“Nobody talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30’s.”
The seeds of the spiritual condition that has isolated us from each other began in Genesis. The account takes place over seven days, which is important because the number 7 in Hebrew thought is associated with completion or perfection.
Over half of all Americans report that they are lonely. The same survey found that nearly half of all responders reported that the relationships they do have are simply not meaningful. We live in a time when we are more connected to the people around us and the rest of the world in general than we have every been in history. Phones, text messaging, video phones, email, and everything else are marketed as the cure to establishing meaningful connection with others. The problem is that convenient contact cannot fix the deeper issue within us that makes us lonely.
There is another “7” in the account that most folks miss. 7 times he observes that the created thing is “good.” The pattern of “good” statements is not associated with the end of each day. Rather, with the completion of various components of the creation. The first time takes place with the creation of light, which is good in and of itself. Second with the separation of the heavens, earth, sea, and land. The significance of this stage is the divisions of the observable parts of creation. The third instance happens once the land is covered with plant life, which brings the land to completion. The fourth took place in relation to the skies coming to completion with the stars, moon, and sun being separated.
Each of the 7 good statements accompanies something being competed or brought to its full state. The skies weren’t complete until the celestial bodies were placed and filled the heavens. Then God declared them “good.”
It is important to note that the word “good” here is loaded to overflowing with meaning. Some translators render it “beautiful” because that is part of the flavor of the idea. It also carries an ethical connotation. The creation was created good. It glorified God and operated in proper order.
When we arrive in chapter 2 we see Adam doing what God created him to do. He works and cares for the creation. He tends the garden. Work is part of what Adam does as a natural extension of who he is. Incidentally, Adam was not made to tend the garden. The garden was made for him. He did not live to work. He worked because work is part of who we are as beings created in God’s image. It is a gift and we see that gift in the original created order. It only becomes otherwise when the fall sets everything off its created order.
Something else happens in Chapter 2 that is significant: God observes that it is “not good” for Adam to be alone. That is huge for several reasons. First, it is an indication that Adam’s state of aloneness is incomplete. Whereas he declared other parts of the creation “good” when they came to completion, God sees that Adam is incomplete without community.
One of the big reasons for this “incompleteness” is found in the nature of God, in whose image Adam was made. The apostle John repeatedly identifies “love” as quality inherent to God’s very nature. One way we see this manifest is in the Trinity. Love is unusual because in order for it to exist, it must be aimed at t something. I love my wife, kids and cookies. I cannot love without an object. The Trinity is a part of God’s loving nature. He is the only eternal being having created everything, including time and space. Therefore, for God to love he must be in community with himself. In the Trinity we see God the Father in community with and loving the Son and the Sprit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and Son. They love and are in community with each other. This is central to the very nature of God. Adam was incomplete because he is made in God’s image, but lacks an equal to love. This is illustrated by the first task Adam undertakes when God sets out to complete Adam. He names all of the animals, which displays his “lordship” or rule over them. For ancient Jews, the act of naming someone or something displayed authority. Ultimately this process reveals that none of the creatures is a “fit helper.” Part of the reason for this is that none is his equal. He rules over them and therefore cannot experience proper community with them. They might provide a type of companionship, but they cannot “complete” him. This makes the choice to make Eve from his rib significant. She is part of him.
It’s easy to make treat this passage as if it is only about marriage. It is not. Certainly marriage is central to the text. However, when we look at the larger collection of ideas in scripture we don’t find the idea that people are incomplete or lesser as a result of singleness. I would argue that marriage is an important part of life and the counterpart of a wife can bring people to completion, but it is not everything. Community is the larger principle behind this text. We are made to be connected to each other and it is not good for man to be alone.
There is another idea to be found in this text that is easy to miss. Adam had companionship of sorts with the animals. He also had companionship with God Himself. If we read the full Eden account we find the idea that Adam enjoyed a very personal, face to face, relationship with God. This was also part of what he was designed to experience. However, finding community in other humans was necessary for his completion. We were designed to be in community with God AND each other.
At the end of the account of Eve’s creation and their union, we find a simple statement that can easily be overlooked. The text mentions that they pair was “naked and not ashamed.” This is vital to understand why we often experience loneliness even when surrounded by others. The nakedness of the pair points to their openness. There was nothing to hide or be ashamed of.
This is the first step for understanding why community in work and personal lives is such a big deal. We need to know that we were made to be in community. It goes to the heart of our design as creatures. It is part of how we were created in God’s image. In addition, we were made to be open, with nothing to hide.
Without that openness and connection, we cannot feel connected. Whenever we try to fill that part of our life with anything other that connection to God and each other, we make our emptiness worse.
Do you ever feel like the work parts of your life are taking over everything else? It might feel a little like dandelions on your lawn. One day there’s only one on the outer edges. They’re not a big deal. Before you know it they’ve spread everywhere and it feels like they are taking over everything. Wherever there is space, dandelions will invade and take over. Work isn’t any different. There is always more to do. If you let it, that “more to do” will invade, spread, and take over more and more territory.
Eventually work and work related stress can choke out every good thing in the rest of your life. Leaving only the leftover energy and time for you, your family, and God. That’s why playing with the kids or talking with your spouse after work feels like trying to climb a mountain with an engine block strapped to your back. All you want to do is sleep, zone out in front of the tv, or fall apart completely. This isn’t how we are meant to live.
If you’ve found yourself chained to the treadmill of work excess, you probably have told yourself over and over again: “I need to just get through this busy season, then things will calm down.” As Carey Nieuwhof said: If the slow season never comes, you aren’t in a busy season. You have a busy life. (I paraphrased it… It was something like that.)
