In a meeting with mission leaders a few months ago, one of the principal speakers made a comment that set in place something I had been feeling for quite some time. When you hear it, it may not make immediate sense. Think it through and perhaps it will help us discern a path to some changes about how we reach out, and about how we set the pattern of our teaching in the coming days.
He said, “We have come to many fields with the Gospel, seen genuine conversions to faith in Jesus Christ, and raised a generation of pagan followers of Jesus. They know the Gospel and are regularly a part of the church, but they live thoroughly immersed in pagan thinking and superstitions not at all compatible with their faith.”
He went on to express that although the “way” to God was clearly expressed to them, the “walk” with God was not. His prescription was this:
“If we would teach the Old Testament stories to the people, they would see more of the daily practice of a God-walk.”
All the leaders in the room identified with the notion that we don’t seem to be moving deeply past the Gospel into its implications in daily life in many of those who claim to come to Jesus on mission fields around the world. For instance:
• There are still quite a few who claim Christ as Savior who are wrapped up in practices of a type of “Voo Doo” in a few fields, even among those who hold church positions on Sunday morning on the island.
• There are many Christians around the world who continue to carefully consider the feelings of their long-dead ancestors before holding any celebrations in their homes because of their pagan superstitions.
These are just a few slight indicators that in finding Jesus, some we have reached may have found a new afterlife, but not a new lifestyle for daily living now. The strength of their cultural surrounding seems to overpower the lessons of the Word of God. It is heartbreaking for those new to the field to realize how far into paganism and false teaching many Jesus followers still live. Though that is a very real problem, my concern today, however, isn’t simply about far-flung fields of people who are being reached by our mission efforts – it is perhaps a bit closer to home. I believe we may be doing the same thing right here in our hometown churches. Let me explain.
One news cycle this past week illustrates my chief concern about the way we train a generation of Jesus followers here at home:
A social media content provider once named the “bored at work” network is now called “Buzz Feed.” It has become a globally distributed digital media organization read by about 80 million people every month. You cannot spend time on Facebook or similar outlets and not see their name as a source for some “news” content. This week they attempted to flex their muscle to lean into a story that may have backfired a bit. They went after a popular married couple on television, not for anything the couple said or did, but simply because of their faithful attendance at a Bible believing church each Sunday, where their pastor has been on record as believing the definition of a biblically-based marriage.
Buzz Feed ran an article that castigated the beliefs of the pastor taken from clips of his sermons in order to cast a pall on Chip and Joanna Gains, the couple featured on “Fixer Upper,” a show taped in the Waco Texas area. You may know them as a humorous couple that fixes homes and includes their family in the process. The article challenged their right to be on HGTV if they believed the teachings of their pastor – that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that activities outside of that are sinful according to the Bible. HGTV has a history of pushing out people for such things. In this case, it appears to have backfired. The couple said nothing publically, and there is no record of their private belief. Even those who normally beat the drum for such social change seemed to have felt this might be an attack reaching too far. That set up what I saw as the chief problem.
CNN stepped in to “report” both the “news item” and the apparent controversy over someone going to a church where the Bible is preached and yet being allowed to be popular on HGTV for fixing up homes. They weighed in while attempting to purport “sensitivity” to viewers who love and follow the Bible, all the while making the idea sound both outdated and quaint, but then added a statistic (which may be false). The anchor said, “Half of all Christians believe Chip and Joanna Gain’s pastor would be correct on his stance that marriage is defined and restricted in the Bible as between a man and a woman.” That statement got me thinking…half believe something so clearly written in the Bible.
From what source did the other half get their ideas? Clearly, culture is pressing believers hard here as well. This isn’t just a phenomenon on the mission field.
Jesus followers seem to learn how to find God, but are quite weak on how to follow God.
As we open Ecclesiastes, I want to assert that we aren’t wasting time on ancient proverbs left by King Solomon long ago. These words are God’s Words – and they are given with the purpose of helping you learn a WALK that matches your profession to know Jesus. The world may grow increasingly hostile to God’s most basic revealed truths – but the church MUST assert both the Gospel, and the life implications of walking with God in order to meet its responsibility to pass truth to the next generation.
Ecclesiastes 7 is a chapter filled with straight talk about life – principles revealed by God’s Spirit on how to live. Let’s say it this way:
Key Principle: Careful instruction on simple daily choices will pass the baton of godly wisdom to navigate life successfully from one generation to another.
