“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.
God sets our time in seasons and makes things beautiful in their time. This is his external work. But he does some time-related work in our hearts, too. He put eternity in man’s heart so that we understand there’s a bigger purpose to our lives and a better destination to come. These flour mounds have meaning; they are going somewhere.
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.
What should we “do in time with God”? Fear him and follow his flour mounds, laughing as we go.