A timer is a handy tool for mothers. When my children were young—in the days before smart-phone apps—I frequently used a white plastic egg timer to let them know when an activity was about to begin or end or how long it would last. We will leave for the pool in 10 minutes. You have 5 minutes left before it’s your sister’s turn. Read your book for 30 minutes. I also used a timer to motivate. If my children were taking too long to finish a project, I’d set a timer. If they required an incentive to do their chores, I’d set the timer. When I needed them to do something in a hurry, I’d sometimes use a timer to play beat-the-clock.
But timers are not only useful for children; they can benefit adults too. In fact, did you know that a timer has been set for our lives? We are on the clock. Holy Scripture tells us how long our lives here on earth are going to last. And it’s not long! David and Job compare the span of our lives to a breath (Ps. 144:4; Job 7:7). That’s only a second or two at most. At least Moses gave us a little more time when he likened the length of our days to grass that lasts from morning to evening (Ps. 90:5,6). Even still, a half-day is not very long!
Now, if our lifespan is comparable, to—at most—about twelve hours, this means that the seasons of our lives are only mere minutes in duration. Think about it. Whether you are a teenager, a single adult, a new bride, a mom with preschool children, an empty nester—whatever your season, you only have a few minutes left before this season ends. The timer is ticking.
I could almost hear it the other day when I read a list of the potential seasons of a woman’s life and realized that I had passed through almost all of them and had arrived at
the second-to-last season on the list. Truth is, the timer is always ticking; we just don’t always notice. Which is why David, Job, and Moses all try to rouse us—you don’t have long now! The reality of our limited lifespan sobers us up quick. It should motivate us to resist distraction, to refrain from disobedience, and to live purposefully and passionately, in an all-out sprint, for the finish line of our heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. We Christian women should always hear the tick, tick, tick.
“How well should those live who are to live so little! Is my earthly pilgrimage so brief? Then let me watch every step of it, so that in the little of time there may be much of grace,” said Charles Spurgeon.
How do we make much of grace in our little time? One of the simplest job descriptions for life is found in Ecclesiastes 3:12-13:
“I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”
We are to be joyful and do good. What a simple, delightful assignment! In every brief season of life, whether working in the home or in the marketplace, whether cramming for tests or living out our retirement years, whether overwhelmed or aimless, our duty as Christian women is the same. Be joyful. Do good.
Often, we trudge (or dash!) through the fleeting seasons of our lives with an “I can’t wait until this is over so I can enjoy life” mentality. Once I finally get these toddlers out of diapers or get these teenagers off to college…then I will be joyful. If only I can get my business off the ground or finally make enough money to retire…then I can be joyful.
But we are to be joyful today. Our timer is ticking, remember? We don’t have much time to obey this command in whatever brief season of life we find ourselves. When we move from our current season into the next, we should be able to look back and say, if nothing else: by the grace of God, I was joyful.
Joy is found in God alone: “In your presence is fulness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). So the way to be joyful in every season is to cultivate what Elisabeth Elliot calls “a habitual sense of the presence of God.” She tells mothers (and all of us) to: “Think that Almighty God, who created the stars and keeps the seasons revolving in perfect rhythm, is there in your kitchen, in your bathroom, in the laundry room, in the grocery store.” Think and your heart will be filled with wonder and joy. God is with you. Right now. Joy is where God is, and—through Christ—God is with us. How can we not be joyful?
All too easily, it seems.
You see, “a habitual sense of God’s presence” that leads to joy isn’t something we simply conjure up when we feel stressed or sad. It begins with consistent time in God’s Word and prayer and flows out into a life of daily communion with him. Joy is a “fruit of the Spirit”—a gift—that he gives to those who seek his presence continually (Gal. 5:22, Ps. 105:4). You may think that you don’t “have time” right now for consistent Bible reading and prayer, but in truth, you are throwing out the one thing that is necessary (Lk. 10:42). There is no other way to be joyful, and, being joyful is the most important responsibility you have today. How delightful is that?