Deliberately set aside the idea that COMING TO JESUS was a mere “aisle walk” after an invitation in church, or a momentary response to a preached message.
Jesus doesn’t want you to agree that He came, know He walked, believe He died for you – and then go on and live by your culture’s rules until the day you die… when you will get rewarded for that hand raising of aisle walking in Heaven. That isn’t the Christian life at all – but too many seem to think it is.
Christianity is journeying through life with Jesus. It is living in a way He wants us to live and walking WHERE He wants us to walk. Passing these truths, then, are passing the lessons of legacy – the passing of our faith in daily practice.
There is much in the chapter, so we will break it in several lessons. As you open the first eight verses, look at a word that is repeated – the word “better.” It appears four times in the first three verses alone. Obviously, Solomon was making a series of comparisons that push us toward choices in daily life. Here are eight of them as the passage unfolds – each about leaving something better behind us.
God wants to call you to a BETTER way of living than the culture will call you to live. Each of these teachings will challenge something about our culture’s approach to what is truly important.
It is better to focus on your reputation than on your cologne or your figure.
Our world will tell you it is better to focus on how you look, how you smell, how you walk and what you wear. They will offer you a thousand products that will cause others to pay attention to you, to like you, to approve of you. Godliness chooses a different direction…
Ecclesiastes 7:1 A good name is better than a good ointment, and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
Solomon spoke the Word of God and said in effect that a lasting reputation of your character and accomplishments (the things which make for a ‘good name’) must be considered more significant in our eyes than an expensive smelling cologne (in his day they used aroma infused oils and ointments for that purpose). To look and smell good leaves an impression. To be a man or woman of character and accomplishment leaves an even more lasting one.
Note the second part of the verse. He wrote, “To finish life well is more significant than to begin life well.” Obviously, beginning well helps greatly. A stable family life, a loving set of parents, and a home where God is worshiped and love is displayed are wonderful. At the same time, many of us won’t have all those advantages. What counts is not the world as it was when we got here, but the little corner of the world we created. Are we leaving the planet better than it was when we arrived? Have we made any difference at all? We shouldn’t overestimate our worth, but we should strive to make a difference in the world – one that includes being a man or woman of compassion and integrity. If no one cries when we leave, it is obvious we haven’t made a difference in many people. If they throw a party when we leave, the difference we have made isn’t a good one.
Both of the parts of the verse are about reputation. The first makes clear that INNER WORK on our character is more important in the long run than OUTER WORK on the body. The second reminds us that the reputation we finish with outstrips the memory of our cute entrance into the world. Here is the bottom line: If you choose to work on the outside, you will run out of options to make it look better. Some of the prettiest people you will meet didn’t take the time on character development they should have – watch how they treat people.
In our society, we reward a man or woman who can handle a ball with millions of dollars and great fame. Often, they are plucked from a high school or college, and have little or no character training on handling massive wealth and fame. Their external ability rewards them while their inner character (in its undeveloped state) destroys them.
Choose to work on the inside. Get regular showers and keep yourself presentable, but work harder on the inside than the outside – because the inside won’t fade like its shell.
It is better to consider life as short and finite. It is a precious gift in part because it doesn’t last long.
The world around us attempts at every corner to teach us we have more time than we do. Popular shows make us laugh. Consumer goods make our lives more comfortable. Even learning is filled with entertaining tools. We flip though magazines that show us colorful places we can travel, exciting experiences we can plan for our next vacation. In all of it, there is little to draw attention to the brevity of life – unless they are selling you some kind of insurance policy. Godly thinking moves opposite the culture. God said,
Ecclesiastes 7:2 It is better to go to a house of mourning, Than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.
Don’t get lost in the proverb. Solomon wasn’t telling us that we should choose our next vacation at a cemetery. He wasn’t cautioning you to cancel the Christmas party and hold a “wake” instead. Look at the end of the verse, and you will see the point. It is about what “we take to heart,” or where we consider the best place to learn serious things about life. Solomon argued, “If you allow yourself to recognize that we are all on the planet for but a short time, you will gain better insight into how to spend each day.”
If there is anything implied in most of the advertising you encounter, it is this: Next year can be better than this year. It can be more exciting. It can thrill you with experiences that will take your breath away – if you buy our product or service…and that is the goal. It is as if we should live life with an eye on how to make it less painful and more exciting. In some small way, that may not be so bad. Yet, the problem is this: The clock is ticking, and you aren’t getting younger. You may be reaching a stage when you can afford to do some of those experiences, but your body will no longer endure the abuse of them. Things are falling apart, and you are spending more time and money getting them glued back on and trying to make them work something like they once did.
