Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who wrote during World War II and the Stalinization afterward, once wrote to his American monk friend, Thomas Merton, that he would not let his sons attend church because he “did not want to make atheists out of them.” Likewise, Zack Eswine, present-day pastor and seminary professor, writes something similar: “I too have been tempted to quit them … Many nights, they’ve flopped me over like a fish and filleted me down the middle. My innards have come out only to get quickly discarded in the trash.”
Sometimes the meanest people carry the biggest Bibles. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 is an honest, uncomfortable and needed look at the church.
Some of us will think Ecclesiastes is too pessimistic. We’ll say, “Not my church.” The temptation will be to “over-spiritualize” our church, a fancy word for delusion and denial. Others of us who have been deeply hurt by the church will say, “Finally, someone is willing to tell the truth.”
The preacher in Ecclesiastes rejects both these temptations. The book wants us to go to church but in a redemptive way.
Does the church add madness to our lives? Yup. Ecclesiastes 5:1 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” Or, When you go to church, be careful. Why? Because there are fools in church: “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil” (verse 1).
Throughout the Bible a fool is a self-centered person bent on harm. The fool harbors a deep suspicion of God, specifically his personal and active love. And the fool feels a deep need to trust in himself instead of God.
Notice that the foolish person in Ecclesiastes is serious about God, serious enough to know to bring a sacrifice to church. So what is evil about this approach? The answer is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, in this case, offering a sacrifice (right thing) of fools (wrong reason). We can do ministry in church (right thing) to be affirmed and adored by others (wrong reason). When we do church for self-centered or foolish reasons, we harm everything.
Historically, theologians have called this foolish self-centeredness by such names as “legalism,” “moralism” or “self-righteousness.” Some contemporary theologians call it “self-salvation” or a “religious spirit.” Scottish theologian Dr. Sinclair Ferguson calls it a “metallic spirit,” by which he means a spirit or heart that is metal-like.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes would say a metallic spirit is always the last to know he is one, even though it is obvious to everyone else: “they do not know that they are doing evil” (verse 1). Furthermore, the preacher would agree that a metallic spirit is chronically self-justifying, obsessively trying to prove herself in thought, word and deed to God, others and herself. (See verses 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7.)
Good grief! If church adds this metallic madness to our lives, then why go? The preacher answers with one powerful reason: “draw near to listen” (verse 1). Who are we drawing near to listen to? God. God breaks into our lives individually and corporately in church.
When you went to temple in those Old Testament days, everything shouted, “You’re a fool!” You could smell the metallic odor of blood hanging in the air from the sacrifices. You could hear the desperate bleating of the sacrificial animals.
Today we go to church not because of temporary and ineffective animal sacrifices but because of the better sacrifice, Jesus, who absorbed and dealt with our self-centeredness on the cross. Let’s go to church to find the God who is already finding us through his better sacrifice and watch our metallic spirits become human again.