“Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to the end.” ~Ecc. 3:12
On my eighth birthday, my parents spread a trail of all-purpose flour from our front porch, down the sidewalk, and around Aquarius Avenue. I didn’t know where the white, powdery, mounds were leading me; but my parents loved surprises, so I knew this trail must be going somewhere good and birthdayish.
I followed the flour mounds, a whole pack of neighborhood kids giggling behind me, and sure enough, I ended back in front of our house where sat a brand-new Schwinn bike, tricked out with hand breaks and a pink and purple daisy-adorned banana seat.
As Christians, our times are a little like my birthday trail.
Because we have eternity in our hearts, we want to understand how it all fits together. What’s the purpose of this season? How is God using this experience for my good? What’s the meaning and significance of my life?
“Man has an inborn inquisitiveness and capacity to learn how everything in his experience can be integrated to make a whole. He wants to know how the mundane ‘down-stairs’ realm of ordinary, day-to-day living fits with the ‘up-stairs’ realm of the hereafter; how the business of living, eating, working, and enjoying can be made to fit with the call to worship, serve, and love the living God.” ~Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
Not the Answers We Were Hoping For
Here’s the rub: God doesn’t always answer these questions. He doesn’t show us the big picture or give us the bird’s eye view. He doesn’t invite us into his satellite room: “Do you see, when those flour mounds veer off here or dead end there, or go for a long time in the same direction? Here’s what I’m doing. Let me explain how my eternal purposes are being worked out in all of the exciting, ordinary, and difficult times.”
God doesn’t show us how the beads of the days of our lives string together. In the preacher’s words: “We cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end” (v. 12).
Sure, we see bits here and there:
“We catch these brilliant moments, but even apart from the darkness interspersed with them they leave us unsatisfied for lack of any total meaning that we can grasp. We see enough to recognize something of its quality, but the grand design escapes us, for we can never stand back far enough to view it as its Creator does, whole and entire, from the beginning to the end.” ~Derek Kidner
There you have it. According to the preacher of Ecclesiastes, God has done both of these things. He has given us the understanding that there is a beginning and end, but then he won’t let us see our beginning from our end. We see the beauty in between and we know there is beauty to come, but we can’t see how our time all fits together.
“Just because God has placed eternity in our hearts—‘an etching of the eternal on our soul’—does not mean that we understand how God’s ordering of everything works. We are like Augustine, who said that he understood the concept of time up to the point when someone asked him to explain it. God has made us inquisitive about eternity. But just because he has given us a key to open some lock does not mean that he has shown us where on earth the door is. We are completely known by God, but we cannot completely know the plans or purposes of God because we are not God. The mirror before our faces is murky (1 Cor. 13:12), and our window into heaven narrow.” ~Douglas Sean O’Donnell
The Frustration of Our Times
Because of this seeing-but-not-totally-seeing thing that God has done with our time, there’s an unease and disquiet that often underlies our day-to-day efforts to keep going. Are all these carpools and bag lunches worth it? Does it even matter if I keep hanging in there with this difficult person? What’s the point of serving in my church when no one notices? Why did God put me in this family with all of their problems?
When life heats up, these “what’s the point?” questions get even more urgent:
My husband and I were supposed to have a strong marriage and help others. Why are we in marriage counseling instead? What is God doing here?
All I ever wanted to be was a wife and a mother but it isn’t happening. I don’t understand.
Why doesn’t our financial situation change? No matter how hard we work, we can’t seem to get above water.
I never thought this terrible thing would happen to me.
As Christians we often expect—for ourselves and for others—that God will give us all the answers eventually. Sure, we might have to wait patiently, but if we just hang in there, God will show us how it all fits together. We throw around “God works all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28), all the while implying that the fulfillment of this verse includes an explanation. But that is not the wisdom of God.
“Now, the mistake that is commonly made is to suppose…that the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what he has done in a particular case, and what he is going to do next. People feel that if they were really walking close to God, so that he could impart wisdom to them freely…they would discern the real purpose of everything that happened to them, and it would be clear to them every moment how God was making all things work together for good. What the preacher wants to show him is the real basis of wisdom is a frank acknowledgment that this world’s course is enigmatic, that much of what happens is quite inexplicable to us, and that most occurrences ‘under the sun’ bear no outward sign of a rational, moral God ordering them at all…God’s ordering of events is inscrutable.” ~J.I. Packer
What a welcome relief to our tortured souls. Things often don’t make sense to us because God has made them enigmatic and inscrutable.
