortality need not shake us. Instead, we can welcome these interruptions as invitations to reassess our focus.
The apostle Paul attempted to interrupt us with his eternal perspective: “[O]utwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). We may spend our lives with the healthy internal desire to seize the day while we know that externally “Old time is still a-flying,” but an eternal perspective tells us there is something else inside us, something actually growing young. This “deepest you” will go on unharmed by the world into the presence of our loving Father. It’s a wonderful thought if we anticipate it this way, and it can help to increase our hope and give us a new quality of existence.
So how do we maintain this eternal perspective in the middle of our very busy lives? In A Testament of Devotion, Thomas R. Kelly says that God has ordered our minds in such a way that we are actually capable of thinking on two levels at one time. It requires practice and an exercise of our wills, but we really can live this way if we choose to. We all suffer from flabby wills; but we can make a conscious choice to be aware of God’s presence, think on his word, pray without ceasing while we go about our ordinary tasks. The amazing thing about thinking in this way is a phenomenon that often happens: the ordinary begins to take on the character of another plane. As our minds dwell on the spiritual, we begin to see God in everything and everyone whether we are driving down the road, sitting at a restaurant or flinging out the trash.
If it is possible for us to drive in the flesh, then why is it not possible to drive in the Spirit as well? Is it possible for us to speak to someone in the Spirit, to teach in the Spirit? You can go either way. You can minister in the Spirit, or you can minister in the flesh. You can close a deal in the Spirit; you can close a deal in the flesh.
One simple and practical way to set this “eternal perspective” in motion is to have an “eternal perspective scripture” on hand. Alongside the cash in your wallet (something you pull out more often than you’d like), carry a slip of paper that says: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). What a great start! In the midst of the stress of the day, you read it and put it back in your wallet. It’s a reminder that your business is not your own. When you are making wealth, it is the King’s wealth. When you are with people, the relationships you have are ordained by him, and he expects you to serve and love people with eternal values at heart.
Nothing is secular if you have grasped this eternal principle. If you come to see who and whose you are, you can move in this world as a mission. You can see yourself as on the King’s business, because in your specific arena of influence, you’re an ambassador. You can see yourself as a steward, because you don’t own anything. Everything we have is on loan and when we die we’ll leave it all behind for someone else anyway.
Is it true that “We grow too soon old and too late smart”? We well know that the dreams of our youth and the supposition that we’ll have all the time in the world to accomplish our goals begin to disappear with the so-called mid-life crisis. As we begin, for the first time, to come in touch with our own mortality, as we experience this bizarre intersection of our diminishing capacities and our increasing responsibilities, we start to realize that there are some things in this life that we don’t have the capacity to handle.
Our paradigm will determine if this realization turns us toward crisis or process. A temporal perspective will inevitably lead us to the crisis. If the world is all there is, becoming less able to do things at exactly the time when we are becoming responsible for doing more can become a collision course. But the eternal perspective leads us to avoid that collision course and realize this is just part of the process. All of life is a process divinely ordained to draw us ever closer to Christ and his purposes, so that we will become fully conformed to the image of his Son. Those limitations that may have seemed like a curse are now a gift! Through this divine process, God weans us from friendship with the world and builds within us a desire for our true home. Our hearts are turning, re-turning to where they belong.
So now a choice is at hand. We can simply listen to the voice that says we are destined for more, or we can act on what it whispers in our ear. We must evaluate our activities and responsibilities in light of that “something more” for which we are destined. We might need to make adjustments mid-course, but once we have taken our hope off the world’s promises and put it firmly back on Jesus, we may find that our faith grows and our trust in him increases. Mid-life for us, then, is no longer cause to fear; instead, it’s cause for joy, and permission to rest.
We let eternity inform our present day and live each day in light of the fact that we will one day see Christ. This is a biblical way of looking and seeing. It runs contrary to the idea that coming into contact with our mortality is a bad thing; instead, it offers hope. Pain and sorrow, disappointments and shattered dreams in this world get contextualized into God’s bigger picture. We begin to see that the story is not over at the end of this life.
