It is the week between Christmas and New Years. We have begun to wrap up the traditions and practices associated with the biggest holiday of the calendar year and will shortly turn our thoughts to the next set of traditions and practices. These are, of course, associated with New Years Eve and Day.
Folks will be planning their parties and wracking their brains for resolutions as to what they will be doing different to be better people next year. As a tradition, setting personal goals for the next year makes sense and I like it.
Most of us resolve to lose the weight we gained between Halloween and Christmas, save more money, read more books, or some other thing to make ourselves better. “New Year, New You” will be the motto that dominates our thoughts and advertising in the coming days.
As much as I like the practice, there is a part of me that sort of sees it as ironic. It’s a little like Thanksgiving and Black Friday. One day we gather to thank God for everything He has provided. The next, we go out before the sun is up to buy stuff we think we need. The contrast between thanking God for His provision and watching internet videos of shoppers fighting over the last item in a “doorbuster” sale is stark and sad.
Though not as extreme, this is part of what I think of when my mind turns to New Years during the week between the two holidays.
You see, on Christmas, we celebrate God sending his Son to be born a man. Jesus’ specific reason for coming to live among us was because we are fallen people. We cannot, by our own strength and will, be perfect. We always stumble and revert to sin. Jesus lived a perfect life for us and took the punishment for our sins.
The Bible teaches that those who believe in and follow Him are forgiven and made new. Our souls are cleansed from sin, and God begins the process of making us more and more like Jesus in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We learn to obey God, love our neighbors, be charitable, and everything else that comes along with being Christlike.
That is why Jesus came. That is why Christmas is such a big deal. God makes us new. We accomplish that by faith and a relationship with Him.
New Years, on the other hand, is all about resolving to try harder to be better. That’s not bad. I think that God desires that we work hard to grow and mature.
The real trick is that we become like Jesus by following Jesus. Often, folks make the mistake that they become like Jesus by trying really hard to obey the rules as best we can.
In one case, it is effort and hard work. The other involves hard work, but the change comes about not because we try hard, but rather because God changes us completely from the inside out.
To summarize my traditional New Years themed columns: Aiming to be a better person is good and New Years is a fine time to start.
The best way to accomplish it is through Jesus, who is able to change us. To celebrate God’s gift of Christ and then try by our own efforts to be like Him is similar to celebrate owning a car to get around and then proceed to push it to work instead of driving it.
Jesus is the engine that makes becoming what God made us to be possible.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer and is shared here with their permission.
One minor issue that could potentially cause confusion in the discussion of the date that the church “officially” celebrates Christmas relates to the various branches of the church choosing different days for observing the birth of Jesus.
You might be thinking “What other days is Christmas celebrated?” The majority of the church in the west observes Christmas on December 25th.
A few years ago while visiting Bethlehem in January, I got to witness a huge celebration in the square outside the church of the Nativity. That is when I learned that the eastern part of the church celebrates on January 7th.
So, why don’t all Christians observe December 25th as Christmas?
The answer is tricky. Nearly the entire Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25th. The fact is that even those who celebrate on January 7th are also observing the December 25th date.
Some branches, mainly the Orthodox and Coptic churches, observe Christmas on January 7th because they choose to follow the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar.
The Julian Calendar was instituted in 45 BC under Julius Caesar and was the dating system for most of the western world until Pope Gregory XIII came along in 1582 and altered the old calendar by .0075 days.
The change made but Pope Gregory correct the inaccuracy of the old system’s calculation of a solar year. The tiny variation (10.8 minutes) results in the Julian calendar gaining a day every 128 years. Today, that drift has accumulated into a 13 day difference… Just enough to separate December 25th and January 7th.
I believe the reason for the continued use of different calendars is related to the eastern church not recognizing the authority of the pope. This means their church government deals with these decisions and simply never opted to take on the adjusted calendar.
Nearly the entire church continues to place Christmas on December 25th, but using different calendars, one of which is around 11 minutes longer than the other. All of the churches essentially agree on that day, but not the calendar.
Why do the Julian and Gregorian Calendars matter as it related to Christmas?
The obvious reason to deal with it is because it emphasizes that the difference in dates has to do with calendar issues, not disagreement on the liturgical calendar.
