Living Confidently in the Sick Society

The following photograph is one that I took at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the Cincinnati Museum Center in February 2013 with their permission to display it on a blog for personal use. This is a series of small idols which were found in the outlying towns of Israel and Judah during the time of the Old Testament prophets, and it corroborates their declarations about what was happening in their times. In their day it was literally a ‘build your own god’ movement out of wood, stone and clay, and their choices were for a Yahweh with the characteristics of a pagan god and only the name of the one true God. Or the idols show that they would make their preferences for one or more of the pagan gods around them who wasn’t as picky on matters of personal morality and integrity as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

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The prevalence of idolatry in ancient Israel and Judah during the time of the Old Testament prophets is a factor which is often rightly mentioned in current preaching and teaching as the reason for the judgment of ancient Israel and Judah. This judgment of God culminated in the destruction by the Assyrians of the northern kingdom of Israel, centered in the city of Samaria, in 722 B.C.E., then in the destruction of Judah in two phases, in the judgment from the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib which destroyed the outlying cities and towns but which God stopped short of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E., and then in the final destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under their emperor Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. And certainly idolatry was at the heart of God’s indictment against Israel and Judah during these years.

There was, though, another count in the indictment which often goes overlooked: the decline in personal honesty and trustworthiness and the pervasive cheating and deceit in business matters and personal matters among his people. These were indications of how far they had departed from the one true God, and their society became more and more sick as a consequence.

The prophet Micah saw the decay of devotion to God around him and the decay of his society, and spoke strongly to the people in his day about the consequences that would come because of it. He lived about seven hundred years before Christ, and he spoke to the people of Jerusalem, in the southern kingdom of Judah, which had become a house divided and a society at war with itself. The root was that they had neglected and then abandoned God. The consequence was that sins against God had infiltrated into all aspects of their lives, and this was defiling and destroying civil institutions and families. And to those in the midst of this situation, Micah gave them guidance on the need for godly wisdom that their circumstances made more necessary than ever. Their times were difficult, and growing more difficult, but the times were certainly not hopeless. The greatest reason for hope always remained, in the almighty, all loving and all wise God of Israel, the God of the Bible. So in all that they were experiencing as their society started to crumble around them, what was called for was not despair and despondency but rather a continued faith and a confident expectation of the mighty intervention of God himself.

These words of Micah still speak to us today, because we see the same kinds of conflict happening, and the same kinds of sins still infiltrating our society and causing decay and rot throughout. While many cast off restraints in their self centered definition of freedom, there is still the same hope in the God of the Bible for each one who has been born again of the Spirit of God through faith in God, and that means that there is always good reason to remain steadfast in faith in God. Even though scripture does indicate that society will become sicker to the point of terminal illness as the end approaches, there is still every reason to remain confident in God. This is the direction for the attitude and actions of the people of God in all ages, from the encouragement of the prophet of God to remain faithful to god, and from the personal declaration of the prophet himself of his own abiding faith and expectation in the God of the Bible.

“How much heartbreak is mine!
I am like someone gathering fruit in summer, like someone picking the last few grapes of this year’s vintage,
There are no grapes to eat, no early figs for the longings of my soul.
The people who were serious about God have been obliterated from the land, and there is no one left with a modicum of honesty.
Everyone left waits in murderous ambush, each one waits for his brother with a net. The highest bureaucrat expects favors,
The judge wants bribes, and the political bosses dictate their own whims,
They all make their little plots and schemes together. The best one among them is like a briar, the most honest one like a prickly hedge.
The day your watchmen predicted, the time of God’s judgment, has come, now is the time that they all get lost in their own confusion.
Do not put your trust in a neighbor, do not even trust someone that you may know well.
Even with the wife who is in your close embrace watch your words.
Because a son shows contempt for his father, and a daughter places herself above her mother
And a daughter in law places herself above her mother in law, and so a man’s enemies are the people in his own dwelling.
And so I am looking for the LORD, I am waiting for God my Savior!
My God will hear me!”

(Micah 7:1-7, Dale’s translation).

The people of God must live wisely in the midst of the sick society. Dissatisfaction with the circumstances can mean an honest lament over where things have deteriorated, but still there is wisdom from God available, even when there is disappointment and disillusionment with other people as we live our lives in the middle of the sick society. The people of God can look out upon all the deterioration and depravity and yet find that there is a path of wisdom from God for them in the midst of all that. The circumstances are heartbreaking, though, to the person who knows God.

The deterioration of society to become the sick society is one where even the institutions intended to restrain evil and wrongdoing become accessories to the performance of evil. Rampant sin means the perversion of justice in those offices which were intended to preserve justice. While there has always been some injustice in human society, something can happen where someone realizes that he or she is living in the sick society, and this realization breaks the heart when it comes. All that is left is a lament for civil society as it is. 

The prophet begins with a lament, about how it seems like all the good stuff is all used up and all the good times are gone, and that he is left with nothing around him that gives him hope:

 “How much heartbreak is mine!
I am like someone gathering fruit in summer, like someone picking the last few grapes of this year’s vintage,
There are no grapes to eat, no early figs for the longings of my soul.”

The prophet is feeling like everything good has been sucked out of life. His ministry began in the time of Jotham, one of the godly kings of Judah who reigned in Jerusalem as his capital city, continued during the long reign of Ahaz, who was one of the most ungodly and incompetent kings from the line of David to reign in Jerusalem, and concluded during the time of Hezekiah, who was one of the most godly kings from the line of David. He seems to lived and prophesied roughly about the same time as Isaiah, but may not have lived until the time of the invasion of the Assyrian king Sennacherib that Isaiah 36-39 describes, and which happened in 701 BCE. This description of his disappointment may reflect the realization that the good times for the kingdom which happened in the early years of Hezekiah were going to come to an end, that the restoration and revival which had come with Hezekiah would give way to the judgment on the outlying cities and towns of the nation of Judah.

This description is of his emotional reaction to the sin of his people and the coming judgment of his people. He expresses this with the traditional poetic form known as lament. Earlier he had begun this book of prophecy with a lament and the lament in this current passage is reminiscent of lament of 1:8-16. Though his lament was a traditional poetic form, it is nevertheless heartfelt, and with it the prophet shows the scriptural response to heartbreaking circumstances that he was seeing. In his own society he was seeing a sick defiance of God which was daring God to take action and do something. In fact he shows us that for a godly person, witnessing a decline in personal morality throughout one’s own society is something well worth mourning over, and it is something that is worth giving one’s own heart into grieving over the evils that must provoke the holy God of the Bible as well.

