Breaking the Idols of Your Heart
- Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Chasing After Power – “I Can Control My World”
Noah pulled into the Brothers Consolidated staff parking lot to find his spot was taken. The interloper, a new kid who had recently joined the firm as a researcher, was just getting out of the car. Noah pulled up behind him and shouted, “When did you become a senior analyst?”
The kid jumped. “Hey, I’m sorry. Did I park in your space? I’ll move. I’m really sorry.”
“Consider it a gift today. Do it again, I’ll have you towed—or give you an assignment that’ll keep you here all night.”
The kid kept on apologizing, but Noah had lost interest. He wanted to get his ducks in a row well in advance of today’s meeting, where senior staff members were going to review their portfolios and reassess all their past decisions—including Pearson Furniture.
Pearson stock had recently dropped a few points on the NASDAQ and appeared to be sliding downward, but Noah believed the decline was just a minor blip in Pearson’s progress. Pearson Furniture had recently lost a bid to place some of their products in a national chain of business stores—ostensibly because their line was not well developed and their offering incomplete. Noah believed Pearson’s line was just ahead of its time—that the company was so good and so innovative it would soon dominate the business market.
Brothers Consolidated, of course, wanted the stock to fail so they could pick up their options as it slid. Jonathan Satterwhite, Noah’s chief rival, would argue with his usual suave confidence that his decision to select Pearson as a loser had been confirmed. But Satterwhite knew little about the personalities behind Pearson Furniture. He knew, as did everyone else in the business world, that the CEO, Scott Fitch, was an upstart, a jeans-wearing renegade. But Jonathan didn’t understand Fitch’s past, his personality or his passion.
Noah had followed Fitch’s life, studied his work, even talked with his senior staff. He had studied a tape of a talk Fitch gave his staff. The man had wept when he talked about a Pearson truck driver whose son had died of cancer. He’d expressed amazement at the man’s heart to suffer for his son. Fitch was a hard-driving entrepreneur, but rather than talk to the staff about corporate policy or profits, he had shared what the truck driver taught him about life and then describing the kind of husband, father and friend he wanted to be—and what kind of company he wanted to build.
That speech haunted Noah. Not the tears, which he found maudlin, but the vision. The passion. Noah’s instincts told him Fitch would use the rejection by the national chain to spur his troops on toward setting up a national business furniture wing under the Pearson name.
That stock was definitely going to rise. If Noah played his cards right, his stock in the company would rise as well.
Noah checked in with Janet, his assistant, then carried his binder and coffee cup into the sleek conference room. He took a seat next to Lee Reynolds, senior vice president of research and analysis for the Chicago office. Satterwhite, on the other side of the table, had already distributed copies of his report and opened his own leather binder, ready to begin his review. Noah skimmed the report quickly, then sat back, waiting for his moment.
Satterwhite launched into his usual smooth spiel. He quickly ran through the numbers and concluded crisply, “It’s more than a good bet that Pearson will drop at least 20 percent over the next ten weeks. I think the market will be all over this in about a week, so we have only a brief window to take advantage.”
Lee nodded, ready to move to another stock: “Any more discussion on Pearson? It appears we have a winner here, and due to Jonathan’s careful tracking, we may make this a great quarter.”
Noah shifted in his chair, moving in for the kill. “Could I offer a minority view? I don’t doubt Jonathan has done his homework, but let me ask him to give us his analysis of what Pearson Furniture has done with a few of its other setbacks.” Lee threw a concerned glance at Satterwhite, who shrugged. “Go ahead,” the boss told Noah.
“Jonathan, are you aware of how Fitch handled the lawsuit that almost ruined his first start-up business? Or that he spent Christmas Day a few years ago loading trucks because they were behind on delivering their products after the storm tore through their distribution center?”
Satterwhite lifted his immaculately groomed eyebrows. “No, Noah, I’m not. I’m also not familiar with his psychological profile or his high school grades. But I do understand he is short and therefore may have a Napoleon complex.”
The room roared with laughter. Round one to Satterwhite.
Noah smiled. He was not interested in winning this fight. He merely wanted to position himself as the lone dissenting voice. When the stock soared, he wanted to be remembered as the one who warned against betting the ranch on Pearson Furniture’s decline—the who could have saved the firm a massive amount of money and avoided the wrath of countless investors.
