We all want a better future. We want to see progress. We hope the next generation will prosper more than we did.
But how much control do we have over what the future looks like?
I ask this because it is common to view human history as an ongoing construction project and certain visionary famous persons as architects in that process.
But then Solomon kills the mood:
"Vapor of vapors, says the Preacher, vapor of vapors! All is vapor. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vapor and a striving after wind." (Ecclesiastes 1:2–14).
Looking at the context of Solomon’s discourse in Ecclesiastes. Progress has happened. And people, sometimes visionary people, were part of that progress. But the instances when progress happened on schedule according to the timetable of one of these visionaries is, I would guess, statistically insignificant. In Christian circles, Augustine is often seen as a visionary, especially in his great book, The City of God. But there are unending debates now on whether Augustine, if he were transported into the present, would side with Roman Catholics or Protestants. These debates cannot be settled because Augustine never foresaw how history would go and perhaps never expected it to last this long. He wouldn’t know what to think with what he helped bring about.
Martin Luther is credited with dramatically changing the world, but John Hus did something similar and got killed for his efforts. Luther spoke up at a time when the world was ready for him. That’s why he got more or less drafted into a conflict as the result of a “viral post” he never expected to get widely circulated. (The printing press was the web 0.0 and the Lutheran Reformation started because the local intranet was not as isolated as Luther expected it to be.) Now, in some way, the work of John Hus may have helped influence the next century’s development so that it demanded a Luther. But, if so, that progress was planned by God. It was outside Hus’ control or foresight.
With this in mind, should he view our lives as stages in a construction project? The Bible indicates that God is at work in history to bring about a great city (and thus, civilization), but he alone has that blueprint. And under any human interpretation it has involved strange setbacks. Humans, on the other hand, are exhorted to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Taking into account the flow of human history, that would mean we are in a relay race. Our job is to receive that baton from the previous runner with as much skill and strength as we can summon, run our part of the race, and hand off to the next racer with the same level of performance. We don’t entirely control any of that but we have no control over more than that.
Right now there are many outraged over police abuses that have dire consequences and questionable accountability. Are the days of protesting going to make anything better? Or is the rioting, looting, arson, and murder that have been associated with protesting going to lead people to give the police even more power?
In my book, Solomon Says (Amazon, Kindle), I spend time talking about the vice of sloth and examine the proverb, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty” (Proverbs 28:19 ESV). I have notice that “worthless pursuits” can be get-rich-quick schemes and also fantasies of social justice that don’t result in much except to keep the person in a lower financial position than he would be if he spent his time more productively. As a result he’s not nearly as helpful to his poor neighbors and not nearly as influential when he speaks against injustice.
When your considering to what you should devote your time and energy, remember Proverbs’ advice: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (22:29 ESV).