Maybe you’ve tried over and over to cut back, only to find that cutting back isn’t possible. Or you start strong and then fall into the same patterns when a crisis happens at work. Whatever it is, taming work in your life can feel harder than quitting smoking or losing weight. Why is that? This post is going to look at the reason we struggle with taming work. What does the Bible say about why you can’t just cut back?
For the TLDR Crowd:
The short answer, for the TLDR crowd, is that our lives become unmanageable because we are not living as God designed us to live. As long as we are trying to do the heavy lifting of changing ourselves, we will struggle. If we cannot manage our own lives, then we need someone who can do the job to take control of the situation on our behalf. The Bible explains that this is God’s job and we are to submit every aspect of it to him. He will do the job. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of things in our lives that make this change difficult and result in our rapid failure and return to the old ways. Jesus described those things in the parable of the sower. This post examines the three ways we choke out God’s change in our lives.
This post is part of a series on Ecclesiastes 4, including sermons and background posts explaining the ideas in detail.
The Problem in Us
Understanding the problem of why we can’t slow down or reprioritize work requires that we first understand something about human nature. We were made to know and have a relationship with our creator. God meant for us to know him, be his friends, and for him to be our God.
Sin messed all that up. It separated us from God. However, it did not change our nature. We are still meant to be connected to God, only now sin has made us distant and resistant to him. Even when we try hard to be good, we tend to fall on our faces. In order to fill that built in need to know and serve God, we find (or make) other gods to serve. Those gods can be money, power, politics, sex, pagan idols, organizations, our families, alcohol, philosophies, and all manner of other things.
Our culture, in particular, has developed an obvious illicit affair with work and money. Many of us become enslaved to work and allow it to be lord over our lives. Essentially, work moves from its proper place as a gift for us to enjoy to a god.
You probably don’t have a little altar in your living room to your employer. However, you have probably have weighed all manner of life decisions based on work before anything else. Many Christians, myself included, fall into this trap.
The Three Ways We Resist God’s Change
To really flesh out this idea, we’re going to look at something Jesus taught. This teaching was done through a story about a farmer planting seeds in different types of soil. Until this week in Men’s Bible study, I never recognized how well our toxic relationship with work is explained by this parable. The parable is really about the heart conditions that result in folks rejecting new life in Christ, though each of the types has more than its share of work specific examples.
In the story, a farmer goes out spreading seeds in a field. He is lavish in his use of seeds, throwing them everywhere. The farmer is more concerned about crops growing in the soil than he is about saving seeds. Later, Jesus clues us in that the seeds are actually the gospel being preached.
By the Gospel, I mean the truth that God sent his son to take punishment for our sins, giving us forgiveness and new life. It fixes sin in us and frees us from serving the gods we attached our lives to. It is free, requiring only faith. That faith prompts us to follow. We are the soil and the teachings about new life in Jesus are planted in us.
If the teachings take root and grow, we establish new life and a relationship with God. It also means that we live oriented toward him as God over our lives. He teaches us to live the way we were meant to live. This is key to understanding why work is so impossible to tame on our own. God isn’t stingy in offering new life. New life through Jesus isn’t something we can mess up too bad to receive. It is lavishly spread out. However, we can allow the junk in our lives to kill that new life.
Jesus explains the results of the scattering of seeds better than I can summarize:
“…some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Later while speaking privately with his disciples, he explained the meaning of the teaching. While Jesus was teaching more generally about life and the things that kill our new life in Christ, I am going to plug work into each of these scenarios.
When the Seed Never Gets Planted in Our Hearts
In the first example birds came along and ate the seeds. Jesus explained that this represents the message arriving, but satan snatches it away before it can take root. The idea here is that the person hears the message and doesn’t understand. Either they have made up their mind that they won’t listen, they find excuses as to why it’s not an option, or whatever else. The end result is that it never goes to seed.
If we consider this part of the parable in light of our toxic relationship with work, there are plenty of examples as to why folks might choose not to reorganize their lives around following Jesus and his teachings. For example, we tend to take pride in being busy. It is a virtue of sorts in our world. This is why folks tend to complain about work dominating their lives, but don’t often do anything about it.
Another common argument is that adding religion to life would just make it busy. It’s just one more demand on your time. In terms of this discussion, this argument is sort of like complaining that papers are piled everywhere in your office, creating clutter, and making it impossible to find anything or get anything done. Only to turn down the offer of a filing cabinet, files, and a personal organizer. Following Jesus has the net effect of putting everything in its place and reorganizing our lives around his teaching. What’s more, he helps us do it through his Spirit.
There are plenty of other reasons folks don’t ever consider the gospel, but they all have the ultimate effect of preventing the gospel from changing us.
When the Roots Get Crowded Out
The second example involves rocky soil, where the plant takes root and begins to grow. Sadly roots never grow deep, so the new life dies. Jesus explains that these folks accept the truth with joy and begin to grow and change. When difficulty in life came along, the new life cannot survive because it had no depth.
There are all sorts of rocks in our lives that prevent us from allowing spiritual depth to happen. Again, in terms of our work life, there are plenty of things that keep us low commitment to the new way of of life he calls us to live.
The love of possessions or success is a rock in our hearts. We may want to experience the freedom God offers, but we also want to be successful. When we hit the rough patches in life, whether our faith becomes hard to follow or just stress in general or we have to choose between work/money/etc and following Jesus, the fact that we’re trying to hold onto both results in spiritual withering.
I have known a lot of folks who have fallen into workaholism because they were trying to “live up to” a parent’s expectations or earn their love. When push comes to shove the lure of earning dad’s approval (even if he has long since passed away) is far too strong to resist for some folks. Submitting to God involves us setting everything else under his rule.