Noah laughed. “I never thought to look at his high school grades, but I will. Until then, I do think that Fitch’s track record in college ought to tell us something. He flunked out of three colleges and finally made it through after seven years. He then started four businesses that were eventually sold to his competitors because he beat the socks off each one of them in their key markets. The man is a wizard, and he thrives on adversity. I’m sure you’re also aware there is no one better at pitching investment bankers. He has the uncanny ability to live with ambiguity until others bolt, then he calmly walks into the bank and takes the largest share of the prize.
Let me play prophet. I think Fitch will . . .”
Noah laid out a scenario of what Pearson Furniture might do in the next six months. “If we want to make any profit,” he concluded, “I think we should sell what we have now and then cover our losses by buying this stock to grow.”
The room fell silent. Sweat gathered on Satterwhite’s forehead, and he clenched
his jaw. Lee gave him a somber look. “Respond.”
Then Noah had the pleasure of watching his slick colleague scramble to defend his proposal. He managed to cover his lack of detailed analysis with a recitation of past successes, and the decision on Pearson eventually swung back to his side. That was fine with Noah. The doubt he’d wished to create sat squarely on the table, and no one would forget it.
On the way out, Noah walked by the kid who had taken his parking spot earlier in the morning. He grinned and complimented the kid’s natty tie.
By the time Noah got home that night, he’d forgotten all about the Bible study. He hadn’t even managed to read the first chapter of Ecclesiastes—and he hated to show up unprepared for anything. But he was stuck. He couldn’t even trot out the “you can’t believe the day I’ve had” excuse to keep from going; he had come home way too happy to pull off that one.
They ate a quick dinner at a restaurant near their house. All through the meal, Joan nattered on about Ecclesiastes. “I just don’t understand why God allowed Solomon to do all the things that he did,” she remarked as she forked up her salad. “I mean, how could he have had that many wives?”
Noah wondered the same thing, but for very different reasons. His mind flitted to the power of having a harem and picking a woman to be intimate with as casually as he would pick out a pair of shoes. He felt his breath quicken, but he knew better than to mention his thoughts to Joan. She would never understand.
After a quick supermarket stop, they found the apartment complex where Mark and Suzi lived, then meandered through the unfamiliar maze of driveways and parking lots before finally locating number 204 and snagging a parking space nearby. Suzi answered the door with her usual breathless giggle. “Hi, are you here for the Bible study? Of course you are.” She accepted the proffered bottles of soda and motioned them into the brightly lit living room.
Noah blinked. The whole place was a riot of country kitsch—rag dolls, teddy bears, fake “antique” signs and plaques with cutesy sayings, scented candles with clashing aromas, and painted knickknacks on every conceivable surface. Noah did not know whether to laugh or smirk, so he concentrated on finding a corner where he could avoid having to converse.
Noah hated the first few minutes of small talk when walking into any gathering because he never knew who to be. If people saw him as the expert, he felt he had to be the Wise One and stayed aloof. Or if people saw him as a regular Joe, a nameless face in the crowd, then he endured the loneliness of insignificance and tried to ignore why he felt like a failure. In either case, he felt he could never win.
After far too long a time of forced conviviality, Jack convened the gathering. “Folks, why don’t you grab your drinks, and let’s get this ship out of the harbor.” Jack began by introducing the new topic of the group’s study. “As you know, we are launching into a new study tonight. I hope you will be as excited about studying Ecclesiastes as I have been in preparing for our time together.”
Noah grimaced. Isn’t it enough that I’m here? Now I’m supposed to be
excited . . .
Jack continued, “With your permission, rather than go chapter by chapter through this great book, I thought we’d go theme by theme and see if we can zero in on the main points. I hope you all were able to read the book in preparation for tonight. What is the one word that kept sticking in your mind as you worked your way through it?”
Noah felt a tinge of guilt over being unprepared, followed by righteous indignation that such a demand had been put on a busy person like himself. He was relieved when Mimi Crawford broke the silence. “Meaninglessness,” she said. “The book kept talking about life being meaningless.”
Jack nodded. “Right, and didn’t that strike you as strange? After all, as Christians, we know that God has given us abundant life now. But here is a wise man who seems completely depressed about the state of the world and his relationship with God. To be honest, I really didn’t know how to take the book, so I started looking at some commentaries, and I read through the whole thing a couple of times. Fortunately, it’s not too long.”
