Sunday, July 11, 2010

The End of a Thing is Better Than Its Beginning

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Ecclesiastes 7:8 (ESV)

Although I knew this verse to be true because it is the word of God, I used to be puzzled by it because it didn't feel true. I would read this verse and think of fun evenings with friends and how it was always disappointing when they came to an end. It was such a let down to have to say good-bye after spending hours talking, laughing, and playing together. How could the end of such things be better than the beginning?

However, having recently finished graduate school, I think I understand this verse a little better now. I don't think it's talking about such fleeting pleasures, but is referring to the large projects of life. That is why the second half of the verse talks about the "patient in spirit." It is referring to those things in life that require patience.

Why is the end of such a thing better than its beginning? A thoughtful reflection on this truth reveals some answers.

First of all, the end of such things brings rest and satisfaction. The beginning of a degree program is filled with anticipation and excitement of all the things that will be learned and accomplished, but the end of a degree program brings immense satisfaction of a work completed and an honor earned after years of labor. This is true with many of life's projects, whether it be building a building, planting and cultivating a garden, training for a marathon, or raising a child. When the project is complete, all the effort pays off and the laborer can sit and rest (for at least a short while).

Secondly, the end of a project brings honor, as was touched on above. Jesus mentions this indirectly in one of His parables:

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, "This man began to build and was not able to finish." (Luke 14:27-30, ESV)

Conversely, a man who is able to finish building a tower, or bearing his cross for the sake of Christ, or completing a degree, etc., will gain respect. The end of a thing is better than the beginning because by completing it you reveal your character. By finishing, you demonstrate perseverance, endurance, patience and diligence, which are universally respected virtues.

Thirdly, the end of a thing is better than its beginning because the end produces something useful and lasting. Although much of our work in this life will not endure forever, a completed work produces something that is helpful and that will benefit others at least temporarily. Looking back at Jesus' parable, the foundation of a tower is useless unless the tower is completed. The whole point of a tower is to make something tall from which you can keep watch over your property. The height provides you with the advantage of seeing an enemy or an unwanted animal approaching. If only the foundation has been laid, the structure is useless. There is no advantage gained from the effort. You would have been better off focusing your energy and resources elsewhere. But when the work is complete, your energy and resources result in something that has lasting benefit to you and your family. Again, this truth applies to many of life's projects: a vegetable garden produces no food if you prepare the soil but never plant the seeds, a quilt brings no warmth if you never cut the squares and sew them together, and "there is nothing more useless than an incomplete doctorate," as someone once told me.

As I come to the end of a major project, I am encouraged that the completion of such a project (with all of the satisfaction, rest, honor, and lasting work that it has produced) is an echo of what it will be like when we reach the end of our Christian life. Graduate school takes an immense amount of time, effort, and resources. There are times when you feel like you are not progressing at all, and times when you experience set backs and discouragement. It takes perseverance, and requires that you stay on the narrow path. All of these things have parallels with the Christian life. Following Christ is not easy. But just as a day of graduation finally arrives for those students who persevere, a day comes for each persevering saint when they leave their toils behind, are ushered into the presence of God, and finally enjoy eternal rest. That day is coming for every true follower of Christ. The diploma I have sitting at home is a reminder of that reality.

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. ... Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 58 (ESV)