These are both examples of folks who are taking a halfway approach. They are either going into change halfway or trying to hold onto other gods while following God. When difficulty happens and a choice has to be made, they choose the old way because it is familiar and “safe.”
The real trick here is that the stuff which doesn’t produce anything good in our lives needs very little to thrive. Dandelions can grow in sidewalk cracks. Wheat needs good soil. Everything that is beneficial to us requires more.
When Weeds and Thorns Choke Out New Life
The third soil is full of weeds and thorns that choke the new life to death. This is busyness. All of the junk that has dominated life up until this point refuses to give way as the new life takes root. There are only so many hours in the day and so much of you to go around. In the end, those things choke faith to death.
This is a painful truth: if you want to change, you do so by rooting out the parts of life that are trying to be the number one priority and organizing around the priority you were designed to focus on.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of good things in our lives that are time consuming. Kids take time. Running a business takes time. Exercise takes time. Even spiritual growth and development take time.
The problem of chaos in our lives is a result of those things taking more than their rightful place. They want to squeeze out everything else for the lion’s share of your life. Work is just the most aggressive.
By rooting them out, I am not saying that they need to go entirely. Rather, that they need to take their rightful spot in terms of your time, talent, and treasures. Any time one of them becomes your god, it will act as a dictator or an overly demanding boss.
The only thing that can control it all is God himself, primarily because that is the way we were designed to operate. We don’t need to cut back on our time with kids. We need to look at them in terms of how we were made to live.
The Good Soil
The final soil in Jesus’ parable is good soil. This ground has been tilled, broken, weeded, and the rocks have been cleaned out or broken up. The seeds in that soil take root and grow. This new life produces good things in the hearts and lives of those who experience it.
Having the good soil in our lives starts with God being in control, setting the priorities, training us how to live, and his Spirit aiding us in the process. The good news is that God will help us pick rocks out of our fields, trim weeds, and everything else. He just has to be God in our lives. He has to be in charge.
The Key to Change
The real trick to get control of your life isn’t to try harder or move to a new town or anything else. It’s to give up control to the one who can do the job well. It begins by admitting that we cannot run things and we need him to do it for us. We have to jump in with both feet and learn to let him steer.
Jesus once said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
If you are starving for something better and stumbling under the burden of what parts of your life has become, the solution is easy. But, it cannot begin until we accept his direction and follow him. As you do, he’ll teach you to understand the truth better and better.
Every time Jesus calls one of the disciples in the Bible, he does it by saying: “Follow me.” Peter, James, John, Matthew, and all the rest made a choice between learning from him or remaining in their old work and lives. We all have to make that decision. What will you do?
Do you ever feel like work related stress has taken control of your life? Do you routinely get home at the end of the day ready to collapse in front of the TV for a few hours of zoning out before sleeping restlessly, only to do it all over again tomorrow? Do you live for the weekends, only to find you’re too tired to do anything when they arrive?
Americans have a toxic relationship with work. Stress consumes all of our time and energy, leaving nothing behind for us to enjoy with our families. We were not meant to live this way. God designed us to enjoy our lives and our work. So why is it all so out of whack?
This Sunday we looked at the first chunk of Ecclesiastes 4. The philosophy book takes a practical look at how our lives get out of whack and how we can put things in the proper order again.
This week we looked at the various ways our work takes over our lives. Next Sundy we will dig into the solution that God offers us for getting things back into the proper order.
If you have questions or comments, leave them in the comment section and I will try to answer them during a deep dive livestream next week. You can also email your questions.
I’ll be posting follow up articles looking at different aspects of this week’s message .Please consider subscribing to my blog or asking to be added to our email list. Also, if this material helps you let us know or share it with a friend.
Have you ever felt like there should be something more? You built a life complete with the job, home, family, and car. You have everything you’re supposed to gather up in life, but there’s still something missing. I’m talking about a void that prompts you to ask “Is that it? Why do I still feel like something’s missing?”
Kierkegaard called that feeling of disconnect ‘angst’ and devoted page after page to considering what it is and how to fix it. Television commercials constantly tell you that the problem is that you need a new cell phone, or car, or some other shiny new toy to make the void feel full for a while. The problem is that the newness wears off.
Don’t worry. You aren’t alone in this struggle. The there’s-got-to-be-something-more void isn’t even a new thing. Kierkegaard wrote about it in the 1800s, but the wrestling matches in our souls go back much farther. Roman emperors wrote books about it. Socrates was put to death for challenging his fellow Athenians to face it head on. Nearly 3,000 years ago King Solomon wrote a book considering the problem.
This essay will look at what he came up with. My goal will be to examine the question: “Why do we long for something more even when we have found everything we thought we wanted?” and “What do we do about it?”
These questions are at the heart of Chapter 3 of the Bible book: Ecclesiastes. Don’t let the name intimidate you. It just means “teacher.” The goal is to teach the reader of the reality of life in our broken world. This Sunday (8/28/22) I’ll be preaching on the next chapter, which digs deeper into why the answer in chapter 3 seems hollow in our practical experience.
The two chapters were meant to be read together, so one leads to the next. My hope is to connect you with the beginning of the answer you are longing for in the quiet moments and to prepare you for this Sunday’s examination of the next chapter.
A quick note: I am not going to include the whole text. Please consider reading along in your Bible on a good Bible website like Biblegateway. I would suggest the NIV New International Version). Also, you might find the wording in the text a little intimidating and/or confusing. Part of that is because it was written 3,000ish years ago in a whole other language. It’s also written in a poetic/philosophical style. I’ll help explain it as we go.
To Everything There is a Season… Turn Turn Turn
The words in the beginning (verses 1-8) of the chapter are probably familiar. Feel free to sing the lines as you read them. The Byrds’ adaptation of this passage has branded them in our brains making this poem is most famous part of the book.
