When my mom graduated from high school, she had a plan. She was going to Bible college. She resigned her job as a secretary for a Christian ministry, enrolled in school, and packed her bags. Then a few days before she was set to move, she met my dad. It was love at first sight.
Mom never made it to Bible college. She got her old job back and a few months later married my dad. On May 17 of this year, they celebrated forty-two years of marriage and they are more in love than ever. Needless to say, her life didn’t go as planned.
What are your plans after graduation? Whether you have a five and ten-year plan or feel in a fog about the next step, there’s something about life you need to understand:
Life is unpredictable, and that’s on the best days.
If there’s one thing you can be certain of, it is that this is an uncertain world. Your life won’t go as planned. Sometimes the unexpected is exciting—like when my mom met my dad—but it can also be discouraging and bewildering at times.
We find a mini-commencement speech of sorts on this topic in Ecclesiastes chapter eleven. It contains valuable wisdom for graduates and everyone considering their future plans. Four times in six verses we find some variation on the phrase “you do not know.” Basically, there is a whole lot you don’t know about your life.
“You know not what disaster may happen on earth…” (v. 2) Another terrorist bombing. Another tornado season. You do not know what disaster, near or far, may change the course of your future.
“You do not know the work of God who makes everything…” (v. 5) You cannot explain God’s providence in your life so far or predict what he may call you to do in the future.
“You do not know which [effort] will prosper…” (v. 6)The economy is unpredictable. People and trends are unpredictable. You cannot know for sure what path will lead to the most success.
Life will surprise you, and not always in a good way. It’s uncertain and unpredictable.
Not only that, the only thing we can predict in this uncertain world is that it will be hard: “So if a person lives many years…let him remember that the days of darkness will be many” (v. 8).
In other words, Graduating Class of 2017, you don’t know what will happen with your life; but there’s one thing you can know one thing for sure: you will have many bad days.
Hardly the inspiring message you were hoping for, I know. But Ecclesiastes doesn’t just give us the bad news, it tells us how to live well in an uncertain world. When we face up to the unsettling reality that life doesn’t go as planned, we learn from Ecclesiastes how to make new and better plans.
How do we make good decisions in uncertain times? Ecclesiastes gives us three ways.
1. Be an Entrepreneur
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (v. 6).
Young people often spend a lot of time worrying about their life. They hesitate to commit to one direction or another. They worry about finding the will of God. They flounder.
But Ecclesiastes would tell you that the surest way to succeed in an uncertain world is to get to work. Work as hard as you can at whatever work God has put right in front of you. And you never know, it just might work.
Instead of “thinking of may-be’s and might-have-beens…our business is to grapple with what actually is, and what lies within reach,” advises Derek Kidner. “Few great enterprises waited for ideal conditions; no more should we.”
Coming to grips with uncertainty frees us to take risks for Christ. These words from Phil Ryken make an outstanding mission statement:
“It may be true that, to paraphrase this passage, ‘you never know,’ but it is equally true that ‘you will never reap if you never sow.’ So work hard for the kingdom of God. Live boldly and creatively. Try something new! Be a spiritual entrepreneur. Even if you are not completely sure what will work, try everything you can to serve Christ in a world that desperately needs the gospel. Work hard from morning till night, making the most of your time by offering God a full day’s work. Then leave the results to him, knowing that he will use your work in whatever way he sees fit.”
Be a spiritual entrepreneur. Work hard from morning until night. Try everything to serve Christ in a world that desperately needs the gospel. In an uncertain world, this is the certain path to a useful life.
2. Give Your Life Away
“Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth” (v. 2).
Trying to control our lives or predict the future makes us stingy. We won’t spend time on a “hopeless case.” We won’t serve the ungrateful. We won’t stay in that small church. We won’t volunteer for children’s ministry or the cleaning crew. We won’t give our all to a boring job.
But the woman who understands life’s volatility gives generously, almost recklessly, of her time, her love, and her service to others. She seeks out the lowly and the outcast. She listens patiently to the troubled. She serves in secret, and has what Zach Eswine calls “the stamina to go unnoticed.” Because who knows what may happen tomorrow?