Apart from that, I am addressing this detail for a few other reasons:
It is kinda interesting.
It emphasizes the unity of thought on the matter of celebrating the nativity on December 25th throughout the majority of the church beginning very early on.
It is a peek at how weird and difficult calendar issues can be. It’s also a bit of foreshadowing of the complications that come into play when we start digging into ancient calendars. They’re messy and hard to synthesize.
In my next post we will be looking at the winter solstice. This is the shortest day of the year. After the solstice the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer. The solstice was important for several pagan religions in the ancient world. One ancient faith in particular, the worship of Sol Invictus, fits into the debate around discussion about why December 25th was chosen as the date of Jesus’ birth. That will be addressed in the next post. The 10.8 minute drift will also factor into that conversation.
Note: The Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 6th. January 6th is observed as the feast of the Epiphany for much of the church. Epiphany refers to different things in different church traditions. In the east it is associated with the baptism of Jesus. In the west it refers to the revelation that Jesus is God. Either way, in the 6th century a church council declared that the 12 days between December 25th and January 6th are the “12 Days of Christmas” with December 25th counting as the first day of Christmas. January 6th, in turn is the 12th day of Christmas. Within the Armenian Orthodox Church the celebration of Christmas and the baptism on Jesus are done at the same time.
John Donne, the English poet-scholar, wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” The poem goes on to explain that every man lives a life dependent on those around him. He needs others to thrive and survive from day to day.
At the face of it, this is a true statement. We need each other for various aspects of our lives. On every level of our lives, we require some connection to those around us for food, supply, support, encouragement, etc.
While researching a passage from the writings of King Solomon this week, I came across a comment on this idea that is relevant to our lives, particularly the culture we live in today. Though we all need each other to maintain the lives we live, many of our innovations have created the sense that we can isolate further and further away from the rest of the world.
Many people would much rather receive a text message than a phone call, mainly because it’s an easier and more convenient way to communicate. We have friends we can keep in touch with via social media without ever having to see or speak to them. We don’t have to shop anymore because Amazon will deliver to our houses or we can have our grocery orders brought to our cars. When we do shop, we can choose self checkout and avoid the headache of talking with the cashier. Take some time to watch families in restaurants and other public settings.
It is depressingly common to see one or more people sitting together, staring at their phones. Everything in our lives is making it easier and easier to simulate living as an island. Living in our own bubble like this lowers social pressures and expectations. It makes life easier and frees us from the headache of dealing with people. Many people embrace this new, isolated life.
Surveys have found that each successive generation is more and more inclined to choose isolation. It’s important to understand that this is not isolated to younger generations. Isolation is common throughout our culture, with the majority of Americans reporting that they have no close friends at all. Those friends they do have are not the sort of people that they talk about deep, personal issues with. There is an entire industry centered around talking to strangers that you pay to talk about your problems.
The problem with these trends is that they are contrary to our design as humans. We are social creatures. We need each other. Social isolation, though easier, is significantly less healthy. Loads of research has demonstrated that increased time spent on social media or staring at screens is associated with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and all sorts of other negative psychological traits.
While reading Solomon’s philosophical reflections, I encountered the most obvious answer to this growing social problem. 3,000 years ago, while writing about workaholism, Solomon explained that close relationships in every aspect of life improves everything. Family, friends, spouses, children, neighbors, work friends, and all the rest are what makes life good. They are a gift from God. King Solomon saw a fundamental truth, that we are losing sight of today: we need each other.
If every man is becoming an island, then what the world needs most right now is bridges. Years of talking with people as a pastor has made me confident that, while most people want to isolate to some degree, most people are also very lonely.
The solution is to do hard things. Building bridges is difficult. Going where people are and changing our life patterns to connect to the world around us is incredibly difficult. Many of us don’t know where to start. I would suggest church as an easy solution. Volunteering is also a powerful option. Attending public events, like the kind that the library offers weekly, create space for building bridge connections to others. The hardest part is admitting we need each other and taking the first steps to reach out to the islands around us.
“I struggle to remember to pray, read my Bible, or do anything else to grow spiritually. I start strong and then fall off.” Do you ever feel like keeping your spiritual efforts just melt away when life gets busy?
