Sunday, August 4, 2019

Living Well

It is my opinion that our culture is dying. As a result, many things are changing. Many things are falling apart. Old questions are being answered in new ways and so many of those new ways are not at all good. One of those questions goes something like this: What does it mean to live well? What is that supposed to look like? You may not hear the question posed in this way, but it is being answered by the choices that people are making.

This is a question that we Christians must answer well. So much depends on that. For one thing, we are called to make God look as good as He actually is. How we live will greatly affect our ability to do that. I’ve also described evangelism to you in terms of other people coming to you. How you live will affect the possibility of that happening. And then, answering that question poorly will lead to great sorrows for you.

So, for reasons like these it is important for you to know, with as much clarity as possible, what living well looks like. Because of what is going on around you, it is increasingly difficult to do that. There are many counterfeits that confront you every day. And they can be very persuasive.

This morning we’re going to work on getting a good answer to our question: What does it mean to live well? We’re going to do that by using a part of the Bible that takes a long, hard look at that question, Ecclesiastes. We’ll start with snippets from this part of the Bible to see some foolish choices that people make on this topic. Then, we’ll see what Ecclesiastes has to say about making some wise choices.

Now, listen to Ecclesiastes.

I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to seek and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind. Ecclesiastes 1:12-14 [Holman Christian Study Bible]

That doesn’t sound very encouraging. Everything is futile? And lest there be any doubt about his meaning, he also wrote this.

“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” Ecclesiastes 1:2

You’re probably more used to hearing that verse expressed using the language of vanity.                    

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:2 [ESV]

Whether you use the word ‘vanity’ or the word ‘futility’, the point seems clear. Life, as it is lived by many, life under the sun, is futile, vain, empty. It’s not worth living.

Ecclesiastes sounds so dire, so dark; not very appealing. And yet, it’s in the Bible. It’s God’s Word. It was written to teach important lessons so that you might live well. So, keep that in mind as we walk around some of the dark passageways of this book. When properly understood, it actually will prove quite helpful.

We’re looking at what it means to live well. You could explore that by posing this question, ‘What gives life meaning?’ That’s actually the question that Ecclesiastes is dealing with. But that sounds a little too philosophical. So, let me put it this way. Why get up in the morning to start another day?

Here’s one way that many answer. ‘Well, it’s Monday. So, I’m getting up to do whatever is on my Monday to-do list.’

There are many who just don’t think much about our question. They aren’t curious about what living well looks like. Some of them even have excuses for that failure. ‘What difference does it make?’ So, they live in a way that can be labeled as mindless. They just don’t think about it. As a result, theirs is a life of habits, unexamined habits. ‘It’s Monday, so I do my Monday to-do list.’ And most haven’t actually come up with their own habits. They pretty much just do what people around them are doing.

This is not for you. And that’s because living well has a particular goal for you. Your lives are to make God look as good as He actually is. You can’t do that by living mindlessly. There are some things that you need to think about. That’s why we’re considering the wisdom of Ecclesiastes this morning. We’re going to be looking over the shoulder of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes as he considers some of the options.

The basic outline of Ecclesiastes is not complicated. The Teacher takes a look at the various common options for making life work, for living well. After considering them, he concludes that each is worthless, vain, futile. They just don’t work as good reasons to live. We’re going to take a quick look at three of the options that the Teacher considers, three options that are quite popular today: work, pleasure and wealth. The common belief, back then as well as now, is that a life focused on one of these is worth living. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes disagrees.

So, first, work. Does a person’s work make his life meaningful, make his life worth living, instead of futile? Listen to the Teacher’s answer.

For what does a man get with all his work and all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? For all his days are filled with grief, and his occupation is sorrowful; even at night, his mind does not rest. This too is futile. Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

This, I suspect, applies to most people these days. They don’t actually enjoy their work. They perform it because, for one reason or another, they need to. So, going off to work is a pain. Being there, doing the work, is not pleasurable but sorrowful. Workdays have more than enough grief. And then, at night he’s still reacting to the job. Maybe it’s only that he needs to return to it the next day, but he’s thinking about the job and what a drag that it is. This can be true whether we’re talking about working outside the home or inside the home. Clearly, for such a person, his or her work doesn’t make life meaningful, worth living. This is not a life being lived well.