Noah looked out the window at the passing traffic and glanced at his watch, calculating how long he would be forced to endure Jack’s monologue before the group would be invited to pool their ignorance and give their opinions on the book. Jack kept talking.
“At first I was a little disappointed with the commentaries. They disagreed in their perspectives on the book, but they all pointed to the last few verses of the book—especially the last two verses—as providing the important teaching. Here, let me read those two verses to you, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14: ‘Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.’
“Now, this seemed more biblical to me than ‘everything is meaningless,’ so I tried to understand the connection between the two. I went back to the commentaries and saw that the book really has two speakers. One is known as the Teacher; the other is known simply as the wise man. The wise man is the one who fears God and who concludes the book with a final perspective.
“If you look closely, you’ll see that when the Teacher talks about life under the sun being meaningless—‘under the sun’ is his phrase to talk about life apart from God, life from the purely human perspective—he’s speaking in the first person. You know, ‘I saw this,’ ‘I did this.’ But at the end of the book, the speaker is talking about the Teacher: ‘The Teacher was like this,’ ‘the Teacher did this.’ Those are some of the clues that two different voices speak in the book.”
Noah glanced at his wife, who seemed enthralled. Noah wondered what would happen if he challenged Jack, but he couldn’t remember enough about the book to offer another opinion.
Jack was studying his notes. “Now some people think the two voices are really the same person, and that was what I thought at first—that the Teacher was Solomon. I thought the book was written after he faced the foolishness of his youth, when he turned against God and started worshiping the gods of his foreign wives.” He looked up. “I know this is a little tedious, but I think it is important.”
Noah blushed and hoped Jack had not seen his yawn.
Jack pressed on, “I just have a little more. Some new commentaries, though, suggest that we are really dealing with two different speakers, neither of whom is Solomon. The one in the main part of the book—the Teacher—is a jaundiced, skeptical old man who, on the basis of his observations of life, asks some very tough questions about relationship with God.
“The second is another wise man who wants his son, mentioned in the twelfth verse of chapter 12, to face the irregularities, apparent contradictions and unpredictability of life. The interesting thing is that the second wise man actually affirms many of the Teacher’s observations. In fact, he does not reject any of the old skeptic’s conclusions.
“This is a bit more radical than I prefer to admit. It seems like the last voice, the voice of the godly wise man, ought to contradict the Teacher’s statements. But he never refutes the idea that life ‘under the sun’ is meaningless. He actually affirms those statements, using them to draw us to a brutally honest vision of life before turning to what is really important: fearing God.
“It’s as if the second teacher is saying, ‘Much of what you say is true. But you see only part of the picture. Your perspective is merely “under the sun.” You need also to see what life looks like from “above the sun,” from God’s perspective.’”
Jack straightened up in his chair and looked more intently at everyone in the room. “I hope our reflections in this study will involve far more than mere commentary about what we think the book is teaching. I hope we can engage deep questions most of us would rather ignore. But I have to tell you—I feel a bit nervous about this book, more so than some of the other books we’ve studied. It makes me think in ways that seem out of step with my faith. I’d rather find answers rather than suffer the questions, which makes me . . .”
Noah wasn’t listening. He was staring at Marcia’s legs. She had shifted in her seat, and her tan, well-cut legs stretched out like an invitation to slip into a blue-green pool rather than sit in the hot sun of Jack’s patter.
Marcia, Jack’s wife, was neither young nor stunningly attractive, but her short, brown hair and her intense green eyes gave her a captivating, feline appearance. She was gentle and gracious, but Noah had noticed she held her own in discussions with quick wit and intensity.
Noah glanced over at Joan. Chin in hand, she listened raptly to Jack’s spiel, though she probably had no idea what Jack was talking about. Noah let his eyes jump from one woman to the other, taking in the contrast. He loved Joan, but Marcia—Marcia intrigued him. Though nearly ten years older than Joan and in many ways far less attractive, she exuded a kind of mystery that drew him to her. That and the legs—“Is there anything on your mind, Noah? You seem particularly lost today in your own world.”