King Solomon, who at the time of writing the book is old and gray, is making the point that we are all creatures stuck in time. We live experiencing the passing of days and seasons. Until Doc Brown invents a time machine to move us about within time, we can only go forward at the pace we are going now. Within that passing of time there are seasons for everything.
The poem here is particularly appropriate for the culture of the original audience (farmers and ranchers), whose lives were heavily oriented around seasons. The point is simple: You are going to move through the seasons of your life. Some will be good, others not. They will go by as you move forward on your journey from cradle to grave.
If you’re in asking yourselves the “is-this-really-it” questions, then the poem (and melancholy hippy song) probably resonates at least a little. There’s no saving time in a bottle for later. Like sand slipping through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives… Got it? You’re not getting younger and will probably die eventually.
The Problem of Time Passing By
Verses 9 to 14 take the problem of the void head on, but because you are not an ancient Jewish reader (I assume) I am going to skip ahead to verses 18-21. You see, one of the great paradoxes of the ancient Hebrew worldview involves dust.
If you’re a rural Montanan like me, you know that dust is everywhere. It coats every surface of our cars. It kicks up on the farm roads and reduces visibility to nothing. A friend of mine sells premium collectible harvest dust to folks in numbered, limited edition bottles. It is everywhere and to most folks it is a nuisance. However, in the book of Genesis it is what God used to make man.
The creator of everything gathered up dust, molded it into man in his own image, and breathed into it to give it life. In fact, his name (Adam) essentially means “dirt.” The key bit in the Genesis account is that he made man in “His own image.” The phrase is loaded with tons of meaning and implications. For our purposes we will only consider two aspects:
First: In all of the ancient accounts of where man came from, Genesis is the only one where man was not an accident or an inconvenient byproduct of of something else the gods were doing. The Jews believed that man was special and even resembled God by design. When they asked “Is this all there is,” they did so with the assumption that there really ought to be more.
Second: In our basic qualities we are like God. We create stuff. We write poems and create art. We were designed to have a strong ethical sense. Also, we were meant to live forever. Death is a result of the fall and the sin that has corrupted the world and messed everything up. That is where the paradox happens.
We are dust with God’s image stamped into us, designed for eternity, and to dust we will return. Solomon basically says that just like the animals we will die, returning to the dust.
That’s the tension every Jewish reader would’ve spotted immediately. He talks about returning to the dust, conjuring the image of beings created from dust, to resemble something eternal, which will eventually return to the dust. Seasons pass and we pass away.
Lois Tverberg wrote on this topic: One eighteenth-century rabbi put it this way: “A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one it should be written ‘The world was created for my sake,’ and on the other it should say ‘I am but dust and ashes.’” On days when we feel discouraged and worthless, we should read the first one. On days when we’re consumed with pride and our own self-importance, we should read the other.
Why do I feel like something is missing?
Armed with the understanding of our precarious paradoxical situation, let’s jump back to verses 9 to 14. Solomon asks “What do we even get for the work we put in?” It’s a good question. Earlier in the book he explored the hard truth that no matter what we build, create, write, invent, or decree it is temporary.
Solomon built cities and monuments, that would one day crumble. His stuff would be passed around by family, sold off at garage sales, or donated to Salvation Army. All of his work is temporary and nothing will last long. What is the point of doing great things when those great things will fade quickly like the flash of brilliance that accompanies a lightning strike? The ancient Jewish reader would’ve known that we and all our accomplishments will return to the dust.
Then Solomon points out that God has “He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We are temporary, but at the core of our being we want to be eternal. We feel like there should be something more because we were made for something more. We long for eternity.
That longing will stay with us for as long as we live because we live in a perfect world that has been broken. We (and it) were designed to know God and be connected to him all the time. However, rebellion made Him a stranger to us. As a result we are constantly longing for something to fill the God shaped hole in ourselves.
The tragedy is that nothing in this world can fill it and the more we use the world to try to fill it, the worse the hunger becomes.
Solomon’s solution to the emptiness is to acknowledge the gift God has given us and orient life around it. That gift is today: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Verses 12-13)
Basically, we are to realize we are meant for more, then enjoy today based on that truth. Be happy with what you have. Live as God called you to live. Enjoy the fruit of your work. Enjoy your work.
This probably feels like an empty solution on the face of it. The trick is to recognize that it’s a gift from a loving Father meant for our good. It is part of knowing Him. We can pray thanks for our family. We can find the good things in our work. We can enjoy a good meal. We can find meaning in following him in our actions. If it feels like there is a piece missing here, it’s because there is. You see, Solomon wrote this in the 900s BC. He could not see where the plan was headed.
Wait, What?!? That’s it? That doesn’t help!
You may have read Solomon’s solution and thought: “Work sucks and I’m already doing the other stuff but something is still missing.” That is a fair observation. There’s three parts to what’s going on here.
First: the trick is looking at your life in a new light.
It’s a little like the “Antiques Road Show” on PBS. I always find it interesting when a guy comes in with an old iron that their great grandmother left them, which they had been using as a doorstop in the garage for years. The appraiser looks it over, then explains that it was used to press Napoleon’s uniform at the battle of Waterloo and is worth $500,000,000 at auction. Suddenly, that rusty piece of junk has new value.
Your life, family, work, meals, and everything are there for you to enjoy now. They are a precious gift from God. Don’t let the ever present longing for eternity wreck your enjoyment of now.
C.S. Lewis argued that the stuff we enjoy now is designed to awaken a hunger for eternity. They are there to remind you that there is something more.
