December 5, 2020

iMonk 101: From 11/07: The Ecclesiastes Attitude

walking_alone.jpgIt is the tradition of this web site to hear my confessions, my struggles and my emotions. This is what is what was on my table in November of ’07. I can’t explain it to you; all I can do is write and pray. Trusting God is hard. His ways are not my ways, and his ways are unthinkably difficult for me right now. So if you don’t understand these kinds of posts, I’m sorry. My journey. My struggles. My questions. My wrestling with God.

Here is the original posting and the comments there.

My Bible classes watch a lot of the “Turner” Bible movies. I’ve seen them all so many times that I frequently get them confused with scripture itself. Their storylines and scripts are embedded in my mind and I have to, occasionally, sort things out.

For example, in the movie David, the prophet Nathan tells David, “God makes it difficult to be a king.” Scripture never says that (at least not that I know of) but it is appropriate for the story of David and his particular failures.

Nathan is not just sounding prophetic; he’s interpreting some of the events and consequences David has brought on himself. It’s that mixture of causation that the Bible so easily tosses out from cover to cover: People do things, God does things. We have our purposes, influences and reasons. God has his purposes, motives and outcomes. The two tracks run alongside each other, and out there in the distance, they seem to come together. But no matter how far I walk in this life, it seems the two never come together. Beyond the horizon, they merge in God, but I am well on this side of the horizon.

Nathan could be speaking to my life or to yours. I made the choices; the consequences have arrived. I ate the food; I gained the weight. I was angry; people I love were affected. I wasted opportunities; they never returned. I sinned; I experienced the bitter fruit. Life happened; the results are there for all to see, written in my own hand and in God’s.

Of course, when you reflect on life, there is much that was beyond your control. Why was I born in America? Why was I the only child of Lee and Dorothy Spencer? Why were we poor? Why did Dad never take me to Little League? Why was dad depressed? Why were they fundamentalist Baptists? Why did I hear about the Bible, God, Jesus and “being saved” from the time I was an infant? And on and on.

“Whys” can put you over the edge of sanity. If you are intelligent and see connections and relationships, it can be overwhelming.

And then there’s God’s work, not quite as simple to understand or question. God’s causes. God’s choices. God’s purposes. I know that track is there. One of the intolerables of atheism for me is I cannot ignore the fact that this life that I cannot understand is still intelligible. It is the same life experience for me and the people in the room with me. If it were chaos without purpose or design, there is no reason experience would be intelligible to any of us. This, among many other reasons, compels me to believe that God has made reality purposeful, and that in ways I am not equipped to see, understand or describe, it makes sense to God.

Scripture speaks of this over and over, in example and affirmation. Does it explain God’s purposes? No….and it’s a good thing too. Like the brilliance of the sun, the illumination is tolerable; the direct view is not possible, at least not for us mortals.

Instead of direct knowledge, God sends his Word. In nature, reason, scripture and Jesus/Holy Spirit. And this Word is his announcement of his purposeful working in our lives.

“All things work together for good, to those who love God and are called according to his purpose…”

“Then the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?”

“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”

“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 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. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

The God of the Bible knows what he is doing. His work is, as scripture says, “past finding out.” He asks for no advice. He is not holding question and answer press conferences. He is not writing books of ten easy-to-understand bullet pointed explanations. He has spoken, and it is up to me to hear, believe and live accordingly.

And for me, at least, it’s difficult. It’s difficult knowing that I have failed in so many ways, hurt so many people, brought so many sinful consequences into my relationships…and God is at work- somehow- in all of it.

I want God’s purposes to be carried out through what I’ve done right. I’ve studied, preached, taught, served, counseled, led, encouraged and lived for the Gospel for more than 35 years. I want God’s purposes to be in response to all the sermons I’ve prepared. I don’t want God’s purposes to be about my failures, broken promises and abuses of others. I want to put what I want on the table, and I want God to work with that.