We always want the joy and happiness in life, but if we look at the world and our times with the lens of scripture, we may find great reasons for sadness and sorrow. That’s why there is such a strong current of lament in the Old Testament Psalms and prophets, and why you also see lament in the New Testament also. It’s the appropriate emotional and spiritual reaction when a godly person looks out and sees a decline in godliness around himself or herself. And certainly there will be times when churches and societies increase and decrease, prosper and decline, as time goes on. So the reaction of disappointment and grief to the decline and impending judgment of God is as appropriate to godly people as satisfaction, peace and joy when the gospel spreads, people come to Christ and the church is built up. Somewhere some people get the idea that following Christ means nothing but joy, peace and happiness and that there’s something wrong with us if we experience disappointment and grief in this world. But that’s looking for the cause in the wrong place often enough – for a godly person looking out at this world the disappointment and grief may well be the sign of something really right with himself or herself – the growth in personal holiness and being able to look out at this world with a focus based on and guided by the absolute holiness and righteousness of God himself.

”The people who were serious about God have been obliterated from the land, and there is no one left with a modicum of honesty.
Everyone left waits in murderous ambush, each one waits for his brother with a net.”

Micah lamented the loss of the people who were serious about God from those who were supposed to be the people of God. His contemporary Isaiah lamented the same thing (Isaiah 57:1-2 59:1-12 for the lament). They may have been thinking about the loss of faithful, believing Israelites such as Barzillai the Gileadite (II Samuel 17:27-29, 19:31-39). What they were seeing were that the generation which had remained faithful from the days of Jotham through the reign of Ahaz to the reign of Hezekiah were dying off, and the generation which had grown up during the reign of Ahaz were gaining ascendancy. They were seeing the generation which had known previous security was giving way to a much more self concerned, self seeking and rapacious generation – those who were the children by relation shared little of the faith of their fathers. While there will always be such individuals in families who do not follow the faith of their parents, the prophets of God realized that some kind of line had been crossed in Israel and Judah during their lifetimes. And soon the judgment of God fell upon Israel and Judah: first upon Israel in the days of Hezekiah, in 722 BCE, and then upon Judah through the Assyrians later in the reign of Hezekiah, in 701 BCE.

The tripwire for the coming judgment was given as the withering of personal morality and trustworthiness in comparison to the standards of God which were held up in the Word of God. The judgment would come not just for the rampant idolatry and the attendant sexual immorality which had grown in the past generation (the connection in the ancient world between idolatry and sexual immorality was well known throughout the Old and New Testaments). The judgment would come for the cheating lifestyle: the person who is trying to cheat God out of his due glory under the Word of God that “You shall have no other gods before me,” his family out of their due honor and loyalty under “You shall not commit adultery”, and fellow human beings out of due honesty and fairness under, “You shall not murder . . .  you shall not steal . . . you shall not bear false witness . . . you shall not covet.” It would not be too much to say that one of the greatest generations had become the cheating generation.

This is a common and pernicious delusion that can take hold of a person, a family, a generation, a nation: that God doesn’t care about my personal integrity. From this delusion even the people who may claim to know the holy and righteous God of the Bible may descend to taking unfair and immoral advantage of others and using others for one’s own benefit at their expense. Yet this does come from idea that a person can build your own God. The people of Israel and Judah had come to the point where they thought that they could building a God for their own tastes from bits of the God of the Bible and the pagan gods from the people around them. So they came up with a God who looks the other way and doesn’t care about sin – not a holy God who cares about the holiness of his people. And unfortunately, this has been the same delusion that has infected believers throughout the ages, from professed believers in the USA around the late 1800s and early 1900s, to the late 1960s to the late 1970s, and now since the past decade as well.

The prophet then went on to expose how the decline in personal morality among those who were to be the people of God in Israel and Judah was corrupting the institutions of civil justice. The corrupt ruling class would lead the way for the nations which were heading insanely into the judgment of God.

“The highest bureaucrat expects favors,
The judge wants bribes, and the political bosses dictate their own whims,
They all make their little plots and schemes together. The best one among them is like a briar, the most honest one like a prickly hedge.
The day your watchmen predicted, the time of God’s judgment, has come, now is the time that they all get lost in their own confusion.”

Micah was describing what was happening with corrupt ruling class over the people of God and how they were daring the judgment of God. Isaiah also decried this, and and spoke about the coming time of judgment from God (1:23, 10:1-4). Micah’s words echo of his more graphic indictment of the predatory leaders earlier in his prophecies, in 3:1-12.

“And he says,
“’Hear now, you leaders of Jacob, and you judges of the house of Israel,
isn’t it proper for you to know justice,
you who hate what is good and love what is evil?’
. . .
‘Hear this, heads of the house of Jacob and judges of the house of Israel,
who detest justice and pervert all that is right,
who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice?
Her leaders render judgments for a bribe, and her priests pontificate for profit,
her prophets read tea leaves for money.
Yet they still rely on the LORD as they say,
‘Isn’t the LORD in our midst? Nothing bad will come upon us.’””

(Micah 3: 1-2, 9-11, Dale’s translation)

The ruling class of ancient Israel and Judah, the corrupt officials whom Micah and Isaiah addressed, did not have just a secular responsibility to the nation. While in the Old Testament there is some sense of the consent of the governed, but also the ultimate responsibility of the government and the ruling class in particular was their responsibility to God and the Word of God. In the most real sense the only true theocracy the world has ever seen as was ancient Israel, especially under the godly kings, and the times of godliness were the times that the nation looked back to as the golden ages, especially the times of David and Solomon. What happened was their sense of responsibility to God and their people gave way to a cynical ‘What’s In It For Me?’ mentality, where doing anything at all in connection with their responsibilities for honesty, fairness, justice and mercy under the Law of God gave way to not doing anything except what was in their own personal advantage. But the judgment of God would come upon them, and the mark of the judgment would be their own cluelessness and their own confusion as things started to turn against them.

This abuse of human institutions meant to protect the weaker from the stronger came through the disappearance of godly and honest people from the ruling class as it became more and more corrupt. Those who were in the place of judgment and enforcement of justice themselves were falling into the deceit and greed of the society as a whole, of the society which had neglected, disregarded and disdained the God of the Bible. The corrupt ruling class were using their positions for the pursuit of personal gain and cashing in, and as such were a bitter disappointment to those who were still around who still trusted and followed the God of the Bible.

The injustice in the sick society is very much the responsibility of those in authority, of the corrupt ruling class: the responsibilities of the office are discharged no better than the personal morality of the officeholder. Too often men and women even within the people who claim to know and follow the God of the Bible have shown far too little concern over the moral convictions and personal morality of public officials, whether those officials were elected or appointed. Yet the personal moral compass of those officials has a great bearing on whether the execution of the office becomes the enforcement of genuine Biblical justice and mercy in line with the God of the Bible or the enforcement of the whims, pipe dreams, folly and immorality of others. Yet compare the reason why Governeur Morris encouraged George Washington to become accept the presidency of the United States during its infancy: “The exercise of authority depends upon personal character. Your cool, steady temper is indispensably necessary to give firm and manly tone to the new government.”

