Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Hope for the Suffering

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.  And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive.  But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 ESV)

The recent release of the book and film series ’13 Reasons Why’ has led to concern over the glamorizing of suicide.  Many who make the choice to take their own lives feel hopeless and can see no way out. 

The world is an oppressive place, filled with the misery of the many who suffer under the rule of the few.  If one has power, wealth and influence, they can carve out a comfortable existence for themselves—yet usually on the backs of the ‘least of these’.  The downtrodden have no advocate against the powerful and corrupt (see Eccl 3:16) while all power is on the side of the cruel and the oppressors.  Who wants to live in such a world!?  The author figures that it is the dead who are the ‘fortunate ones’, because they no longer suffer under such injustice and oppression.  But more fortunate still, so the author presumes are those not yet born, for they have not known the misery and sadness of such a life.

We who live in the developed West live a fairly good life.  We see injustice and oppression of the weak by the strong, yet for all this we have it very easy.  We in no way face the hardness of the world as millions know it and have known it.  In the developing world the corruption and oppression is more pronounced, more visible and tangible.  Let Christians in the developed West take heed of two very important things.  First, we have no idea what oppression and persecution is.  We may feel slighted and perceive a growing marginalization, but we shouldn’t be so quick to cry martyr.  Second, practically all of us will go to bed warm and fed and comfortable tonight.  We are not faced with lack or forced to do without.  The underdeveloped world, in which a majority of our brothers and sisters live, will face true hardship.  

Yet for all who feel in some way ‘under the heel’, might we at some point wonder of death is not preferable to such a life.  Are the dead truly ‘better off’?  Are those not born more fortunate? 

The Christian emphatically says ‘NO!’  Life is a blessing and a gift from God, and we recognize death as the Great Enemy (see 1 Cor 15:26).    As Christians we know that there is hope; that the evil of the world is not all powerful.  We see oppression and evil as symptoms of the great sickness of sin which infects the entire world.  We also see these as opportunity to bring the grace of the Gospel, the hope of Jesus Christ, to those who suffer in the world.  Christ knew oppression, privation, homelessness, abandonment and injustice.  He is the model for how to live under tyranny with hope and grace.

May you find hope in Him. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Revering the God of Purpose

“I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV)

All things have their season (3:1-8); appointed by God, made "beautiful" and appropriate (3:11).  A person seeks to know God’s ways, what has been and what lies beyond, yet they cannot (3:11).  The author knows that God's purposes are settled from ages past to ages future; they are set and fixed, and no person can alter these purposes even in the minutest way.  God will ensure that His decrees and principles come to pass; as they have in the past so they will in days to come.   God has done this as a means by which humans will be driven to a sense of ‘fear’—reverence respect and awe.  Rather than life being an endless and vain repetition, the natural cycle testifies to the God of order Who purposed all things.  People should desire to seek Him and give Him honor and reverence.

The author’s insight ‘beyond the sun’ continues.  He sees the fixed and set purposes of God standing as beacons of hope rather than despair.  These should cause one not to resent God, but to revere Him.  We must seek for God in the everyday, not just in the ‘big moments’.  In the passing of each day, the circling of the years, opportunity is present to find and honor God; to ‘fear’ Him.  In this way we may find meaning as creatures of God’s fixed purposes—not accidents or products of random change.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Now and the Forever

[God] has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11b ESV)

The author’s worldview accepted that there was some type of existence beyond the present life.  He believed that a person was born with an innate—God given—sense of ‘eternity’ (Hebrew olam ‘forever’ or ‘everlasting’).  This deep rooted feeling is accompanied by an uneasy sense, ‘disquietness’, at the inability to figure out or comprehend God’s ways.  There are certainly aspects of God’s nature and purpose that can be discerned, but human ability in this is limited (see Deuteronomy 29:29).  The quest of the finite for the infinite, unless aided by the Infinite, is bound to end in disappointment. 

Thus the author concludes that the course a person should set is not to give way to despair or disillusionment at what they cannot know, but to recognize what God has given that may be known and enjoyed—the simple pleasures of life as stated in 3:12-13—to “be joyful and to do good” and to eat, drink and enjoy our work, “this is God's gift to man.”  It isn’t that God doesn’t intend for a person to have or know more, but that these ‘basics’ are His gift to all.

Man always chases extremes.  On the one hand a person can become so caught up in the pursuit of eternity that they forego or miss the pleasures of life which God has given in the ‘now’.  Perhaps you know someone like this—someone who lives an ascetic or ‘Spartan’ lifestyle as they pursue piety or spirituality.  I think of Symeon the Stylite who lived on a platform at the top of a pillar in the desert.

