Luke 1:4 says “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” This is the purpose of Luke’s gospel. He sought to create an even more comprehensive record of the life of Jesus than those that existed before. He also sought to corroborate the record of Jesus, claiming that he had investigated everything from the very beginning of Jesus’ life both with traditions that were handed down word for word and by testing those with eyewitnesses who were still living. R.C. Sproul says that this is an “orderly account”; it’s not chronological, but is thematically ordered in a way that is loosely chronological. It is also possible that what Luke includes and doesn’t include is based on what he was personally able to confirm with eyewitnesses, including seven episodes that do not exist in any other Gospels.
In the sermon on Sunday, February 4, I attempted to explain that as humans we crave meaning, and that Ecclesiastes teaches we must learn meaning from the bottom up like creatures, rather than from the top down like gods. Hopefully the reason for this is self-evident: we are creatures, not gods. Recognizing and embracing this reality is essential in our pursuit of virtuous freedom, which is a key element in our fight for joy.
One of the main themes of Ecclesiastes is that human life is “meaningless.” Yet it doesn’t mean meaningless in the way we normally use that word. When we say meaningless, we usually mean “without any meaning,” but that is not what Solomon means. The Hebrew word translated “meaninglessness” is a word that literally means “vapor.” If everything is vaporous, that means that it is insubstantial and temporary. Consequently, if life is insubstantial and temporary, then pursuing it as though it was ultimate and eternal is foolishness. It is to pretend life is something that it isn’t. The word we used to use for this was “vanity.” And if you look at an older translation of the Bible, that is precisely how the word is translated.
Think about it. What is the opposite of spiritual substance? Vanity. To treat what is insubstantial and temporary in life as though it is ultimate and eternal. You might reasonably think that the solution for this is to trust in God, and that is Solomon’s solution—but not in the way we might think. He argues that the ultimate meaning of many of the things in our lives are not revealed by God, nor discernible by science, philosophy, or human reflection. He even goes so far as to say that we long for these ultimate meanings, yet we can’t reach them. He calls this the “burden God has laid on men” (Ecclesiastes 3:10) and he tells us that this frustration is for our healing and maturity. He says that “God does this so that men will revere him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
I think that means something like this: if we understood the meaning of everything from beginning to end, we would think that we were part of eternity—that we are ourselves the ultimate meaning. He says at one point when discussing wisdom that “God made man upright, but we have gone after many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). That is, we are not good enough for ultimate wisdom. We are idolaters who seek to ourselves be gods. Therefore, if we were able to figure out all of ultimate meaning it would destroy and damn us.
So God withholds it. He frustrates our idolatrous desire to understand all things in order to feel good about our lives. He allows us to believe in himself as a person, and then forces us to grapple with our creature-hood by embracing the ordinary. The vocabulary he chooses for this is our “lot” and “toil”: the real situation of our daily lives (lot) and the work of our daily purpose (toil).
We start with faith by believing in the God who holds in himself ultimate meaning. Life may be full of vaporous vanity, but God is substantial and completely worthwhile. Still, our faith in him does not give us access to all of his knowledge and therefore all of the meaning we desire. God calls us to discover our meaning from the bottom up, trusting him to reveal himself in the midst of our lot and toil. This requires enormous faith, because he is demanding that we find meaning in precisely the thing we wish meaning would allow us to escape.
It is only in embracing our lot and toil that we will find satisfaction and happiness in the things that actually make up our lives as creatures. God claims that it is in this experience that we not only find joyful satisfaction; it is also where we find knowledge and wisdom. The pursuit of anything else is the pursuit of vapor. And the pursuit of vaporous vanity will never produce substance.
Can I do this work any faster?
You might wonder if that means we can’t study, reflect and learn our way into satisfaction, wisdom and meaning. I think we can, so long as we do it while embracing the toil and lot of our real lives. In fact, this is precisely what the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes is. It is a series of reflections on what makes up our real lives and how we should engage with those things as creatures rather than as gods or idolaters.
There are a number of examples of how to embrace our lot and toil in the book of Ecclesiastes, and in this sermon, I talk about nine of them. I am not saying that there are only nine parts of our lot and toil discussed in the book of Ecclesiastes. These are just nine examples I have pulled out to demonstrate how we can combine study and reflection with the practice of daily embracing our lot and toil with joyful satisfaction.