I’ve done a lot of things right, and I’d prefer God publish a list of how all of them are going to be rewarded. But that’s not the way it’s going to be. God is going to do what he wants to do, for reasons that can fit into a sentence in the Bible, but which are far too mysterious to wrap my mind around.

Sunday night I’m going to preach on “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I know what the text means, but I can’t read it without thinking that I am, in a way, fearful of what God is up to. I read his ultimate purposes and I try to think of them, but I know that God has purposes now; purposes that involve my failures and the consequences he will not spare. God is not invested in hearing me say what I “need.” If he wants to take away, he will take away, and his purpose will be for me to go on without whatever he took away. The same with suffering, obscurity, humiliation and failure. God cannot be manipulated into carrying out my plans with my selected materials. He is about carrying out his plans with whatever materials he chooses.

The answer to encroaching cynicism is, I believe, Christian hedonism. The quest is not for understanding, but is for joy. The promise is not that God will do what he determines, but that he is determined to satisfy me forever with himself. Along the way of living this life, I have many more miles to travel. My heart is often hard, my mind fearful and my vision small. I am guilty of wanting God to make much of me rather than make me into a soul who makes much of him now and forever.

I am far more tempted with cynicism than I am with unbelief. I am far more inclined, as C.S. Lewis said, to see God as the experimenter than as the divine lover and heavenly Father. My prayer, and the prayers I ask for, is that I would trust God by exalting in his love, goodness and grace poured out in Christ and directed invincibly and irresistibly toward me.

There is a reason the book of Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. I have always been bothered by those who easily explained and expounded this book. It is a book that wanders in the same emotions that I have. The author counsels trust in God, but the struggle continues on every page. Over and over, he returns to the affirmation that life under the sun is meaningless and only God makes it meaningful. Only God is our hope in this world.

But Koheleth finds himself trusting a God who is never revealed in intimate loving terms. In Ecclesiastes, God seems sometimes to be more a deity of unavoidable fatalism rather than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I know something of this God. He gives. He takes away. He does not explain. He asks for faith, and for everything you thought you could never give up.

I do not know God’s ways. I can only put my hand over my mouth, look to the Word and the work of the Spirit, and press on. When all my wrestling is over, God remains.


  1. I wish that a lot of folks who preach/teach with what seems to be absolute certainty would read Ecclesiastes and this post. It would cut down on the sheer arrogance that pervades the airwaves and many pulpits.

  2. As a young Pastoral intern, I preached my second sermon ever on the book of Ecclesiasties. In the audience were my Old Testament professor, my New Testament Professor, my Homilitics/Pastoral Methods professor, by Hebrew and Greek professor, and the President of the seminary. It didn’t help that I had a fairly intense stutter at the time.

    God was good. I made it through. Everyone was gracious. Like the author, I trusted in God, but trust me, every page was a struggle.

    Yo Ho Ho! A Papist’s Life For Me?

    Michael, I found that post very interesting, as one of the posts you link to as being one of your “confessions.” I think I missed it the first time around. For anyone who thinks Michael has not investigated the Roman Catholic option closely enough, give that a read.

  4. I was reading ecclesiastes the yesterday. …I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
    thanks… I needed to hear this.

  5. Joanie: I would change a couple of sentences in that one, but it’s still where I was on almost everything I wrote.

  6. “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1 KJV).

    This opening passage reveals Jesus Christ, who is the Son of David and the King in Jerusalem. It also shows how far the human author fell from the opening verse of Proverbs:

    “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1 KJV).

    Solomon no longer is king “of” Israel, or even king “of” Jerusalem, but king “in” Jerusalem.

    “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her. Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account: which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found” (Ecclesiates 7:26-28 KJV).

    Solomon would know. He bedded a thousand women. But Jesus, the one man among a thousand, found the woman’s, the Church’s, sinful condition more bitter than death; therefore, He could endure His death on the cross.

    “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11 KJV).

