God’s Gift of a Normal Life


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.

Where Has a Generation of Psychology Based Family and Marriage Ministry Brought Us?

In the early 1970s, revival began to sweep a number of churches from different denominations in central Canada. Known as the Canadian revival, as the Holy Spirit swept through these churches, professed Christians were confessing their sins to God and man and entering into a fresh and revived relationship with God and with each other. Marriage and family reconciliation and renewal was a prominent effect of this revival. One teenager explained it this way: “When we saw our parents getting serious about right with God, we started getting with God ourselves.”

At about the same time, James Dobson started a new ministry called Focus on the Family. His commendable motive was, “Families are hurting.” The son of a Nazarene minister, he included a very definite focus on Biblical teaching and evangelical conversion, but also incorporated a number of aspects of secular psychology from his own background, most notably the self esteem teaching. Though for generations there had always been evangelicals who had degrees in psychology and psychiatry, since psychology itself had been part of the philosophy, religion or theology departments in many universities, the psychological perspective seemed to become a more prominent part of addressing marital and family issues than ever before, especially after the wide circulation of the film series “Focus on the Family” in the late 1970s to the early 1980s.

So, since the late 1970s, it’s seemed like when there are marital and family issues, the pastor, the Bible study leader and the Sunday school teacher have given way to the Christian psychologist – either through quotes, repetition / research  / plagiarism, or the use of media such as films and videos. Every day there are a number of programs on Christian radio stations with Christian counselors and psychologists that deal with Christian and family issues. So how effective have the Christian psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors been in dealing with family disintegration within the evangelical church? Anyone familiar with the occurrence of unreported abortions, unwed pregnancies, divorces and remarriages, affairs and parent/child discipline problems in most churches could say that there have been a number of individual success stories, but that by and large, the people who attend evangelical churches tend to be not very far behind the secular culture. The thing is that while families within our churches are still hurting, probably more of them are hurting now than a generation ago, and the explosion of psychologically oriented family and marriage ministries does not seem to have done that much to stem the tide.

Here’s where I think that we’ve lost something in our ministry to churches and families due to seeing the problems as having solutions that need to come from the psychologists. I think that we’ve lost the realization of what God himself can do by himself through the Holy Spirit in the lives of his people to produce family and marital reconciliation and tried to do more through a psychological orientation than the results overall would warrant. And I think that we’ve taken on far too many formulas based upon human insights – sometimes ultimately from secular sources that have a very different starting point than a Biblical understanding of the world and of God , mankind and sin —  and a direction based on human understanding, motivation and effort toward satisfaction in this life. So the emphasis seems to have shifted away from marital and family issues as being part of trust in and obedience to Christ as Lord, the disciplemaking ministry of the church, and the sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Even more, this can take the form in marriages and families of a psychologically based legalism and judgmentalism. This is where spouses, potential spouses and family members make performance based demands and judgments based upon what he or (more likely) she found in the writings or teaching of a Christian psychologist. And often enough, the other person has never had a chance to hear or read, understand or evaluate according to scripture these expectations and judgments of his or her personal failings, and so may be being pressured and browbeaten to behavior which he or she has not subjected the scrutiny of scripture or even his or her own conscience before God. So, in this way the Christian psychology and counseling ‘industry’ may unwittingly be actually instigating further conflict in families and marriages that are already shaky. And those who may have come out of failed marriages may thus be left with a deep bitterness on how the other person has failed him or her based on their lack of performance up to the expectations from the Christian psychology and counseling industry rather than a humble scriptural examination of his or her own failures and responsibilities.

Just as much, this may also form the often unstated goal of a psychologically based personal perfectionism.  Much of the goal of the pop psychology from the 1970s onward seemed to be directed toward the goal of being happy, perfect and complete in this life (see the goals of the California based Human Potential Movement) and pathologizing people who weren’t. So, the tendency is to give people the impression if they weren’t happy, perfect and complete, emotionally expressive and secure by the definitions of the Human Potential Movement there is something wrong with them that can and should be fixed. And often enough, there may be the idea that if someone is going through a difficult time, or even vaguely bored or dissatisfied, that there’s a solution to be found through pop psychology. And certainly the covers of so many books in the field seem to promise exactly that. So, the first thing that needs to be considered critically, in the light of what scripture says about this fallen world and fallen human nature, is whether there is an explicitly stated or heavily implied goal or promise of human perfectibility or being able to achieve a personal utopia in one’s family or personal life through the psychological diagnoses and formulas.