These verses provide peace in day-to-day perplexities and deep comfort in confounding situations. God hasn’t abandoned us or failed to fulfill all of his promises. This is how God works in our time. He makes things beautiful and inscrutable.
What To Do In Time With God
Why does God do it this way? Why does he tell us there is a purpose but often hide his purposes?
“God has done it, so that people fear before him.” ~Ecc. 3:14
“Ignorance forces us to humbly submit, to believe, and to trust God for the outcome” writes Sam Storms, and follows up with this quote from David Hubbard: “God has fixed our courses and veiled them in mystery so that we may not take him for granted.”
God set eternity in our hearts and he also does not allow us to see the end from the beginning for a gracious reason—to lead us to himself, to cause us to fear him.
Our frustration with our “inability to make sense of things on [our] own” is “the result of a God-given burden” writes Sinclair Ferguson. When we don’t understand what is happening, when the world seems perplexing and life takes inexplicable twists and turns, we must look to God in reverence, and humbly trust him who makes all things beautiful and inscrutable in his time.
God frustrates our time so we may fear him. When we can’t figure out where the flour mounds of our lives are headed, God wants us to look to him. “I’m not going to tell you where they are going yet. I want you to trust me that they are going somewhere good.I want you to keep looking to me. I want you to trust me and to fear me.”
This is why the Proverbs 31 woman “laughs at the time to come”: because she is a woman who fears the Lord (v. 25, 30). Her laughter is not trite or ignorant of the harsh realities of life, but it flows from a freeing confidence in God and knowledge of his ways. She doesn’t know the full meaning of all her industrious labors, or what the future time holds, but she knows her times are in God’s hands, and that he makes everything beautiful in its time.
“Time is like the sky. Wherever we look, there it is.” ~Zach Eswine
When asked: “What superpower would you most like to have?” more than a quarter of Americans said they would choose the ability to travel through time. They want to travel through time more than they want the ability to fly or become invisible.
Time unsettles us. It is always there, and yet it’s a commodity we never seem to have enough of. Maybe this is why we want to travel through time. We feel restricted by it and we worry about how to spend it. If “now is the time” what should I be doing now?
It’s a question women are asking a lot these days, so in between other topics here at girltalk, we want to look at the issue of a woman’s time.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes meets us in our frustration and fretfulness about time with a poem:
“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:”
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
This poem, and the verses that follow tell us “what God does with time and, in light of that, what we should do in time with God” (D.S. O’Donnell).
God Sets Our Times
What does God do with time? For one, he controls it: “There is a time for every season under heaven” (v. 1).
In case we didn’t catch his drift, the preacher spells it out a few verses later, sans poetry: “God has done it,” he says, bluntly, and “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor taken away from it (v. 14-15).”
God orders time. Whatever is done, God has done it. Time is in his hands.
And God has stitched down our time in seasons: To everything there is a season, in other words, “a fixed time, a predetermined purpose” (C. Bridges). So there is a fixed time to laugh and also to cry, to embrace and to hold back, to be born and to die.
This pretty poem has fangs. For as much as we enjoy the times of laughter and embracing, we cannot escape the times of loneliness, pain, and tears. Harsh times will come as surely as the kind. There goes our time traveling fantasy.
“This chapter has disturbing implications,” writes Derek Kidner. “One of them is that we dance to a tune, or many tunes, not of our own making; a second is that nothing we pursue has any permanence”:
We throw ourselves into some absorbing activity which offers us fulfillment, but how freely did we choose it? How soon shall we be doing the exact opposite? Perhaps our choices are no freer than our responses to winter and summer, childhood and old age, dictated by the march of time and of unbidden change.
Looked at in this way, the repetition of a ‘time . . ., and a time . . .,’ begins to be oppressive. Whatever may be our skill and initiative, our real masters seem to be these inexorable seasons: not only those of the calendar, but that tide of events which moves us now to one kind of action, which seems fitting, now to another which puts it all into reverse. Obviously we have little to say in the situations.”
Our poem concludes with this almost bitter, rhetorical question: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (v. 9). The answer seems lost in the wind.
