A Time for Tearing Down

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a (ESV)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11Fall, and the beginning of another school year, always raises within me a desire to take stock of my life and to make changes; how I spend my time, organize my days, even in how I organize my garage. It tends to be a time when I clean, reorganize, and reorient my life as I settle into another schedule-driven season.

This past weekend, we cleaned out our garage, and it led me to think about Ecclesiastes 3. For as long as we have lived in our current home, our garage has been littered with balls, bikes and other riding toys, buckets of sidewalk chalk, pool toys and other child-centric items. Many of these smaller-kid toys, some having lived in our garage for 10 years or more, were relegated to the Give Away Pile this past weekend. There was once a time for all of this, but now that time is dwindling. The time is at hand for moving on.

The very next day, I had occasion to hear Ecclesiastes read aloud; a verse that I usually don’t think much about leaped out at me:

“A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.”

Gathering stones together is a biblical reference to building a memorial to some significant event, typically some form of deliverance. In Joshua 4, just after Moses has died and the mantle of leadership has been shifted to his right-hand man, Joshua leads the Israelites out of their 40-year desert wandering and into the land God has promised, through the miraculously-parted waters of the Jordan River. As soon as the entire nation has crossed the river on dry ground and they are standing on the other side, God tells Joshua to have the people, one man from each of the 12 tribes, go back into the river bed and choose a stone from the midst of the Jordan, and to “lay them down where you lodge tonight” (Joshua 4:1-3). They are told to “take a stone upon your shoulder,” which tells me these aren’t small pebbles, but more like larger boulders, something that would take effort to pluck out of the muddy river bottom. With these 12 boulders, Israel created a stone pile designed to stand as a memorial to what God did for them that day, bringing them safely into the Promised Land.

The Bible speaks often of creating visual reminders for the ways in which God is faithful to His people. Painting the blood of the sacrificed lamb on the doorways at Passover was another way the Jews reminded themselves of God’s protection during that terrifying night in Egypt when God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian home, but “passed over” the homes of the Israelites whose homes were marked as such (Exodus 12).

But what does it mean to cast away stones? Why would we be told to get rid of these wonderful reminders of God’s faithfulness?

The thing is, the Israelites didn’t just build stone memorials to God. All throughout the Old Testament, God’s people regularly veer away from Him and begin to build altars to other gods, worshipping various idols and tribal deities of the neighboring people. Time and again, kings and prophets faithful to God tear down these altars, crush the stones that were used to erect it, and attempt to obliterate these memorials to idols. Time and time again, these faithful kings and prophets are followed by yet others who rebuild altars to the gods of their time, the gods worshipped by the prevailing culture that surrounds them. So it would seem that worshipping false gods is very much a part of the fallen human condition.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that we do the very same thing. The temptation to build our own version of “stone memorials” in our own hearts to the prevailing gods of our culture is strong:

  • We worship being slim and looking good. While God calls us to live our lives focused on others (John 15:12-14; Hebrews 13:16), the bathroom scale or even my FitBit can become a visual reminder to me to focus on me and my physical appearance, prioritizing my time and money in me-centric ways.
  • We worship money. Jesus tells us that God will care for our basic needs (Matthew 6:19-34), but our bank accounts and investment statements can become stone memorials we prefer to worship as evidence of our financial security.
  • We worship the perfectly-appointed life. God’s Word tells us that the things of this world will disappear (Ecclesiastes 1:1-18), but Pinterest can become, for me, a temptation to believe that if I just had a more attractively-decorated home with all the right furniture, I would be more happy.
  • We worship relationships. God tells his people to worship Him and Him alone (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), but we all too often look to others to be our god, sacrificing truth to maintain relationships we think we can’t live without.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that seasons don’t last forever, and from time to time, things will change; they need to change. Often enough, it’s God Himself who brings about the change…and we have no control. There is a time to be born, and a time to die, and God alone directs those times. But this passage, I think, is also a call to occasionally stop and take stock of what is most needed in our lives.

Just as we need to regularly reorganize our garage, it’s good to stop every so often and reassess our lives on a global scale. Where are we going wrong in terms of how we are spending our time or our financial resources? What relationships do we have where we’re not being as honest and transparent as we should be? What are we hanging onto that needs to be thrown away? Are there areas of dysfunction that have crept into our lives to which we haven’t been paying attention? Have we stopped looking to God as our source of comfort, security and contentment, and instead begun to pursue happiness elsewhere, piling up stones of remembrance…to a false god?

Fall is a great time to slow down and take a good look around you. You may well find that there are reminders of God’s faithfulness in your life that you’ve been ignoring, overlooking them in the rush of daily life. Maybe this is simply a time to be reminded of the many ways God is present in your life. Or, you may look around and realize it’s a time to reorganize priorities. Maybe you need to repent of not reading your Bible, and set up a quiet time for yourself. Maybe you need to pursue relationship with other Christians to help keep you accountable, and now is the time to join a small group. Maybe there’s a relationship you have that’s not healthy, and you need to speak hard truth, to yourself and to the other person.

Wherever God has you this season, I would simply encourage you to pray with me over the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes 3 and, as you do, ask Him to lead and direct as He sees fit.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NIV)
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

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