This shows very much the corrupting power of sin. Sin can turn the people in the institutions, both religious and secular, intended by God to restrain sin, into the weapons of its own warfare. And this infection of sin in the cheating generation can weaponize the civil and even the religious leaders and institutions to speak and act contrary to the righteousness and holiness of the God they claim to serve. So then, even within the professing church of Jesus Christ, within the vocational ministry and denominational hierarchy, the infiltration of this subtle idolatry, to make the generation following a faithful generation the cheating generation, can defile the ministry of church leaders. This same kind of ‘What’s In It For Me?’ mentality can infect the church as an institution as well within the vocational ministry and a denominational hierarchy. And the cheating infects the professing church as well when its leaders start to follow the idolatries and follies of the cheating generation. And the decline begins as the presence of the holy and righteous God begins to withdraw from ministries, churches and denominations which once reflected his character and experienced his power to save to the uttermost.

This shows, then, another pernicious delusion that often takes hold of those who seek and attain political power: that God doesn’t care about how I deal with others in the conduct of my civic responsibilities. It is the delusion that my personal morality and integrity in the execution of my office do not matter before God. The ruling elite becomes influenced by the behavior of others in the ruling elite – they can see others of the cheating generation doing what God has condemned, and they then eagerly follow them to make sure that they get their own pieces of the pie. And indeed so many times this abuse of political power for personal gain becomes rampant simply because  those in power and part of the ruling elite see others ‘getting away with it’ and they simply want to do what they can to get their part of the undisclosed benefits. Giving and receiving bribes and working to keep on funneling benefits to myself and my family at the expense of others becomes a normal way of life among the ruling elites.

So this build your own God mentality  can come up with a God who looks the other way and who does not care about the integrity and justice of those who pursue and receive political power. It can change within one generation, when a faithful generation gives way to the cheating generation. But this politics for personal profit will ultimately be exposed, according to the words of Jesus himself in Luke 12:2: “For there is nothing which has been concealed which will not be brought out into the open, and hidden which shall not become known.”

But this is not the whole story yet — the prophet of God then went to describe how deeply the decline in personal morality was infecting the family of the cheating generation. What was happening was horrible betrayals, with family members ratting out each other, so that no one could ever be certain of the loyalty even of a spouse. In the sick society, even family and friends are of little or no support. When the loss of truthfulness and integrity penetrates a nation and a generation, it means the loss of trustworthiness, and so within the family itself there is rampant betrayal and conflict.

“Do not put your trust in a neighbor, do not even trust someone that you may know well.
Even with the wife who is in your close embrace watch your words.
Because a son shows contempt for his father, and a daughter places herself above her mother
And a daughter in law places herself above her mother in law, and so a man’s enemies are the people in his own dwelling.”

The infiltration of the trend of society into the family circle makes the family a prime area of conflict in the cheating generation. Where there should rather have been mutual love and respect, disrespect and conflict are rampant among the cheating generation. What the prophet is describing is role reversal –  where personal arrogance results in contempt and disdain for family members and ultimately the betrayal of family members. And as far as what would be expected to be normal and praiseworthy behavior – go to the book of Ruth and contrast the humility and respect of Ruth for  her mother in law Naomi with the behavior that the prophet describes here.

Yet there would be betrayal rather than support for family members among the depredations of the cheating generation against their neighbors, even to their closest earthly neighbors. Even more, the repeating pattern of deceit and aggression among the cheating generation means that family life itself becomes a bitter disappointment. The moral that the prophet drew was that even among one’s own family members the person who seeks to follow the God of the Bible must watch his or her words and be careful of what he or she says. Thus the godly person must watch his or her back even while he or she is standing for God in the middle of the cheating generation. It is a situation where love and fidelity are sacrificed, and anything you say can and will be used against you.

So this highlights another pernicious delusion that can come from the build your own God mentality: that God doesn’t care about my loyalty to my family members and how I treat them. I can still pursue my dreams and fantasies of plenty and power and personal glory despite what it means to my family members, my closest neighbors in this world. In fact, this drive to plenty and power and personal glory often builds greater disruption and conflict within families as ambitious and ruthless family members build unholy and unrighteous internal alliances for and against other family members with those who are outside the family circle. Instead of mutual love and respect within the family, having to deal with the repeated pattern of deceit and aggression means that family life itself, intended from the beginning by God to be a blessing, a source of enjoyment and happiness, becomes instead bitter disappointment and disillusionment.

And where there is lukewarm devotion to God at best among so many with only a vague kind of religiosity – the result seen in the past hundred years in the United States and the result of liberal theology that compromises and explains away Biblical truth and dead orthodoxy which fails to live out Biblical truth – it is no wonder that the restraining influence of the church of Jesus Christ wanes. Then the infiltration of tolerated and indulged sins into the family, the increase of material good without devotion to God, gives way to an onslaught of social evils. The children may only have the bad example of the mistakes, follies and sins of lukewarm parents, and they may fall into drugs, out of wedlock pregnancy, idleness and unemployment and despair and suicide. But the responsibility of each one before God remains, and he is there and he is not silent.

So the people of God who are standing for God in this situation find may this to be the way of wisdom with untrustworthy family members. They need to be extremely careful with what they say. The situation calls for guarded and carefully weighed words – to tell the truth but not necessarily full disclosure – as the shrewdness necessary for someone who has to watch his or her back in one’s own household. And even more, this is also noteworthy as one of the problems of a church that has probably grown too large, or a church which is declining, is that professed believers become untrustworthy as well among themselves. They fall into the habits and practice a lot of petty backstabbing and backbiting, sometimes with vicious little bits of second hand gossip that are decades old. But this becomes necessary in the wake of the build your own God mentality – it calls for extreme caution in dealing with those who can come up with a God who does not care if they bear false witness against and betray the members of one’s own family.

This, then, is also something especially that believers in Jesus Christ need to note. Jesus himself, during his earthly ministry as Prophet and Teacher, referred to these same verses and said that they would continue to be characteristic of times of persecution for his church afterwards:

“Do not think that I came to push peace upon the earth; I came not to push peace but a sword, because I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother and the bride against her mother in law, and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household. The person who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the person who love son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,  and whoever does not pick up his or her cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. The person who finds his life will end up losing it, and the person who loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).

During the times of the sick society and the cheating generation, there is still one thing left for the person who knows, trust and follows the God of the Bible. Despite the moral insanity of the sick society and the cheating generation, God himself remains an unchangeable and unshakeable source of security. No matter what, continuing in trust and confidence in God will always be appropriate. Only through God can discouragement, despondency and hopelessness be turned to hope, trust and confidence.

The faith that is secure in God looks forward to his intervention in the sick society. The people who follow the God of the Bible can then live with confidence in his wisdom, power, compassion and justice, and they can live with the realization that however bad the situation is and however bad it may become, God is greater than that situation, and he is never at a loss.