[T]ime and chance can overturn our finest plans. If that can be a paralyzing thought, it can also be a spur to action: for if there are risks in everything, it is better to fail in launching out than in hugging one’s resources to oneself. We already catch a breath of the New Testament blowing through the first two verses, a hint of our Lord’s favourite paradox that ‘he who loves his life loses it’, and that ‘the measure you give will be the measure you get’. ~Derek Kidner
Give of yourself to others and don’t count the cost. Lose your life. Lose it now and you won’t worry so much about losing it later. You won’t have a mid-life crisis or what I heard about the other day, a quarter life crisis (for real?). Don’t react to the uncertainty of life by hoarding your time and talents. You do not know what will happen tomorrow, so give your life away today.
3. Enjoy Today
“So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all” (v. 8).
If it’s true that you will have many dark days—and it is true—then Ecclesiastes tells you to rejoice today.
Sure, you may have troubles today. You may have fears about the future, trepidation about your new job, despair about difficult circumstances, frustration that you are not yet where you had hoped to be yet. But don’t let the specter of the dark days of the future rob you of the joy of today.
Enjoy this moment, the grace of graduation, for it is an astounding grace! Be grateful for the privilege of learning, revel in the godly relationships you have forged, laugh over the memories. Relish every moment of the graduation experience with gratitude in your heart to God.
We lose so many of the good moments of our lives trying to prevent the bad ones. When we know that they will come, no matter how hard we try to avoid them, we are free to give God thanks for the evidences of his grace today.
When we enjoy each day, one day at a time, we will look back and realize that we had a happy life. There may be many sorrows, and many dark days, but when we deliberately rejoice in God every day, we will find we are a happy person in the end.
A Stimulating Call
Life is unpredictable. My mom could not have guessed how her life would radically change one summer day in 1974. And neither can you know what tomorrow holds. So how do we respond to life’s unpredictability?
Derek Kidner drives the lesson home:
“The true response to uncertainty is redoubling of effort…It is a stimulating call, with no thought of faltering, yet no trace of bravado or irresponsibility. The very smallness of our knowledge and control, the very likelihood of hard times so frequently impressed on us throughout the book, become the reasons to bestir ourselves and show some spirit.”
Class of 2017: May you not falter or boast, but armed with the knowledge of how little you know, may you rise up, show some spirit, and make the most of your life for the glory of our risen Savior.
My grandma likes to tell about the time my dad, a little boy of five at the time, wandered away from the house and out onto a busy street. He most certainly would have been hit by a speeding motorist, had it not been for his dog. True to his herding instincts, this noble collie walked between the cars and my dad and kept my dad from straying into traffic until the police found him. My dad’s dog saved his life.
We might not think about it like this at first, but trouble and hardship are like Dad’s dog. They keep us from straying into the busy street of sin. We don’t always appreciate their life-saving presence in the moment. Trials feel to us like that collie might have felt to Dad: annoying at best, painful at worst. Trouble sticks so close, it shoves so hard. It keeps us from going where we want to go. At times, trials knock us to the ground. We long to be free from their troublesome presence.
But the Psalmist views his trials as a life-saver: “Before I was afflicted I went astray,” he confessed, “but now I keep your word” (Ps. 119:67). To hear the Psalmist tell it, he’s actually glad that he experienced affliction! Now no one—least of all the Psalmist—is saying that affliction is pleasant or we should enjoy pain or hardship. But in the mystery of God’s ways, we should see each and every trial as a blessing. Afflictions are divine herd-dogs, sent by our gracious heavenly Father to protect us and keep us from sin.
For one, trials protect us from pride. They keep us humble; they keep us needy and dependent on God. It’s hard to think too highly of yourself when you are brought low—and that’s a blessing. Affliction can also keep us from straying out into the shiny streets of worldliness. We realize something of our frailty and our mortality when we suffer. We get a glimpse of the emptiness of all this world has to offer, and so we don’t rush headlong into sinful pleasures. And trials, when we respond to them as gifts from God, can keep us from being callous others. We are more compassionate, more caring, more understanding because we know a little of what pain feels like. Each trial in our lives—big or small—protects us from sin and leads us back to God. And to joy.