Maintaining daily spiritual disciplines usually starts off well, when you are motivated and excited to do it. After a few days, it wains, and eventually falls off the radar completely. It is especially frustrating when you talk to other believers who seem to know everything and have mastered their spiritual life and calling. When you compare yourself to how you perceive others it is easy to get discouraged.
Some Good News
The truth is that most of us struggle with this. The fact that you’re struggling isn’t inherently bad, because struggling involves you trying in the first place. If you didn’t care, that would be a much bigger issue and a more difficult one to deal with. Apathy is a far worse condition that struggling. I would rather be discouraged over my lack of spiritual fervor than apathetic to my spiritual condition.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus, wrote that most men would be horrified to lose their eyesight or their hearing, but are indifferent to their souls becoming calloused to the point that they don’t care for their own spiritual condition. He describes this state as madness, because your soul is your most valuable possession. If you care for the condition of your soul, you are in a far better situation than you realize.
If you find yourself discouraged with your struggle in this area, I would suggest reading Romans 7, where Paul discusses his struggle with himself. The only hope he had in the midst of that wrestling was the knowledge that Jesus died to redeem us and that our struggle with sin is not futile.
I would argue that this is the solution to the larger issue of struggling with the state of our prayer lives or Scripture reading or anything else. As we focus on Jesus, we stay on the path toward becoming like him.
We may stumble and fail, but when we get up and continue we remain in him. Driving in that direction over the long term will result in slow growth and improvement. The real key to spiritual life and growth is constant focus on Jesus. That is it.
How can focusing on Jesus be the solution?
“Isn’t that part of the problem with not praying or studying?” When I fall off of my spiritual disciplines, it is usually because I allow my focus to wander to something else. So, how does focusing on Jesus help me when losing focus on him is the problem? This is the truth of the matter and I agree that it appears to be a bit of a catch 22.
That does not mean we ought to give up, because in giving up we are abandoning our soul’s condition. Instead, we must look for the things God has given to us to help us maintain our spiritual health.
God knows we are going to struggle with ourselves. Paul describes struggling with our flesh, or sinful nature. Part of us will pull us away from God all the time.
God knows we struggle, he gives us the Holy Spirit to prompt us and strengthen us. He also gives us folks whose job it is to help us grow spiritually.
How Jesus taught his disciples grow.
When Jesus did ministry he had a crowd of students following him, watching, listening, and asking questions. They were learning to imitate him. This is how we were meant to become like Jesus. We look at his life and imitate it.
The problem is that Jesus isn’t physically with me to help me learn. That makes it challenging, to say the least. He overcomes this by putting men and women in our lives who have advanced beyond our spiritual state. We can follow, ask questions, imitate, and grow by imitating then, while they are imitating Christ.
Most folks who struggle with their growth or the spiritual practices that promote growth don’t have anyone they are connected to in order to learn to be like Jesus. When we have this sort of relationship we will grow through sharing life with that person.
Mark’s gospel depicts this style of training over and over again. Jesus takes his disciples with him as he lives life. They watch and learn. They ask questions. They learn over the course of time by imitating as a byproduct of spending time together.
Finding a Spiritual Training Partner
The other element that I spoke about last week, that was common in the ancient world and we see in Jesus’ teaching is partnering up. Having another believer to engage with on the same level to discuss Scripture or our spiritual struggles or even to keep us accountable for our spiritual disciplines, guides us toward consistency.
It’s a little like having a gym partner. I was more consistent working out when I had a gym partner to meet up with daily. A fellow believer, with whom I can establish accountability and engage in discussion about my spiritual life, will help me to grow.
Mutual encouragement and training together is part of how we as believers were meant to grow. Generally when we struggle with our spiritual efforts, we lack these sorts of relationships as well.
Adding community that encourages us to grow spiritually, to focus on Jesus when we fall, and who we can help in return creates a better, more enjoyable and fulfilling life in Christ. It also builds a structure around us that helps us to be consistent in growth.
The biggest struggle with this sort of external spiritual support is establishing it. We must ask. That is hard, particularly in a culture where religious aspects of life are encouraged to remain internal. We don’t like externalizing our deeper struggles. This is a huge hurdle to overcome. However, it is important because these relationships are the master key to spiritual growth and consistency in our disciplines.
