sadness is good for the heart

A good name is better than fine perfume,
    and the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
    because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person
    than to listen to the song of fools.
Like the crackling of thorns under the pot,
    so is the laughter of fools.
    This too is meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 7

Back to one of my personal favorite books of the Bible; it’s there for a reason, and not just for its ending. I like to think that Jesus could laugh with the best of them, but was more given to being with those who suffered, entering into their world and suffering empathetically with them, and relieving that suffering so that ultimately they could take up their cross and follow.

In the series at the church we’ve been attending, taking our grandchildren, and may become a part of, we’re in the midst of a new series on the book of Philippians called “Choosing Joy Under Pressure.” It seems to me that this deep joy thrives in the midst of pain and sadness, yes indeed- pressure. So that what the writer of Ecclesiastes might be getting at is how superficial people can be, so that their thoughts and lives do not at all rise to any level beyond the absurd.

Maybe this is in part why Jesus said the poor and poor in spirit are blessed, while the rich are not, at least not necessarily so, but open to woe and rebuke, and a cursed existence. I for one have lived with a lot of internal pain most all of my life. But I am also more and more realizing the joy of seeking to follow the Lord in the midst of it. Grace and peace from God accompanies all of our life in Jesus, including our pain.

In following Jesus, we are not living it up with partying and laughter, though that is a part of life as God created it to be, and can be a way to get to understand where people live, Jesus himself eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. The very heart of God is what we look for, and that is a heart of love, giving everything for others, for the world, in and through Jesus. And to do that, we must enter into the depths of what it means to be human, both in the enjoyment and appreciation of life, and in the difficulties, even death, which accompanies all of that. In and through Jesus.

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the right time and way

For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
    though a person may be weighed down by misery.

Ecclesiastes 8

For people who act in the moment such as I, and who don’t really plan that much in advance, this is a needed, and wise word. Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more just how important this is, so that I’m much better in doing it than I used to be.

The danger might be in refusing to do anything at all, because no one can know for sure if the time is right. It might seem so, but long experience in life tells us that what might seem to be the case, is really not necessarily so at all.

It is important to pray, and to pray some more, and usually to sleep on it, at least. To not be in a hurry is absolutely essential if one is to act in wisdom. Oftentimes what is needed, or most helpful won’t come to one’s mind and heart except over sufficient deliberation and time. And besides that, we need to be in prayer for God’s preparation of whoever we might be talking to, that God would prepare their hearts to be receptive to whatever wisdom we might offer.

Ecclesiastes continues to be one of my favorite books. We need all of scripture, even if we can’t understand it all, track with it, or even like every part of it. Of course we find the end and final answer to it all in Jesus. In and through him. But that doesn’t mean that we neglect any of it. And Ecclesiastes in particular is one book I will continue to rather major on, I’m thinking, in trying to unravel the complexity of life. As I seek to be a follower with others of our Lord.

“Who is the greatest?” and the problem of comparison

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9

We inevitably draw up comparisons in our minds as to which of us is better in this or that. We all tend to like to think that we might be better than someone else at such and such, and many of us are competitive by nature. But when we do so, we play into the hand of the world, the flesh and the devil. And we’re not like Jesus.

In the first place I might say, leaving the above text for the moment, to compare ourselves with each other is simply unwise, as we read elsewhere from Paul, who I would imagine, considering all that is said about and by him in scripture, was quite competitive himself.

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.

2 Corinthians 10

Paul was fighting the false apostles for the sake of the gospel, who were calling into question his ministry based on their false view of what spirituality was. And one sure key to see through them was how they compared themselves to others, and specifically in this case to Paul and surely all those with Paul. They were superior; they were the spiritual elite. They could speak better, and surely their content was better too, in their minds. And no doubt they did dazzle, since Paul had to devote an entire section of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13) to both refute and expose them, as well as indicate what makes one who is truly a messenger of the gospel. By their actions and comparing themselves as superior, they were preaching a different Christ, and acting by a different spirit other than the Holy Spirit. Paul’s example was one of humility and weakness, and the gospel as well as the Lord, who essentially is that gospel, and specifically him crucified, was the one people would come to see in Paul’s ministry, not Paul himself.

But back to our Lord’s words to his disciples. He took a little child, embraced her or him, and made it plain that this child was an indication of what true greatness is. That they were to become like this little child, last of all, and the servant of all, even like he was already, to be completed through the cross. Elsewhere on the subject of who is the greatest, Jesus told them that nothing less than a conversion, a change of heart is needed (Matthew 18).

