“Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” —Ecclesiastes 7:13
The first thing that strikes you about this verse is how it spins your expectations on its head. You’d expect it to say “Who can make crooked what He has made straight?” but this is not that kind of Bible, nor is it that kind of life.
This is self-evident, to anyone with the wherewithal to open their eyes and look around. God created the world crooked, and man came in and started straightening things out. God made tree limbs, stones and meadows, all of which spin out in any direction willy-nilly. We cut them into tables, carved them into blocks and plowed them into fields. This is all well and good, but if the heavens declare the glory of God, then we do well to remember that glory is a crooked mess.We can try to straighten it all we like with our systems and rules, but as Ecclesiastes makes clear, it’s a lost cause.
The subject being tackled in Ecclesiastes 7 is time and the fullness thereof. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?'” the writer admonished his readers only a few verses earlier, in advice that would be very good for us to take seriously today. “For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
From there, Ecclesiastes delves into some pretty crooked thinking.
There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?
Don’t be too righteous or wise. Neither be too wicked, and definitely not foolish. What are we to make of this, we who spend so much time and energy trying to be righteous? Trying to be wise?
Trying to straighten that which is crooked?
It’s confounding advice when you think of righteousness as action, like many of us have been taught. We tend to think of righteousness as something we do or, more frequently, the things we avoid. From this perspective, righteousness is an infinite to-do list—a measuring bar forever hovering just out of reach. And then here comes Ecclesiastes saying there’s no sense in trying to reach it at all.
But when you think of righteousness as a state—a way of living and seeing the world that transcends our dualistic thinking of right and wrong, good and evil—then it starts to look like very sensible advice indeed. The righteousness of God is made manifest not just in the stars, but the inky void that surrounds them. His glories are told not just in the prairies, but also the worms smashing out tunnels underneath. And all these things are crooked, in their way. Even us. Especially us.
“The Good News is not that you only come to God by getting it right. That’s bad news,” says Richard Rohr. “The Good News is that you only come to God by getting it wrong.”
In Corinthians, Paul puts it even simpler: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
And then there are our own systems, which exalt not only the rich and powerful, but also the wise and righteous. It’s an old way of thinking, and it’s one Jesus came to abolish. We’ve stitched it back together in his name, and that is too bad, because the Bible spends so much time among the unwise and unrighteous. Remember, the Pharisees missed the Messiah not because they were so stupid, but because they were so smart.
None of this is life changing. Really. Christians have been proclaiming a Gospel of Grace since the very beginning, whether or not we’ve always practiced it. But I can think of a few ways it may affect the way we take in the world.
First, if we cannot straighten what God has made crooked, then we shouldn’t be trying. The goal is not to straighten the behaviors of our neighbors, but to love them. And if our lives are straighter than theirs are, then we have no sense of superiority to feel from that whatsoever.
Second, embrace the crooked in yourself. Embrace it and don’t despair of it. Don’t take it as a sign of how far you have to go—and certainly not as a means of shaming yourself because you’re so unworthy of God’s love. Instead, revel in the mystery of your created-ness, straight, crooked and otherwise. Remember that God will finish the good work He started in you. He’ll do it. Not you.
Finally, abolish the hierarchies—those spiritual brackets we’ve we’ve made of pitting wretches and saints against each other. As we all know, the last shall be first. I’m just not at all certain we’ve yet figured out who exactly the last are.