May 17, 2024

How God Uses Routine to Shape Us

6 Min Read

In the middle of Ecclesiastes 3 we read a puzzling statement: “God seeks what has been driven away” (Eccl. 3:15). People have interpreted this verse in different ways, some suggesting that Solomon comments here on the nature of God, who pursues the outcasts of society. Theologically, it is true that our God cares for the lowly and shows compassion to the humble. But the context of Ecclesiastes 3 hints that this is not the meaning of verse 15.

The whole of Ecclesiastes 3 is about our relationship with time. It begins with a poem, through which he teaches our inability to master the seasons (Eccl. 3:1–8). He then explains the reason for this reality: God is in control of the clock, and our vulnerability should cause us to fear Him (Eccl. 3:9–15). Finally, Solomon uses justice as an example—when righteousness does not come at the right time, we are reminded again that we are not God (Eccl. 3:16–22).

In this context, it seems that verse 15 speaks in some way about the nature of time. The Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) offers an insightful interpretation: “God restores that which is past.” I think this is the sense of Ecclesiastes 3:15. Not only does God ordain the passing of time, but He keeps bringing the same seasons before us. Times of sorrow, times of rejoicing, times of planting and of reaping—we experience them all, and then we experience them again. This is the way of God’s providence. We see it not only across the seasons, but from hour to hour. At the end of each Sunday, Monday comes. A new week brings the same challenges, the same victories, the same blessings. God has designed the passing of our lives to feel strangely circular: eat, sleep, work, repeat.

But why has He done this? Within the context, Solomon explains that our inability to master the seasons is supposed to drive us to fear God (Eccl. 3:14). In a similar way, the repetitive nature of life is purposeful. It is God’s wisdom that we should live according to various expressions of routine. Revisiting the same struggles, the same experiences, the same seasons is a way in which God instructs our hearts to submit to His reign.

Understanding this truth is important if we are to make the most of the time that we have. We do not want to look back with regrets, but rather to say that by God’s grace we lived to the praise of His glory. We must learn to embrace what is past as God brings it before us again.

The Value of Routine

How, specifically, does God instruct our hearts through repetition? Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon explains that the best we can do is to embrace the life that has been set before us (Eccl. 2:24; 3:12, 22; 8:15). We are not God; we cannot control all things. We must learn our place within the economy of life and choose contentment with our lot.

This is easier said than done. I don’t enjoy the alarm clock sounding early on a Monday morning. I wouldn’t choose times of sickness or ill-health. I want to avoid life-altering tragedies. Even when my lot is good, it is difficult to embrace the life that God has set before me because my sinful tendency is to make too much of the blessing. I am prone to worship the gift, not the giver. Ecclesiastes seeks to lead us in the path of wisdom—one wherein I submit to divine providence and humbly accept my circumstances with reverence toward my Creator.

Time is a particularly effective tool that God uses to teach us this wisdom. As He ordains the repetitive nature of life, with many seasons of lament, recurring seasons of joy, and frequent expressions of everything in between, God provides for us countless opportunities to learn. Every Monday morning is another chance for me to refrain from grumbling. If I fail, God is patient. Next week I can try again. If I respond well, I have grown in wisdom. My life is richer for it, and next Monday will be a blessing. God brings back each season to help us learn how to respond to His providence.

The Danger of Novelty

The time in which we live poses challenges to this dynamic. Like Solomon, we often pursue pleasure in the wrong way. We try to experience happiness, comfort, and joy through novelty. Social media feeds are governed by algorithms that give us new content by the second. Seeing the same post twice would be boring. Novelty satisfies. Career mobility is higher than ever. Working the same job for more than a few years seems monotonous. A new environment, a new company, a new role is exciting. When any area of life feels a little jaded, the solution is change. Rather than seek out what has been before, we go searching for novelty.

Knowing that He has ordained life’s routines as a means by which we grow can help us to embrace the circumstances that God has set before us.

The problem with this way of living is that it runs contrary to God’s means of instruction. His design is for us to experience the reality of each season many times over. God wants us to learn the way of contentment and live as those who fear Him. When we pursue novelty, we rob ourselves of opportunities to grow in wisdom. We give to ourselves only one opportunity to respond well before moving on. More than that, we avoid those struggles that only manifest themselves with time and fail to develop the skill of honoring God when the excitement fades.

This is not altogether different from Solomon’s efforts to escape reality. He tried to create for himself a version of Eden that was not real but concluded that it offered nothing (Eccl. 2:1–11). The sad irony of pursuing endless expressions of novelty is that we strip even the new of all enjoyment. Every experience is just another point on a clustered map. Nothing is meaningful because novelty has made us numb. Not only have we forfeited contentment, but we have not learned to fear God.

The Beauty of Each Sunday

How can we learn to submit to God’s sovereignty over the seasons? How can we embrace His providence in the repetitive rhythms of life? Simply being aware of God’s design is important. Knowing that He has ordained life’s routines as a means by which we grow can help us to embrace the circumstances that God has set before us.

We can also look to some more tangible expressions of God’s grace to provide us with anchor points that inform our understanding of everything else. For the Christian, Sunday worship is perhaps the most fixed expression of routine in the week. Every Lord’s Day, the disciples of Jesus gather—where else would we be? What is more, when Sunday comes, we worship just as we did before. We sing the same old songs, we rehearse the same glorious gospel, we sit again under the preaching of God’s sufficient Word. Here, the temptation to seek novelty is less. We understand that part of the value of each service is bound up in its familiar nature. The beauty of every Sunday stems from two thousand years of church history. It is a testimony to the faithfulness of God, the glory of His Son, and our eternal security in Him. As we embrace God’s design through repetition on a Sunday, we learn to fear Him. Every Lord’s Day, we worship in spirit and truth, responding to our Creator with reverence.

That this happens on the first day of the week is not incidental. We should project the beauty of Sunday’s routine across everything that follows. The light of the Lord’s Day should inform every other routine. Though neither the daily commute nor the weekly yard work is as charged with historical significance, nevertheless they mark the passing of time and provide an opportunity to learn. As we joyfully accept the reoccurrence of Sunday’s gathering, we should also see that Monday’s routine is a gift from God. Changing another diaper, emptying the trash again, taking another call at work—these are expressions of divine providence that flow out of God’s love for us in Christ. If we pursue every routine in response to the truths we rehearse on the Lord’s Day, they quickly become means by which we worship, and so fear. And if we navigate every season as an expression of providence, marked by the certainty of Sunday’s gathering, we learn to embrace the life that God has set before us. In times of great sorrow and of abounding joy, we are content because we eat, sleep, worship, repeat.