Wait, did you say joy? We think of our trials as joy-takers, not joy-bringers. “Before I was afflicted I was happy, but now I am sad all the time” is how we put it. But there is a difference between trials being unpleasant—which they are—and trials robbing us of our joy. Our afflictions are sent by God to lead us joy. Listen to Joni Eareckson Tada, quadriplegic and in chronic pain since she was in a diving accident at age 17. “I’m grateful for my quadriplegia. It’s a bruising of a blessing. A gift wrapped in black. It’s the shadowy companion that walks with me daily, pulling and pushing me into the arms of my Savior. And that’s where the joy is.”
Trials not only keep us from sin, they push us back to the arms of our Savior. And that’s where the joy is. The Psalmist doesn’t just get back to the duty of God’s Word, now he delights to keep God’s Word. Now he has joy! One of the things we lose in our Stoic-slanted view of the Christian life is how to find joy. We think all the delight and happiness is out there, on the busy byways of sin. So we go wandering from home, we stray from Christ. And affliction, by the grace of God, brings us back. It keeps us safe. It leads us back to where the joy is.
So if you feel followed by that “shadowy companion” Affliction, if Trial is always nipping at your heels, if Trouble keeps shoving you to one side, give thanks for your “bruising of a blessing.” May your trouble, major or minor, push you into the arms of the Savior. May your affliction lead you back home—to joy.
2017 at 8:59 am | by Janelle Bradshaw
Summer was always my favorite season as a little girl, and I ran headlong into those glorious months free from school with all the energy I possessed. So now, as I come upon another summer as a mom with four children I’m equally excited. I’m also grateful for the example my mom set for me growing up. As with everything else in life, she approached our summers with great intentionality. Now don’t get me wrong—she provided many wonderful opportunities for fun and rest. I still remember our local pool which offered an hour of “free swim” every morning from 8-9 during the summer. Most days, my mom would drive us, and a carload of our friends, to swim in the ice cold waters of Upper County Pool. How we ever thought “freezing swim” was summer fun is a mystery to me, but Mom provided this and many other summer memories that I will always cherish.
But Mom also saw summer as a land of opportunity and refused to let us squander it. One specific memory I have is the afternoon of “quiet time” she required. After lunch from 1-3, we had to stay inside and spend at least an hour of that time reading. The other hour was to be spent in some other constructive pursuit such as art, music, cooking, sewing etc I still remember chafing against this rule, not exactly appreciating “quiet time,” as it interrupted my play time. Sorry about that Mom! But I was chatting with Nicole the other day about this very thing, and we were recounting all the good that came from that small requirement. Obviously, it instilled in us a love for reading but that was just the beginning. It also helped us to appreciate the value of structure and scheduling, of habit and discipline. It gave us focused time to cultivate our gifts and desires. Many of the things we love and pursue today such as art and writing were born in those hours of summer quiet. The benefit we have received helps us persevere in creating similar structures for our own children. So much value from such a small and simple practice.
And so, as school draws to a close, let’s ask: How can we be intentional this summer? Is there a skill that one of our children has been wanting to learn? Is there a particular character quality where we can creatively facilitate growth in our family? Maybe for you, this will be the “summer of kindness” for your kiddos, like it was for Nicole’s a couple years ago. Maybe you can create a structure for your kiddos to grow in reading, which happens to be my summer goal this year. This will look different for each of us, but just remember, a little bit of intentionality in these years has the power to effect not only your kids but even your future grandkids. That’s a summer to get excited about!
2017 at 9:40 am | by Nicole Whitacre
When my youngest daughter Sophie first came into our home at the age of three, she, like every toddler, wanted my constant attention. If I wasn’t looking at her, she would tug on my arm and repeat, “Mom, mom, mom.” I would turn around from the dishes or look up from my laptop and respond with an exclamatory “Look at you, Sophie! What a good job!” After a few weeks, Sophie picked up on the phonetics (if not the grammar) of my response and began to call out “Lookachoo, Mom! Lookachoo!” It took me a few times to realize that she wasn’t speaking in her native Amharic—she was saying my words back to me. She wanted me to “look at you.”