On the other hand, one can become so consumed with earthly pleasures and pursuits that they lose sight of eternity completely.  Here I am reminded of the parable told by Jesus in Luke 12:16-21 in which a wealthy man focuses all his energy and attention upon his temporal life with no thought to his condition beyond life: “But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'” (Luke 12:20 NIV).  In a sobering conclusion Jesus tells us that “this is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21 NIV)

God has given us this sense of something ‘beyond the sun’—something eternal—to remind us that life has a deeper, more significant meaning.  He has also given us pleasures in this life that we may enjoy our days and years.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying the things of the world, just as there is no shame in the pursuit of the spiritual, but there must be balance as we seek eternity while living life now.  We must look for God, the giver of all and the hope for our significance.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

All Things ‘Beautiful’

[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11a ESV)

The author of Ecclesiastes has been seeking meaning and purpose.  He has considered many things in and of themselves as the goal of the search, but this has come up empty; ‘vanity!’ he cries.  Then he comes to see that everything has a time and a season; a purpose in the larger picture.  He is beginning to turn his thoughts to something ‘beyond the sun’, namely the work of the Lord. 

Everything a person experiences, listed in 3:2-8, has been given by God to the human race as part of the ‘business’ of life; and all these things God has ordained as ‘beautiful’ to their appointed time.  I believe a better rendering would be ‘appropriate’ rather than ‘beautiful’.  War, death and destruction are never ‘beautiful’, but they are still under the sovereign hand of God and therefore they are fitted into their appropriate place.

This seems to be an important pathway to making sense of life, although the following portion of the verse tells us that we cannot know everything (I will deal with this in the next post).  Yet as we see and accept God’s guiding had in all matters of life, we may begin to develop an understanding of His love, compassion and care.  In times of joy or happiness (birth, planting, healing, peace, etc.) this may be easier, because we expect and affirm God’s goodness.  But in times of hardship or trouble (death, war, grief, loss, etc.) we might lose sight of the compassion of God.  Yet these times are made appropriate, even if we don’t find them beautiful, to the season of life. 

I have used the analogy of our lives as a brick wall.  Each event is a brick that we must fit into our story.  Perhaps, as we grow and discover, we will learn more how the difficult pieces fit appropriately, and someday be able to step back and see the beauty in all things.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Life in Order

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… (Ecclesiastes 3:1 ESV)

At the end of chapter 2 the author began to shift his thinking away from the ‘horizontal’ and onto the ‘vertical’; looking for meaning beyond the “vanity” or seeming emptiness of the world. 

As chapter 3 opens, he becomes very poetic in a realization that all things have a time and a place; that perhaps there is some order to life, and that existence is not necessarily chaos.  The list that follows in verses 2-8 (made culturally famous by the Byrds in the 1965 hit Turn, Turn, Turn written by Pete Seeger) encompasses life from birth to death and all the activities encountered during a person’s span of years.  Planting and harvesting; productivity (creating, building up) and destruction (tearing down); love and hate; joy and sorrow; peace and war; friendship and enmity; words and silence—every human experience has a place and a time.  Order within ‘chaos’.

God has ordered our days.  Paul told the Athenians that the One True God had set the paths for all humanity; ordering their lives (Acts 17:26-28).  King David knew that all the days of a person had been pre-ordained by the Lord (Psalm 139:16).  Moses prayed that God would enable His people to take a right and wise accounting of their days (Psalm 90:12). 

Our lives may at times seem to be out of our control, but they are never out of God’s control.  We may not know what each day holds—but the Lord does.  As we go through the seasons of our lives we must look to the King of Heaven for the certainty that our times are in His hands and that He can be absolutely trusted with all our days (Psalm 62:8) 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

First Steps of Faith

This post continues the exploration of the book of Ecclesiastes 

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 ESV)

            Ecclesiastes can seem to be a ‘cynical’ book, particularly early on, but it is not a book devoid of hope and faith.  In the above verses, the author reaches an early conclusion: because life and existence are “vanity” (again this word means ‘temporary ‘or ‘transient’ as a vapor) and there seems to be no great purpose, a person should seek the simple pleasures of the world—a good meal, a fine wine, a job which makes one feel complete and valued.  Don’t worry about trying to change the world; just be at peace with yourself.  The author sees God’s hand in this (only the second time thus far that God has been mentioned in the book). 
            The author has come to a critical realization: “apart from [God] who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”  For the first time in his discourse on vain things, the author sees ‘beyond the sun’ to something more; a vertical dimension to life.  These are the first steps of faith—the recognition of something more that what can be experienced “under the sun”. 
            Recognition of God, and our need to be connected to Him, is a vital step towards discovering our life’s meaning and purpose.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV)  The author of Ecclesiastes believes that God exists and believes that He gives “wisdom and knowledge and joy” (2:26) to those who please Him.  He has not yet discovered meaning, but has taken a crucial first step. 
            Every person’s search for meaning must begin here as well.  If one only look ‘horizontally’, what the book of Ecclesiastes refers to as “under the sun” they will never find ultimate fulfillment or purpose.  Only as a person takes the first steps of faith and looks ‘vertically’, or as I say ‘beyond the sun’, will they begin to discover the meaning they long for.