I write this article at a time of the year when things are frantically busy. I don’t mean the normal how-are-you-I’m-busy small-talk type of busy. (You know: that subtle brag that sounds like a moan.) I mean really busy because the year is running out and I haven’t done everything on my to-do list except expanding my to-do list (and “expand to-do list” was not an item on the to-do list).
This time of year does not leave much space for midlife crisis-type questions. Midlifers are supposed to be concerned about leaving their stamp on things while the clock ticks away and the bottom half of life’s hourglass steals more sand from the top. The question, “Am I making a difference?” however, is not just middle-aged. It is a good one to ask at any time—especially when you’re young, especially if you’re very busy. Before our candle is snuffed, all of us want to look back and say, “I made a difference!” But how does one define “difference”? Difference assumes things were a certain way, and afterwards they are better. The Bible helps us to define “better” well. Many have climbed the corporate ladder only to discover the ladder was standing against the wrong wall: In climbing the ladder, they actually got further and further away from what was truly better.
If one considers the stupendous scale of projects that King Solomon completed together with his wealth and wisdom you may be excused for feeling somewhat sheepish about your own accomplishment. (Imagine having a workforce for your building construction department that would fill Soccer City!) The best commentary on Solomon in his own words is found in Ecclesiastes 2:
- I made great works;
- I built houses and planted vineyards for myself;
- I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees;
- I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees;
- I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house;
- I had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem;
- I gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces;
- I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man;
- I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem;
- My wisdom remained with me; and
- Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
After all this he comes to a conclusion that should make us sit up in surprise: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (v. 11).
This is a sad summary of Solomon’s life: He was merely playing trivial pursuit. Thankfully, he let us at least learn his lesson from the final chapter in his book. He starts the last chapter like this: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” He ends it like this: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
A seemingly successful life may be a wasted one. Solomon came to a good definition of success much too late: He learned the hard way that to define success early in life avoids profound disappointment later. Therefore he speaks to those who are still young, reminding them to think of God in their youth, making it clear that success should be defined as obedience to God’s law. Thinking of the law may conjure up a list of “don’ts” in our minds, yet Jesus summarised the law in the command to love (Matthew 22:37-40).
A successful life—a life that makes a difference—is a life marked by love; people who love are missed when they are gone. Paul said that spiritually gifted people without love are just noise—they are nothing—but that love—firstly for God and secondly for our neighbour—makes us influential. You don’t have to be rich or famous to make a difference; you don’t have to hold a particular position in the church; you don’t have to have any profound spiritual gifts. Anyone can love. Anyone can exert a profound influence—through love.
To be hardworking and busy as many of us are around this time of the year is reasonably normal. The challenge is to be aware that busyness may crowd out the matters that truly matter. What matters to God is the attitude displayed towards others in the midst of our demanding projects or programs. Love is more impressive than any profound project or program and we would be mistaken if we thought that loving is going to be easy.
The incompetence of those who hamper our productivity can be irritating, yet love is patient. Harshness may seem the best medicine to just snap the daydreamers amongst us out of it, yet love is kind. Despite our hard work others may receive greater acknowledgment and that may feel somewhat unfair, yet love does not envy. Other may not be aware of our work, effort or accomplishments, yet love does not boast. We may be convinced of our own giftedness and feel compelled to let others know about it, yet love is not arrogant. Some people seem to be hard of hearing when one doesn’t use harsh words, yet love is not rude. People who invade our busy time-space can easily be seen as a nuisance, yet love does not insist on its own way. When we are busy we may wish others would make use of their right to remain silent, yet love it is not irritable. Some wrongs towards us may have been very severe and seemingly worthy of inscription in our little black book, yet love is not resentful. When those who have been nasty towards us may deserve poetic justice if they get back their own medicine at the hands of those who are nasty toward them, love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Compared to the line of eternity, this busy life is a mere point. However, that does not make this life insignificant. Its steady march towards eternity should drive us to prioritise well because the love we show now has eternal consequences. In eternity you won’t be able to humble acts of kindness to the needy, but it if you do in this life, your meeting with the Judge will be a joyful, rewarding experience.
So what will you be busy with today? Your answer could make you wiser than Solomon.