The first two parts of this series have dug into the source of separation we experience in our lives. We looked at how God designed people for community and how sin has created barriers to our basic connections with God and others.
This series is a short side trip on a larger exploration of overwork in our lives. You may be asking yourself why loneliness and the fall are a part of that discussion. I believe the answer to this can be found in the writing of a French Philosopher named Blaise Pascal.
Pascal was a child prodigy, mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and Catholic theologian. He formulated a number of interesting arguments regarding the existence of God that are still debated hotly today. One idea, in particular, applies to our discussion of work and how it tends to get out of whack.
That hole is a product of our design being frustrated as a result of the fall. We are made for connection to God. We can try to fill that vacuum in our hearts with all sorts of things.
Work, in particular, is a popular choice. We were designed to work and create. It scratches part of our itch. The problem is that work scratches the itch for a moment, but it comes back worse later. The more we put work in the place of God to make ourselves feel fulfilled, the emptier we are. It’s a little like scratching a mosquito bite. The more you scratch, the worse it itches. Eventually you end up raw and bleeding, but it is still itchy.
The only real solution is to fill the void with relationship with God. That relationship should impact every other part of our lives. Our family, friendships, work, and neighbor relationships will all be impacted by walking with Jesus in our lives. In addition, our work lives cannot help but be impacted by learning to follow Jesus’ teachings and his Spirit’s work reshaping our hearts/minds.
This is the reason Jesus came and died on the cross. He took punishment for our sins and revealed God to us through himself. We are made new through him. Those who walk with Jesus are slowly remade into what we were meant to be. We learn from him and he works in us to reshape our hearts.
These are easy ideas to present, but what does it mean in practical terms?
When a student followed a rabbi in the ancient world it sharing their lives. Disciples would spend all of their time with rabbis. They would share their life. They would observe them in every aspect of life, whether it involved serving the poor or teaching. Watching led to imitating their teachers.
This is the idea behind following Jesus. We learn to be like him by reflecting on how he dealt with life. One aspect of his life was work. He frequently rested. He often stepped away to spend time in prayer. Sometimes he disappeared and avoided crowds so he could regroup.
Pay attention to your “warning lights.”
Every modern car is overloaded with warning lights in the dashboard. They tell you when the car is overheating or when something has gone wrong that needs repairing. You ignore those warning lights at your own risk.
We have similar “lights” that flash to get our attention. I first clued into this idea when I found myself getting cranky and irritable constantly in my early years of ministry and marriage. I spoke with my pastor about it and he explained to me that anger rises out of other feelings, like hurt or frustration. It is not the problem in and of itself.
The trick is to figure out where it was coming from. If we start getting cranky constantly, something is wrong. We may need to rest or spend time with out loved ones or talk about our problems. Whatever it is, those warning lights let us know something is out of whack in our emotional state, relationships, or spiritual life.
Set your priorities and objectives based on his priorities.
When Jesus saves us from our sins, we come under his lordship. He is the boss in our lives, which seems fair because he is God and he bought our redemption by dying for us. Taking time in the morning, midday, and evening to stop and talk/listen to him. We should review his word and listen to him. Our daily goals and schedule should be set based on his direction.
This isn’t a one time thing. We tend to forget, so we need to come back to it daily. It’s sort of like navigating with a map and compass. It is valuable to stop and get your bearings regularly so you know where you are. That way if you drift off course, frequently checking your bearings keeps you from getting too far off course.
Take Sabbath regularly.
God intended for us to take time off to enjoy life. This means resting, spending time with God, spending time with family, and enjoying life. It isn’t some boring restriction from doing anything, even enjoyable things.
Sabbath is taking a day a week to enjoy life. There will be times when you must skip a sabbath. When the Jews were fighting for independence from the Persians, a small army was slaughtered because it was attacked on the Sabbath. They did not fight back because it was the Sabbath. Afterwards the religious scholars agreed that they could ignore sabbath to save their own lives.
The trick is, the easier you make it to skip the Sabbath, the more often you will skip it. The commandment says that we are to keep it holy. That means we set it apart and preserve it as different and belonging to God. Please note: Sabbath is the day you take it. It is not necessarily Saturday or Sunday.
Surround yourself with people who have mastered working in a way that reflects God’s design for life.