Again, our assignment is simple. We are to do good in every season, and the good we are to do is the good that God has given us to do. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). The Creator of galaxies and ocean depths has designed and fashioned each of us individually, called us by name, redeemed us from our sins, and then personally prepared good works for each of us to do.
And Scripture tells us to get excited about doing good! We are to be devoted to good works (1 Tim. 5:10), zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14), have a reputation for good works (1 Tim. 5:10), adorn ourselves with good works (Tit. 2:9-10), and stir up one another for good works (Heb. 10:24).
If our lives feel complicated and stressful, it’s often because we’ve forgotten this simple command. So when you wake up in the morning, ask yourself: What is the good God has prepared for me to do today? (Hint: It’s usually right in front of you. Make your bed. Care for your children. Be gracious to your coworker. Joyfully receive unwelcome interruptions.) Then do it. Do it with all your heart.
Living Wide Awake
Be joyful and do good—it sounds so simple, so pleasant, so doable. Our problem is that our spiritual glasses get so fogged up with the momentary pleasures and problems of daily life, that we forget it’s passing so quickly. In fact, many of us live as if our present season is going to last forever.
John Calvin’s words bring us back with a jolt:
“Whence proceeds the great stupidity of men, who, bound fast to the present state of existence, proceed in the affairs of life as if they were to live two thousand years…. In short, men are so dull as to think that thirty years, or even a smaller number, are, as it were, an eternity; nor are they impressed with the brevity of their life so long as this world keeps possession of their thoughts…. How speedily our life vanishes away. The imagination that we shall have long life, resembles a profound sleep in which we are all benumbed.”
Let’s “wake up” to the fact that we have only a short time left in our present season. More importantly, let’s live as if we have just a few minutes remaining. With one eye on our heavenly timer, let’s be joyful and do good. Truly, as the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing better.
It’s a commonly accepted truth: the older you get, the less you care about what others think about you. This can be a good thing, ushering in a new freedom from timidity and self-focus. Or it can take an unhealthy turn, leading to bad hair-dye jobs, unfortunate wardrobe choices, or—more seriously—unkind or selfish behavior toward others. As Christian women, we should not simply drift into a middle-aged indifference toward the opinions of others. We should be deliberate to shed our sinful preoccupation of what others think of us—and the earlier the better—so that we can be free to run our lives in an all out sprint for the glory of God. How can we shed the oppressive and excessive care of what others think of us—whether we are twenty-five or sixty-five?
A few years ago, I came across this valuable nugget of advice from a nineteenth-century pastor named Charles Simeon: “My rule is—never to hear, or see, or know, what if heard, or seen, or known, would call for animadversion from me. Hence it is that I dwell in peace in the midst of lions.” I had to look up “animadversion”: it means “criticism or censure.” Simeon is saying that he made it a rule never to hear (or see or know) anything that had a detrimental effect on his soul. This is how he maintained the peace of Daniel in the midst of “lions” who spoke evil of him.
Whether we are in the lion’s den or green pastures, a young woman or well into middle-age, we would do well to make it our rule never to imagine or attempt to find out what other people are thinking or saying about us. And in case you need convincing, all you have to do is consider what happens when you don’t follow this rule. Think with me for a moment about the consequences of worrying about what others think or say.
For starters, it is a futile exercise. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, we can’t control another person’s opinions or actions. Being suspicious about someone won’t change that person. And if we try to find out if our suspicions are true—asking around or even asking the person directly—we may end up wondering if we are getting accurate information, which only leads to more suspicion. Or, if we happen to get our suspicions confirmed, then we feel worse. So you see, it’s a fruitless and futile effort that leads nowhere good.
It’s also a destructive exercise. Trying to control what others think and say about us hurts, and we are the ones who get hurt. Long before Charles Simeon, the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes said: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you” (7:21). If we put our ear to the keyhole, we’re probably going to hear things we wish we hadn’t heard, and words have a penetrating effect on our souls. We all probably remember unkind words spoken to us by others that still come back with fresh emotion—which is why we would do well not to go looking for more of this kind of thing. It’s out there, to be sure, but why try to find it, if it only makes us miserable? “If all men knew what each other said of the other there would not be four friends in the world,” wrote Blaise Pascal. In other words, there is something to be said for the idea that ignorance is bliss.