I’d compare it to a movie theater preview of the best movie ever made. No one watched the trailer to the next summer blockbuster and complains that it isn’t enough. Trailers get you hyped up for opening weekend when you get to enjoy the whole thing.
Good meals are the aroma wafting from the kitchen as the Feast of the Lamb described in Revelation is being prepared. Your wedding day gives you a sliver of the joy that will be experienced at wedding of Christ to his bride, the church. Your friendships are a snapshot of the fellowship we’ll enjoy with God’s family in eternity. Enjoy it like you would a little sample spoon at Baskin Robins, because the full triple scoop, chocolate dipped, waffle cone is coming faster than you expect. This life is not all there is.
Second: God’s Addition to Solomon’s Solution
Enjoying today doesn’t solve the “missing part of ourselves” problem. If the things of today awaken a hunger for eternity, how do we satiate that hunger?
The trick is that the story doesn’t end with Solomon. The answer is bigger than he knew. That solution shows up when God himself shows up.
The New Testament tells us of how the infinite God became a creature of dust, just like you and me. He chose to be stuck in time with us and experience the passing of seasons. He lived perfectly and showed us perfectly who God is. Then he stepped into our spot and took punishment for our sins. When Jesus was crucified, God saw all of our sins in Him and poured his wrath out on him.
In exchange, when God looks at those who follow Jesus he sees Jesus’ perfection. Even the most awful things we have done are wiped away. This established a reconnection to him. It connects us with him in a way that fills the void.
When Solomon says in verse 14 that God and all his work are eternal, he is saying that we want that but cannot get it. We have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that we are meant for more, but that God embodies that truth.
In Jesus, we are reconnected to that and given the promise of joining into eternity. Now, our work is part of something eternal, whether we like it or not.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that everything we do in regards to those around us will push them toward an eternity in God’s presence or an eternity separated from him.
Our work will bring him glory or bring us shame. In light of the gospel, everything we do is eternal. It will all last forever. That is why Paul tells us to do everything in life like we are doing it for Jesus himself. Live your life like the results are eternal, because they are.
Third: Chapter 4 (And This Week’s Sermon)
We will address the third part of why the answer can feel little flat in this Sunday’s sermon.
You might have read Solomon’s idea that work is part of the solution and thought: “Work is awful (especially Mondays!). What kind of solution is that???”
Solomon addresses that objection in the next chapter, which is all about how work gets screwed up in our world. The problem is that our sinful world has lost perspective on what work is for and what place it should hold in our lives.
This Sunday we will look at the various ways we deal with work wrong that results in a feeling that it is “not enough.” Solomon goes through and looks at several different bits of brokenness that make our world feel empty.
In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis sums the preceding points up better than I could hope to. The reason we experience a longing for more and an unquenchable hunger for more is because:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”
Solomon acknowledges that hunger and advises us to enjoy our work, the fruit of our work, and our lives while doing good. Walk with God and enjoy the gifts he has given you.
“Woman Pastor” is a dynamite phrase. You can say it, tweet it, attach it to a post, or whatever and launch an explosive chain reaction. Boom goes the dynamite with enough concussive force that no one can hear what the other side is saying.
I usually spectate this brand of verbal blowup from a safe distance. The advantages of distance include avoiding shrapnel and taking a birds-eye-view of the fracas. This is not a change in approach. I am not offering my position in this essay. Sorry. Rather, I am sharing a moment of clarity I experienced.
While observing a recent exchange on the topic, I heard a Godly man, who I have a high opinion of, arguing against women pastors. His words stood out to me, though they are ones that I have heard before.
“Many people point to Deborah as an argument in favor of women in leadership, but they miss that the point in that situation was that men had failed to step up to their responsibility to lead. God appointed Deborah as an in insult to his people. They needed a woman to fight their battles.”
He is correct in his exegesis of the appointment of Deborah. The narrative of the book of Judges is about the progressive moral decline of God’s people. Deborah was able and faithful in a time and place where men were not. I’m the ancient world the events were pretty humiliating to the Israelites. It’s not a new read on the text.
However, as right as the exegesis is, the statement is potentially wrong.
I don’t say that lightly. God appointed Deborah to accomplish his will and to make a point. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to the controversy today. In fact, we often get so wrapped up in arguing the the theological minutia of this point that we miss what’s happening in Deborah’s story: Men were abdicating their responsibility… so God appointed a woman.
Now, consider the church.
Are men teaching children the scriptures in Sunday school and VBS or is that something women do? Are there more men than women in Bible studies? What about in discipleship relationships? Are there more men than women in worship on Sunday mornings or do moms and grandmothers bring the kids to church while dad does something else? The hard truth is that we aren’t present. In fact, we are conspicuously absent. We insist that women fill all sorts of spiritual roles that are “beneath us” or that we don’t feel like doing.
Perhaps women are taking to the pulpits because we are sleeping in on Sunday mornings and refusing to teach. Maybe they are leading because we aren’t.
When Jesus entered the east gate of the temple and the crowds praised him, the pharisees grumbled at the praise. Jesus replied that “If they remain silent, the stones themselves will cry out.” We are living in a time when men are growing increasingly silent. The truth is that men are disappearing from churches. We’re abandoning spiritual leadership and have been doing so since Adam watched Eve enduring temptation and said nothing. (Read it! He was right there. He did nothing.) When confronted by God he blamed Eve and the Almighty.
Now, I know folks will point to the various texts where Paul forbids women in different roles. I am not having that conversation. Though, I will say that we must ask us if silence in the pulpit is a greater or lesser matter of the law than women leading.
If the stones will cry out in worship if the people remained silent rather than praising, perhaps it’s reasonable that women might preach the gospel when the hearts of men become cold stones. Ultimately, is it worse for women to preach or for no-one to preach at all? Which is the greater and lesser matter of the law?