Now, there are those who will say that this does not apply to them. They really do enjoy their work. They believe that their work actually does make their lives worth living.

Let’s explore this, asking a question of such a person. Why does your work make your life worth living? This is about the dynamics of the heart.

I was recently given a book by a friend. The title explains the reason for his kind gift, ‘An Uncommon Guide to Retirement’. I’ve only read a very few pages. But what those pages described gave me pause. The author wrote about a few people he knows. These are people who loved their work, thoroughly enjoyed what they did, but who retired. And none of them handled it very well. And the reason seemed clear. Their sense that their lives were worth living was dependent on their jobs. To say that differently, their jobs became idols to them. They looked to those jobs to give them a sense that they were living well, that their lives had meaning. And I think that you can understand why. Their work gave them the opportunity to be able to say, at least to themselves, ‘Look at what I have accomplished’. It was those accomplishments, or better, the sense of approval that those accomplishments provided, that made life work for them. But once the opportunity to achieve those accomplishments disappeared, they floundered. And that is to be expected. Idols never come through. At some point, they all fail.

I have mentioned to you my own battles with drivenness. One consequence of giving in to that attitude, to be consumed by it, is to glory in accomplishments. I was on the track to become just like the people that I was reading about.

I mention this because the idol of work, looking to accomplishments achieved, is common enough. But such an attitude will not result in living well. Idols never come through.

Let’s move on. Next, there’s pleasure. A life full of pleasure is a life worth living - or so the thinking goes among many. Listen to what the Teacher of Ecclesiastes has to say about this.

I said to myself, “Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.” But it turned out to be futile. I said about laughter, “It is madness,” and about pleasure, “What does this accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to let my body enjoy life with wine and how to grasp folly - my mind still guiding me with wisdom - until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. Ecclesiastes 2:1-3

He, then, goes through a list of things that he did so that he could enjoy pleasure to the full. He summarizes it all with this.

All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them. I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles. This was my reward for all my struggles. When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun. Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

Pleasure, as the hope of a life worth living, doesn’t work either. But why is that? Simply put, what pleases greatly at one point becomes humdrum all too soon. It fades from this thoroughly exciting thing to something that rates a, ‘Well, I guess it’s okay’. And when that happens, a new source of exhilarating pleasure will need to be discovered. But that also will become humdrum soon enough. At some point there won’t be some new source of pleasure worth chasing. And what is life about then?

One of the pleasures that is greatly praised these days is the pleasure of sex. So, we hear of those who go from one person to the next in pursuit of sexual pleasure. And to those who pursue this way of life, it appears to be working. But while some choices show, rather quickly, how unwise they are, other choices take some time to reveal that fact. For the person who pursues a life of sexual pleasure in his twenties and thirties - what will life be like when he gets to his fifties and later, after he has tried all sorts of sexual escapades with all sorts of people? The thrill, the pleasure, won’t be there. What makes life worth living then?

Sex is not the only pleasure that is advertised in this way. There is also the expectation that an amazing vacation or a new mega-sized TV, a new car or a new house or lots of other stuff – that enjoying one of these will make the rest of life work. But they all illustrate the problems of living life for the pleasures.  Sooner or later, it becomes obvious. This is not a life lived well. No, this is futility.

And then, there is money. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes also considers the goal of amassing wealth as the basis for a meaningful life. And as you, no doubt, anticipate, he comes to the same conclusion.

The one who loves money is never satisfied with money, and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with income. This too is futile. Ecclesiastes 5:10

Getting a raise, winning the lottery, having more money than you ever dreamed of having - all of these illustrate the Teacher’s point. All you need to do is ask, ‘How much is enough?’ And you know what the answer will be. ‘A little more.’

The facts, for rich and for poor, are the same.

