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 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 are a fog about the next step, there’s something about life you need to understand:
Life is unpredictable, and that’s on its 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) Only a few weeks ago we marked the anniversary of the Boston Marathon and witnessed the devastating earthquake in Nepal. 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 2015, 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 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 2015: 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.
“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.
Here at girltalk and fam we are at various stages of recovering from the nasty flu virus that’s been going around. so new content will have to wait a few days. Here’s a reminder of what we were talking about last year at this time. Be back with you soon! Nicole for the girltalkers
I only remember two things about Margie. She had long brown hair and she was smarter than me. Maybe she recited her multiplication tables faster or got better grades or turned in tests sooner than me and the other dozen or so kids in the third grade—I don’t remember, exactly. But I do remember crying to my mom, feeling sorry for myself that she was so much better than me.
And the reason that I remember Margie at all is because of what my mom said next: “You’ll always have a Margie in your life, Nicole. There is always going to be someone who is better than you. No matter where you are, who you know, how much you excel, God is always going to put people close to you who are better than you.”
Boy, was she was right. I don’t think Margie returned to my school the following year, but she’s been with me ever since. Sometimes she is a mother who is a more consistent and creative mom than me. Other times she’s a writer who can write circles around me. She’s the woman who is much prettier than I am. She has more friends than me. She has more money and a nicer house. She’s more artistic than me.
Everywhere I turn, every time I try my hand at something, every time I think, even for a split second, that maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally earned a blue ribbon, she shows up, just in time, to grab the grand prize.
What would I do without her?
I would be puffed up and self-satisfied. Apathetic. Unmotivated. Hard-hearted. Unhappy. That’s why I thank God for all the Margies in my life. Not always right at first, but sooner than I used to; because I have come to see each one—not as a threat to my happiness and success—but as a gift from God: a token of his particular, adopting, sanctifying love for me.
God uses Margie to expose my heart. She shows me what the wise old preacher once said: “What hurts ain’t dead yet.”
God uses Margie to challenge me to grow. She shows me that I really haven’t “arrived” in the Christian life but that I can, and I should, make progress.
God uses Margie to purify my heart for service. She eclipses my glory, and so, with the silt of my ambition strained out, I’m more apt to serve for God’s glory.
No doubt you have a Margie or two in your life. She’s probably the woman you’re thinking of right now. If so, thank God. He loves you, and he is not done with you yet.
(For more on the temptation to compare, watch this video message from Mom.)
Whether 2015 holds suffering or celebration, we don’t yet know. It probably has some of both in store. But this New Year’s resolution from James 5:13 is of the greatest importance no matter what awaits us in the New Year. Listen to yesterday’s sermon from Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville to learn about a resolution every Christian should make this year.
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” ~Matt. 6:3-4
“Jesus’s rationale is that in secret, when unnoticed by the gaze of others, we remain beneath the gaze of our Father, who sees in us what no one else does. To have no praise but that which comes from the God who sees and vindicates us is a reward that, for Jesus, outmatches any competing trophy or praise.…We were meant to live beneath the gaze of our Creator for his glory and freed from seeking fame from others.” ~Zach Eswine
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? Eccl. 2:24-25
“To taste the sweetness of ordinary joys, we learn to enter each day with a conviction about the givenness of all things…. We’ve been given a place to be, some things to do, a need for sustenance, and a people to share this with. God originates these gifts. God is present with his gifts…. At some point, we all have to come to terms with the spiritual truth that true joy is found in God and God is found right where His gifts are.” ~Zack Eswine
“Do you often feel like parched ground, unable to produce anything worthwhile? I do. When I am in need of refreshment, it isn’t easy to think of the needs of others. But I have found that if, instead of praying for my own comfort and satisfaction, I ask the Lord to enable me to give to others, an amazing thing often happens—I find my own needs wonderfully met. Refreshment comes in ways I would never have thought of, both for others, and then, incidentally, for myself.” ~Elisabeth Elliot
Whoever brings blessing will be enriched. Pr. 11:25
If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. Is. 58:10
“God has wisely kept us in the dark concerning future events and reserved for himself the knowledge of them, that he may train us up in a dependence upon himself and a continued readiness for every event.” ~Matthew Henry
“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” ~Proverbs 27:1
“He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.’” ~Acts 1:7
“Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you.” Mark 4:24
“This is a principle which we find continually brought forward in Scripture. All that believers have is undoubtedly of grace. Their repentance, faith and holiness, are all the gift of God. But the degree to which a believer attains in grace is ever set before us as closely connected with his own diligence in the use of means, and his own faithfulness in living fully up to the light and knowledge which he possesses. Indolence and laziness are always discouraged in God’s Word. Labour and pains in hearing, reading, and prayer are always represented as bringing their own reward…. Attention to this great principle is the main secret of spiritual prosperity. The man who makes rapid progress in spiritual attainments—who grows visibly in grace, and knowledge, and strength, and usefulness—will always be found to be a diligent man. He leaves no stone unturned to promote his soul’s well-doing. He is diligent over his Bible, diligent in his private devotions, diligent as a hearer of sermons, diligent in his attendance at the Lord’s table. And he reaps according as he sows. Just as the muscles of the body are strengthened by regular exercise, so are the graces of the soul increased by the diligence in using them. Do we wish to grow in grace? Do we desire to have stronger faith, brighter hope, and clearer knowledge? Beyond doubt we do, if we are true Christians. Then let us live fully up to our light and improve every opportunity. Let us never forget our Lord’s words in this passage, ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ The more we do for our souls, the more shall we find God does for them.” ~J. C. Ryle