The prophet himself held up a lantern of the kind of faith in God that the situation was calling for:

”And so I am looking for the LORD, I am waiting for God my Savior! **
My God will hear me!”

The prophet showed the people of God to look to their God beyond all the circumstances and to wait for his solution, for his salvation in the midst of the sick society. He showed them to look to God, that whatever the wrong being done in the present, that God will judge and overrule that evil. Moreover, that time of waiting will also be the time of God’s patience in offering his mercy and the opportunity for repentance before he imposes his justice upon the unrepentant. The man or woman of God in these circumstances will then imitate the patience of God as he or she waits upon God, with the expectation that God’s wisdom will mean perfect timing for the time that he intervenes in the world that he created, which he rules and for which he takes the ultimate responsibility that justice will be served.

Note that the prophet had no schemes or resources for any changes in himself that he could do for the reformation of the sick society. The situation was so beyond the prophet and the people who followed the God of the Bible that all that they could look for was his solution to the sick society. So the prophet went on with the assurance that his prayers would make a difference since he was going to the God who would make the difference. He could say with confidence, “My God will hear me!”

As the sick society starts to unravel and disintegrate at the fringes and within, the way of the people of God has always been to trust in God and to seek him earnestly and diligently in prayer. No matter how difficult the times become, there is always an immovable basis of security in our God. He is the true and living God, the Almighty and the Eternal, who never changes. So then, he is our source of our confidence and security when we have been placed in the midst of the sick society. And the way of the godly then is to take refuge in prayer, to give full confidence to God in all the troubles of the current times. They turn to the one true God, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, since he will not betray or disappoint.

And this turning to the God of the Bible will mean turning away from the gods that we try to imagine out for ourselves. The statement of confident faith of the prophet exposes the problem with the ‘Build Your Own God’ mentality: the gods we build out of our own preferences and imagination can’t hear us. They aren’t real and cannot answer us. They bring out God’s continuous taunt to those who try to build their own gods: go ahead and cry out to them and see if they can save you. And those who try to build their own gods find out quite quickly that made up gods cannot save them in the time of trouble.

But the person who turns to the God of the Bible will quickly find that he is not like our imaginary gods at all. That person will find that the God of the Bible is quite willing to be called, “My God” by the people who give themselves entirely to him and seek to live in harmony with him throughout their lives. They will know that know that his presence gives the incentive to pray and the assurance of answered prayer, as they live with him and they grow closer to him in intimacy, love and trust. They will know that the God of the Bible is a God who genuinely hears the prayers of his people, and who trust that, “My God will hear me!” when they pray to him. They will know that there is no deficiency in his ability to intervene in our world and in our lives and in his willingness to hear and answer prayer. All that he was waiting for was the simplicity of faith that trusts him wholeheartedly, to receive his answers for our lives and our world. And this will then mean actual prayer to God who hears, in response to his many invitations to pray. It will mean that our prayers are not vague expressions of hope but the actual expression of our genuine faith and reliance on what God can do and is willing to do and will do. As A. C. Dixon once said, “When we rely upon organization, we get what organization can do; when we rely upon education, we get what education can do; when we rely upon eloquence, we get what eloquence can do; and so on. But when we rely upon prayer, we get what God can do.”

So the times of disintegration in the sick society are the times which simply call for continued confidence in God. Because of the eternal, almighty and faithful God, there is never a reason to give up any hope when we look out at the situation we see in our world. When we experience bitterness and disappointment because of what we see around us, it rather calls us to seek his intervention in our lives and in our world. The need is to continue to  be in prayer to the God who truly hears and answers prayer. No matter how difficult the times become, there is always an immovable source of security in our God. He is the true and living God, the Almighty, the Eternal, who never changes. Therefore he is the source of our confidence and security, and he becomes the one to whom we turn as well to change the sick society around us.

Then let us continue to pray to our God for a revival in our churches, that our generation and the generations to come may come to a full experience of God the Savior through his Son Jesus Christ. Let us ask for the transformation of our sick society through the mighty working of the Holy Spirit, first among the believers in our churches, and then among those who have not received his salvation in our society. Let us have that reliance upon God for his work of conviction, of cleansing and of reconciliation between God and man. Let us seek for the revival of the love of Christ among us to where we see the reconciliation and restoration of families. There are known cases of people who prayed for thirty and forty years for revival, and God did answer them and brought transformation. I would hope that we would not have to wait that long, but still we can persevere with the assurance that our God will hear us.

The God of the Bible remains the same despite whatever happens in the society around us. Thus his people can remain confident in him no matter what occurs, because he is faithful and mightier than every situation. And this calls us in our day, in our sick society, to continue to in faith and prayer in our day, to wait upon God because God will hear us.

So remain in prayer, and in the way of faith in God in the midst of the sick society. Continue to look for change to happen, from the God who know and changes the human heart, hardened and sick as it may be and as it may become in the sick society. Look for his revival and spiritual awakening to come upon our sick society.

And finally, each one of you, make certain that you have taken the most urgent and necessary step to place your deepest confidence and ultimate security in God alone. I mean make certain of your own eternal salvation before God  through Jesus Christ. Enter the reconciled fellowship with him through repenting of your sins and placing your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior now and for all eternity. Make certain that you can stand before God not because of anything that you have done but solely and entirely upon the death of Christ upon the cross for you, for your own eternal salvation. The security in God for all eternity is for those who have been reconciled to him through Jesus Christ. If you don’t know how to do this, simply take every word I have written in this paragraph and address it back to God in prayer, that that is what you want from him – eternal pardon and acceptance with him through faith in Jesus Christ alone – and state to him that you are now, at this very moment, repenting of all your sins and placing your trust in Jesus Christ alone for your eternal salvation.

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God’s Gift of a Normal Life

Updated!

There was once a woman who once complained to her mother of the many hardships that she had faced when she had been growing up. But she found that instead of the sympathy that she had been seeking, she received correction: “See here, I have given you life: that is about all that I will ever be able to give you – life. Now you stop complaining and do something with it.”

The woman who had complained of her hardships later went on to distinguish herself in many ways, once she had come to terms with her personal responsibility before God to make the most of what she had. And this is something also that is true, that life is something that each person possesses, but what develops does depends on that personal responsibility before God to live in his universe and take responsibility for that life.

The gospel of Jesus Christ does promise eternal life to those who come to him by faith to receive his salvation, but the grace of God relates not only to the grace demonstrated and given in salvation, but also to the good things of an ordinary life. The God of the Bible is no scrooge who begrudges people the normal enjoyment of ordinary things and a genuine satisfaction in ordinary circumstances. The ordinary good things are the gifts of what has been called the common grace of God, and all people on this world can enjoy them as a part of their common humanity. In fact, the ordinary good things of life are the remnants of the original goodness of creation since the fall and the expression of his goodness toward our world in his providential care and government of this world.