When we watch a play, and all die in the end, we call it a tragedy. Hamlet is a tragedy. If we see a play and it looks like it’s all going to go completely awry, but somehow at the end things turn out well, as in Much Ado about Nothing” it’s called a comedy. It’s not necessarily funny, but it ends well. We are in something not far removed from Dante’s The Divine Comedy; trouble may abound, but Paradise is at hand. All things will end well. And that is what God desires us to see. All of the pain, sorrow, disappointment and brokenness will be used to draw us to Jesus. These times will actually have become, as we look back, moments of grace. They will shatter our autonomy, our independence, and our arrogance. They will cause us to walk in dependence on God and in humility. We will have learned to minister out of weakness instead of out of our own strength; will minister out of God’s strength.
Wisdom (remember her?) will help us loosen our grasp on the illusory hope in the promises of this world. Instead we can embrace the hope of the promises of God’s Word. And this will become the radical difference in our lives. We will see “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) manifest in ourselves. We have no beginning and no end. Our life goes on forever. Because he lives, we will live also; because he rose from the dead, we will rise from the dead. His destiny is now our destiny; his inheritance is our inheritance.
In light of this, God’s plan for us is an incredible concept! And we ain’t seen nothing yet!: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). We just don’t have the imagination to begin to fathom all that God has in store for us. But he promises that any pain we go through (in the middle of life or at any other time) is to be considered as nothing compared to what he is offering. This is the heart of the paradigm shift from the temporal to the eternal.
“Tell me what you love, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
On a deeper level, this part of the eternal paradigm becomes less about our goals and more about our affections. As we remember that what we are destined for is more than what we are now pursuing and pouring ourselves into, we are drawn away from love of the world. Instead of a time for mourning our humanness, this becomes cause for celebration. The one who created us for intimate relationship and knows better than anyone what excites us and what brings us joy is calling us back to himself.
We have been in this world so long, that we may be unaware when our attachment to it is growing stronger. We are cautioned against loving the world or anything in it, but we frequently forget. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). John tells us what is in the world: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does” (2:16). We are to avoid the allure of these, because they cause us to suppose that temporary things are treasure and that we will always have time at the end of our lives for getting right with God. The world’s promises mislead us; and its goods are destined to pass away. “[B]ut the one who does the will of God abides forever” (2:17). We are destined to live forever.
James also tells us that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). These are strong words, but as we become more aware of and more serious about our relationship with our heavenly Father, we take them to heart. As eternal beings, this is the perspective we must maintain: we can only love one or the other. And this is the perspective we are reminded to maintain as we begin to gain experiential knowledge of our human limitations.
Jesus spoke strongly about what is important: “You...who justify yourselves in the eyes of men...God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). As we become intentional about our relationship, we avoid the foolishness that once caused us to disregard these words. If this text from Luke and the ones we read from James and John are true, then they should have a huge impact on the way we live our lives. Our goals should begin to be less oriented toward impressing the people in our lives and more oriented toward pleasing God. This takes maturity and strength of will; it also takes faith to believe that pleasing God is worth all the effort. That is why this shift can only come in the context of a growing relationship with the Father, as we remember how much he loves us and wants what is best for our lives.
One of the greatest examples of a wise mid-life turnaround I can think of is Payne Stewart. Though he was nominally Christian when he began to gain notoriety as a golfer, those who watched him play would not have known it; neither would the players he mocked for attending Bible studies. Stewart was as well-known for his egotism and surliness as he was for his signature uniform of knickers and tam o’shanter cap.
But something happened after he watched his friend and fellow golfer, Paul Azinger, battle cancer with grace and faith, and after he began to attend Orel Hershiser’s Bible study near his home in Florida. No one can say what day it happened, but Payne Stewart began to change. First, those close to him noticed; soon the public couldn’t help but notice. With a new set of priorities, he was playing less but winning more, earning more than $1 million for the 1998 season. And he was thanking the Lord for the changes in his life — publicly! After his 1998 win at Pebble Beach, the press stood dumbfounded as Stewart responded to their questions about golf with words about Jesus and told them that he was taking the following fall off in order to spend more time with his family. This professional athlete who had been known for his ambition and rudeness began to be recognized for his peace and goodness.
British Golfer Colin Montgomerie remembers playing against Stewart in the last tournament Stewart would ever play. American fans heckled Montgomerie all day; and things were getting tense. Several times Stewart sacrificed his own concentration to walk out into the crowd to point out to tournament personnel the unruly conduct of his own fans. After Justin Leonard sealed the U.S. victory that day, Montgomerie and Stewart continued to play out an intense round. But the heckling of his opponent and friend became too much. On the final hole, just when it looked like he would emerge the winner, Payne Stewart picked up his opponent’s ball and handed it to him, conceding the win to Montgomerie, who years later still says he will never forget that day or that man.
