Occupied with Joy

How would you like to spend the few years that you have left on earth?

In 2005, a convicted Romanian murderer sued God.  Pavel M. filed a suit stating that “God had claimed and received from me various goods and prayers in exchange for forgiveness, and the promise that I would be rid of problems and have a better life.”  The suit went on to allege that God had failed to deliver, and the plaintiff had found himself in the devil’s hands instead.  

The case was eventually dropped because it was found that the defendant, God, was not a corporation, nor an individual that could fall under a Romanian civil court’s jurisdiction.  

This sounds silly, but we are all familiar with the underlying motivations behind the strange attempted lawsuit—those of disappointment, frustration, and anger.  Many angry atheists are actually embittered ex-evangelicals who were raised in Christian homes.  Their deconversion stories usually offer intellectual reasons why they no longer believe.  However, they leave out the details of how their alleged deconversion occurred on the heels of an altered emotional state.  

I am sympathetic to them, because I’m familiar with hurt faith.  Sometimes it took twenty-four hours for me to get over something.  On other occasions, it took months.  During those times, when I tried to pray, it felt like I had been bruised, and was so sore I wasn’t sure if I could pray again.  My handling of the Bible was tainted with cynicism and resentment, and when I would see promises in verses, I would almost say aloud, “Yeah, right.”  

What are we to do when we find ourselves in these shoes?  Bottle it up?  Explode?  Grumble?  Dwell in it?

The first three verses of Ecclesiastes chapter five frame this issue:  “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”  Be careful of your words and attitudes before God.  Solomon has been telling us that everything under the sun is vanity, a vapor.  But there is one exception—the holiness of God.  That is not vanity, nor anything to trifle with.  

Solomon continues, “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.”  Listening means I don’t assume I know everything.  There is a wisdom beyond me.  But fools sacrifice—offer up—a lot of opinions, and views, in a big cloud of words.  They don’t seem to have a clue that what they’re saying is worthless and evil in the hearing of God.  

“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.  For a dream comes with much business and a fool’s voice with many words” (vv. 2-3).  

All of these “words” usually express reactions.  Solomon says to be careful.  It’s one thing for you to be hurt, but another to run your mouth and become a fool.  

He provides a couple of examples, the first dealing with desperation:

4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.

People vow, negotiate, and make promises when they become desperate. Jesus told us don’t swear at all, because we don’t have the power to fulfill what we’re promising.  And we lie.  Even while we’re talking, part of us knows we’re not going to do what we say. I can’t tell you how many times somebody has visited our church, got inspired, and said something like, “We’ve found our forever home!”  Then we never saw them again.  

It seems human beings like the dramatic value of words, especially when uttered around others, but Solomon says that “God is the one you must fear.”  We have to remember that whether we’re airing out opinions, or making commitments, we’re talking to somebody who knows us better than we know ourselves.  

Solomon provides another example of reactions:

8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor, and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.” 

Don’t be shocked by injustice, after all, you’re not living in the garden of Eden.  One level of authority after another sees these injustices as well, and may even be complicit in the problem.  Don’t waste your time being amazed when wrong things happen.  Paul warned us in Romans chapter 13 about constantly railing against the government.  There’s no ending to it.  Recently, a President departed the White House.  A lot of people hated him.  Then we got another President, and guess what?  A whole different set of people hate him.   This is the way it’s going to be until you leave this world.  You could easily throw your life away, being occupied with outrage.   

Solomon offers another example of reaction when he brings up disappointment.  “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money” (v. 10).  Money keeps coming up in Ecclesiastes, because we have big expectations of it.  We trust it will make the marriage better, make the kids happier, and so forth.  But when things don’t pan out, it becomes “a grievous evil” (vv. 13, 16), rocking you all the way to the core.  

Finally, Solomon tells us,

 18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

When God gives power to enjoy certain things, it implies a profound truth.  That is, even if He gave you a great job, a beautiful spouse, brilliant children, and perfect health, you still might not be able to enjoy them.  You may in fact find something wrong with every one of them.  The power to enjoy those things is not in those things.  