In the book of Ecclesiastes the Preacher addresses the righteous and wise, and tells them how to live in God’s universe. In this universe he sought out what was good, and drank of all that life had to give to its fullest in every way. From his life of God given wisdom he then imparted guidance that can apply to everyone on how to live wisely in God’s universe, in the midst of an ordinary life. And what he wrote comes to us today as part of God’s Word, and is relevant to us as well, as those who have come to faith in Christ for eternal life and in eternal relationship to the God of the Bible. The Preacher valued wisdom, talked wisdom and advised wisdom, and real wisdom, Biblical wisdom, living in God’s universe according to what God provides and legislates, underlies all he writes. No one really is sure who the Preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes was; it’s not totally unreasonable to believe that the traditional ascription to Solomon is on target, but it may well be another author writing as if he were Solomon, as some do think. But whoever the author really was, the book he wrote, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, continues to speak for us today and continues to express the wisdom he sought to give the people of God. It speaks for us as we may live now, as then, in times of affluence, pleasure and relative prosperity, and as we view the circumstances of our lives and come to ask the same question as the Preacher, “Is this really all that God has for us?”

“Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart, for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments always be white, and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the says of the life of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might; for there is no work, or device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest”  (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, King James Version).

God provides the good things of this life for proper enjoyment in a normal life. There are many things which he both permits and even wishes for our normal satisfaction in an ordinary life out of his overflowing goodness to this world. These are not just things that we would normally put on a pedestal and say that if we are living in them that we are being spiritual, but also many aspects of our lives which he has provided for us in his creation as part of our life in his world.

God shows his common grace to us first of all his provision for our physical lives. His common grace is behind the satisfaction of our physical needs for food, drink, clothing and shelter, and as the gifts of his common grace there is a real place for appreciation, enjoyment and satisfaction of his provision. This is the reason that the Preacher starts out with telling the wise and good among God’s people to enjoy God’s provision wisely.

In verses 7-8, where the Preacher is addressing the righteous and wise, who are in God’s hands, he tells them to enjoy the provision which they have from God’s hands. “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart, for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments always be white, and let thy head lack no ointment.” White clothing for the Israelites would have been good and clean clothing, but not necessarily rough work clothes, bread and wine are part of a normal meal, and anointing one’s head was a part of having a celebration. This is their food and drink and their good clothing, and they are to enjoy it without gloom or guilt, and with an attitude of joy and celebration. This is a common good, where a person who is living in faith and obedience toward the God of the Bible can legitimately and properly enjoy what God has given as a reward for one’s personal labor and those things which are allowed and certainly good in themselves as the gifts of God. This is legitimate scriptural sanction for making ordinary mealtimes and gathering together a daily celebration of the goodness of God and an expression of thanksgiving for his provision. This would also be a realization of God’s gracious approval of our legitimate and lawful daily labor for our provision in the path of our obedience to him, which is what the phrase means which the King James translates, “God now accepteth thy works.” So, the Preacher, speaking in the wisdom and power of the Spirit of God, tells the people of God that their daily work is a legitimate good, and enjoying the fruits of their labors in a kind of a daily celebration, is something that God takes pleasure in. God’s common grace in his provision through work and the fruits of labor is certainly part of the creation ordinance, and his provision is to be received with thankfulness and celebration.

This teaching of the Bible in taking pleasure in the provision of God is certainly throughout the Old Testament, and it carries through to the New Testament as well. One of the things that his enemies tried to bring up against Jesus Christ was that he came, “ . . .  eating and drinking . . .” (Luke 7:34) as he associated with the socially disapproved ‘sinners’ who needed to hear him and follow him. This enjoyment of God’s provision was also pointed out by the apostle Paul as a legitimate benefit for his messengers who lived by the support of the church: “Don’t we have the right to eat and drink?” (I Corinthians 9:4). And he went further to apply this line of teaching to all believers in I Timothy 4:1-5: “The Spirit asserts clearly that in later times some will depart from the faith and give heed to deceiving spirits and the teachings of demons, who will be hypocritical liars and who will be seared in their consciences, who will seek to prevent marriage and to abstain from foods which God has created to be received with thanksgiving by those who are believers and who have come to know the truth. For everything that God has created is good, and it is not to be pushed aside but to be received with thanksgiving, because it is made holy through the Word of God and prayer.”

Throughout the centuries since Christ, then, there have been many in the church of Jesus Christ who seem to have missed this clear line of teaching throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. There has often been an unreasonable asceticism with many believers who do not recognize the genuinely good things which God has given in their lives and taken legitimate enjoyment of them. But there is no guilt necessary in doing so, and there is no recommendation before God in personal deprivation for the sake of deprivation. A deprivation complex, in which believers can find it difficult to live without some sense of guilt in legitimate and lawful pleasures and some sense that God does not want them to enjoy his goodness, is something does not come from an appreciation of the work of the God of the Bible in his creation and providence. There may be some fear that this kind of enjoyment is or might lead to worldliness, or some idea that God prefers for his people to live in a second rate, mediocre life that lies behind a deprivation complex. Certainly there is need for giving to the poor, to use our surplus compassionately, to give for the furtherance of the gospel worldwide,  and even to allow for the loss of all material possessions out of loyalty to Christ in a situation of severe persecution, and often a wise frugality is necessary to keep our possessions from taking a dearer place in our hearts than Christ holds. Those are all part of scriptural teachings. Certainly a believer in Christ needs to stay from an ingratitude complex as well, and not recognize that the goodness of God’s provision comes from God and his gift to his people of the ability to create wealth (Deuteronomy 8:19). But there is no need for a deprivation complex, since that may actually be a kind of poverty mentality based on feelings of personal unworthiness more than the will of God, or a kind of exaggerated, super-spiritual conception of discipleship to Christ which sees all legitimate enjoyment of God’s provision in this life as a sinful materialism.

Even more, the church has often expressed this kind of deprivation complex toward many who have been in leadership. There has often been an expectation of poverty and deprivation toward those in leadership. Again, this might be out of an undue fear of materialism and worldliness, or an idea that a pastor or leader needs to have less than others in order to live by faith – and this has at times been reinforced by romanticized expectations from the biographies of legitimate Christian leaders. Certainly many leaders did go through times where they did have to trust God for their next meal, but there is no basis in scripture for believers or churches to withhold legitimate support from pastors and leaders when they have the financial means to provide. But what this comes down to  is for the leaders of the people of God, as well as the people of God, is to live in the goodness of God and to enjoy wisely the goodness of God.

Living in the goodness of God and wise enjoyment of the goodness of God will then mean a real satisfaction in what God has graciously provided. There will be less and less a desire for more and more, and a deepening trust in God that his provision has been sufficient and more than sufficient. So much of our desire for more and more comes from an idea that we deserve it or that we need it to keep up with or to surpass someone else on whom we have been keeping an envious eye. It will mean less attention to what someone else may have and more grateful attention and satisfaction in what God has provided.