So, following are the ways in which I think that the psychological orientation falls short of what God has done through two millennia by the Word of God through the Holy Spirit.

The psychological orientation lacks the authority of scripture as the basis of change.

The basis of the psychological orientation comes down to research which came from fallible human beings. It may have been done according to the scientific method, but it still required fallible human beings to understand, interpret and pass on the results of this research. But sometimes it does come from other sources such as the southern California Human Potential movement or even Buddhism (Psychology Today magazine has featured the Dalai Lama on its cover before, for instance).

The danger is that this may wander into the error that Paul warned against in Colossians 2:8: “Watch out that no one makes a captive of you through philosophy and empty deceit according to the traditions of other people, according to the basic ideas of the world, and not according to Christ.”  Rather, the authority for the believer is the Word of God, and it is sufficient to make a believer complete in godliness without any support from psychology and psychiatry: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).

The psychological orientation lacks the overriding motive of love to Christ as the emotional impetus to change.

Too much of what I’ve heard from psychologically based teaching does not rise above mere human selfishness as a motive to change. The goal too often does not seem to rise above the desire for me to feel good and for me to get what I want out of my life, marriage and family. There is too little mentioned on the scriptural motive to do all this stuff out of love for Christ for the glory of God: “The person who has my commands and keeps the is the one who loves me; and the one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will manifest myself to him . . . If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. The person who does not love me will not keep my words, and the word you heard is not mine but that of the Father who sent me . . . In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so shall you be my disciples” (John 14:21, 23-24, 15:8).

The psychological orientation lacks the personal responsibility to Jesus Christ as Lord as the reason for personal responsibility to change.

Again, the tendency of much teaching from the psychological orientation is to furnish material for resentment and blame-shifting in personal relationships. Often, when it hits the natural stubbornness of human nature, the recipient does not apply it to himself or herself, but to others – the focus is not to what I need to do but what someone else needs to do or needed to do. And so, this becomes often enough, picking at the speck in another’s eye: “Why do you say to your brother, ‘Let me pick out the speck in your eye, and, look, there is a plank in your own eye? Hypocrite, first pull out the plank in your own eye, and then you will see clearly to pull out the speck in the eye of your brother” (Matthew 7:4-5).

Ultimately, though, the personal responsibility is rather to Jesus Christ personally, and this will mean taking not a ‘you first’ but a ‘me now’ where there are matters that someone needs to address: “But we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ , so that each one of us may receive for the deeds done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10).

The psychological orientation lacks the power of the Holy Spirit as the purifying power for change.

Ultimately, the psychological orientation relies upon the power of the fallen human nature to change. This means that it falls into the self effort / human performance trap of Galatians 3:3: “When you began with the Spirit are you now to be made complete by the flesh [the direction and power of fallen human nature]?”: Rather, the need is to find and live in the power of the Spirit of God to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ in our thoughts, motives, intentions, words and deeds: “But we all, reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Corinthians 3:18).

Something Unfashionable From an Unfashionable Old Evangelist . . .

“Listen, if I heard shrieks and cries coming from a house and I ran in there and I found a great big broad shouldered whiskey soaked Joe weasel, dragging his wife about by the hair, and over here, two children are unconscious from his blows and kicks and another one screaming in terror, do you think I would apologize for being there? No! I’d knock 7 kinds of pork out of that old hog.” —Billy Sunday

I recalled having read this quote many years ago, and it brought to mind that the memory that verbal and physical abuse of others was at one time more soundly confronted in the pulpits of churches and in evangelistic campaigns as a terrible sin. Certainly Billy Sunday is more a figure of caricature to the few believers nowadays who remember his name; his blunt preaching and physical dramatics tend to be the kind of thing that many preachers now may try to avoid. His personal war on alcohol seems quaint nowadays, but in context, it was also a war on family violence and verbal abuse as well. There’s also a well documented connection of family violence and abuse to alcohol abuse and alcoholism  in modern times, so Billy Sunday wasn’t all wrong in what he was seeing and what he was confronting, however unfashionable his style and emphasis may be now.

I’m not a prohibitionist on drinking alcohol, and I’m not advocating a return to  prohibitionist preaching or preaching on total abstinence. I’m totally unconvinced by the linguistic and historical arguments of some that wine in the Bible was actually grape juice. Rather, I’m showing that the avoidance of one unfashionable and probably unBiblical emphasis in preaching may have also meant neglecting another very Biblical emphasis in preaching for a very long time.

Characteristics of the Addict, the Codependent and the Addictive Relationship System

The following list was compiled from a number of sources and embellished with personal observations.