The teacher brings us face to face with our life in this sin-stained world. Time is subject to sin and we are subject to time. There will be weeping and war. There will be silence, loss, and loneliness. And as we toil underneath these times, no absorbing or fulfilling activity we pursue has any permanence.
So what’s the point of this life lived under the thumb of time?
God Makes Our Times Beautiful
“I’ve got bad news and I’ve got good news,” says the preacher. “And I’ve just given you the bad news: You are subject to time, and all your efforts within that time are futile.”
Now for the good news: “God has made everything beautiful in his time” (v. 12).
“[The preacher] enables us to see perpetual change not as something unsettling but as an unfolding pattern, scintillating and God-given. The trouble for us is not that life refuses to keep still, but that we see only a fraction of its movement and of its subtle, intricate design. Instead of changelessness, there is something better: a dynamic, divine purpose, with its beginning and end. Instead of frozen perfection there is the kaleidoscopic movement of innumerable processes, each with its own character and its period of blossoming and ripening, beautiful in its time and contributing to the over-all masterpiece which is the work of one Creator.
This is what God does with time: He makes it beautiful. Time is God’s masterpiece. He orders our sorrow and joys, our casting away and our gathering. He orders all of our seasons as part of his beautiful plan. Most magnificently of all, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4).
So what should we do with God in time? We must as one commentator puts it, “embrace the beauty of God’s sovereignty.” Instead of wishing we could travel through time, we must travel with God through time.
“What God did when he sent his Son into the world is an absolute guarantee that he will do everything he has ever promised to do. Look at it in a personal sense: ‘All things work together for good to them that love God’—that is a promise—‘to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Rom. 8:28, KJV). ‘But how can I know that is true for me?’ asks someone. The answer is the incarnation. God has given the final proof that all his promises are sure, that he is faithful to everything he has ever said. So that promise is sure for you. Whatever your state or condition may be, whatever may happen to you, he has said, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ (Heb. 13:5, KJV)—and he will not. He has said so, and we have absolute proof that he fulfills his promises. He does not always do it immediately in the way that we think. No, no! But he does it! And he will never fail to do it.” ~Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Do you ever feel like something is missing? So did the rich young ruler. It was, in the words of Sinclair Ferguson, “one thing which amounted to everything.” Find out what he (and each of us) may be missing, from Sunday’s sermon: The Rich Man and Discipleship.
My kids are shocked (as they are every year) to find Christmas stuff out in the stores in September. But this year Christmas will come a little early to the Whitacre home too, because yesterday was the release of the new Sovereign Grace Christmas Album: Prepare Him Room: Celebrating the Birth of Jesus in Song.
The reality of the incarnation, the Son of God taking on our flesh and bones to save us, will be an eternal source of wonder, gratefulness, and joy. These fourteen songs are an attempt to capture that mystery in song.
This album is unique in that it accompanies a family devotional and classroom curriculum written by Marty Machowski which are designed to build gospel hope and enduring theological depth into your celebration of Christmas. You can find more information on those here:
“Jesus went without comfort so that you might have it. He postponed joy so that you might share in it. He willingly chose isolation so that you might never be alone in your hurt and sorrow. He had no real fellowship so that fellowship might be yours, this moment. This alone is enough cause for great gratitude!” ~Joni Eareckson Tada
“A man can no more take in a supply of grace for the future than he can eat enough for the next six months, or take sufficient air into his lungs at one time to sustain life for a week. We must draw upon God’s boundless store of grace from day to day as we need it.” ~D.L. Moody
“Things put into the furnace properly can be shaped, refined, purified, and even beautified. This is a remarkable view of suffering, that if faced and endured with faith, it can in the end only make us better, stronger, and more filled with greatness and joy.” ~Timothy Keller
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Pet. 1:6-7
“The life of giving is not an empty life…it is the first step to encouragement, to clearing your mind, to being fulfilled. Scripture is very clear on this—if you seek to be full, give…When you empty yourself for others, God fills you up. But not so you can suddenly retire with your little packet of joy. God gives to us so that we may give. We give, He gives us more, with which to give more…Christ’s life given up for others is the centerpiece of our faith. Our lives given up for others is the centerpiece of our faithfulness. The glory is that, in both cases, death is not the end. Christ has died for us for all time. But the trail he blazed does not end in the grave. He tells us to follow, to imitate him.” ~Rachel Jankovic, Fit to Burst, pp. 13-18