It turns out that 1999 was not the middle of Stewart’s life, but the end. On October 25 th of the same year, Payne Stewart died in a plane crash. But he had recognized Wisdom when she entered. It began because Paul Azinger lived a convicting life. It was at that time that Wisdom led him to a mirror and pointed to the eternity in his own heart; it was then he knew that something about remembering eternity was worth another kind of effort. It was said of him at his funeral, “Payne Stewart has finished the race, he has kept the faith, and now the crown of righteousness is his.”
Remembering was a key theme for the Hebrew people, and it embellishes and envelopes Old Testament thought. For the Hebrews, remembering is a spiritual discipline — remembering who God is, remembering who you are and to whom you belong, remembering blessings and being thankful. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, those who failed to remember became autonomous and arrogant. Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 is a beautiful allegory of aging in which Qoheleth (“the Preacher”) calls us to remember our Creator while we are still young. There are those who come to faith later in life; and I believe God can redeem the years we’ve spent lost. However, those of us who are aware of our mortality now should take heed while we are still young. It is The Preacher’s own Keating-like, yet eternally grounded admonishment to “make much of time.”
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”-
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
The Preacher speaks of the decline of our physical capacities: failing eyesight, trembling legs and stooping posture, lost teeth, loss of hearing and fitful sleep. With these declining capabilities come new fears and decreased strength, and Qoheleth speaks of them poetically. Instead of saying we become less agile, he says that the grasshopper “drags himself along,” which is a wonderful image. A grasshopper that can’t even walk is pathetic, because that’s not what grasshoppers were meant to do. They were meant to spring high in the air and move quickly. Still, there he is, dragging himself through the last part of his life with great difficulty.
This metaphor is an infamous parable of old age with allusion to vision, hearing, aging hair, and, eventually, death. Included in this catalog of aging features is also when “...the caper berry is ineffective” which is an allusion to the use of the caper berry as an aphrodisiac. But by this stage in life, the writer says, it’s not going to work for you.
We are reminded here that we too will one day die, and he pleads with us to remember our Creator before this happens, while we still have vitality, before the thin cord that holds our body and soul together is severed. Identifying him in our early years sets a pattern that will help us through the somewhat grueling points in later life, as well as giving us occasion to be fruitful for the kingdom. What we gain spiritually will replace what we are losing physically.
Remember him-before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
“Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
“‘Vanity of vanity,’ ends the Preacher.” I believe it is vanity if we’re only living by the assumption that God is not there; but vanity turns to hope and purpose when we acknowledge that God is there. And that is what the Preacher says at the end of Ecclesiastes.
We hear very little about the fear of God these days, even though it’s a recurring theme in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. The lack of comprehension concerning this kind of fear is a considerable problem if it is, as some of the Hebrew writers say, “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10). Not to mention that The Preacher’s proposed conclusion of everything is to “fear God and keep his commandments.” There are those who say that if “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18), we should no longer fear God. Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, responds to that perspective in this way:
Terror is a bond, however primitive, between us and God. It is supposed to be there, and it is supposed to be cast out. It is supposed to be there because we are born original sinners, and the sinful self is naturally and rightly terrified of the goodness of God, which is sin’s enemy. It is meant to be cast out because God saves us from sin, and then the relation changes from enemies to friends, and from terror to wonder.
If there is no fear for love to cast out, the love will not arrive as a great conqueror. If there are no dragons, a knight is just a big boy in a tin suit.27
We must return to the desire we had at the beginning, to be pleasing to the Lord, because, as the Preacher says, “God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). There is a thin cord, to which the wise Preacher eludes, that keeps our body and soul together and eventually “the spirit will return to the God who gave it.” Knowing this, if mid-life doesn’t bring us to phobos” a holy awe, a fear of divine displeasure and an appreciation of the arrival of the great and powerful forgiveness of God, then we’ve missed something.
When Wisdom sneaks in quietly, guides you to that mirror with her sage hand, points to your sagging skin and whispers “Seize the day,” listen closely. She is not reminding you to simply make the most out of life and “gather rosebuds” before it is too late. She is telling you that you are here for his reason, that life exists because of God, and that your identity is with him, the Creator. She gently informs you that his powerful play will go on with or without you, but that God has placed you on the stage, and she advises you to contribute a verse.
What will your verse be?