Noah almost jumped at Jack’s question but caught himself. “No, Jack. Sorry if I wasn’t paying attention. I may have been wandering back to the slavish lusts of the day’s business.” The group laughed. Joan blushed. But Noah merely smiled and looked back at Marcia. For just an instant, she caught his gaze, then dropped her eyes and turned awkwardly toward Jack. It was the first time he had seen her lose composure.
Noah noticed a slight rise in Jack’s chest, a tightening of his hands, a pinkish cast creeping across his left cheek. But Jack smiled. “Well, Noah, I suspect a whole lot more is going on in that sharp mind of yours than you are going to tell us.” Noah looked at the Bible on his lap. He felt no pressure to respond to Jack’s comment. He felt on top of things, in control. On the whole, it had been a good day, and he was eager for sleep. Sweet sleep.
Relieved when the Bible study was over, Noah walked to the parking lot slightly ahead of Joan. When he reached the space where he had parked the car, he found only a note held in place by a large stone.
The car was gone.
The note said: “Your car was parked in an unauthorized spot. It can be retrieved at the 285 Garage off Wadsworth and 285. Fee is $100—cash only.”
The Idol: “I Can Control My World”
We all tend to operate out of a faulty assumption that looks something like this: “If only I could control my world, life would be manageable and have meaning and purpose.”
Related to that assumption is an equally faulty one: “I ought to be able to control my world.”
Before you dismiss that last statement too readily, think about your life.
How much energy do you spend trying to manage your family life, your job, your life at church, your relationships? As you answer this question, you may come to realize you have sought the power to control your life with the passion of idol worship.
We all want control over the chaos of our lives. We don’t like unwelcome surprises, and we plan and work hard to keep them at bay. We think ahead about the consequences of our actions, and we are not pleased when someone—a child, a friend, a stranger—disrupts whatever order we’ve established in our lives.
We often try to gain control through rules. Consider all the rules that govern our lives. We have our daily “to do” lists—laundry, food preparation, washing dishes, driving children to school, keeping our bodies in shape. At work, we have sales to make, forms to fill out, patients to see, classes to teach. We have rules of ethics, rules of behavior.
And there is nothing wrong with any of these rules—unless we let them rob our lives of passion. The rules can become demands that take away the depth, vitality and thrill of life. In pursuing the things we ought to do, we often lose track of what we want to do. The rules end up controlling us rather than helping us control our lives.
Our quest for control also tempts us to acquire power over others because we assume that power equals control. Power and control seem to be potential avenues of meaning in life; they give us joy and a feeling of significance. Experiencing the opposite, being pushed around by forces and people outside of ourselves, makes us feel our lives are ruled by chance and are therefore without meaning.
Noah is a good example of the way people attempt to control their worlds. Noah believes he is a Christian, but he really is a stock analyst; his job is his source of meaning. His passion is the hunt for information to make a deal that will not fail. He gives himself deeply to what provides him a sense of power and control over his life. He spends considerable time prowling the Internet and reading reports in his area of expertise. He loves the chase, loves winning over others.
Noah goes to a regular Bible study not because he wants to learn about the Bible, but because he wants to please his wife and do what’s “right.” He has taken on many of the values of religious people because it is easier to be on the side of the majority rather than to suffer the judgment of those with whom he might differ. And this arrangement seems to be working for Noah. He doesn’t have to think in areas that trouble him. Instead, he is free to dabble in faith, know he has heaven ahead, and then focus his considerable talents on the real task: waging war at work.
Noah avoids what makes him feel uncomfortable. Like many men, Noah has found one area in which he excels, and he spends the vast majority of his waking thought and energy there. Consequently, he avoids his family and relationships in general. And when he is not at war in his work, he loves to sleep. In sleep nothing is required of him and life works, at least to a degree. Even Noah’s sleeping is a way for him to control his world.
Is Control Bad?
It’s not just Noah. Most of us live with the myth that we ought to be able to control our lives. So we work harder and plan more efficiently. Is that a bad thing?
No. Control is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the Bible encourages us to exert control in several areas.
The book of Proverbs, for example, encourages us to plan for the future. Planning involves using our mental power in order to control what will happen to us. Planning is never precise and is always full of risks, according to Proverbs, but failing to plan is simply irresponsible: “Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success” (Proverbs 15:22). And when we submit those plans to the Lord, he will bless them: “Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed” (Proverbs 16:3).