The brevity of life should help me set better priorities, and live with “ends” in mind. Standing at a grave side should never be an entertaining scene of happiness – but it can be a place to learn something critical. It can be a place of change. It can remind us that today is precious, and life is a wonderful gift not to be taken lightly.
Go to the party. When you do, let the brevity of life remind you to hug the people you love there, and to tell them how important they are to you. Share with the little ones how Jesus has made your life wonderful. Become the positive person they WANT around. Remember, time is passing quickly. You can waste years of life in feuds of little or no importance. Don’t waste your life – that is the lesson from the house of mourning.
It is better to learn what to take seriously and not simply value the momentary reactions of people.
The world looks for the boisterous display and calls its possessor ‘happy.’ Life is judged, more often than not, by surface reactions and what seems to “make people happy” in the immediate. Some would say, “The louder the laugh, the happier the man.” Happiness and importance seems to be increasingly placed on the party atmosphere, and distraction from the sobering realities of responsibility. Godliness looks in the opposite direction. The Scripture teaches:
Ecclesiastes 7:3 Sorrow is better than laughter; for when a face is sad a heart may be happy.
Don’t read this one too quickly, because the translation can lead you in the wrong direction on its surface. Godliness isn’t glum. Look more closely at the words…
• The term for “sorrow” (Hebrew: kaw-as) is a term that is generally used for negative feeling, as in the word “vexation” or “provocation”. It isn’t the simple term for being sorrowful. It is the word used in the Torah for moments when the children of Israel did something evil that provoked God to a response. It is a word of “something that stirs the heart” and is usually used in the negative sense.
• The term “laughter” is the word (Hebrew: sekh-oke) for a joke, or a frivolous moment. It isn’t a word limited to the action of laughing – but often used in a much broader way as a moment of lightness.
A better way to think of Solomon’s proverb, then, may be to say it more like this:
“Something that touches us deeply inside is better than a fleeting joke. Long after our face gives way from the laughter of the joke, our heart may still ponder the treasured lesson of the more vexing situation.” (Paraphrase).
Everyone likes to tell the joke that makes others laugh. The reaction is immediate and affirming. The fact is that you are more important in the learning of another when you offer truth that will cause them to ponder and stew over it – if it is true and helpful. For those who would walk with God, true happiness is found in the midst of the loving commitments to do what is hard to build another – not the self-oriented pleasures consumed for my pleasure.
• Parenting is hard, but godly parenting is pleasing on a deep level.
• Giving my best, day after day, in a job I do not enjoy is difficult, but honoring God in my best efforts at work promises to be immensely satisfying.
• Pushing for a serious cause that I know is important to my Master may take years and can be exhausting – but it will be rewarding when I recognize I expended my energies on things that matter.
A sobering countenance and a stirred spirit can profit me – because it presses me to stand by what I believe I am called to do, and do it for the Lord. Ask a teacher. Ask a mom. Ask a hard working factory man. Life can be rewarding on a deeper level than just a comedy club diversion.
Besides that, Solomon would warn you not to judge the book by the cover when it comes to satisfaction. A serious countenance encompasses a greater possible emotional range than an uproarious laughing spell. Lots of people are boisterously laughing on the outside, but bleeding from life on this inside. They hurt a thousand different ways and cannot even find a way to show it. You cannot judge deep satisfaction by surface appearances.
It is better to ponder inside the lessons gained in pain than to seek diversions of pleasure.
I have often noted how close bars locate to funeral homes. Our world offers one constant prescription to pain and loss in life – the distraction of pleasure. They consistently preach, “You have been through much; it is time for fun!” There is a deep reticence to spending quiet time pondering the lessons of pain. Godly living doesn’t so quick instruct us to take the pressure off. The Scripture teaches:
Ecclesiastes 7:4 The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.
Note the issue of the text is where we spend our time thinking. The issue is where the mind dwells. Fools keep thinking of how to have constant pleasure and fun. Wise men and women take a sober look at the lessons of life and try to suck from the marrow of the experience. Foolish people try to block pain and take little time to learn when offered distracting pleasures.
There are times we should sit quietly, shut off the TV, put away the cell phone and quietly allow the painful moments and difficult lessons to settle in our minds. Constant noise is consistent distraction. Some of us would rather watch bad re-runs than carefully consider the difficult words shared by someone who loves us, but wants us to begin to take greater responsibility for our lives.