Thirdly, to suspiciously search out any bad word against us is a hypocritical exercise. To our shame, we must admit that we have thought and said unkind things about other people—even those we love the most. Ecclesiastes calls us out in the very next verse: “Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:22). How many times have we resented the more beautiful woman, criticized the boss, felt superior to a fellow-mom, judged a family member, or laughed at someone’s embarrassing moment? When we remember our own failures, we are humbled. Our case for justice crumbles in light of our sinful, hypocritical tendencies.
Investigating or speculating on the opinions of others is an arrogant exercise, for it starts with a false and puffed up assessment of who we really are. This is why, as Charles Spurgeon says, “It is always best not to know nor wish to know, what is being said about you, either by friends or foes. Those who praise us are probably as much mistaken as those who abuse us.” The impulse to elicit encouragement or stamp out criticism comes from an arrogant and inflated view of ourselves. The humble woman does not look for encouragement or fear criticism because her self-assessment already agrees with the apostle Paul’s: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Finally, to be consumed with what other people think about us is a self-focused exercise. Spurgeon again: “It is a crime to be taken off from your great object of glorifying the Lord Jesus by petty consideration as to your little self, and, if there were not other reason, this ought to weigh much with you.” As if all the previous reasons weren’t enough, this ought to motivate us to give up our selfish speculations once and for all. We were not saved from our sins so that we could spend our lives in “petty consideration” of what others think of our little selves. We were saved to bring glory to God: “and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15).
Whether we are a teenage girl going to a new school or a grandmother moving into a new retirement community, let’s make it our rule—starting today—never to hear, or see, or know what would wreck our peace and take our eyes off of our main object, to glorify God. Instead of wondering what others think about us, let’s ask ourselves: “How can I glorify God today?” Then, we too will dwell in peace.
The other day, one of my sons asked if I liked a certain music artist he had heard about from a friend. “I like a few of his songs,” I told him. “A couple of them are beautiful, but some of his songs are not God-glorifying.” This spun off into a conversation with my two boys about music.
How do we help our teens discern whether or not a song is godly? As I told my boys, there are many helpful questions we can ask (thank you, Bob Kauflin!), but one way we can determine if a song is God-honoring is to ask: “How does this song make me feel?” I know, I know, it sounds like I’m throwing open the doors to whatever music we “feel” like listening to. But hang with me for a moment.
God gave us feelings to motivate us. Emotions move us to action. We feel happy and so we laugh, we feel righteous anger and we defend, we feel compassion and we help. And music? Music stirs up the feelings that move us to action. This is the ultimate purpose for the gift of music: to stir up emotions that move us to God and godliness. We sing praises and play instruments, in order to excite feelings that move us toward God.
So if this is God’s purpose for music, then it is vitally important that we ask: “How does this song make me feel about God? How does this song make me feel about godliness? And how does this song make me feel about sin? Or, more broadly, think about the kind of music you like to listen to. Does the music on your playlist leave you more angry at others, or grateful for God’s goodness? Discontent with your life or desirous of doing good? Hating sin or loving righteousness?
How does your playlist make you feel? Better yet, does the music you listen to make you feel the way that God wants you to feel?
As I told my boys, a song may not contain any “bad words” but still be bad if it stirs up emotions that warm your heart toward sin. A song’s meaning may even be vague or the words enigmatic, but if it stirs up arrogant, selfish, or lustful desires, then it is ungodly. On the flip side, a song may not mention God or his Word, but the words and music together generate feelings of awe at his beauty and majesty in creation, shame for sin, or selfless love for others. This is a good song.
Like medicine through an IV, the music that flows through our children’s earbuds affects every part of them—including their emotions. And their feelings, in turn, influence how they act and think. If we are to be wise parents, we must not simply tell our children not to listen to ungodly music (although we must tell them that!). But along with biblical boundaries, we must also help them curate a music playlist that stirs up and promotes godly emotions.