I think that this kind of celebration of God’s provision must come from someone who is both praying for sufficiency and obeying the scriptural call for satisfaction in God’s provision. Here’s the prayer for God’s sufficiency:

“Two things have I required of thee,
deny me them not before I die:
Remove from me vanity and lies:
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with food convenient (sufficient) for me:
Lest I be full, and deny thee,
and say, Who is the LORD?
or lest I be poor, and steal,
and take the name of my God in vain.”

(Proverbs 30:7-9).

And here’s the command to satisfaction in God’s provision:

“Let your way of life be free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have, because he himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor abandon you’; so that with confidence you will say
‘The Lord is my helper,
I will not fear;
what can any human being do to me?’”

(Hebrews 13:5-6).

But there’s more to what the Preacher had to say to the wise and good among God’s people about God’s good intentions for them for their life in his universe. His intention is for family life to be a source of legitimate enjoyment and pleasure for his people. The goodness of family life, as God intended, was supposed to be a great source of enjoyment and satisfaction for his people. This is why the Preacher tells the wise and good among God’s people to pursue their marriages wisely.

In verse 9, the Preacher goes on to tell the wise and good men among God’s people to enjoy life with their wives: “Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the says of the life of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.” He takes it for granted that there is love between husband and wife in the marriages among the wise and good people among the people of God. Their parents and families would certainly have had a role in arranging the wedding and marriages among the Israelites that the Preacher was addressing, but there was a real place for love in marriages in the ancient world, and there was usually, outside the royal family, a place for refusal of a marriage to a person where there was no love. But the Preacher goes on, in the wisdom and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to tell them to enjoy life with their wives that they loved, and that their enjoyable family life needs to be at least shared good times. Though this life is not an end in itself, as the whole world and the life in this world is not an end in itself, but is considered vanity, an emptiness like a wind, there is a legitimate scriptural place for an enjoyable family life as part of God’s common grace to humanity. Though this world will often not make sense, that our efforts and goals will sometimes seem like they are simply vanity and an empty wind, God has provided in family life a source of shared satisfaction for his people.

The Bible is throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, full of this  understanding of marriage as a good thing as a part of the creation of God. This is the basis of the Preacher telling the people of God to enjoy marriage and enjoy life in marriage together. This is why God created marriage as part of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 1 and 2. This is why in Proverbs Solomon affirmed marriage as well, when he said, “ . . . rejoice in the wife of your youth . . .” ( Proverbs 5:18). And that is why we find in the Old Testament the Song of Solomon, the Biblical celebration of married love. But even more, we find that Jesus Christ himself affirmed the Old Testament teaching of marriage as part of the original, good creation of God as well: “From the beginning he made them ‘male and female.’ (Quotation and endorsement of Genesis 1:27). ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and join himself to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,’(quotation and endorsement of Genesis 2:24) so that there are no longer two but one.'” (Mark 10:6-9).

The development of shared good times is an often underemphasized bond of marriages, and it is something that many families and marriages need to consider and to work on, as part of God’s will for their enjoyment of the marriage and family he has provided. Too often marriages and family life may be sought as an escape from a bad family situation or upon the basis of shared pain rather than a legitimate fellowship of man and woman based upon good, desirable qualities and good times together. There is a real and proper concern for a couple to develop common interests and activities together and to appreciate each other’s good qualities together, and there is a real place for recognizing that this comes from God, the originator of marriage and family life: “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favor of the LORD” (Proverbs 19:22).

It bears mentioning, then, that this statement of the Preacher on the development of this foundation of shared good times and understanding of and appreciation for the good qualities of a potential spouse is the only scriptural basis that I can find for the practice of dating before engagement and marriage. That has been the cultural pattern since the 1920’s in the United States, and, I think, slightly earlier in some places in Europe. I’m not seeking here to offer a Biblical critique of this pattern as it has existed since then, since I think that scripture does not offer a set cultural pattern of how to get to marriage for men and women. If shared good times and an appreciation of the good qualities of a spouse can carry through into a sound godly marriage with continued and deepened shared good times and deepening mutual appreciation of the good qualities of both spouses, then it really can be said that God has blessed the pattern of dating, engagement and marriage as it has existed in the lives of those involved. The command of scripture is that “ . . .  marriage is to be honored among all . . .” (Hebrews 13:4), and honor to marriage most certainly means much more than warnings against sexual involvement before marriage. It certainly means marrying wisely and living in marriage wisely according to the Word of God.

My experience and observations, though, is that our churches have often done too far little to prepare the foundation for godly marriages among adolescents and young adults: there is too little preparation and guidance on marrying wisely, and I think that lies at the bottom of why so many marriages among believers have often gone on the rocks. Churches have often given far too little attention to the development of the godly character traits that make a person a good candidate for a spouse – the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and moving away from the meanness and selfishness that spoil many relationships. In our youth and college groups often leaders have treated couples who look physically attractive together, socially compatible and popular and who may date for a long time as being good candidates for marriage when those characteristics are insufficient in themselves for a lasting marriage. The conclusion is that because they look good together, they’re destined to be married eventually. Moreover, there has often been a childish, giggly obsessiveness among many, including some pastors, spiritual leaders and middle aged women, in our churches, for trying to ‘fix up’ single adults when such pressure and interference is neither welcome nor wanted.  And many professed believer as well approach dating, courtship, engagement and marriage as a path to fulfill dreams and desires that they have had since childhood, and which may have never been subjected to an adult wisdom and walk with Christ, or as fulfilling a set agenda of personal characteristics and timetable, and so on. And often enough, the preparation of marriage has been a few classes or counseling sessions after a couple has already become engaged, and then the time may be too late, as the engaged couple may simply continue stubbornly to a pending wedding and marriage when all the indications are that they are simply not marrying wisely. And marrying wisely is not necessarily something that easily happens for those who come through the social atmosphere of spiritual, social and emotional immaturity of many churches and youth groups, or if someone comes from a family background where there was not much understanding of what it takes for marrying wisely. And I’ll submit that one far underemphasized ingredient to marrying wisely is not to do so as the sole basis of one’s happiness, nor to fulfill one’s own selfish wants and demands in that relationship, but to glorify God in one’s own dating, courtship, engagement and marriage. And this is the reason for parents and churches to pray and seek wisdom for wise – not self pretentious, controlling or interfering — guidance and encouragement to young adults to marry wisely, so that they may show the glory of God in their dating, courtship and marriages.

