Investing in painful circumstances
Ecclesiastes 7: Sages invest themselves in hurt and grieving.
I know it is human nature to want to hurry past the difficulties of life. No one wants to spend the rest of their days dealing with some painful situation. However, I also know that just about everyone has their share of “hurt and grieving.” In fact, some folks have more than their share of such things. Some of the finest people I know carry a burden of broken health, broken dreams, and painful loss with them every day. I’ve noticed that, for some, those difficulties somehow deepen them. They know how to enjoy life, but there’s an attractive stability and perspective on life in them. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that we’re wise to invest something of ourselves in those challenging parts of life. When I make an investment, I give something of value because I expect to get a return on my investment. When I go through the darkness I tend to rush through it as quickly as possible. This portion of Ecclesiastes reminds me that there’s something for me even there if I’ll trust the Lord enough to give myself to such difficulties.
Take Away: Obviously, no one wants to go through hard times, but even in such times the Lord can work in our lives, deepening us, making us more like his Son, Jesus.
Trust in God, not in chance
Proverbs 22: Don’t gamble on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, hocking your house against a lucky chance.
From the middle of Proverbs 22 through most of chapter 24 we’re given a list of thirty wise sayings collected by Solomon. In fact, this is the first of three such collections, the last being some of Solomon’s own gems. Clearly this wise man is not only a source of wisdom but is a collector of it too. The proverb concerning gambling catches my eye today as gambling is everywhere in our culture. Several states have turned to casinos as an answer to financial shortfalls. Also, there are many state sponsored lotteries. It isn’t unusual to be approached by someone selling raffle tickets in support of some worthy cause. (If I think it is truly worthy, I make a donation but decline taking a ticket.) When I turn on the TV I find shows about poker games. It’s clear that our society is awash with gambling. This isn’t how people of faith are supposed to operate. My hope isn’t that by taking a chance I can get hold of the money of other people who have taken the same chance. The life of faith isn’t about getting all I can from anywhere I can. Rather than gambling on my future by guessing the right lotto numbers I can stake my future on the solid rock of God’s faithfulness to me. Jesus said it’s impossible to serve both God and money. In this proverb, I see the wisdom of avoiding the gambling trap.
Take Away: Our hope is in the Lord, not in picking the right lotto numbers.
God is God
Job 42: I babbled on about things far beyond me.
Job responds to the Almighty’s questions as a humbled man. Here he is, still sitting in the ashes. His children are still dead. His wealth is still gone. He’s still in the agony of his affliction. Job isn’t now humbly spiritual because God has fixed everything or even explained everything to him. So far as I know, Job never learns what this is all about; that it’s all a test designed to answer the question, “Does he serve God for nothing?” Job has proved the Lord’s point though. Through it all, even when he’s struggling with the issues at hand, Job maintains his righteousness and trust in God. Now, God has spoken, revealing himself to Job, challenging him to respond to his own questions. Job responds, “I babbled on about things far beyond me.” This meeting with God makes all of Job’s questions moot. God is God and, even when life is unfair and perplexing, well, God is still God. In his trial, Job tries to state his case; to explain himself to his friends. More, he tries to explain God. This suffering man now realizes that he’s been trying to deal with the details of life but has lost sight of this huge, overpowering truth: God is God. In my life, even as I struggle with circumstances that don’t fit my theology, I must, after all my babbling on about how I think things are, remember this: God is God.
Take Away: Even when I don’t understand…even when I don’t like how things are going…even then, God is God.
Serving God for nothing
Job 30: What did I do to deserve this?
Job’s final reply to his friends is his longest speech. He doesn’t summarize so much as restate all he has already said. He’s cried out to God for justice, but can’t get an answer. He’s lived a just life, avoiding immorality, falsehood, dishonesty, and pride. He’s treated people with respect and honesty, caring for the poor and the stranger. Now, in the midst of the trial, all he’s wanted is an audience with God, an audience which has not been granted. Job, like his friends, believes that bad things only happen to bad people. He maintains that he’s lived a life pleasing to God, yet bad things are happening. If he could only sit down with God and work all this out! Were that to happen, he’s sure this mess could be straightened out. Among all the other losses Job has suffered is the loss of his comfortable understanding of God and life. However, even with that taken away (and maybe this is the last thing to go) Job continues serving God. And he does so, yes, for nothing! At this point, Satan’s accusation from the opening paragraphs of this story is proven false. In spite of the suggestion otherwise, a man will love and serve God even when he’s getting nothing out of it; even when it seems God, himself, is breaking the rules; even when all else is taken away. If the book of Job ended with chapter 31, the point of the whole story is made.
Take Away: Yes, it’s possible for a person to love the Lord and trust the Lord even when there appears to be no tangible gain in it.