I am so easily given to comparison, particularly in matters in which I’m competitive. Probably in most, I don’t think I am, including how I write, teach and preach. I know better, having learned over the years. In these areas, I have come to see clearly how we’re all in this together, and how much we need each other. And how it’s like snowflakes, or so many other illustrations from creation, how there’s no end to God’s creativity, and how therefore we miss out completely when we compare ourselves or someone else as better than others. Paul ended up being better than the false apostles he had to oppose, because for him it was about Jesus, not about demonstrating how great he was. In fact in his brokenness as a jar of clay (read the rest of that great letter, 2 Corinthians), Jesus was more clearly seen.

And so let’s appreciate the good gifts in others, and be glad about areas they may excel in and do better than us. Remembering that we’re all special in God’s eyes, and by his design. Both in creation and in new creation in and through Jesus, the one who is the measure of true greatness.

trusting in the Lord does not mean throwing caution to the wind

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

Proverbs 3

Perhaps it should go without saying, though I think we have to tell the truth to ourselves and each other, that we simply don’t throw caution to the wind when we’re trusting in the Lord. In a strange sense we do in that we no longer want to act out of fear, or be led by that, except for a proper fear of God which is altogether different. Not to say that we don’t lock the doors of our house, or latch the windows at night, surely out of common sense, and not out of our own human emotion of fear.

When God’s leading might coincide with what we might ordinarily do, left to ourselves, than I can well imagine that the enemy’s accusing breath might be near, with some choice words to put us in our place. But the breath and voice of God are different. There is no doubt that under God’s leading there is quite a lot that we won’t do, and then other things we will, that without that leading would not have been the case. A key component in this is to wait on God in prayer. Our thought might be good, but the way of carrying it out, even if one is thinking only of the timing, may not be that good. We need to wait on God in trust that somehow God will direct us.

Obviously we don’t throw caution to the wind by doing what we feel like doing, and then attributing that to the Lord’s leading. There are times when any one of us might be susceptible to this. For example, we might like someone of the opposite sex whose looks might appeal to us. Of course that doesn’t mean we act on that impulse in a way which violates our covenant with our spouse and with God. In fact we reject such feelings as in any way offering us guidance as to what we can or even should do. Instead we submit ourselves to the truth of God’s word, even when that might go against our feelings at the time. Perhaps particularly for guys, and I’m thinking of a business trip alone in a motel, that might mean spending time in the word, and listening to the kind of music we enjoy, rather than watching at best a questionable movie, or even going to some pornographic website.

Our goal is to follow the Lord’s leading in all things. Part of that leading may be the freedom to make some decisions in collaboration with others in such a way which ends up agreeable to all. And that would include decisions within the family especially involving the wife and husband where there might be a disagreement, or different way of seeing things. Instead of jumping to one conclusion or another, it would seem best to spend some time together in prayer on the matter, and both pray separately with the goal of arriving to some place of peace between the two, all the while seeking the Lord on it for direction. Some things might be a matter of choice, and what might be best is for both to pray and reach some kind of peace together, seeking to find what’s best in the Lord’s eyes, all things considered. A considerable amount of wisdom beyond what any of us possesses in ourselves will be needed. Of course in answer to prayer God is always willing to grant that (James 1).

And so there will be times and matters in which we’re not sure what we should or shouldn’t do. Just because we are committed to the Lord’s leading in all things, doesn’t mean that everything will be easy. Perhaps while what we’re thinking may be alright, someone else has to work through it as well. And in the process both can grow. Relationships pleasing to God, as well the goal of complete trust in God must always be at the heart of what we’re about, along with the mission of God which is ours in Jesus as well, in terms of the gospel.

Properly understood, we don’t throw caution to the wind. Even as we continue to commit ourselves to being led by God in all things. In and through Jesus.

a settled trust beyond reason

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3

Life can be a struggle. Ask any homeowner, for example, who is trying to keep up basic repairs. Or concern over a host of other factors. Money is often involved, but other things as well. Priorities, and sometimes dealing with people. One can soon feel overwhelmed by it all.

Then we turn to scripture and read a passage like the one quoted above. In fact a couple years back this passage seemed especially impressed on me.

If there’s one thing I believe in humanly speaking, it’s the importance of reason. Too often people go on their emotions, or impressions, what might seem like the right, or best thing to do. I could wish to be like some who don’t seem to have a care in the world no matter what. Usually I get rid of my cares in a relatively short time, maybe in a day or less, and soon go on to the next care I have to deal with.

