The Unexamined Life

I scooped up spilled dirt and patted it back around the bruised plants that had fallen victim to a furry vandal’s frenzied search for treasure.

“Obnoxious little varmints. This is why we can’t have nice things. All this mess and destruction for a few errant bird seeds that you just can’t live without,” I muttered under my breath to the absent bandits, those masked critters with ringed tails that come out at night and wreak havoc in our neighborhood.

I wasn’t sure if my flowers were going to survive the ransacking, and just as I opened my mouth to launch into another tirade, the craziest picture popped into my head:  that of Jonah sitting beside a lifeless plant, adding his unhappiness about its demise and the loss of the shade it would have given him to his moaning and complaining about how unfair it was that God had chosen to save the wicked city of Nineveh. (Jonah 4:1-11)

Isn’t that just like me? Dwelling on poor me, assessing life through my selfish lens, assuming I know better than God how things should be, putting my comfort at the center of the story, dismissing God’s sanctifying lessons because I don’t value their spiritual worth. God made the flowers, and even though I was enjoying them, I wasn’t seeing them in the proper perspective. A little visit from the raccoons helped to correct my vision.

Am I making too much of an insignificant event? Isn’t it risky to take every little thing and make a big theological issue out of it? It can be, certainly, especially when we read ourselves into passages that are not about us, or construct a lesson that is not consistent with biblical orthodoxy. But if we agree with what Paul writes in Romans 12:2Philippians 4:8 and Colossians 3:1-4, then it’s worth taking “a little thing” and investigating whether my attitude lines up with what would be a godly perspective of the matter.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Another philosopher, Solomon, said, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (​Ecclesiastes 2:17) Solomon had examined nearly every aspect of life and found it wanting:  neither wisdom, nor self-indulgence, nor virtuous living, nor industry and hard work produced “enduring remembrance, ‘ . . . in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.” (Ecclesiastes 2:16) His examination led him to only one conclusion: All of life is vanity.

If Solomon is correct, how should we tally up what life is worth? What is the purpose of this existence of toil and disappointment and affliction? Is it valid to echo Jonah’s lament, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8)? All he wanted was a little shade, right? . . . or is that really all he wanted?

Let’s flip the perspective and the question:  “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

What Jonah wanted was the world his way, and he was discontent and rebellious when it was denied him, even to the point of being willing to give up his soul.

If I’m not careful, that’s where I end up, too. When I encounter one of the many opportunities that arise in the passage of a day that calls on me to react either in gratitude or complaint, how I respond reflects what is valuable to me—the world gained or my soul preserved in Christ. Is the momentary pleasure of wallowing in self-gratifying grumbling worth more than becoming more like Christ through the refining work of trial and affliction? Is the satisfaction of a clever comeback worth more than the multiplication of divine love through a gracious and patient demeanor? Is the arrogant confidence of theological correctness worth more than what God can teach me through being humbled and unrecognized?

We lament over how unfortunate it is that our lives aren’t what we want them to be, waiting for Him to make it better, oblivious to how pathetic we look sitting beside our little withered plant while the world around us rumbles and resonates with the glory of God working and saving and creating new out of old. Solomon discovered that no matter what it is we have set before us in this life, whether good or bad, profitable or unprofitable, lofty or low, delectable or detestable, only when we value the hand that gives it more than the pleasure it gives, will we truly attain and appreciate the good life. (Ecclesiastes 2:25-26)  It’s perspective; it’s surrendering to God’s ultimate, masterly, wise way of defining what is good and worthy in life.

Wretched Jonah was miserly about the glorious benefits of God’s blessings for all who are called to be redeemed, meanwhile God was flinging open the gates of heaven for a group of people who never would have imagined they’d be included in the plan of redemption. He makes the crooked paths straight because He takes our broken lives and muddled language and redefines us according to His truth, not by using our measuring sticks, but by redeeming our perspective of how beautiful his straightening methods are! So despite whether a worm or a woodland creature wrecks my day, may I rejoice in knowing that every refining and straightening work God does in my life has eternal worth, and for the pleasure He takes when I give Him glory and honor for it all.

Scottish essayist John MacDuff writes:

Whatever He gives us — let us thankfully receive it. 
Whatever He denies us — let us be satisfied without it. 
Whatever He takes from us — let us uncomplainingly part with it. 
Whatever trial He lays on us — let us endeavor patiently to bear it. 

(The Mind of Christ, 1870 via Grace Gems)

This post originally appeared in the 5-Minute Friday series on June 16, 2017.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

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