As he came from his mother’s womb, so he will go again, naked as he came; he will take nothing for his efforts that he can carry in his hands. This too is a sickening tragedy: exactly as he comes, so he will go. What does the one gain who struggles for the wind? Ecclesiastes 5:15-16

At the point of death, your wealth will do you no good. As they used to say in the days of my youth, you can’t take it with you.

All that I’ve done thus far is to consider some foolish answers to our question, ‘What does it mean to live well?’ What we need now is a wise answer to that question.

One thing that is clear is that a wise answer to that question will have Jesus as the focus. He is the one who has come so that you can live well. He and only He has the right answer to our question. Being blessed with the wisdom to discern His answer is one of the greatest blessings that a person can be given.

So, what is Jesus’ answer? Let’s approach it using Ecclesiastes. What does the Teacher have to say?

When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

There are some words that pop out here: fear God, keep His commands, judgment. Let’s look at each in turn.

Fear God. This is a biblical notion that is generally ignored. And that is sad. The point of the phrase is the thought that we all live under the watchful eyes of God. He sees what we do, all that we do. Now, I have to be quick to say that He doesn’t watch what we do as some killjoy, ready to pounce lest anyone become happy. No. But He is aware of you, what you are doing, what you are feeling, what is going on in your heart. He is aware of how you are living.

The fear of God starts with acknowledging that He is the most important audience for the things that you do. What He thinks about you trumps any other opinion.

So, the point of life for every person is the same. The Shorter Catechism captures it well. ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.’ We live for Him as our first audience. As we do that, we will enjoy Him.

So, how do we do that? How do we live for Him? This is not a mystery. What did the Teacher say? ‘…keep His commands…’ And His commands are quite clear. The Scriptures are filled with commands to guide us.

So, here’s some instruction about work.

Don’t work only while being watched, in order to please men, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ. Colossians 3:22-24

Work can be very satisfying. But only if you apply yourself to commands like that one given in the Scriptures.

There are commands in the Scriptures that speak to the enjoyment of pleasure. When I talked about pleasure, I referred in particular to sex. I did that because most people believe that for Christians, sex is, at best, a necessary evil. Well, people may believe that, but God doesn’t. Listen to the encouragement He gives to husbands.

Let your fountain be blessed,
and take pleasure in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful fawn —
let her breasts always satisfy you;
be lost in her love forever. Proverbs 5:18-19

God watches and approves as husband and wife enjoy each other sexually, following His design for that part of their marriage.

And then, there is wealth. All I need to say here is ‘Job’. Here is someone who was filthy rich, Bill Gates rich. And yet, what did he say when he lost everything? Here’s his response to the news that all that he had was gone.

Then Job stood up, tore his robe, and shaved his head. He fell to the ground and worshiped, saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life. The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away. Praise the name of LORD. Job 1:20-21

It wasn’t money that made Job the man he was. It wasn’t his wealth that made his life worth living.

Then, there’s the word ‘judgment’. Sadly, that word has taken on a negative tone, a judgmental tone. A better word is ‘evaluation’. Your life will be evaluated. Your life is being evaluated. My guess is that most of you cringe when you hear that. And I’m also guessing that you do that because most of the times in your past when your life was being evaluated someone was being critical about what you were doing. How rare to hear encouraging and praising words. That deserves a sermon all on its own. But didn’t Jesus talk about commending His servants by saying,

Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

When I say that God is watching what you do, that includes watching the good things that you do. Those things are included when He evaluates how you are doing. And when He sees that, He responds. He blesses.

But you still remember all the wrong that you do. You find yourself afraid of how God will evaluate those actions of yours. And you also wonder, ‘How will I ever be able to keep the commands?’

This is when you need to remember Jesus. He is your Savior, and He is your Lord. As your Savior, He provides you forgiveness for all the wrong that you do. The slate is wiped clean, completely clean. And as Lord, He guides you, by His Spirit, into the way of obedience when it comes to those commands. Old mindless habits, sinful habits, are changed into wise ways of living. Blessings follow. And you find, over time, that you really are learning how to live well. Your life becomes something worth doing, something that actually makes God look as good as He is.

Now we have an answer to that question I started with. What does it mean to live well?

When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Do that, depending on Jesus, and you will have a life worth living.