We can seek to let deep pain make us better people, or we can run from the lessons that only come from tough blows. Someone has said, “God speaks to us in our joy, but shouts to us in our pain.” I wonder if the call to distract might not be, at least in some cases, an avoidance from God’s voice.
It is better to gain from correction than to be undeservedly affirmed.
The world wants to give participation awards to keep anyone from feeling as though they didn’t measure up to the standard. They are missing the benefit of the lessons that come with correction and loss. Scripture teaches:
Ecclesiastes 7:5 It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man, Than for one to listen to the song of fools.
Affirmation is important, especially to a child. Every psychologist will confirm that idea. Yet, some in our time, have turned over-affirmation into a trite thing, robbing it of its value. Last summer, Pittsburg Steelers star James Harrison took a public stand when he returned his six and eight year-old children’s “participation awards” for local sports stating,
“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”
That statement caused a bit of a firestorm in the youth sport’s world. Ashley Merryman, author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing was interviewed and shared, “The benefit of competition isn’t actually winning. The benefit is improving. When you’re constantly giving a kid a trophy for everything they’re doing, you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about improvement. I don’t care that you’re learning from your mistakes. All we expect is that you’re always a winner.’ Merryman continued:“I like kids. I want them to be happy and do well. But I’d much rather have a 6-year-old cry because he didn’t get a medal than have a 26-year-old lose it because they realized they weren’t as special as they thought they were.”
Now don’t lose your footing here if you don’t entirely agree. Simply consider the biblical side of what is being said: Correction can hurt in the short run, but is invaluable in the long run, if it comes from someone who is truly “wise.”
Don Yeager, writing for Forbes this past summer wrote:
A $2 billion a year industry has grown up around some parent’s need to reward their child with meaningless awards just for joining a team. And as it has, we have all fumbled an important life lesson for our children. Prizes won’t increase motivation—it actually lowers it. Why would a child attempt to improve when he or she is treated the same as the kid on the sidelines chasing butterflies? Unfortunately, the “helicopter parenting” crowd has already profoundly affected our society. Study after study on millennials show an increase in depression, anxiety, and a lack of coping skills with disappointment. How do we reframe this discussion with a generation of young people that have been sheltered from the harsh realities of losing? Simple: They have to be taught that losing is okay…if you learn from it…Our youth must learn how to handle both winning and losing in order to have a realistic perspective on life. Being celebrated for just competing hurts the player more than anything, because it prevents that lesson from taking root…which ultimately stunts that individual’s growth. The great ones in sports and business all know that you don’t get participation trophies by showing up for work. Winning and losing is a consequence of competing—and we’re all competing every single day in the professional world. We should never treat life as though it lacks hardships or that failures don’t happen. Instead, we can use these moments to make us better.
There is a great quote that summarizes this idea:
“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Regardless of how you feel about participation awards, know this: Learning to gracefully accept wise correction and integrate the lesson into your practice is absolutely essential for improvement. Blaming the referee does nothing to improve the skills of any player.
It is better to work hard toward lasting gain than settle for the momentary instant benefit.
The world makes many important things look easy. Do you want a good marriage? Find someone beautiful and do fun things together. Go to the right parties and wear the right clothes. Do you want to be successful? Learn to find that right “break” and “be discovered” by the important person. If you aren’t successful, it is probably because you haven’t yet been discovered for who you are! Godly thinking offers wisdom that draws our attention in the opposite direction. Solomon wrote:
Ecclesiastes 7:6 For as the crackling of thorn bushes under a pot, So is the laughter of the fool; And this too is futility.
On first look, the verse sounds like laughter is the culprit. It sounds like we shouldn’t tell a joke or seek to make another laugh. That simply isn’t the point at all. Look at the imagery Solomon used.
If you make a fire in the wilderness of Israel, you have very little wood to use. The place is desolate, and the best wood can be found in some of the valley floors, referred to in our day by the Arabic term “wadis.” There is sufficient wood to build a small campfire, and there are some bushes that offer very hot coals (like the Rotem bush that grows in the Judean desert). Among campers, we know the best fires aren’t the ones with the big flames, but rather the best red cooking coals. A fire that looks very small can cook a good dinner or heat a coffee pot. Thorn bushes are airy and can create a flash fire, but not make many useable coals on which to cook or keep you warm. The issues are sustainability and usefulness. Herein is Solomon’s lesson:
The loud affirmation of a fool won’t sustain you.