    Look at the list of what Solomon did. In Christ, we are all of those: great works; houses of the Holy Spirit; He is the Vine and we are the branches; we are good trees bringing forth good fruit; we have rivers of living water flowing out of our bellies; we are servants and maidens born in His house; we are His sheep; we are His treasure, singers, and musical instruments.

    Jesus is not satisfied with us being all of this, either.

    “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 KJV).

    He wants us to be His Bride more than He wants us to be all of the above things Solomon had. This is the meaning of life. We, His Bride, are all Jesus has throughout all eternity.

  7. I never thought I’d say this, and tho I do find OT passages revelatory for life now as in days of old, I’ve become more single minded in allowing the NT to form me in the with God life. I would not claim to be dispensational, I hate labels in general but I’m coming to the place that Jesus and his revelation of Abba must form my view of who God is, who I am and how I am to relate to others, and the world around me. I have still only scratched the surface of who Jesus is and some of his words are unsettling. But I find greater peace the more central my relationship with Christ is for everything in life.

  8. Internet Elias says

    When I encounter struggle….I read the entire book of Ecclesiastes. When I finish… heart is light. I go back to my daily tasks thinking…’These are the experiences God desires for me. This too shall pass.” The things we experience ‘on this side of the horizon’ has purpose. We are as lumps of coal. Coal under pressure becomes a diamond. As he did with Adam and Eve in Eden, God purposed for us the opportunity to know both good and evil. From these ‘knowing’ encounters we learn that good feels alive and evil feels empty. We simply choose which we want both now and for eternity. But first…we have to ‘know’ both (knowledge internalized/ concieved comes only from encounter).

  9. Great post. It looks like I’ve got some good reading ahead of me with that confession list.

    Having been brought up in the RC church and then having gone completely as far away from it as I could, I find that I too am attracted to parts of it. (There’s been a long time of reconciling…decades even…) I don’t think that I could ever jump back in completely but I do like the contemplative aspect. There are some beautiful parts. On the other hand, I have a hard time with the priest thing although I have met some wonderful priests.

    What I like about the protestant church is the lack of the priest thing. Just about anybody can get up and speak. On the other hand, there is sometimes too much speaking (or noise anyway) and not enough listening.

    So I remain a lonely little no-name-brand in between. Oh well. I like Kreeft and I like Buechner.

  10. Thank you for this beautiful meditation on faith, which is to recognize the work of God in the events of life and continue to be drawn by Christ even though we don’t understand everything.

  11. The longer I’m a Christian, the less absolutes I have. After I got out of Bible College, I knew I had most of the answers. Then I joined a monastery and found out just how ignorant I was. Later I got married, and the ignorance increased. Then, then, then….God is way too big for little Jim to have Him all figured out. I think that is why we anticipate Heaven being an eternity. It will take that long, or even longer, for us to even begin understanding and knowing the character of God.

  12. Sounds like this comes from a “fearless and searching moral inventory” inward attitude. The only way out is through. But I think you know that.

    Brings to mind how my becoming very annoyed with the ubiquitous “glass half-full/ half empty” analysis finally brought me to coming up with my own answer to it:

    If your glass is only half full, then your glass is too big. Get a smaller glass, pour your water in it, and it will be overflowing.

    All my problems come from my expectations. (It is a particularly American problem.)

  13. After reading this post and looking at your other confessional pieces, I will offer a few small bits of hard earned wisdom.

    1. Every one of us is screwed up. There are some people that look good, appear to be healthy, and have it all together, but they are simply better liars than the rest of us.

    2. To be a Christian is to suffer. If by grace or mental illness one finds that they are unable to deceive themselves concerning the gap between who they are and what they hope to be, that their intent to love their spouse and children has been filtered through something dark and hidden within them that resulted in deeply hurting and damaging those they loved rather than blessing them, that they are flawed in ways they cannot fix, patch, or pave over, an opportunity arises that was not available before these things became known. It is the opportunity to know our true need of redemption and to understand the deep brokenness that is at the heart of every man, woman, and child walking this earth. It is to begin to understand Jesus prayer as he looked down from the cross at those mocking him, not with the anger or bitterness we might expect, but with the deepest sadness and longing as he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    To love as God does is to take the pain of ours and others brokenness into ourselves without inflicting it back upon them. It is to feel the pain of that brokenness without inflicting it back on ourselves or others. It is love with undeserved grace. It suffers quietly for what in not yet, with sadness for what should have been, and with hope toward what will be.