God wants us to plan. He wants us to think of the consequences of our actions. Generally speaking, no one can have a significant measure of success without foresight and the ability to affect the shape of the future.
The Bible tells us to discipline and control not only our own lives but also the lives of the people under our care. Proverbs reminds us, “Discipline your children, and they will give you peace of mind and will make your heart glad” (Proverbs 29:17).
Even more important, the Bible urges wisdom as a way to bring order out of chaos. We know from Genesis that as a result of the Fall, our world is wired for chaos. To bring an element of control to that chaos, we need wisdom. Helping us navigate through chaos is the whole purpose of the Old Testament wisdom literature.
Biblical wisdom is built on the premise that there is an underlying order to creation. God created the world; it is not the product of chance. Certain causes produce certain effects. If I go up to my wife and hug her, my actions will produce one desirable effect. Speaking harshly to her will produce a different and negative one. Different words and different actions will produce different effects.
To some extent, then, the Bible suggests, we can control how people respond to us. For example, when we encounter a fool, we need to know what kind of fool he is. Is he one who will act more foolishly if we take his arguments seriously and respond to his points? Or will he be one who thinks he is right if we do not answer him (Proverbs 26:4-5)? Once we determine these things, then we can give the most apt reply. “Timely advice is lovely, like golden apples in a silver basket” (Proverb 25:11).
The way of wisdom presented in the Bible, therefore, seems to support our desire for control. If that is the case, then the next logical step is to master wisdom, to learn the principles embedded in books like Proverbs, and then simply to apply them to the right situations. The book of Proverbs, after all, appears to be a list of insightful statements about how we ought to live life, a kind of divine self-help book that will take us through the turmoil of relationships and all the struggles of life. It offers a good, healthy kind of control.
The trouble is, not all our attempts to control our lives are healthy. And we can see that clearly in the Bible as well.
Abraham: Grasping for Control
In Genesis 12, God gave Abraham a series of promises that would shape his future (vv. 1-3). These promises include the fact that he would be the progenitor of a huge nation, a special people who would bless the whole world. For that promise to come true, however, Abraham needed a son. He and his wife, Sarah, were childless and growing old.
Abraham waited, but nothing happened. He began to doubt whether God would follow through with his promise. Abraham did not doubt God’s existence, but he thought he needed to take steps to bring the promise to fulfillment. So Abraham took matters into his own hands. First he adopted Eliezer, his household servant, to be his heir (Genesis 15:2). Then later he took his wife’s servant, Hagar, as a concubine and fathered a son with her.
All this was in keeping with the societal norms of the day. But God had specifically stated that he would provide the promised heir through Abraham’s union with Sarah. When Abraham grew doubtful, he patiently repeated the promise.
But Abraham still didn’t trust God. And the more he grasped for control, the more trouble he brought on himself. The family conflict that resulted from his efforts—especially Sarah’s rivalry with Hagar—are well known. Indeed, once we take into consideration that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, became the father of the Arab nations and Sarah’s son, Isaac the father of the modern Jewish nation, we can see the level of chaos that resulted from Abraham’s frenetic attempts at control.
Life Is Untamable
We are no different from Abraham. When we face a problem or an obstacle, we tend to take control and try to change it. But all too often, it seems, God has something different in mind.
Dan and I struggled with the area of control as we wrote this book. We spent a day in Denver to plot out our writing schedule—not only for the book at hand but for the next ten years.
As I left Dan’s house to return to my home in Philadelphia, my sights were clear on what I had to do in order to accomplish the task of writing this book. Primed to get to work, I looked forward to the task with great excitement. I felt “empowered” and in control of my work and my life.
I got home from the airport, enjoyed a relaxing evening with my family, and headed to bed, anticipating the next day’s work. At three o’clock the phone rang. It was my wife’s stepmother. She sobbed, “Tremper, Bill just died!” It took a moment to register, but then I realized that my father-in-law had just passed away.
One phone call changed our lives for the next weeks. My writing schedule, my attempt at controlling my life, was seriously disrupted.
You have probably had similar experiences. Illness, financial upset, other people’s decisions, and a host of other events can disrupt our well-laid plans. Such events remind us we can’t really control our lives. But that doesn’t keep us from exerting enormous energy to maintain the illusion of having life in order.