Momentary popularity by people who don’t know what they are talking about won’t help you or anyone else accomplish something of real value. Don’t focus on acceptance by other people. Don’t focus on popularity. Focus rather on knowing your God-given purpose through the gifts and abilities He has given you, and develop them to be most useful.
It is better to remember that people are always more important than things.
The world communicates a “dog eat dog” ethic of life. In a naturalist world, there is only morality when there is consensus on right and wrong. “Wrong” is defined in that system as a time when we perceive people are “hurt” by something. The man or woman of God is called to see it differently. Solomon wrote:
Ecclesiastes 7:7 For oppression makes a wise man mad, And a bribe corrupts the heart.
Solomon mentioned oppression and bribery. Both have a common underlying element. Both invest more worth in power and treasure than people. An oppressor sees more value in holding onto power than he sees in caring for the weak. A man of bribery sees greater value in winning through money than in justice for the hurting. In both cases, people are secondary to a higher goal.
In God’s economy, people hold a higher place than fortune, fame, power or pleasure. One who would serve God will do so by serving people.
Accomplishment is sweeter when you push ahead humbly and patiently than when you feel entitled to easy victory.
The world beckons us to enjoy the peak without the climb. We should have a wonderful, warm and family-filled Christmas without hours of shopping, decorating and cooking. We should have friends gathering to carol the old songs together without spending hours with them in tears and struggles over the year. We should have happy children without being proactive parents. Godliness looks at life as a gift, but also as a humbling set of hurdles over which one should patiently jump. Solomon said it this way:
Ecclesiastes 7:8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning; Patience of spirit is better than haughtiness of spirit.
Our lives are shaped by a variety of things, but some of them are painful. Sometimes we OBSERVE the shortness of life, and the seriousness of its implications. Sometimes we have to pass through the experience of choosing the serious over the nonsensical. Sometimes we have to learn from the pain of correction. We always learn more when we do what we do for God’s honor and according to God’s pattern.
Practical and direct are the words of wisdom. They aren’t flashy, and they aren’t easy. They require careful forethought and disciplined response. That doesn’t make life less fun – it makes it more enduringly meaningful.
We cannot preach John 3:16 and ask people to come forward and receive Christ and expect they will know how that choice affects daily choices the day after that. Wisdom is living out truth in practice. The Bible has so much more on how to live than a simple “way to find God.” Finding God is essential, but it is also incomplete.
The single most effective method to keeping people from living out their faith is hiding that such a thing is in any way necessary. If all I need to do is find God in a momentary response to some message I heard, there is no compelling need for me to understand the many verses that regard following God throughout my life. Such verses simply act as ‘filler’ between those all-important “John 3:16 moments” that dot the 1189 chapters. Many in our day have been trained to believe this, evidenced by their choice to both make a public claim as a “Christ follower” and at the same time live as though that title has little bearing on their daily choices. That isn’t what Jesus called men and women to do. It isn’t the faith portrayed in the Bible at all. Jesus taught both a commitment, and a lifestyle that reflected it.
Careful instruction on simple daily choices will pass the baton of godly wisdom to navigate life successfully from one generation to another.
In 1926, a wealthy Toronto lawyer named Charles Vance Millar died, leaving behind him a will that amused and electrified the citizens of his Canadian province. Millar, a bachelor with a wicked sense of humor, stated clearly that he intended his last will and testament to be an “uncommon and capricious” document. Because he had no close heirs to inherit his fortune, he divided his money and properties in a way that amused him and aggravated his newly chosen heirs. Here are just a few examples of his strange bequests:
• He left shares in the Ontario Jockey Club to two prominent men who were well known for their opposition to racetrack betting.
• He bequeathed shares in the O’Keefe Brewery Company (a Catholic beer manufacturer) to every Protestant minister in Toronto.
• But his most famous bequest was that he would leave the bulk of his fortune to the Toronto woman who gave birth to the most children in the ten years after his death.
• This clause in his will caught the public imagination. The country was entering the Great Depression. As people struggled to meet even their most basic economic responsibilities, the prospect of an enormous windfall was naturally quite alluring. Newspaper reporters scoured the public records to find likely contenders for what became known as The Great Stork Derby. Nationwide excitement over the Stork Derby built quickly. In 1936, four mothers, proud producers of nine children apiece in a ten year time span, divided up the Charles Millar’s bequest, each receiving what was a staggering sum in those days – $125,000. Charles Millar caused much mischief with his will. This was his final legacy to humanity.