    And so to be a Christian is to suffer, and yet it is a suffering that can look to others like joy for it knows hope in Christ redemption, and so becomes a source freedom and healing to all who encounter it.

    3. I know there were a couple of other wisdom jewels, but I seem to have forgotten what they were.

  14. “If he wants to take away, he will take away, and his purpose will be for me to go on without whatever he took away. The same with suffering, obscurity, humiliation and failure. God cannot be manipulated into carrying out my plans with my selected materials. He is about carrying out his plans with whatever materials he chooses.”

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, amen!

    I have never heard this concept put into words so well, and I thank you. As a disabled Christian, I try so hard to communicate this to others when they want to pray for nothing but healing for me, and everything else comes after that in their mind.

  15. It is interesting that so few comments follow posts such as this one when compared to those relating to biblicism, inerrancy, evolution, and such. Posts such as this tread nearer the holy. They run us up against the edges of human knowing and understanding. A silent response might therefore show something of wisdom.

    On the other hand, it might be they simply make us embarrassed and uncomfortable. We don’t want to believe there are limits to what is possible in our lives. There are so many Christians who tell us otherwise that confession without victory looks to be a simple failure to have and act with sufficient faith.

    Maybe it is, but I think not. I’m convinced these experiences and our confession of them lead toward the very heart of faith. At the center of our weakness, in the place where no strength remains, we become strongest. When our strength is destroyed, it is only Christ who is left standing. And so with Paul we can now say, “In my weakness I am made strong.”

    Confession and exultation of weakness can however become a snare, and I would appreciate anyone’s thoughts concerning it. God’s strength living through our weakness is sometimes short-circuited through becoming yet more focused on the self. Because the “weakness” results in one being brought into a greater experience of Christ, they sometimes move toward exalting the weakness itself and not Christ. They may even come to see the specific weakness become defining of who they are so that it becomes even more crippling to them than it was previously.

    My question is how might such a trap be avoided? I am interested in this personally as well as on behalf of friends and those I have pastoral concerns for.

  16. I think its really pretty simple the fire we are tried in is in some sense Gods soveriegn will and He wants absolutely nothing to come between us and Him.
    Including our wives,children,friends,family,careers, education,hobbies,talents,theology and religion.
    Abrams offering of Isaac is a perfect example of what God wants from us and exactly what he gave to us.
    He with held nothing.
    The Kingdom of heaven is to come first and “all these things shall be added unto us” as God sees fit not as we see fit.
    We really have no idea whats really good for us but in our prideful fallen state we imagine it to be so.
    Our current americana condition is a perfect example of this.
    “He will give you the desires of your heart” only if those are really for Him because satan can give you the desires of your heart also.
    We should all be carrying the white flag of surrender in our back pockets daily instead of being anxious for tommorow……….

  17. snarky xian says

    mick said: “I hate labels in general but I’m coming to the place that Jesus and his revelation of Abba must form my view of who God is, who I am and how I am to relate to others, and the world around me.”

    I fully agree with this. It was Jesus revealing Abba to me that meant all the difference. The enlightenment of who Abba really is can be life-changing.
    Here’s a video that proves the point:

  18. If I read Ecclesiastes when i was struggling, I would opt for the gas pipe, or the bridge. J. Vernon Mcgee has a wonderful take on Ecc. The phrase under the sun, to JVM means what you can see, without God. i reread it that way, vanity of vanities.
    I would not want Solomon to be my spiritual adviser.
    What Imonk is describing, is what I call life, or have I lowered the bar too far? God knows I am very falable. He has seen me fail over and over, yet He uses me to do his work. It helps me that god has recorded many losers, just like me, stuttering murderers are made spokesmen. People who say “take my wife, please, she’s mt sister” Liars like Jacob. Impulsive people like Peter, legalistic pharisees like Paul. People who denied what was right in front of their face like James.
    I am glad I am Christian, it means I do not need to be perfect, He was, and is, and always will be.