Think of Noah. He knows his business, and even though he doesn’t win the skirmish at work, he believes he will win the war. He prepares and plots victory, and to a certain extent he is able to maintain control. But only to a certain extent—as the towing of his car reminds him.
While we can achieve a significant level of control, keeping all the plates spinning is no more possible than grasping the wind. That’s one of the significant lessons of Ecclesiastes—that we must bow to the seasons of order and disorder God establishes in our lives.
The Teacher Questions God’s Order
The book of Ecclesiastes contains a long speech by someone who simply calls himself the Teacher. He speaks in most of the book of Ecclesiastes (1:12—12:8). His words are framed by the words of another wise man, who assesses the Teacher’s thought for his son—and for us, his readers (1:1-11 and 12:9-14). The Teacher sees life from a perspective that is “under the sun,” that is, a solely human perspective (1:9, 14; 2:17; 5:18) as opposed to God’s eternal, all-knowing perspective. And the general message of the Teacher’s speech is that life is meaningless and our efforts at control are futile.
While the Teacher’s comments about life will often shock and disturb us, if we are honest we will have to admit that his perspective often mirrors our own. Far too often we are frustrated with life because we are convinced that God is not in control and that he is leaving it all up to us.
The Teacher believed that God has created the opportune moment for everything. In one of the Bible’s most moving passages about control and order (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), the Teacher shares this perspective:
For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.
We find comfort in those words, don’t we? They remind us that everything has its proper place.
But here’s the rub, according to the Teacher. Sure, God made the proper time for everything. He created everything for its proper place, and this is beautiful, but we can’t know these times! We simply can never be certain that our words or our actions are right for the situation.
Immediately following the poem about time, the Teacher asks some unsettling questions:
What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning
to end. (3:9-11)
God has created a world with order, and we yearn to experience that order. The Teacher tells us that this knowledge is beyond us all, and as a result we are frustrated to the core:
In my search for wisdom and in my observation of people’s burdens here on earth, I discovered that there is ceaseless activity, day and night. I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim. (8:16-17)
The Teacher touches the raw nerve of reality: The world is rigged for frustration. There is a right way to do things, but we will never know for sure what that is. There is a way to make life work, but we will never do it right. No matter how we try, we will never be in control of our world. It seems almost as if God asks our hungry souls what they want to eat, then prepares the food and places it behind an impenetrable glass wall.
Subjected to Frustration
In the New Testament the apostle Paul expresses the same truth: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21 NIV).
The word Paul uses for frustration is the Greek word that is used in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the word meaningless, the word used most often in Ecclesiastes. In some English versions, this word is translated “vanity” or “futility.” Paul’s indirect allusion to Ecclesiastes in the Romans 8 passage reflects his awareness that God deliberately imposes frustrations on us. He has made sure nothing in life will work in a way that allows humankind to think they are back home in Eden.
Noah experiences that reality. Though he basically feels that he rules his own life, he still has a few moments when he feels the sting of inner uncertainty. On the one hand, he hates to be the expert—that means accepting the pressure to perform flawlessly. On the other hand, he hates to be a mere mortal, a regular guy—that usually means living without praise or respect.
For the most part, Noah simply ignores an internal agitation that might signal a lack of control. When disruptions rise, he takes active steps to adjust to them and regain control. When traffic slows, he changes lanes. When the junior member of the firm takes his parking spot, he uses the situation to gain even greater control of the employee.
But even when we spend lots of energy wresting control from chaos, God will not let us achieve what would block us from himself. He actively orchestrates life so that we are continually presented with minor and major disruptions—and reminded that we are not in control. Noah experienced that too. The towing of his car reminds him that life is not tamable. God has rigged the world so that Noah’s false sense of security will be exposed and his presumption of being able to control even the automotive aspect of his life will be upended.
Unfortunately, Christians often ignore God’s disruptions, attributing them either to Satan’s assault or just to the way life is. We too quickly mask our frustration, saying something like, “Well, I may not know what is going on, but at least God does!”