The best strategy I can offer is to find people who do this well and spend time with them. The more people like that influence you, the more you will learn new habits. Ask them questions. Find people to keep you accountable and ask you pointed questions about your priorities and time use. There are a few good reasons for this.
First, you will naturally start to look like the people you associate with regularly. It is a strange truth about people that we tend to imitate those we surround ourselves with. This is one reason the scriptures tell us to gather as the church more often. We change each other.
Second, in those circles you will be able to get an outside perspective that is (hopefully) seasoned with real wisdom. You cannot see every angle. Finding wise men to give you perspective and input is vital.
Finally, without accountability it is difficult to maintain high standards in life. You need people who know you well enough and know enough about life to call you out when you drift.
Model a life you want your kids or those around you to live.
We all grow up to imitate our parents in one way or another. We will wind up with their mannerisms, methods of arguing, work philosophies, ways of coping with problems, etc.
Not everything will transfer to your kids, but workaholism has a habit of passing from one generation to the next. If you want your kids to cheat on their spouse with their job or orphan their own kids in the name of long work hours, then model that. I recommend imitating Christ in your work strategies.
There are a million other little things you can do to manage your work life better. These are only a few and they center around the ideas I presented in the first two installments: We are designed to be in relationship with God and others; and sin has thrown up barriers.
By following Jesus in these areas of life, praying and seeking his direction, prioritizing based on his teachings/direction, and surrounding yourself with people whose community will shape you in positive ways you are leaning on the core of who we are created to be.
In addition, by walking with Jesus in these aspects of life, he fills your heart and changes you. This means you are returning to your created design and God is working in you to bring that change about.
You are surrounded by people all of the time. You have hundreds of Facebook friends, work friends, kids, a spouse, and everything else… So why are you still lonely? If we are designed to live in community, why is it so unsatisfying? Why do friendships and relationships break so easily? Why is knowing God so hard?
In part 1, we looked at how God designed us to be connected to each other and to God. It’ is part of our very nature of be in relationship with each other. Without it, we dry out and die inside, like a fish out of water. If that’s true, shouldn’t relationships come easy to us? Shouldn’t it be like fish, who swim by nature? Why doesn’t it come naturally to us?
In chapter 3 of Genesis we find the answer to these questions. It’s important to understand that this section of the Bible is “the problem” that the rest of the Bible addresses. Everything after chapter 3 is the story of God fixing the broken state of our world.
In chapter three the fall takes place. Everything is broken. Eve is tempted and disobeys God. Adam ate too, but his sin is bigger than simple disobedience. The text indicates that he is right there when the temptation and fall happen. He watches, listens, and remains a passive observer. In many ways this is the is still the spiritual shortfall of men. They remain passive in their families. Often this involves “checking out” of their relationship with their spouse, parenting, and the community. It is the reason I can open with the joke about the miracle of Jesus having 12 friends in his 30s. We hide at work or in our man cave. Proper community demanded that Adam catch Eve before she fell.
After the the text says that their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked. Shame had entered the world. Shame prompted the creation of barriers. People began to hide themselves from each other. They also hid from God. It is easy to miss the big truth here: We experience loneliness and isolation because we were made to live in community with God and each other. The fall created distance in those relationships.
Often we experience distance in our relationships because shame, fear, a history of abuse, or social norms that push us to hide our true selves from each other. Many men live lonely lives in silence. They lack significant relationships with other men and have no idea how to find them. Some men struggle with sin or pain but are unwilling to engage others to create meaningful relationships. Vulnerability is hard and socially unacceptable. One of the best things I learned as I grew into the pastoral role was that if I was willing to admit my own imperfections and speak of how Christ set me free, folks were far more likely to open up to me regarding their own struggles. If we all pretend to be perfect, no one is safe to admit they aren’t. Without being willing to engage with each other openly, close community isn’t possible. Like Adam and Eve, the “fig leaves” we use to cover ourselves up will not fool God, who sees to the core of us. We need to confess to him, and each other, in order to experience real community.
The trick is that the whole thing is extraordinarily risky. Talking about and sharing the real, substantial aspects of our lives is the master key for engaging in fulfilling community.
Part 3 of this series will look at the solution to the problem of separation in our relationships…
“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 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.
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.