Codependent: Addict:
Uses others’ problems to avoid facing own problems Uses substance as self medication to avoid facing own problems
Protects addict from consequences of behavior Relies on codependent for cover for behavior
Emotionally manipulated Emotionally manipulative
Enmeshed with addict in exploitative relationship Enmeshes others and exploits them
Denial of abnormal situation Denial of own abnormality
Self centered perspective Self centered perspective
False agreement/cooperation Extreme dishonesty and deceit
Perfectionism Perfectionism
Illusion of control over self and others Illusion of control over self and others
Life centered on problems and crises Life centered around problems and crises which are often deliberately instigated
Dualistic evaluation of self and others as all good or all bad Dualistic evaluation of self and others as all good or all bad
Fabricates and instigates personality conflicts Fabricates and instigates personality conflicts to keep others off balance
Difficulty, often extreme,in listening to others and communication with others Forgetfulness and memory loss: does not learn from own mistakes or from others
Fearful Self centered fear of loss
Externalization of problems on others; the ‘selfless victim’ of abuse Externalization of problems on others: projection, scapegoating, blameshifting, isolation/abuse paradigm
Emotionally stifled Emotionally frozen when sober
Prefers excited misery to calm, growing, collaborative relationship of equals Instigates conflicts through triangulation, covert aggression
Unsure of and guesses at normal behavior Whitewashes own character flaws as being actual virtues and not harmful to others; claims of ‘good intentions’ justifies anything

Interpersonal Rules of the Addictive System

  1. Do not talk about problems; deny that they exist.
  2. Do not express feelings openly; do not feel pain, sadness or joy.
  3. Communication must be indirect, through third parties (go betweens and buffers). Technical term: triangulation.
  4. Show no weakness; nothing must threaten the image of being good, right and perfect.
  5. Appease and make those in control look good at all costs.
  6. Those in control have the right to be selfish but no one else does.
  7. Do as I say but not as I do; follow the words but ignore the example.
  8. Do not play or be playful; spontaneity and humor is childish.
  9. Do not attempt to change the status quo.
  10. Those in control follow no rules and are responsible to no one.
  11. Everyone must anticipate, follow and cater to the moods of those in control.
  12. What matters the most is personal relationships is control. Might and position makes all things right.
  13. Those in control know it all; those not in control know nothing.

Seven Characteristics of Addictive Relationships

I do not know the source for the following list. It is in my personal notes. Its relationship to the above is obvious.

  • Magical and Unrealistic Expectations

    The fantasy is primarily that the relationship with the right person will fix me and my problems. It is not companionship with someone to share mutually satisfying activities.

  • Desire for Instant Gratification

    The relationship with another person is treated pretty much as a drug to escape one’s own problems rather than as sharing love and companionship.

  • Consistent and Pervasive Dishonesty

    Key character flaws are kept under wraps rather than gradually and honestly disclosed as part of mutual understanding.

  • Compulsive Overcontrol and Coercion

    Personal cooperation and free choice are rejected even when freely given because personal control is all that matters.

  • Lack of Trust in the Other Person in the Relationship

    There is no rational trust in someone who has proven love and trustworthiness.

  • Social Isolation

    Outsiders are a threat to the special and forcibly exclusive relationship.

  • Recurring Cycle of Intense Pain and Intense Pleasure

    The cyle is described as:
    Intense pleasure in a very charming, seductive relationship ->
    Intensifying pain and anger from differences and disagreements ->
    Intense verbal abuse and physical violence ->
    Disillusionment with the other person and complete blameshifting for the conflict ->
    Fear of abandonment by the other person leading to desperate attempts to make up for the abuse and violence ->
    Intense pleasure again.

    The repeating cycle reinforces itself through the periods of painfree pleasure to where the periods of pain become bridges to more perceived pleasure and pseudo-intimacy.

Characteristics of Adult Children

I do not know the source for the following list either. Again, its relationship to the above is obvious. It lists the characteristics of adult children. Adult children are people whose maturation has been arrested, stymied or sabotaged through growing up in an addictive family system.

  • Alienation: no sense of belonging

  • Inadequate sense of appropriate public and social behavior.

  • Fear of abandonment from unreliable childhood familial connections.

  • Easily infatuated with the emotionally unavailable.

  • Continues in familiar cycle of emotional abuse and physical violence as perpetrator or victim.

  • Defiance of authority

  • Hypersensivity: takes innocuous remarks personally very easily.

  • Overcontrolled and fearful of spontaneity.