Here’s a real uplifting passage from the Bible:
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.Ecclesiastes 7:2-3
Know anybody who says those are their favorite Bible verses? Me neither.
Lately we’ve had a lot of sad faces in our church. In fact, we’ve all had sad faces in the past few months, either because of something that’s happened to us, or something that’s happened to someone we love. I don’t like having a sad face. I bet you don’t either. Nobody does. So why would the Bible say, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad”?
Ecclesiastes can be a puzzling and troubling book for many people. The whole thing seems so…pagan. And that’s the clue. The writer of Ecclesiastes, usually identified as Solomon, kept what amounts to a journal about his attempts to find happiness in everything except God. The book of 1st Kings tells us how King David’s son Solomon turned away from the worship of Yahweh in his later years. Ecclesiastes seems to be the record of his search for happiness apart from God. So, the bulk of the book is, well, godless.
However, in the closing sentences of Ecclesiastes, he writes his conclusion:
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.Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
Understanding “fear” as “reverential awe” and not “abject terror”, Solomon concludes that life is meaningless without God. Not necessarily empty: Solomon filled his life with all kinds of activities and pursuits. But in the end, it all seemed meaningless, a “striving after wind”, as he put it. Without God, it all means nothing. This isn’t the gospel in the New Testament sense, but it sure prepares the way for the One who said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
So why would Solomon say it was better to go to a funeral than to a feast? I never wake up in the morning and say, “Boy, I hope I get to go to a funeral today!” I much prefer feasting over funerals. And I’d much rather laugh than be sad. Everybody feels the same way.
Remember that Solomon was trying to use laughter and “partying” to fill his empty soul. You can be successful in doing that, up to a point. We can turn up the music, dance, get drunk or high, chase after riches and fame, and “be happy for a while” (as Don McLean sang in American Pie). But it’s all over all too soon. Then the emptiness is worse than before. This is often why people commit suicide.
If laughter and feasting is what you’re using to cover up the emptiness in your life, then laughter and feasting can be bad for you. In the end, they may cost you your soul. If the experiences of mourning and sorrow and grieving and crushing disappointment cause you to stop and think seriously about life, then having a sad face can turn out to be a good thing. If the sadness causes you to seek God and draw close to Him, then in the end it will lead you to real happiness and lasting joy. In that way, “by sadness of face the heart is made glad.”
All that being said, I’m really tired of having a sad face. (Go ahead, insert your own joke here. I left myself wide open.)
But I also have to admit that all through these last hard months there has been so much laughter and love and grateful hearts, right alongside the mourning and crying and sad faces.
Ruby Grindstaff’s death hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. She was 97 years old; we all knew it was coming. She would even talk to me about her own death, with all her characteristic matter-of-fact cheerfulness. But when it happened, it was sad. To Rae Anne and me, it felt a lot like losing another parent.
And there have been so many others who’ve lost people they loved this year. They were people we loved, too. And so many of our brothers and sisters have gone through—or are still going through—such challenging times of illness or failing health. It makes our hearts heavy. It makes our faces sad.
But we have also realized in deeper ways how special the people we’ve lost were, and how much of a gift it was for God to make them part of our lives. We’ve talked about them, and laughed together over things we remember about them. I’ve seen families gather round the grieving ones in such beautiful ways. I’ve seen our church family rally and organize to put on a meal or bring food to the grieving family. (You miss your loved one? We’ll feed ya to death, and you can go see ‘em!)
I’ve seen us realize all over again just how precious our friends and families are, and how fast our time here on earth goes by. And it’s made me want to spend less time on things that really don’t matter, and take advantage of every moment to spend with my wife, my kids, my grandkids, and my true friends. I don’t want to miss a moment of the things that really matter and the people who matter most.
So: I’m going to kiss my wife, and take her out to eat. I’m going to talk to my kids, and take my grandsons out for ice cream. I’m going to take time for my friends, and talk with them, and listen when they talk to me. I’m going to preach the gospel, and play and sing the good news. I’m going to cherish every time we can gather as a church family, because, well, I need you. I need to be with you, and see your faces. I need to see your smiles, and hear your hellos. You refresh my spirit (Romans 15:32; 1 Corinthians 16:18; 2 Corinthians 7:13; 2 Timothy 1:16; Philemon 7). And I hope I refresh yours, to, at least most of the time.
And if you have a sad face, I’ll have a sad face with you. And we’ll cry, and laugh, and ache, and believe together. Because the Story doesn’t end here. And what’s coming next is out of this world. (Ain’t that a relief?)
It’s all gonna be all right. Jesus said so. Let’s all hang on to Him together.
If it reminds us to do that, then a sad face really is a good thing.
Soli Deo Gloria!