One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was to “begin with the end in mind.” It’s in this same vein that Pastor David Gibson exhorts us to live life backward. We must allow the inescapable reality of our death to dictate how we live:
“Death can radically enable us to enjoy life. By relativizing all that we do in our days under the sun, death can change us from people who want to control life for gain into people who find deep joy in receiving life as a gift.”
Gibson draws from the mysterious book of Ecclesiastes to unpack his theme. The book can be thought of as one, long, engaging expository sermon: The message of Gibson’s book is the message of Ecclesiastes. Life “under the sun” is like exhaling on a cold, winter day. You see the air coming out of your mouth, but in a moment, it’s gone.
Therefore, we should receive each new day as a gift. Fear God. Keep His commandments. In your work, marriage, family, church, and community, lose your life in the joyful service of others. Therein you will find deep joy and contentment. Be diligent, consider cause and effect, plan for the future, but don’t think you can master every circumstance or fully predict (let alone control) the future. You can’t. Wisdom has its limitations.
Each chapter begins with a recitation of a chapter or so of Ecclesiastes. Then, Gibson unpacks and applies the text. Here are a few of his themes:
Life is a Gift – Not Gain
Ecclesiastes 1:3 asks a central question: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” In verses 4-11 comes the answer: Don’t think in terms of “gain” but in terms of “gift.”
“Everything is a breath” writes Gibson. (Breath is Gibson’s translation of the word hebel, which our Bible’s often translate — unhelpfully — as “meaningless” or “vanity.”) The point is that it’s brief, elusive, like a vapor.
Once we realize there’s nothing to gain from chasing the wind, we’re freed from the chase. “There is no gain to be had under the sun, and that’s precisely the point. None need be sought.”
This World is Not a Permanent Home
The author of Ecclesiastes bursts our bubble with regular reminders that our death is not only certain, but that it can come at any moment. We need to be reminded of death lest we view ourselves as permanent residents on this planet. We’re not. We’re travelers passing through. Life is short. Eternity is long. This is consistent with Jesus’ message that we should lay up treasures in heaven, where “moth and rust do not destroy” (Matthew 6:19-21).
The writer of Ecclesiastes “bursts the bubbles of pleasure and profit, materialism and laughter” with the reality of death. But he also bursts death’s bubble with a prescription for a good life: Find enjoyment in God’s everyday gifts. Gibson writes:
“When we accept in a deep way that we are going to die, that reality can stop us expecting too much from all the good things we pursue. We learn to pursue them for what they are in themselves rather than what we need them to be to make us happy. Death reorients us to our limitations as creatures and helps us see God’s good gifts right in front of us all the time, each and every day of our lives.”
We Must Accept Our Limitations
We are finite. We’re limited in knowledge (even the most learned), in power (it grows in youth, then fades as death approaches), and in time/space (we exist within it, whereas God inhabits eternity and is omnipresent).
In short, we’re not God. Yet much of our anguish in life comes from trying to know everything, do everything, control everything. This is not the path of wisdom.
For example, our longing for justice in this world is often frustrated. Ecclesiastes is honest about the fact that the wicked often triumph whereas the good sometimes die young. Wealth and poverty are not always correlated with virtue and vice. But in time, God will right every wrong. In this world, under the sun, we will not and cannot see how it all fits together. The wise know this and are spared from trying.
Living Life Backward is a highly accessible book. My teenage children are reading it in Sunday School right now. Pick it up today and see for yourself.