Asking “How does this song make me feel?” doesn’t lower the standard, allowing a flood of ungodly music into our teens’ libraries. Rather, it raises the standard higher—for them and for us. Music that is pleasing to God is music that generates godly emotions.
Envy isn’t just a kid problem, but kids haven’t gotten good at hiding it yet—which gives us as parents the opportunity to help them see and overcome its tenacious grip. How can we help our kids overcome envy? Three simple ideas.
1. Talk to your children about envy. Talk to them when they are tempted, and before they are tempted to envy. First, explain what envy is. Envy not only wants what someone else has (“Why can’t I have an iPhone too?!”) it resents the other person for having it (“I just don’t like her.”).
Then, starting with the 10th of the 10 commandments, and moving through Scripture (a simple keyword search will get you started), talk about what God thinks about envy (Hint: it’s pretty bad). Show them how envy is what Jonathan Edwards once called “the most foolish kind of self-injury” because it only makes the envier miserable. Take them through John 21 and talk to them about Jesus’s antidote for envy.
2. Help your children repent of envy. If our child has given into the sin of envy, help them pinpoint the who, where, and why. Lead them through a specific prayer of repentance. Remind them of the forgiveness through Christ’s death on the cross, and the Holy Spirit’s power to help them change. Encourage your child that God is graciously revealing this sin now as a sign of his mercy and goodness. If they can learn to turn away from envy at a young age, they can be spared years of unhappiness.
3. Give your children a plan for overcoming envy.
1. Spot envy. Help them to recognize the feelings of envy, and what they mean. Emotions of envy are like an alarm that tells us there’s a sinful fire in our hearts, and we need to put it out now.
2. Stop comparing. Comparison is envy’s bread and butter. No comparing, and envy starves and dies. So teach your child to stop looking at others and thinking about what she has or what she looks like or what she gets to do.
3. Start thanking. Envy dies in a thankful soul. Help your child make a list of God’s many good gifts, and then help them add to that list. Have them save their “thankful list” and pull it out whenever they are tempted to compare or envy. For every envious thought about what they don’t have, teach them to pray and thank God for what they do have.
Envy is an emotion that is fed by a habit—a habit of comparison. When we help our children, at a young age, to look up in gratitude instead of sideways in comparison, we can protect them from envy.
Much more needs to be said about applying the gospel, God’s sovereignty, the doctrine of sin, personal holiness, forgiveness, and reconciliation etc. to a conflict between Christians. For further study, I recommend starting with Charity and its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards.
I want to wrap up by touching on a few practical issues related to forgiveness: issues that are seldom addressed and yet are troublesome to our emotions.
Christians can be pretty fuzzy about forgiveness, which makes this point from John Piper particularly important:
“[F]orgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person. In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.”
What do we do when there is no repentance to respond to? Or how do we respond when someone talks and acts as if they have not sinned against us? Do expressions of affection from someone who has betrayed us mean we should all go back to the way things were? In this post, I’m considering these questions in light of sins by another Christian such as slander, hostility, cheating, stealing, lying, or deceit.
Given our fuzziness on forgiveness, we need to press in and better understand what Scripture says about forgiveness and friendship, and also what it does not say.
If we are to live at peace with all men so far as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18), we have to understand exactly how far it depends on us. Our question must not be: What do other people expect from me?Rather, we must ask: What does God require of me?
Answering this question brings clarity. It helps us to move forward with a clear conscience, even if we are swimming against a current of expectations from others; and it clears up a lot of the confusion that follows in the wake of broken relationships.
1.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must agree.
Nowhere does Scripture require us to agree in order to resolve a conflict with another Christian. We are to love them. We are to refrain from retaliation. We are to pray for them. But we are not required to agree with them.
In fact, we must not agree if agreeing means violating a biblical conviction. To hold your ground on a moral or ethical issue is not unkind, unforgiving, or stubborn, but right. It is not un-Christian, but uniquely Christian.