I am not claiming that every female standing up front is Deborah. What I am claiming is that in many places, if it wasn’t for women preaching the gospel, the pulpit would be silent. If not for moms and grandmas teaching kids to pray and about Jesus, they wouldn’t learn it at all. We aren’t leading. Or worse, we try to “lead” in selfish, unbiblical, and unchristian ways.
Men, we own this if we are not stepping up ourselves. If we condemn women who step in the gap without urging our brothers to step up to fill empty pulpits, Sunday school classrooms, and spiritual leadership in our own homes we strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. We need to check our hearts. What if this is happening to shame us for our inaction?
Please note: I’m not saying it’s right or wrong for women to pastor. I’m saying we’ve missed the point of Deborah’s story and the gospel must be preached.
Yesterday I was home sick with some sort of stomach flu, which gave me opportunity to lay around all day, read, scroll social media mindlessly, etc. That is how I found myself following a strange twitter storm related to Pastor Tom Buck and an article that was posted regarding his marriage. I‘m going to confess that my understanding of the whole mess is limited by the fact that I don’t follow Pastor Tom or know much about him. Also, I’m not a baptist, so I don’t try to understand the weird baptist political thing (I think this is a Baptist thing… usually if I don’t get it, I assume it’s those crazy baptists again). I don’t want to delve into the details of the situation, which looks more like an episode of a bad high school gossip soap opera than the bride of Christ prepping for her wedding day. I am engaging this topic for a slightly different reason. I believe the engagements display several things about Christians in social media that are decidedly unChristlike. I have two objectives in this missive: (1) To address how the conversation surrounding it has revealed our broken focus and (2) to address the caustic culture that keeps folks from seeking help in the church. This situation displays both very well and despite my ignorance of the specifics, I pray my foolish weighing in speaks the truth in love.
Our broken focus:
All sorts of topics were bandied about in relation to this matter. Discussion of whether or not this was a purely political hit job, if it was a betrayal of victims rights, patriarchy and abuse in churches, whether or not Tom should be ejected from ministry, why ‘big Eva’ is bad, how this relates to the Baptist church government, etc. I couldn’t even reasonably list off the major areas of discussion related to this matter. The one common thing I noticed in the mix was that I never saw anyone discussing how the public flogging of this very personal matter glorified Christ in any way. Mostly tweets are focused on pet topics: whether it be left/right theology, abuse ministry, ‘big eva bad guys,’ who runs the baptist church, or some other ‘vital’ issue. Missing is the main thing that matters: how are we glorifying Christ in this particular issue? Are we bringing about repentance and reconciliation? Are we building up the body of Christ by investing in unity and spiritual growth? Is the world watching and glorifying God because we are so loving… Jesus mentioned that the world would know we are his disciples by the way we love one another… would this be an example of that?
One might argue that the discussion of particular matters on twitter doesn’t warrant such reflection. I would argue that the epistles are a good model for us to follow. In a way the letters of the apostles are similar to twitter arguments. Paul, Peter, and James intended their letters to be read publicly. They were open statements to the church that addressed different specific matters in the life of believers and church bodies. They were meant to be publicly read. How did the disciples use their public statements? Each of the apostles focused their discussions around glorifying Jesus and building the unity of the church. They built up. They loved one another and called believers to fulfill the great commandments… The issue is not that twitter is a terrible forum. The issue is that we have lost sight of the gospel as the guiding principal for the church. The truth that the love of Christ manifest in us is the thing that matters. Period. Christians on twitter should hit the brakes and ask why we don’t come back to these central themes. What does it say about us?
(2) Graceless Church Culture
In relation to Pastor Buck, who I don’t know or interact with. I can’t speak to his specific stuff. I can share what I have experienced as a pastor. I’ve been in ministry for 25ish years. I spent a chunk of that time early on as an alcoholic (along with everything that entails). My marriage was a disaster because of me. One night, after a terrible fight, my wife prayed for God to fix me or kill me… She didn’t care which. He did both. In the 15 years since, God has used my brokenness to minister to many people. I can’t take credit for any of it. It’s all Jesus. I should have been driven from ministry completely. My wife should’ve divorced me. No one should seek my advice or help. I am a garbage person. Only Christ in me has value. Before I quit drinking and for years following, I was terrified of the church. I desperately wanted to ask for help, confess my sins, and seek support. I was far too afraid to do so because the church was the least safe place to do that. For years I avoided AA meetings lest a church person see me going and destroy my life. Revealing my sin was essentially begging to be ostracized. This is the opposite of what the body of Christ ought to be. In fact, Christ’s repairing of broken sinners brings him glory. I don’t know what happened with Pastor Buck. I believe that God probably reconciled and healed him. It sounds like Jesus healed the Buck’s marriage. If we aren’t discussing God’s amazing grace or calling him to repentance if it hasn’t taken place, then we are acting contrary to the gospel. If we aren’t praying for him, we are not obeying Jesus. If we look like the world’s political and activist machine then we don’t look like Jesus.
Pastors ought to be held to a high standard, but they should not be expected to attain perfect sinlessness. When we cannot confess to brothers or make mistakes we are bound to fall into sin. We need to be able to confess our lustful thoughts, our struggles with prayer, our anger, and our hurt. We need to be able to fail and be reconciled. When past sin is brought is brought to light, pastors should be free to say: “Yeah, I am imperfect. I sin. Let me tell you about how Christ redeemed me.” We should be able to point to our sins and praise Jesus for forgiveness. The current church culture doesn’t allow this. We play gotcha, even over sin that has been repented of and dealt with (as seems to be the case with the Buck family).