The most important thing
Job 9: I don’t understand what’s going on.
Job’s reply to Bildad’s lecture about how bad people have bad things happen to them and good people enjoy good things is not to disagree. He says, “So what’s new? I know all this.” Again, (and I know I can quit harping on this) Job’s complaint is that he’s done nothing to deserve all this and that somehow there’s been a mistake in heaven. However, Job is a clear thinker. He understands that the only way a man can be right with God is by God’s mercy. He trusts in God, but he understands that it’s only by grace and mercy that he has a standing before the Lord. The impressive thing about Job, however, isn’t that he has a firm grasp on spiritual truths that won’t be fully revealed until Jesus explains them. The impressive thing is that even when he feels he’s being treated unjustly by God, even when he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and even as he cries out for a fair hearing on this whole matter, he stands firm in his faith. In all this, we’re reminded that faith trumps even knowledge. That’s not only vital for Job, but it’s vital for me too.
Take Away: Faith trumps even knowledge.
Job one, Satan nothing
Job 1: God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.
As round one of Job’s trials concludes we find Job a heartbroken man. Everything’s gone, including his children. Job’s in shock and deep mourning. In this midst of his pain, he falls to the ground — and worships! The test is to see if a man will serve God “for nothing” and, as this round of testing ends, we find Job still worshiping God! His worship doesn’t consist of his shrugging off all that has happened. After all, the pain is real. His actions declare the depth of his pain yet his words carry a philosophic tone. Job declares, “I entered with world with nothing and that’s how I’ll leave.” Does Job serve God for nothing? Job’s answer is “God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.”
Take Away: Job trusts in the Lord even when everything falls apart. Does that describe us?
Job 2: Curse God and be done with it!
I’m not sure how far one can go in thinking about Mrs. Job. Obviously this story isn’t about her. It’s Job’s faithfulness to God even when he’s getting nothing out of it that drives this story. Still, I feel sorry for Job’s wife. She’s suffered all the same losses he has. She’s lost everything, including her family. Now her husband sits before her, quivering in agony. Her life is ruined. When she advises Job to give up on God it’s because she already has. Her response is what Satan predicted Job’s would be: if the blessings of God are withdrawn human beings will no longer serve him. Job’s reply is that this is a foolish approach. God grants us life and we enjoy the good days that come. When things turn sour we go on trusting and serving him. That doesn’t mean we’re happy about things or that we don’t change them if we can. It does mean that we’ve chosen to trust God with both the good and bad that life brings. Job is angry with God, as we shall see, but he refuses to turn away from Him, even when serving God has resulted in so much pain.
Take Away: Faith is a matter of the will and not a product of circumstances.
Taking it to the next level
Job 2: A human would do anything to save his life.
Everything of value has been taken from Job in one breathtaking, horrible day, yet Job continues in his relationship with God. Now the adversary suggests that the reason for this is that Job is still playing the game of serving God because he’s still getting something out of it; that is, his very life. The stakes are incredibly high. It’s been proven that Job isn’t serving God because he gets wealth and possessions out of it. Satan suggests that Job’s hanging in there because he gets out of it life itself. The Lord doesn’t hand his servant completely over to this accuser, but he does grant permission for Job to be afflicted physically. What Satan does to Job is intended to be “a fate worse than death.” This is all intended to answer the fundamental question of this book of the Bible: “Does Job serve God for nothing?” Will Job continue in faithfulness when he’s getting nothing out of it? Will he serve God when all the blessings are turned to curses and his very life is a living death? The remainder of this book answers this question.
Take Away: All else can be stripped away but nothing can rob us of our faith.
Long range planning
Esther 4: Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.
I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that Haman probably hated the Jews long before Mordecai gets under his skin by not bowing down to him. I think that when the old man at the gate doesn’t feed his ego Haman takes note of him. When he finds out that he’s a Jew it triggers his plan to do away with a race of people he already hates. And, clearly, Haman has been on the elevator upward in Xerxes’ kingdom for some time now. Haman is a schemer who willingly bypasses small gains if doing so fits in with his bigger plans. If these two guesses are correct, Mordecai’s words here are especially accurate. That is, he doesn’t think that God gave Esther her beauty and then engineered her being made queen as a “just in case” measure. He believes God has been aware of the circumstances of all this all along. With that in mind, the Lord began putting together a plan of his own and that plan is what brings Esther to the position she now holds. Up to now Mordecai and Esther have tried to react to the unexpected events of life as a people of God should. Now they realize that God is depending on their faithfulness to accomplish his own purposes. This passage reminds me that even when I can’t see the big picture that God can and when unexpected things happen (both good and bad) they might just be a part of something bigger than I know.
Take Away: Even when I don’t see the big picture I can trust in the One who can.
Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.