But getting back to what the Preacher was saying, about enjoying life with one’s wife. Put into perspective, this would bring us back to the realization that marriage and family life is part of God’s provision for our legitimate enjoyment in this life. By itself it will not make anyone happy – that will come from God himself. Nor will it provide anyone with a way out of a broken past to someone who can and will carry you emotionally, independently of God –putting those expectations on anyone in marriage, to make you happy independently of God is making the marriage and the spouse an idol. But rather, this puts marriage into place as a good gift of God for the formation of a reasonably happy earthly life. This is like what Theodore Roosevelt said at the time of his re-election to the office of the Presidency of the United States: “As I went up the White House steps, Edith met me at the door, and I suddenly realized, after all, no matter what the outcome of the election was, my happiness was assured – that even though my ambition was to have the seal of approval put upon my administration might not be gratified, my happiness was assured – for my life with Edith and my children constitutes my happiness.”

The God of the Bible is no cosmic killjoy. Rather, he seeks for the legitimate good his people, and there is a legitimate enjoyment of good things that he gives in the circumstances of earth for the believer who is headed for heaven. Certainly there are the scriptural limitations that these things are not to captivate one’s heart to the loss of love for God, nor is there to be any unwillingness to sacrifice them for the sake of Christ and the gospel should persecution come. But in scripture there is definitely a legitimate enjoyment of what God has given, and there is no basis for an attitude of undeserved guilt or unworthiness of what God has given in his common grace in his creation nor an unscriptural disparagement of them for anyone who is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and living and keeping in step with the Spirit of God.

The blessings of the common grace of God, though, do require human effort for their development and enjoyment. That turns out to be part of the work that God has given all on earth to do, and that calls for more than a matter of fact attitude. And that’s what the Preacher goes on to tell the people of God. The enjoyment of the normal life that God gives calls for pursuing the activities of life with legitimate passion and enthusiasm. In whatever there is to do that is legitimate, lawful and good under the provision, care , there can be real passion and enthusiasm for pursuing it. There is no need for any kind of hard bitten cynicism born of a phony toughness nor languid passivity born of foolish dependency among the men and women who know the God of the Bible, but a real and deep enthusiasm and passion in their lives as they live in the universe of their God.

First, the legitimate, godly passion and enthusiasm for the normal activities of life means a wholehearted effort in whatever one does in this life. This effort is the realization that God has given the opportunity and the ability to pursue all this for the sake of God. And this means plunging into the legitimate tasks at hand without reservation from a reluctant asceticism, a baseless sense of unworthiness or a languid sense of being privileged or entitled not to have to put in passionate, diligent and enthusiastic effort.

In the first part of verse 10, the Preacher tells the wise and righteous among the people of Israel, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might . . .” This command to do the task at hand, with all one’s might, can be followed with passion and enthusiasm in all the normal tasks of life and in all the ways of faith and righteousness. Passion and enthusiasm come with the realization that that in these pursuits the blessing of God is upon his people. Though there may be tasks and pursuits that are in themselves hard and difficult at times, his people can rest assured that God is not working within that situation to stymie their efforts, to frustrate them and to give them a hard time, but rather that he is on their side and seeking to bless them in the midst of all that they find to do in his will. And again, this same thread of teaching continues into the New Testament as well, where it can be seen in what the apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father through him.”

This is where I part company with some Christian leaders who preach mournfully and gloomily about how hard it is to follow Christ. It isn’t hard to live the Christian life under your own power apart from the fullness of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible! But even more, where it’s often hard and practically impossible is where you may see living the Christian life as living to please other Christians and to live up to the artificial, impossible expectations of other Christians. Too often when it comes to some other believers, nothing you can do is ever right, because it isn’t what they would do in your situation or what they think you should do or what they have discussed behind your back and heard from or told others what you should do.

Rather, I’ve found that the God of the Bible is a lot easier to live with than many, many believers that I have known over the years, and he takes much greater pleasure and enjoyment in our passion and enthusiasm for the normal activities of the life in his world and the pursuit of his will than we would normally imagine. And I’ve also found that he takes greater displeasure in the antics of bitter and backslidden believers who attempt to throw obstacles and confusion in the path of believers who are pursuing him and his will with all their hearts than many, many of us would ever imagine. Usually it’s not hard to find this passion for the will of God in believers who have recently come to faith in Christ, but more often it’s much  harder to find in someone who has remained in spiritual immaturity for a long period, so much so, that it’s hard to find any evidence of a genuine salvation left in that person. So then, I would advise any professed believer who would try to throw obstacles, sabotage and confusion in the path of any other believer who is pursuing the will of God with all his or her heart to consider this terrifying promise, from the lips of Jesus himself: “It is necessary that stumblingblocks to sin would come, but too bad for the one through whom they are coming! It would be better for that person if a millstone were slung around his neck and he were to be cast into the sea than to trip up into sin one of these little ones” (Luke 17:1-2; see also Matthew 18:6-7 and Mark 9:42).

After long consideration, I think that this is a passage that I would preach on again at some point if I were to be in a position to preach again in a church which has a history of internal conflict and long declines. Jesus usually saved his most extreme language for these kinds of situations definitely to express how serious these situations are to God, and I’ve found that these verses do have a way of shocking the bitter and backslidden believers who out of their arrogance, self deceit and vicious cunning try to undermine and sandbag other believers in their passionate pursuit of the will of God. What it will be that will be worse than being thrown into the sea to be drowned isn’t something that Jesus spells out here, and I think that it may be the reason that we may not often see immediate discipline and judgment of the professed believer giving others a hard time for pursuing the will of God with all their hearts. The Lord Jesus may well be saving their comeuppance for the day that they see him face to face at his judgment seat, and that’s very definitely something to be very afraid of.

If, then, our leaders and churches are really seriously following the New Testament, our leaders and churches would be only a help to any believer, any follower of the God of the Bible, who is passionately pursuing the will of God. This is the specific assignment to the pastors, teachers and other leaders in Ephesians 4:11-16, and to the whole body of Christ in Hebrews 10:24: “ . . . and let us consider how to stir each other up to love and good deeds . . .”

In this verse, though, the Preacher probably was probably thinking primarily of daily work, and certainly the primary application is to one’s work, employment and vocation. I think that this provides a proper perspective and correction to the attitude many people have today. We look to work, employment and career too much to fulfill us, and I think that by far we have that reversed. Much of daily work may turn out to be tedious, boring and repetitive and therefore not really very satisfying or fulfilling. I think that we within the church need to approach this from the other perspective: that our life and work is to glorify God, and from there we can have men and women satisfied and fulfilled in God living out their work, employment, vocation and careers with passion. The truth is that when we expect to find our satisfaction and fulfillment in our career and employment, we make an idol out of our career and employment, and we will not ultimately find satisfaction and fulfillment there. I have personally witnessed the emotional meltdowns that have occurred in the lives of those who have given all their passion and energy to a corporation and a job and found that all that they had received had been just a series of paychecks. But I’ve never witnessed anything like this at all from anyone who has sought all his or her satisfaction and fulfillment in God and in living with passion to glorify God in all that they say or do.