Also, slightly off topic but speaking as a long time ministry worker, many times when people bring out the past and play the part of accuser off the brethren… it is motivated by personal vendetta rather than a desire to bring glory to Jesus. I have been attacked many times by people who have left the church. It hurts on many levels. Often the accusations are either false or exaggerated. It happens. Not every whistleblower is being honest or pure. Weigh the matter, the gospel, and the appropriateness of your involvement before weighing in. Pastoring sucks because of stuff like this.
When Jesus speaks of the sheep and the goats, he refers to the judged feeding, caring for, visiting, or healing “his brothers.” Let there be no doubt, he is speaking of brother Christians (especially his servants in ministry!). We need to understand that if feeding pastors is something we do for Jesus, then lording over their struggles or playing political “gotcha” is something we are doing to Jesus. The nonsense with Pastor Buck has revealed our brokenness. Brothers and sisters, repent and be made whole. Pray for this man and pray that we embody the type of grace that glorifies Jesus.
While studying this morning, I watched my wife’s puppy diligently working to get dog food out of the older dog’s crate. The two dogs eat different foods and she always wants to eat what he is eating… Over the course of an hour she worked her way around the cage and did her best to grab what she can. In fact, she managed to get a few pieces of food in the process and eventually pulled the other dog’s bowl to the edge of the crate so she could steal directly from it.
Why am I sharing this? First, it is cute and funny. Second, as I am sitting up (early in the morning) to study and reflect before the day starts and the kids get up, I kinda think I am a bit like the dog (though maybe not enough like her). I am up looking, scratching around,and digging for a bit of wisdom, understanding, or spiritual maturity. The thing is, it is often just out of reach. BUT, if I dig persistently enough I end up with a morsel or two in the process. I rarely figure out how to get the whole bowl all at once, but I grow in bits and pieces. It just takes work. Maybe the kernels of truth taste better if I have to work for it… I guess my point is that spiritual maturity, depth, and wisdom is not an instant venture. We sorta need to be single minded in our pursuit of it in order to acquire what we are chasing…
There is another side to this coin. I don’t give her the other dog’s food because it isn’t good for her. She is still growing, and the wrong kind of food can mess her up in the long run. In that respect, the dog is a lot like me when my sinful heart gets set on something that God has purposefully locked out of my reach. I will continue to work at it, in my fallenness, trying to get what I can because I think that what is new and exciting and different and forbidden will make me happy. In the end, the things I am trying to get aren’t going to do anything but mess me up. The puppy cannot seem to stop and think: Maybe this cage is here for a reason… maybe I should eat what is given to me and ignore what isn’t for me. Of course, dogs don’t think that way… and neither do I when sin has grabbed the wheel and is steering me where I shouldn’t go.
That was my weird reflection for the morning while drinking coffee and trying to study 2 Timothy. Hope y’all’s day is good… chase wisdom with an abiding hunger… Avoid the things the Lord has set apart from you for your own good.
Reprinted with the permission of the Big Sandy Mountaineer.
In 165 AD, an epidemic swept through the Roman Empire, ravaging the western world for 15 years. The disease may have been smallpox, though it’s difficult to say with any certainty. Regardless of the nature of the illness, the result was devastating. Around a third of the population of Rome died. The population was justifiably terrified of the horrible illness. The wealthier amongst the Roman citizenry simply sequestered themselves in their country homes for years, while the poorer members of the population fled cities or did their best to ride out the illness. One of the worst practices of the time was for families to push members out into the streets when the first of the symptoms arose, figuring it was better for them to die in the streets than to infect the entire household. Ancient witnesses describe streets piled high with the dying as a result of this brutal practice. During this time, the early church responded in a completely different manner. Followers of Jesus believed in an afterlife in heaven and in their responsibility to care for the poor. This was a stark contrast to the belief of their pagan neighbors. Christians simply weren’t afraid of the disease because they believed that to die was to be with Christ, all the better if you died serving Him. The work of early believers to provide basic care to the sick resulted in the saving of countless lives. Medical historians have estimated that the basic care provided was enough to save two thirds of the recipients, most of whom became too weak to do even basic self care. The actions of the early church in caring for the sick and dying was a major contributor to the explosion of growth of Christianity in the 2nd century. I would argue that there is an important set of lessons to be learned from their example. The early church didn’t live in fear of the plague. Certainly, many were afraid, but they did not allow their fear to control them. They saw their obligation to serve Jesus as the first and foremost of their responsibilities. I believe this is our calling for the time we are living in. Mind you, I am not advocating being stupid and acting as though we are completely safe from getting sick. This isn’t wise or Biblical. We need to take precautions because we don’t want to give anything to our family or neighbors. In addition, our actions reflect on the God we serve. That having been said, we shouldn’t be afraid to serve our neighbors either. This life is not all there is for us, and we have instructions as to how we are to live. I read recently that food banks in bigger cities are struggling to meet their obligations because they simply don’t have enough people who are willing to help serve the constantly growing lines of people who need food. Many of us have neighbors who are alone and isolated because they lack family to reach out or care for them in this time. Our calling as followers of Jesus is to help where we can. John Wesley once said that we are to: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” This might mean giving up some of our stockpile of toilet paper or sharing of our finances with a neighbor who can’t work and isn’t sure how they’re going to make rent. It may mean calling a shut in, dropping off food on a doorstep if only to brighten a neighbors day, or all manner of other things. Perhaps it means giving your hand sanitizer to someone who has to go to work every day. Find ways to serve. I’m so blessed when I see folks making masks for their neighbors and then giving them away. Perhaps this involves not calling each other names on Facebook because our neighbors doesn’t hold the same belief regarding the right way for the country to go forward. No matter what is involved in serving Jesus in the pandemic, this is a time when we shouldn’t allow fear to control our actions. We shouldn’t be foolish and act as though we cannot get sick. We shouldn’t use our freedom for selfish ends. We should take the instructions of our governing authorities seriously, which is addressed thoroughly in the New Testament. We should love and care for our neighbors. Be the face, voice, and hands of Jesus for our neighbors in this time of trial.
