Vexation, Virtues, and our Search for Value

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What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 ESV).

In his excellent book, The Road to Character, David Brooks briefly describes two sets of virtues that we possess: resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are often exaggerated present realities of our current character and future goals for who we want to be. They are what we believe will make us successful. We try to impress with these virtues. Think about it, no one has ever written on a resume, “I am an average person who will get the job done in spite of my many faults.” Resume virtues are geared towards success in the world. Brooks describes eulogy virtues as, “…the virtues that are talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”1 Eulogy virtues represent who you really are in life and what those closest to you know about you.

If I am being honest, there have been times when I have sacrificed my eulogy virtues in pursuit of my resume virtues. Not all resume virtues are negative, but I elevated them to an unhealthy level. I chased success in the financial industry and in ministry but nearly lost everything of true value in the process. I thought that if I could just achieve _________, then I would be content and I could move on to forming my eulogy virtues and provide more for my family. It never worked out that way. My guess is that it hasn’t worked out for you either. “I thought that if I could just achieve or do_________, then I would be happy.” What is that blank for you?

The opening Bible verse above comes from Ecclesiastes, a book from the wisdom section of the Old Testament. The author obviously knew what it was like to achieve the resume virtues – to have it all. He worked hard. He developed relationships that were merely transactional – that is, he befriended people because it benefited his individual pursuit of happiness, success, and wholeness. He had it all – profession and pleasure. One problem persisted for him:

 

Vexation: the intense and ongoing frustration that it wasn’t enough and that it was all done in vain.

Can you relate? I certainly can. Even in ministry, when you feel like you have arrived at your dream role, you quickly find that it’s not enough. On top of that, I have never heard anyone say, “I finally have enough money, power, influence, and status for my soul to be content.” Or in the church, “My church is finally large enough, giving enough, etc.”

 

Where success produces vexation, failure produces despair.

In our world, there is the vexation of having everything only to realize that you still have nothing. But there is the opposite end of the spectrum as well – those who experience failure in this world. For anyone who has experienced job loss, a financial crisis, a divorce, etc., it can feel like you have lost in life. Where success produces vexation, failure produces despair. Ironically, and in many cases, it is those who have experienced success that end up “failing” and finding themselves in angst. In the movie The Dark Knight Rises, as Batman is realizing that he has been outmatched by Bane, Bane says to Batman, “Victory has defeated you.” This is true for many of us. One moment of success becomes the standard of our identity and when we can’t seem to taste again the sweetness of success, we wither.

I would say that most of us live somewhere in the middle. We are either striving to succeed or we’re simply just trying not to fail in the midst of our difficult situations. We don’t know any better because we haven’t gotten to the point of intense failure, nor have we arrived at the full measure of success. So, we toil beneath the sun and at nights our hearts don’t rest. We will realize that it is an unnecessary process if we can identify this natural tendency of ours sooner than later.

How can we step out of the endless cycle of vexation and despair? How can we step out of our story? Well, we can enter into an alternative narrative – In Christ.

Be rooted in Christ. Abide in Christ.

Throughout the whole redemptive story of God, we find that both our craving for more and our need for help are satisfied in Christ alone. In Christ, our vision of success and failure completely change. In Christ, both success and failure are redeemed and given purpose. In Christ, we find out that our eulogy virtues are actually far more valuable than our resume virtues. In Christ, our souls are renewed, our families begin to be restored, and our hearts become other’s oriented. In the world, it is hard to cultivate the selflessness of the eulogy virtues because our resume virtues demand that we only look after ourselves. Jesus, on the other hand, says that to truly experience life, we must lose it (Luke 17:33). Interestingly enough, also in Luke Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26 ESV).

You might say, “That didn’t sound very eulogy virtue-driven to me!” Jesus is addressing what we could call the order of loves. Jesus is actually inviting us into a life where we can love those around us more than we could without him. To love Jesus more is to love others more, not less. Or, as theologian Rowan Williams says, “Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”

 

Vexation is overcome by finding our value and virtue in Christ, through abiding.

In John 15, Jesus teaches that those who abide in him produce fruitful lives. Abiding in Scripture is basically staying with Jesus as we navigate through life; allowing his Spirit to shape who we are and how we live. When he is the source of our lives, our longing for wholeness and purpose are finally connected to the Lord who established it in the first place. Vexation is overcome by finding our value and virtue in Christ, through abiding.

Reflection

“…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law… (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV).

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5 ESV)”

Questions

Does the fruit of the Spirit characterize the current condition and position of my heart?

What are some practical ways that I can learn to abide more in Jesus?

Read

John 15:1-12

1 Corinthians 13:1-7

  1. Brooks, David, The Road to Character, (New York, NY, Random House, 2015), xi.

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