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Absolutely Clueless

What is the meaning of Barack Obama's presidency?  We know that his installment as the executive head of this country was God's doing.  We are told so in Romans 13:1, "There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God."  But when we start to try to hypothesize as to God's thinking behind this current state of events, we ought to quickly come to the conclusion that we don't have much of a clue. Other hard questions complicate our cluelessness.  Why were planes allowed to crash into New York skyscrapers eight years ago?  Why does Indonesia keep getting smashed with tsunamis and earthquakes?  Why are our loved ones suddenly snatched away from us before their time?  Sure, a lot of people try to give answers to these questions, but the most honest among us can say little other than, "I don't know what God is up to, but I know that He is in control."

And, really, "I don't know" is a fantastic answer to those questions.  Why should we think that we have to know?  We each have our own tiny little spheres of awareness and understanding, and we can't even get inside the mind of a single other person.  God, on the other hand, intimately knows all of His creation.  He knows how every single mind works and how it is affected by every single event.  In addition, he knows how tiny events on one side of the planet eventually effect events on the other.  When I wash my car (okay, it could happen!), He knows where the soap runoff goes and what it affects, even though I have no idea.  He's even planned it all to work together to accomplish His ends!  He's got some crazy-complex master blueprint that includes everything - even supposedly random particle collisions in the rings of Saturn!  And it all works for His purposes.

The smartest man who ever lived, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Himself, once penned these words, "As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything" (Ecclesiastes 11:5).

Really let that sink in for a second.

You may have read some textbook in biology class that explained cell division and blastocysts, but did it say anything about how the spirit of the child gets woven together with the flesh?  What kind of microscope can you use to see that?  None!  How much are we told about that in the Bible?  None!  We don't have even the foggiest notion of a clue as to how God does that.  And God says that just as we are clueless in that area, we are clueless as to His great designs in creation - other than what has been revealed to us in His word.

Can we be content with that?  Can we just let Him be in control and confess our ignorance over a lot of these hard questions?  I think we should.  So what is our responsibility, then, if we can't control everything or even know what is going on?  "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I'm going to trust Him and do what He says and let Him take care of all the details.  And if I can't figure it out, that's okay.  We've got a faithful, good, and just God at the helm of the universe who has everything under control.

Not Too Good

Here's a Bible verse that mischievous boys everywhere ought to learn: "Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.  Why should you destroy yourself?" (Ecclesiastes 7:16). At first blush, it would seem that a verse like that stands in direct contradiction with statements like Matthew 5:48: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  How can we be commanded to be perfectly righteous and yet also encouraged not to be "overly" righteous?  Have we found a mistake in the Bible?  Should one of these statements not have been uttered?  Who was wrong, Solomon or Jesus?

Well - just as we ought to any time we encounter a seeming difficulty - we should search the context (the verses surrounding our verse) to see if there is a good reason for Solomon saying what he does.  And we don't have to look far beyond verse 16 of Ecclesiastes chapter 7 before we find our answer.  Verse 20 says, "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."

So, why should you not try to be "overly righteous"?  Because you're not righteous.  You're a sinner, and so am I.  And no one likes a 'holier that thou' goodie-goodie.  It's not that we don't like and respect righteousness.  It's that we don't like people who pretend that their poop doesn't stink - someone who will look down their nose at you as if their heart does not also struggle with wickedness.  It is a deceitful demeanor.  A person like this hides his or her own sin and then condemns others in order to make himself or herself feel more praiseworthy.

It is at this point that we encounter the difficult questions of how and just how much we ought to judge others.  "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is probably one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses in today's culture, and yet the Bible is also full of righteous commandments and encouragements to stand for the truth.  To further complicate the issue, the Bible also contains strong statements like 1 Corinthians 6:3: "Do you not know that we are to judge angels?  How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!"  And that comes after a lengthy exhortation to throw a sinful man out of the church!

So how can we be righteous, but not overly so?  I think that Jesus has provided the best answer in the same immediate context that contains His instruction to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) and His command not to judge (Matthew 7:1).  Just two verses after saying, "Judge not...", Jesus says, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"  And His solution?  Verse 5: "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."

I think that we can solve this difficulty of judging-but-not-judging and being righteous-but-not-overly-righteous by saying that we ought always to be honest and open about our own sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20) and the sin of others (Matthew 7:5, James 5:19-20).  You're not a hypocrite if you admit that you have a log in your eye and agree with your speck-eyed brother to help each other overcome your various sinful tendencies.  All Christians ought to constantly remember the depth of sin from which Christ plucked us and ought to be acutely aware of the lingering presence of sin in our lives.  We should never excuse sin, but just as Christ is able to "sympathize with us in our weakness" (Hebrews 4:15), we also ought to be able to sympathize with any sinner, because we share their nature.

Happy Work

Decorative candles are evil things.  They are a contradiction.  They are meant to be pretty to look at, but also, they are apparently meant to be destroyed by fire.  Who ever came up with this idea?  We have one candle that gets brought out ever October that looks like a candy corn.  We never burn it - why would we? - it's a part of our seasonal decorations!  Of course, that just begs the question: why make it a candle in the first place?  Just make a little candy corn statue and be done with it.  Don't tempt us to burn it. I remember one time several years ago, though, when my wife told me something that she recalled one of her family members saying: "If you never burn these pretty candles, then you never enjoy them in the way that they were meant to be enjoyed.  What good is a candle that you never burn?"