This morning, in an effort to recognize the first week of November, I played Christmas music loudly on the stereo in our living room. My wife was driven nuts by it and repeatedly admonished me about the inappropriateness of starting Christmas 2 months early. I didn’t point out that I was playing Christmas music a couple weeks after stores started selling Christmas junk, but I digress. I will confess that I am not a rabidly cheerful Christmas guy, but I love driving my wife nuts. Also, it clicked in my head that there’s a cool parallel to what I am preaching on this morning. You see, my sermon prep and work life have been very difficult and emotional this week. I did afuneral for a friendyesterday and am preaching on 2 Peter 3:8-14 this morning. My friend was a believer and throughout his long illness, spoke of the day he would standing in the presence of Jesus. He knew that eternity was coming and waited through pain and sickness, patient but eager to arrive in eternity. The repeated statements from my brother in the Lord have echoed in my head all week as I prepared to officiate his funeral. At the same time, I studied 2 Peter, which speaks of the Lord’s second coming and the renewal of all things. I couldn’t have picked a better text to preach following the funeral of a believer. Peter speaks about the necessity to wait on the Lord’s timing for his return and the necessity of preparing by serving and living holy. Peter wanted believers to celebrate and rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord would return, but also he wanted them to work and prepare for the day of His coming. We as believers are supposed to be a little like the folks who start listening to Christmas music on November 1st. No, we aren’t supposed to drive our neighbors and family members insane. Rather, we are supposed to have an eye on the day that is coming, when Jesus will return. That constant awareness of His return is to be joyful and it is to be a reminder. We must remember that the big day is coming, and we have important work to get done before it arrives. There are gifts to buy, invitations to send out, decorations to put up, lights to light, meals to plan, and a million other things to do before Christmas gets here, and we celebrate the coming of the Lord. In relation to the second coming, we don’t know the day or the hour and no one will know, but that doesn’t mean we don’t send invitations to our neighbors to prepare for the greatest celebration in the history of creation, when the Lord sets the world right. We have to light our lamps in the darkness and adorn the church with beautiful good works. We must do our best to clean up our world by bringing the Lord’s kingdom and encouraging His justice. In Peter’s letter, he says that in anticipation of the Lord’s return, we are to live holy lives. Simply put, we must be different. We must grow to be like Christ. We must keep an eye on the Lord’s return. This doesn’t mean that we obsess over comparing the words of Revelations with the evening news. We shouldn’t abandon our responsibilities as believers in the name of fixating on end times prophecy. Absolutely not. When Christ spoke of His return, He would compare it to workers in a household or vineyard who are given responsibilities while the master is away. When the master returned, they were rewarded or punished. We are to work diligently while we still can. The Lord is returning. Christmas is coming. Get ready. Invite your neighbors to the party. Sing praises of a God who will make the world right again. Be patient, but busy.
In recent years, I have found the habits of elite athletes and soldiers interesting. Guys who not only do physical things well, but at a level above everyone else in the world. I am not an athlete, but am starting to appreciate the habits and mindset of folks who are top-tier in their fields. One of the interesting things I have noticed about such people is that they maintain physical discipline even when they are not doing their jobs. A former Navy Seal I follow online talks about getting up early every day to train. This is a man who is no longer fighting wars on the battlefield, but sees his own training and discipline as non-negotiable. Football legend Herschel Walker continued to train hard whether he was playing ball, between seasons, or retired. Training isn’t seen as a component of his career. Rather, it is a way of life. Pushing yourself daily to exceed yesterday’s best is never questioned. These are folks who are elite athletes and warriors by nature, not just by vocation. I am never going to be an athlete or a warrior. I am a pastor. I live a different calling. I exercise hard every day because I want to be better. This new practice and reading about the habits of these men has helped me to realize something powerful. I study and meditate on scripture verses 8 to 9 hours a week so I can teach them on Sundays. I truly love this aspect of my work. However, I struggle with spending time daily reading and studying the same book for my own edification. I also struggle with the daily discipline of prayer. This morning, I realized something convicting. While the elite athletes and soldiers I’ve been reading about do their required trainings as a part of their work, they also do it as a part of their lives. These men get up, train, then go to work and train more. They do it because it is who they are, not because it is their job. I study because it is my job, but if I want to be a man of God, I must study and pray because it is in my nature to do so. I will never be at the elite level of pastorate. I don’t really know that such a thing exists and if it did, I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to refer to me as something like that. However, I love the folks under my pastoral care. I love my family. I love to teach and preach. I love the folks in my community. I love the folks who read my writings and listen to my preaching online. Most of all, I love the God I serve. If all of this is true, and not just something I say, it really ought to be in my nature to hunger for better. I should treat my spiritual state as though my personal spiritual growth will glorify God and minister to those around me. The higher the quality of my spiritual life, the better I will minister to the people I come into contact with. Prayer and personal study are not optional to a person who loves the folks they minister to. It is training. It is conditioning. It creates in us a state of readiness for the moment when we need to love someone we are angry at or forgive the sins of our neighbor. Pastors and brothers in Christ: we must train daily in study and prayer so we can be ready for the moment God calls us to serve. Prayer must be like running. We should do it so much it is natural to us to pray without ceasing. Study should be like lifting weights. It should create strength in us to handle anything we encounter. Paul put it best when he wrote to Timothy: “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.” Brothers, we must train to be better because it is in our nature.