Scripture does not tell us to throw our reason away. In fact just to read scripture is in itself an appeal to our reasoning, but that appeal, while not suggesting we leave our reason behind, doesn’t stop there.

We are to employ our human reasoning the best we can, but in the end we’re to rest on God, to trust in him. No matter what we might cover through human investigation and reason, we can’t be foolproof. There will always be something more to know, which we may not uncover until years later, if at all. We do the best we can, but then let it go, and leave it in faith, in God’s hands.

This is a discipline with a much bigger goal in mind than simply succeeding in doing well enough in projects which need to be done, though we certainly want to do our best in them. We want to learn to live in a settled trust in God beyond our own human reasoning, and really all human reasoning. So that we live ultimately in dependence and submission to God. We want to be those who beyond anything else have an unwavering faith and trust in God.

That can be a struggle, since we’re so used to depending on ourselves, or others. But something for us to both aspire to, and grow in, through the normal day to day situations of life which we encounter. In and through Jesus.

God understands

We say in Christian theology that God knows all things, the end from the beginning, in every minute detail with the big picture in mind. Precisely what that means might deviate some. Like I might ask, “Can God know what isn’t already in existence?” Surely yes, in that he can create and control all of that, but maybe no if he chooses not to control it at every turn, I am thinking of human volition. All of existence is out of God’s doing. And God can force us to choose or do whatever, if God so chooses, but it seems on the surface at least, that there’s a real give and take in life between the individual, as well as people, and God. Maybe some of this we do best to chalk up to mystery, and leave alone. But it does seem that God invites us to grapple with all he has revealed, while the hidden things remain with him, indeed surely outside of our limitation to grasp.

We can be at a place in which we’re challenged to know what to do. In small ways that happens a lot, and is usually fixable. In larger ways, sometimes that can be quite difficult, beyond our ability to navigate well, if at all. It is good during such times to be in prayer and in the word, looking to God to give us the understanding we need, and proceed from there. That is usually incremental, and one step at a time. God can be trusted to be present through all of it, but it seems to me like God leaves plenty of room for variation on our part, including even failure. God has the big picture in mind, but also wants to be present interactively with us through the small things, as well. That is lived largely in context of our day to day existence as individuals, but is best worked out in community with others in Jesus. Not to say that God might not use the broader human community as well, and another friend who does not yet know him.

I look to God for his wisdom, believing certain things are beyond me, really many things. Essentially what concerns God in us, I believe, is a character transformation rooted in God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. It’s not like other things are unimportant, all within the old creation is included in the new creation in Jesus. Salvation extends to every part, but perhaps its outworking is strange to us. And the fact of the matter is that we may not be necessarily included, if we don’t look to the source which is found in Jesus. There might be some major bumps on the road, and brokenness on the way to that salvation.

God understands. And can be fully trusted. In and through Jesus.

against paralyzing fear

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

1 Peter 5

The most often repeated command in scripture is to not be afraid. I often carry with me nagging fears about this or that, but ordinarily relatively benign. Like the need to replace a non-functioning turn signal, or check to make sure the roof is not leaking. Even those can have a cumulative, wearing effect on us, so they do need to be addressed, even if the solution is simply to let it go as not worth the trouble. The big problem comes when fear wins over faith, when the fear we’re experiencing all but knocks out our faith.

In the passage above, a lion can gain advantage over its intended prey by paralyzing it with fear. Just a long enough hesitation can be all that the lion needs to pounce on it for the kill. Paralyzing fear is a sure sign that it’s not a legitimate fear, but one to be rejected. And that involves nothing less than spiritual warfare, even as we see from the text above (and see Ephesians 6:10-20). After working through that, we might be able to find some legitimate underlying fear, which we can take care of.

Faith in God certainly doesn’t preclude responsibility on our part. A good example of that is when the devil tempted Jesus with the words that he should simply throw himself off of the top of the temple, depending in faith on God’s promise that the angels would be there to protect the righteous when they fall. Jesus countered that text taken out of context by the devil with the scripture: “You shall not test the Lord your God” (Matthew 4). Which means expecting God to deliver what God has never promised. In faith we depend on God without reservation. While in prayer, we do what we’re supposed to do, or what might solve a problem, and settle a legitimate fear.

In all of this, no matter what we face we must have faith in God. That God will fulfill his promises, and ultimately take care of everything. And in that process, help us make decisions, and ultimately grow in wisdom and in the likeness of his Son. Individually, but also together, in and through Jesus.