Similarly, the Bible says that a man that has no family and yet works his whole life for wealth is doing a stupid thing; it is a vanity (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8).  It is unhappy toil to work all the time for wealth that you do not enjoy.  What is the purpose of money other than for providing for your needs and pleasures?

Now, I've never been the kind of person to save money for saving money's sake.  Apart from providing for my family and having a little 'cushion' built up to take care of unforeseen emergencies, my money burns a hole in my pocket.  But I've seen enough movies to know that there must be a decent number of people out there who are miserly with their wealth.  This is an unhappy way to live.  It's like collecting decorative candles and never wanting to burn any of them.  In a word: pointless.

I love the way the Bible describes the life of the joyful person in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

That just resonates perfectly with me.  There's almost nothing I'd rather spend my hard-earned money on than a good meal (that's why I hate it so much when all we have for lunch is some dinky sandwich).  Love your work and love your food and you will be occupied with joy all of your days.  That sounds awesome!

But some folks don't enjoy their toil.  I think it's because they don't really toil.  The days I've enjoyed my work the best - no matter which one of my jobs I think of - were the days when I really worked hard so that the time flew by.  I produced something I could be proud of.  I could look back on the day and be delighted in a job well done.  But the days I felt miserable in my work were the ones when I was bored with not enough to do or the ones when I lazily tried to sneak "me time" screwing around on the internet between tasks.  At the end of the day, there was much wasted time to be ashamed of.

So if you want happy work, work hard!  When you mess around and try to sneak some of your leisure time activities into your work time, you only end up spoiling both your work time (because you couldn't delight in what you did) and your leisure time (because now you're bored with those activities because you've been doing them when you shouldn't have).  Put in a hard day's work and take a nice lunch break with friends, and then come home looking forward to a sumptious dinner.  And for joy's sake, don't let anyone put you on some kind of diet! ;)

The Meaning of Forever

I don't know the name of the person who built the house I'm living in.  It was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, and as far as I know, there is no one who remembers the builder.  He certainly never had any idea that I would be living in it 109 years later.  All of that money and effort went to provide a place to live for someone he didn't even know.  And I'm not even paying him (he's dead) or his descendants for the privilege.  I'm paying some man living in Iowa. I wonder if this house meant a lot to the person who built it.  It doesn't really mean a lot to me.  If it wasn't here, I would have just gotten another one.  Yes, sadly, the man who built this house is neither remembered, nor is his work appreciated by me: the only person who would likely care anyway, since I'm the one living in his house.

I wonder how different our work would be if we thought about it from the perspective of 109 years in the future.  Right now, I'm toiling over writing this post, but in 109 years, no one will likely remember my name, and this data will have been long deleted.  Should I have even started the work, then?  What kinds of work are valuable anyway, and is there anything that will last?

I think of three things when I ask myself that question.  The first is the book of Ecclesiastes, which says many times and in many ways something similar to the following, "I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?  Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.  This also is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).

The second thing I think of is an old proverb (and not one of the biblical ones, although it is very good and very true): "Only one life, 'twill soon be past, only those things done for Christ will last."  In a sort of ironic twist, no one even knows the name of the person who first penned that line.

And the third thing I think about is Jesus telling his disciples to not lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal (and, we might add, will just go to your next of kin - or the IRS).  But instead, He tells them that they should lay up treasures in heaven which will apparently last (Matthew 6:19-20).

So what sorts of things can we do that will last forever?  What investment can I make deposits on here that will pay out for eternity over there?

As I ponder that question, I can really only come up with two answers.  First, I can grow in my love and understanding of Jesus Christ to the point that meeting Him on the day that I die will truly seem like the greatest treasure imaginable.  It's like what Jesus said in verse 21 of Matthew 6: "Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also."  So I work to make Jesus my treasure, and I more and more look forward to going to see Him.  This would lead a person to gradually get to where they can echo the apostle Paul's sentiments in Philippians chapter 1, where he says that he'd rather just die and be with Christ than anything.  That seems like a good treasure to work for.

The second kind of lasting work that I can see is an investment into the spiritual life of other people.  Communicating the gospel to someone so that they hear and obey and trust Christ for salvation means there's going to be an honest-to-goodness fruit of your labor that will last for eternity: another soul!  But in addition to seeing folks get saved, being a part of a person's discipleship is also a great treasure.  Helping someone else understand that Jesus is the greatest treasure is a toil that will pay eternal dividends.  Thus Paul calls both the Philippian church (Philippians 4:1) and the Thessalonian church (1 Thessalonians 2:19) his "hope", "joy", and "crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming."

So, if I want my toil to be meaningful and lasting, I should pour it into one of these two avenues, and - ideally - both at the same time.  Building a house can be a great thing if it's needed in order to raise a family who will love and trust Jesus and therefore last forever.  Working a job can be meaningful and lasting toil if it allows you to live in an area where you can broadcast the gospel and train believers to love their God.  But we ought to think about our activities in those terms and not try to justify them on the grounds of temporary gains that will be quickly forgotten.