Even if well-meaning people encourage us to agree for the sake of unity, we must graciously resist that pressure when biblical issues are at stake.
Charles Spurgeon humorously put it this way: “I have known good men with whom I shall never be thoroughly at home until we meet in heaven: at least, we shall agree best on earth when they go their way and I go mine.”
2.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must trust.
“You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don’t trust you” insists John Piper. This is not rude or unforgiving. It is wise.
If a person has betrayed you and shown a disregard for the truth or for your reputation, you are not obligated to trust them again, even if they ask for your forgiveness.
Sometimes as Christians we experience false guilt on this point. When someone asks for our forgiveness or acts like nothing has happened, we may feel like we are withholding forgiveness by not trusting them again. One insightful pastor explains:
There is confusion between forgiveness and restoration….To explain: If a friend seriously betrays me, I am mandated as a Christian to forgive him if he asks for it. But I think I would be foolish to restore him to a position of trust. I often drew the analogy with babysitting—if someone babysat my kids but neglected them, I should forgive them if they repent; but it would be delinquent to let them babysit again.
It would be unwise to trust an individual who, through lying or slander, has violated our trust. We must be cautious and careful in how we relate to that person in the future.
If someone has betrayed our trust, they must re-earn it, proving over time the genuineness of their sorrow and the fruit of repentance in the form of godly character. This is possible, by the grace of God, and I have witnessed, as you may have as well, the sweet restoration of trust that can flow from repentance.
But a glossing over of the issue, a half-hearted apology, or an expectation of immediate restoration does not obligate us to trust someone, unless or until they have proven themselves trustworthy.
3.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must remain close.
Sentimentality muddies the waters of forgiveness. A longing for “the way things were” is not a reliable guide for friendships. A close friendship in the past does not obligate us to remain close.
Friendship is a significant category in Scripture, and we must hold it in high regard. If we pretend that certain sins don’t have a devastating effect on a relationship, we deny what Scripture says about the meaning of friendship: trust, loyalty, honor, truthfulness, constancy, and sacrificial love.
True closeness is only possible under these conditions.
If someone betrays us but fails to acknowledge that sin or make restitution, then to relate to them as if nothing has happened would be to undermine the meaning of biblical friendship.
But if a person realizes their sin, asks your forgiveness, and proves their trustworthiness, your relationship may be restored; you may even be closer than ever before. However, we are under no biblical obligation to be close again. We have not fallen short of forgiveness or failed to honor God if we graciously go our separate ways.
It may be that we now find ourselves in a different place or situation than before. God, who brings good out of every trial, may have used this broken relationship to move us into new areas of service and caused new, godly, friendships to blossom.
We must recognize these as blessings from God and move forward to serve him in the new ways to which he has called us. God does not expect us to maintain the same level of closeness with every Christian for the rest of our lives.
4. Forgiveness does mean we trust God.
Finally, as we try to carefully pick our way through the rubble of a broken relationship, we must leave the remaining confusion and questions in the hands of our loving, heavenly Father. Take this wise counsel from Dr. Cotton Mather:
It may not be amiss for you to have two heaps: a heap of Unintelligibles, and a heap of Incurables. Every now and then you will meet with something or other that may pretty much distress your thoughts, but the shortest way with the vexations will be, to throw them into the heap they belong to, and be no more distressed about them.
You will meet with some unaccountable and incomprehensible things, particularly in the conduct of many people. Throw them into your heap of Unintelligibles; leave them there. Trouble your mind no further; hope the best or think no more about them.
You will meet with some [unpersuadable] people; no counsel, no reason will do anything upon the obstinates: Throw them into the heap of Incurables. Leave them there. And go on to do as well as you can, what you have to do. Let not the crooked things that can’t be made straight encumber you.
And remember, above all, that God is good and wise as he rules over every aspect of your situation. I leave you with these encouraging words from John Piper:
God is not just showing up after the trouble and cleaning it up. He is plotting the course and managing the troubles with far-reaching purposes for our good and for the glory of Jesus Christ.