In these verses the Preacher also provides guidance that also addresses a real need for many believers, and especially those from a dysfunctional family background, for a real passion and enthusiasm for pursuing the normal activities of life in the will of God with passion and enthusiasm. One of the marks of those who come from a dysfunctional family background (really dysfunctional, with real verbal, emotional and physical abuse, chronic unemployment, and long term addictions, not just ‘mildly’ dysfunctional) is the inadequate effort that they put into the duties and and projects of ordinary life. They have a tendency not to complete projects and develop their skills adequately to rise above the lowest levels of ineptitude and mediocrity. Their failures are due to immaturity and ignorance, often, as well as emotional barriers due to continuously hearing the voices of their past as they seek to transcend the brokenness of their past. They may not really understand the discipline and effort necessary to develop real skills and capabilities to live effectively in God’s will. But if you discover the enthusiasm and passion that can come from living in the grace and the will of God for even the boring, routine and ordinary activities of normal life, it’s possible to go beyond the sticky goo of your own background into the depths of knowing and experiencing the eternal and limitless goodness, compassion and wisdom of the God of the Bible. The goodness of an almighty, all wise and all loving God, who is for his people who are pursuing him and his will, can provide that extra push and enthusiasm. He can give that kind of deep motivation and passion for his people to go beyond the adhesive traumas of their past.

This kind of enthusiasm and passion in all the circumstances of life is something was evident in Peter Marshall, the great Presbyterian preacher and chaplain of the United States Senate during the dark years of World War II. At his funeral a seminary classmate said, “We studied and prayed and sang and preached together. God used my friend, and gave to him a joy in studying that proved that he outstudied us all; a joy in singing because he outsang us; and a joy in playing, because he abandoned everything when he could play. The truth is that he outprayed, outpreached and outplayed us. Why? Because he had sought and found delight in the doing of God’s will.”

And a real impetus to our passion and enthusiasm for living out God’s will in the daily activities of our normal life can come from the realization that there will be no second chances for life. Thus wherever anyone is, the fact is that there will be no earthly life to live over again. This means that each earthly opportunity must be lived to its fullest advantage.

And so the Preacher seems to end this paragraph at the end of verse 10, like so many in the book with a downer: “ . . . for there is no work, or device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” What he is saying is that there is no way to learn or for a do-over for the circumstances of life once a person has gone the way of the grave. Here the Preacher shows the limitation of the understanding that he had of the afterlife upon what the Old Testament of his time had to say. Though the Book of Ecclesiastes is difficult to place in the timeline of the Old Testament as to when it was written, I think that it’s safe to say that he either did not know or did not wish anyone to count on the indications of an afterlife and resurrection that appeared in the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel as a reason for not living for God in this life to its fullness. This would be consistent with the traditional authorship of Solomon. But even if the Preacher did have more awareness of an afterlife than is evident from that sentence – the assertions of the ultimate judgment of God of every deed with which the book concludes would seem to warrant a final judgment apart from our earthly, physical life – it would seem that this sentence is more about advising the people of God not to slack off in this life, because there will be no opportunity to live out the opportunities in this life once it is over. This would be more in accord with what the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:15-16: “Watch, then, how you pursue your life, not as fools but as wise people, as you take advantage of this time, because the days are evil.” This seemingly buzz-kill statement of the Preacher then can advise the believer in Jesus Christ to be serious about the consequences of his or her actions here on earth since there will be no second chances to take back and live over this earthly life.

The reality of heaven and the resurrection to come do not then end the need to have a reasonable seriousness about the importance of effort and wisdom in this life upon earth. The realization that there will be no second chances to live the life upon earth should bring us to greater thought and consideration to our actions. It should encourage us to the passion, effort and discipline of a personal investment into this life in the will and path that God has provided and in the power and wisdom which he provides. This means that best possibility of making the most of the chance that God has given his people in the ordinary circumstances and challenges of this life now. And this is the kind of effort that has been at the root of achievements like that of Michelangelo. He had been converted to Christ at the martyrdom of Savonarola, and had already been known as a great sculptor. A jealous rival recommended him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because the rival believed that Michelangelo could not become as great a sculptor as he had been a painter – but with his passion and enthusiasm, one of the world’s great masterpieces of art came to being.

Certainly God is sovereign, but it is a misguided view of his sovereignty, government of this world and providential care that degenerates into an unBiblical fatalism that human effort and consideration do not make a difference in the circumstances of the ordinary life in this world. And certainly there still needs to be a reasonable understanding of one’s own limitations, personal failures and sufferings – there will still be disappointment and heartbreak sometimes despite one’s best intentions and efforts – there is still much that enthusiasm and passion in the will of God can accomplish in the circumstances of this life, as a believer in Christ lives in the will of God. 

Therefore, churches, pastors and believers have been utterly right and truthful in holding forth the gospel of the saving grace of God over the centuries, and the  appreciation of his saving grace is certainly necessary for a full and joyful life in Christ. But there is also a greater need for the understanding and appreciation of the common grace of God, the expression of his overwhelming goodness in the ordinary circumstances of life, and that the good things that we enjoy now come from his hand as well. Though we continue to live in a fallen world, though sin may twist, warp and ruin the goodness of the ordinary things at times, this does not mean that God does not and continues to intend good for us through them. Even more, it means that others can continue to enjoy the gifts of his goodness without any guilt or shame even if we find ourselves not in a situation where we cannot enjoy them in the same way. Therefore, God himself, the source of all goodness, is not to blame if anyone may have missed some of the legitimate enjoyment of the goodness that he has provided for us in this life. Rather, this calls even more for wise passion and enthusiasm of the people of God to live and pursue the gifts of his common grace with wisdom and gratitude.

In this life, the sins of ourselves and of others may hinder, delay or even ruin our enjoyment of God’s goodness in our circumstances. But the saving life of Christ that brings the conquest of sin can often still open the door to the legitimate enjoyment of God’s goodness not only in his salvation to eternal life but also in the common, ordinary circumstances of life. Therefore be ready, the closer that you come to Christ, and the more victory over the sin and gloom of your own heart that you experience by the power of the love, joy and peace of Christ, to find a tremendous enjoyment even of the ordinary things around you, and to find a greater appreciation of the goodness of God that has come to you in those ordinary things.

But in the gifts of the common grace of God that come through his creation and providence, proper wisdom and effort is often necessary to make something out of the opportunities to enjoy his common grace. Certainly this means prayer for his wisdom and strength, seeking wise counsel from the truly wise among the people of God, and then applying oneself to the task at hand, and this while living in the presence of God, in submission to God and in deep appreciation of and gratitude toward God. Therefore apply prayer and effort as you trust God for the strength in Christ to glorify him in the ordinary things of life, since this shows faith in the goodness of God for the legitimate and godly enjoyment of the life he has given you on earth. But finally, before the enjoyment of anything in this life, there needs to come the matter of settling one’s own eternal destiny. So, the first step toward this comes down to entering the kingdom of God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ alone for your eternal salvation.