But there is a power available in verse 20, so great that having received it, we would not much remember the days of disappointment, or anger.  Why?  Because we would be occupied with joy, that is, we’d be too busy with joy to waste our time dwelling on those other things.  

The power to do this does not lie in the gift, but in the Giver.  

The Apostle Paul was in a Roman jail, and had fallen on financial hard times.  Yet he says in Philippians 4:10, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”  Whatever?  Most of us would say, “Um, no, not ‘whatever.’  I’m not interested in ‘whatever.’ I want things a certain way.  If they go that way, I’ll be content.”  And so we pray for circumstances to change and go our way.  And when they don’t?  Well, you can choose to take the route of disappointment and anger (perhaps readying your deconversion story), or choose the learning curve that takes you where Paul went.  

He wrote, “I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”   Paul had to learn this secret, which is mentioned in the next verse:  “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13).  The secret to strength unto contentment and satisfaction is through “Him,” and in “Him.”  It does not depend on ideal circumstances.    

Had Paul behaved like many of today’s Christians, he might well have tried to alter his poor situation in that Roman jail by praying it away.  Once that attempt failed, he would have found himself abiding in hatred for the Romans, and disappointment that the church had not helped him more.  Instead, he learned the secret of freshly finding Jesus Christ.  

An old English poet wrote a poem about the creation of the first man.  He said it was like God pouring fine wine into a glass—riches, honor, glory, cognition, emotional intelligence, and creativity.  But the Creator withheld one thing from that man–satisfaction.   The Giver kept satisfaction with himself.  And so, for the man to enjoy all the considerable gifts given to him, he would need the Giver as well.  

We do not find joy as if it were an object God gives to us when we pray, “Lord, fill my cup.”  If we were to ask such a thing, God might well reply, “I’m available to you.”  “Yes,” we say in return, “I have devotionals.  I get up five minutes early, open my bible, reflect on some verses, pray, and even highlight phrases with colored pencils.  But it isn’t working lately.”  When we talk like this, it sounds as if we’re trying to fix something under a kitchen sink.  

Remember, we relate to God as a Person.  Every so often, it will be time to move something around in the relationship.  It could be an item that needs to be relocated off dead center, or reduced in size.  Even as you read this, you probably know what that thing is.  

The other fifty percent of the equation, though, lies in knowing how to push into the positive.  I’m not going to start suggesting possibilities, because you’ll argue with them.  My work hours are too demanding.  I’ve got this many kids.  I’m just not a morning person.  I’ve already tried this, and it didn’t work.  How many times have we even reasoned away Paul’s charge to “Pray unceasingly” (1 Thess. 5:17) as impractical?  

Instead of suggesting practices, I would like to promote an attitude.  Envision someone offering you an all-expense-paid vacation to the destination of your choice.  They will pay your travel, lodging, activities, and food while you’re there.  But let’s also say you have kid problems.  Who will watch them, and for older kids, how will they get back and forth to school, and attend their scheduled sports events?  You also have work conflicts.  The boss doesn’t want to let you go for two weeks.  Also, what will you do with pets?  

Well, most of us…would figure it out.  

This is pretty much the kind of attitude you must have about the Christian life.  What should you do when things get in your way, forbid you from substantially interacting with Jesus?   

I’m guessing you’ll figure it out, or, as Paul would have said, you’ll “work it out” (Phil. 2:12).  If the kids are up too early, or too late, or you’re not a morning person, or simply not “feeling it” lately, you’ll figure it out.  That attitude alone is more important than discovering one magic practice that answers everything.  

Pursue, the Person, the Giver.  He has the power.  You’ll learn the secret Paul talked about.  You’ll find the occupying joy Solomon talked about.


Image credit:  “Busy City” Julie Euthold © licensed through Flickr CC,  https://www.flickr.com/photos/julieleuthold/

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