“The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.” Ps. 37:39
“How do we raise our children in this world of beauty gone bad?” This question—in the appendix of Mom and Nicole’s book, True Beauty—is on the forefront of my mind these days as my three daughters are getting older. Two simple ideas have been guiding my approach of late.
First, I’ve been considering my own childhood experience. My mom—following the counsel and example of her own mom—was careful to minimize excessive focus on my appearance at a young age. It will come in its own in time, my grandma would tell her. No need to rush. In my case, I was so unconcerned about my personal appearance, that even when I had reached my mid-teens, “it” still hadn’t come.
My sisters (four and five years older than me) love to tell the story about how they finally went to my mom and asked if Janelle could maybe start brushing her hair occasionally. They had to appear in public with me after all. I’m happy to report that I now daily brush my hair and even wear make-up. “It” finally came! But looking back, I see how the lack of focus on my outward appearance when I was young was a means of protection in my life. I have found my struggle with worldly beauty standards to be minimal, and I know that is in part due to my mom’s wisdom in allowing me to be “young” and not hurrying my transition into adulthood.
Secondly, I was provoked by a conversation with a friend a couple years ago. After having four boys she became pregnant with a little girl. My friend was finally getting to design that girly-girl nursery and wanted to have a quote from True Beauty featured in her daughter’s room: “True beauty is to behold and reflect the beauty of God.” She wanted her daughter to grow up with a daily reminder of the true definition of beauty. Such a simple idea, yet the potential effect is immeasurable. I followed her example, hanging the same words on my daughters’ walls. My youngest can’t even read yet, but as soon as she can, I want thoughts of the Savior’s beauty to fill her mind each day.
Never has the world around us made it more difficult to raise daughters with a biblical understanding of beauty. But God has not called us to a hopeless task, and I encourage every mom (of girls and boys) to read True Beauty and spend careful time considering the appendix, “True Beauty and Our Children.”
“The beauty of grace that overwhelmed our own hearts through the gospel of Jesus Christ has lost none of its power. Our Savior can do for our children as he did for us. Grace makes true beauty irresistible. So we pray with hope in God to open the eyes of the hearts of our children to the dazzling beauty of Jesus Christ.” ~Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre
You know when you find something new, and you enjoy it so much that you want everybody else to know about it? Well, that’s happened to me. I recently received a book: A Spectacle of Glory by Joni Eareckson Tada and I want you all to know about it. It is a daily devotional book. You know the ones: a short reading for each calendar day. Somehow over the years, I have accumulated a bunch of these devotional books, but this particular one has become a favorite. I have been reading it every day at the end of my Bible study and prayer time. What a sweet addition to my devotions it has become!
Joni’s devotional book includes insight from one verse concluding with a short prayer for every day. Let me give you just one example to whet your appetite:
April 19/Psalm 107:27-28
Today’s Scripture reads, “They were at their wits’ end. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.” The expression “at their wits’ end” has been around a long time and is still in use today. It’s that point in life where you run into a massive obstacle or paint yourself into an impossible corner and have no idea what to do. The psalmist, however, gives us a snapshot of people who cried out to the Lord a their wits’ end—and He brought them out! What has brought you to your wits’ end? A family situation? Financial trouble? A health scare? A rebellious child? Here’s the good news: We might come to our wits’ end, but God never does. We might be out of answers, but God has answers. The solution is simple: Cry out to the Lord.
How unspeakably wonderful, God, to remember that Your wisdom has no limit. There is no knot on earth so tangled that You can’t untie it. There is no situation in life too involved, too complicated, or too baffling for You. When I’ve exhausted my last option, when I finally arrive at my wits’ end, You are able to bring me out.
There are 364 more gems, just like this one! Joni writes like she is sitting across from you, sharing—with all her contagious enthusiasm—the hope and comfort she herself has received from God’s Word. We could all do with a “Daily Dose of Joni” in our lives, spurring us on in our love for the Savior! I hope you will pick this book up and add it to your summer devotions.
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.
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?