  19. IM,
    This really spoke to me:
    “I am guilty of wanting God to make much of me rather than make me into a soul who makes much of him now and forever.”


  20. I first read Ecclesiastes as a teenager at summer camp. I was alone and struggling. Ecclesiastes fit the bill, marvelously. I learned that the grass is not greener, and that more and bigger is not better. It taught me that the things the world will offer as a cure to my unhappiness will fail. I learned that being content and satisfied with the way things are is wise. I learned that education and religion are no better than wine, women, and song in filling the void.

    Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. This, and this only, is not meaningless.

    In my current struggles, I return again and again to “The Preacher”. His not-so-gentle reminders of what matters in life and what does not gives me that dose of clarity my clouded head needs.

    Ecclesiastes is my favorite book in the bible, hands down. Job is a close second. I’ll venture a bold opinion that if you can’t see Jesus foreshadowed in either book, you’re not reading it. Of course, that’s easy for me to say living now instead of then.

  21. I’m with MDS. My thought is that perhaps we are embarrassed to admit poor understanding, weakness or a perceived lack of faith.

    When I accepted the proposition that “God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do” it shattered my beliefs on prayer. I’d been taught to believe that through the right attitude and lifestyle (“The prayers of a righteous man”) and enough effort (“Pray continuously”) that God would answer my prayers (“Ask and you shall receive”).

    But you know what? I didn’t get answers to my prayers. Oh, my Christian friends had ready responses:
    1. “I know it says ask anything, BUT, you need to ask in line with God’s will.”
    2. “Sometimes the answer is No.”
    3. “Keep trying, God’s timing is not yours.”

    Great, I can have answered prayers provided I know God’s will (no easy task) and am willing to wear Him down prayer-wheel fashion. Makes me ask the the question: If God’s going to do what He’s going to do, why bother? BTW: I was dumb enough to express this point of view with a pastor friend, and was immediately issued a book on prayer to “help” me through this rough period.

    I sat at the death beds of both my parents and more recently a very dear friend (and one of the most Godly people I’ve ever known), and God seems to be in the “No” business quite a bit.

    Honestly, it makes me question the whole idea of answered prayer as many define it. I cannot stand to hear another miraculous report of sister so-and-so’s answered prayer concerning her gall bladder when I think of all the folks that got their prayers answered with “No”. I think we only perpetuate the idea of God as our earthly doctor (look at your church’s prayer list and see what % of the requests don’t involve physical healing).

    Ultimately, I believe prayer is not a miracle-generating incantation tool to manipulate God (or our society). My wife likes to say that prayer should change us, not God. I like that.

  22. fashionkath says

    Michael: I loved this post. Makes me realize (even though intellectuly I know) that I am not in control. Also, Ed, I liked your response. I too hear a lot of prayers for healing, and if one person happens to get healed and another does not, the one who does not is left wondering why which can produce guilt and depression.


  23. I’ve always been drawn to Ecclesiastes as I have continued to age as a Christ follower. It’s one book that continues to speak to me and help me make my feeble attempts at understanding God and this life. In seminary, I took a course on Ecclesiastes titled “The Skeptic in Scripture” taught by Dr. Brent Strawn. It was such a blessing to me to go through that book start to finish, deeply examining it and questioning it, just as it questions what we think of God.

  24. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And Now For Something Completely Different:

    Yo Ho Ho! A Papist’s Life For Me?

    Anybody thought of turning that into a filk using the Pirates of the Caribbean theme?

    (After Ecclesiastices, you need something a little lighter…)