I encourage you to listen to the sermon for these nine examples. Then, read the passages and reflect on them by journaling about how they specifically relate to you embracing the realities of your own real life. Don’t just think theological and philosophical thoughts. Think intensely personal thoughts focused on daily repetitive application. Some of those thoughts should be hurtful and humiliating. They should reveal how unsophisticated our sin often is. Some will also be a beautiful as we realize how much we have overlooked all that we have to be thankful for. Yet you must also trust that God is with you in every step of finding satisfaction in the lot and toil of your vaporous life under the sun. It is not only he who gives you this life, but is also he who “lengthens your days like a shadow” into eternity (see Ecclesiastes 8:13).
Edited June 1, 2018: Originally, I had promised to write nine blog posts about each of the nine examples of embracing our lot and toil throughout Ecclesiastes, but have yet to be able to get to writing these. Since I cover each of these examples in a sermon and haven’t followed up with the blog posts, I suggest listening to the sermon and reading them in the Bible for yourself.
Engage & Equip: LIVE is a new, once-a-month meeting for all ministry volunteers. This engaging environment is the way to receive equipping in your specific ministry area. As we meet together, we’ll grow in unity—and be trained to have the kind of impact we’re hungry for.
Watch as Pastor Nic explains how Engage & Equip: LIVE came about:
The first Engage & Equip: LIVE meeting is on Monday, March 12. Find more info about it here. We hope to see you there!
Vision is a good thing. Everyone needs a preferred picture of the future. It’s good to know the problem, the solution, and why we are the ones who should attack that problem now with the prescribed solution.
We all want our lives to be better, and vision gives us the encouragement that at least we know where to look. Without some kind of vision, the difficulties of our lives can feel like when you’re looking for your keys or phone and you have already looked everywhere. It’s easy to have hope that you will find what you’re looking for if you know you have some more places to look. But once you have looked everywhere, discouragement or panic sets in. Vision, at the very least, allows us to hope that there is still something that we can do to find the life we want.
However, we need more than vision to accomplish something real and worthwhile. I heard Tim Keller use the example of a cavalry. Back in the day, someone would blow a trumpet and then the horses with their soldiers would charge. Vision is like the trumpet. If you don’t have something directing your strength, it won’t go anywhere. But to accomplish the vision, you have to have the strength of horses. It turns out, accomplishment comes from many disciplined, convictional, ordinary, faithful actions. Without these five components, we don’t accomplish even the smallest vision. Continue reading Tiny, repetitive deposits of conviction
By Dietrich Gruen, with Mark Finley
When you hear the word “stewardship” or “giving campaign” uttered from the pulpit or other church leaders, what feeling or reaction in you does that prompt? Do you slink lower in your seat, avoid eye contact, hold tight your wallet, and brace for the pitch?
Relax. We at High Point believe that stewardship is about our whole lives, not simply our finances. My career with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (1974-85) and Middleton Outreach Ministry (1997-2008), involved significant fund raising. But I’ve since come to understand generosity and stewardship in a whole new way, which I (with elder Mark Finley) present here as part of High Point’s Generosity Campaign.
If you are eager to know where year-end gifts to High Point are going, you can find that information here. For more information specifically on the Global Missions portion of the High Point Church year-end gift, you can see the end of this blog post.
But before we get into any of that, we need to explore why to give at all—and lay a proper foundation for giving.
Throughout Substance as whole, starting in the very first chapter, I wrote that much of the confusion in our thinking comes from the structures of our thought and life and not from the ideas themselves. This is true when we talk about worldliness; it may be even more true when we talk about joy. We don’t really talk about joy, do we? We talk about happiness. Even when we say the word “fulfillment,” we don’t mean the fulfillment of some grand philosophical purpose for our being, we just mean that we feel full inside. We just mean “I’m happy.”
However, happiness is notoriously unpredictable in the human heart. It’s a little like seeing birds in the winter. It is extraordinarily difficult to capture a bunch of songbirds so that you can see them during the winter. But it’s not that hard to put seed in a bird feeder and watch them come. Happiness is the birds. Virtue is the feeder. This is one of the differences between “joy” in its comprehensive definition, and “happiness” as we commonly mean it.