One of the most precious gifts we give our children is our attention. We watch their twirls in the kitchen, and we examine the new bug they found in the backyard. We look for signs of a sniffle, and we look both ways before we help them cross the street. We pay attention to their diet and their sleep and the neatness of their handwriting. We keep our focus through their long, rambling stories. We attend to their needs, and we keep an eye out for their temptations. We watch them crawl around the corner of the living room and down the hall; then, in the blink of an eye, we watch them back out of the driveway and down the street. According to legend, we even have eyes in the back of our head. From the moment our newborn (or our three-year-old) is placed in our arms, we begin a vigil that never ends. We moms are always on lookachoo duty.
Alas, we mothers are only human after all. We cannot watch our children every moment of every day. Our eyelids grow heavy. We must sleep when they sleep. And then we get distracted. We fail to listen. We miss so many moments. Or we get anxious, fretful with the care of these eternal souls. We grow weary with all the watching.
But as we watch over our children, our Heavenly Father is watching over us (Prov. 2:8). He does not grow weak or weary (Isa. 40:28). His attention doesn’t flicker or fade. As we attend to our children’s needs, we are constantly being attended to by God, who knows exactly what we need (Matt. 6:32). All of our motherly duties are carried out beneath the gracious umbrella of his attentive care (Ps. 34:15). Every story we listen to, every picture we praise, every sin we correct, we do under the watchful eye of our Heavenly Father.
JI Packer writes:
What matters supremely is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind….I know him because he first knew me and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is not a moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters. This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort—the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates—in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good.
We don’t have to cry “lookachoo” to get God’s attention. He’s already looking. He’s already caring. He already knows what we need. In fact, when we call out to him, it’s because he first prompts us to pray. If we are his children, in Christ, then there is not one single moment when our Heavenly Father’s eye is off of us. He is always watching over us for our good. Here, my fellow moms, is an unspeakable comfort. And energy! I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I want for Mother’s Day.
We all have limitations. A condition of limited ability; a defect or failing. Our particular limitations could be alack oftime, money, energy, ability, or experience; or the unwelcome constraints of life circumstances and obligations. Whatever our limitations, many of us may wish we could get rid of a few, if not all of them.
But let’s not forget: God is the one who lovingly limits us. The Bible gives us clear evidence that He controls every detail of our lives (Job 14:5, Jer. 10:23, Dan 4:34). In his wisdom, he determines what we can and cannot do. And we must be careful not to be so preoccupied with what we can’t do that we miss out on all that we can do to love, serve, and please Jesus.
In Mark 14, we read the story of one woman who did not let her limitations stop her from expressing her love for Jesus. The setting is a dinner party that was being held in Jesus’ honor, just a few days before his crucifixion. While Jesus was reclining at the table, a woman (John 12:3 identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus) approached him and poured very expensive perfume over his head. The disciples were indignant, viewing such an act as a complete waste of money. But Jesus ordered the disciples to leave her alone and commended Mary’s deed. Then he says of her: “She did what she could” (v.8).
Mary may have wished to do more for Jesus. But Mary didn’t allow her limited resources or abilities to hold her back. Instead, she did what she could. Whatever our God-given limitations, they do not hinder us from serving our Savior. In fact, our limitations are often the very means God uses to propel us into fruitful service. Consider Fanny Crosby. Blind from the age of six weeks, she became the author of more than 8000 hymns, many of which we sing today. Of her blindness, she said: “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
Fanny Crosby didn’t begrudge the limitation of her blindness but deemed it a gift that nourished and fostered her hymn writing. Perhaps Mary’s example played a part in shaping Fanny’s attitude toward her limitations, for on her tombstone she requested these words: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could.”
Like Mary and Fanny, let’s do what we can to serve our Savior. Let’s regard each of our limitations as a gift—a special provision from God for fruitful service. All he asks of us is that we do what we can, by his grace. And when we do what we can, he has one more thing to say. It’s the same thing he said about Mary. “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6). Oh my, how marvelous is that? To think that when we simply do what we can, we are doing something beautiful to the One who did the most beautiful thing ever to us—dying on the cross for our sins! How can we not, with gratitude and joy, do what we can?