We assume God will take care of those who pursue him. We find ourselves attracted to sayings like “the LORD does not let the righteous go hungry” (Proverbs 10:3 NIV) rather than to sad—but accurate—observation like the Teacher’s:
The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. . . . People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
The Teacher does not even find comfort in the idea of an afterlife where God puts everything right. As he looks into the future, he cries out:
This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor. The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don’t. (9:1-2)
No wonder the Teacher concludes, again and again, that life is “like chasing the wind” (1:14 and many other verses). If we pay attention, we easily conclude the same. Even though we try hard, we can still feel we are groping in the darkness with no ultimate success.
People today spend a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual energy trying to control their schedules, jobs and relationships. We assume that the solution to our lack of control is to find new systems, new rules, new methods, new “laws” for doing things. We think that if only we have the right systems, we can control the chaos.
Our experience and the Teacher’s observations deny this assumption. We need to turn from frenetically chasing control to something better. Under the sun, we chase control, but we discover it is as difficult to grasp as the wind. However, we can choose to move from an “under the sun” perspective to an “above the sun” one.
Let’s take some time to explain this terminology, which will play such an important role in this book. We have already observed that the Teacher uses the phrase “under the sun” to describe life and perspective here on earth, apart from God. The Teacher himself never uses the opposite phrase. We are coining it to explain the opposite perspective. In other words, while the Teacher kept his search for meaning and truth utterly earthbound, we want to look at life from God’s perspective as he reveals it to us in his Word.
How do we move from an “under the sun” perspective to an “above the sun” viewpoint? The answer, spoken by the second wise man to his son (and read out loud in Noah’s Bible study), is simply this: “fear God and obey his commands” (12:13). Put God first in your life. If you want to find meaning and purpose in life, look at reality from God’s perspective, not your own limited view.
Redemption Through Dependency
Our usual strategy for dealing with the mess of life is to seek control over it. We try to gain power in the world in order to have an effective platform to manage our existence.
Power makes us think of politicians and bankers, and most of us don’t have that kind of clout. But power comes in gradations. We may experience the struggle for power in the family as we try to keep our kids in line or our parents from interfering. We may seek power in our community by doing volunteer work at the hospital or by running for a local office. We may seek power in our work by climbing up the corporate ladder, trying to become the boss so we can tell others what to do rather than have others
tell us what to do.
Power—whether it is the power of status, abilities, career, position—ought to make us feel more in control. But we have seen that it doesn’t. We can never tame life. As the Teacher woefully observes, “What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (1:15 NIV).
The enigma is that it is God who has done the twisting and produced the lack: “Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked? Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God.” (7:13-14).
So power does not bring control, and when we realize that, we are disappointed. We begin to feel that life has no meaning. We lose our vitality. The result is that we often give up any healthy attempts at control. We live halfhearted, passionless lives, letting events rule us, rather than the reverse.
Are these the only two options? Do we have to choose between a lifestyle of desperate grasping for control or a listless surrender to the mess?
Abraham: Receiving the Blessing
Let’s return to Abraham for a moment. We have already seen him struggle with doubt in his relationship with God. We have seen him grasp at the promises that were at the center of his life and try inappropriately to take matters into his own hands.
But something happened to Abraham along the way, something that moved him from the struggle of earthly existence (under the sun) to a fear of God (above the sun). The change didn’t happen overnight. Isaac’s long-awaited birth was surely an influence, as was God’s grace in overcoming many obstacles throughout Abraham’s life. But by Genesis 22, which tells the story of the “sacrifice” of Isaac, the change in Abraham was clear.
After the promised heir was born, God asked Abraham to do the unthinkable, take this son and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. We don’t know what Abraham thought of these orders; he might have been angry, confused and afraid, but we do see his actions: obedience. He took Isaac to the mountain and surely would have followed through on God’s instructions if God had not intervened and provided a substitute sacrifice.
Abraham had moved from an attitude of anxious chasing to one of divine dependence. He no longer tried to live life according to his own strength. Instead, recognizing his weakness, Abraham grew dependent on God. He found meaning and peace not by chasing after power, but by surrendering and trusting God.
Notice that the book of Ecclesiastes has the same message. The Teacher frets about the lack of control over his life. He cannot learn from the past; he does not know how to act in the present; he is frightfully ignorant of the future and paralyzed with fear.
The second unnamed wise man at the end, though, suggests the proper antidote. Don’t fear your ignorance and lack of control, he tells his son; rather, “fear God.” Submit your weakness and worries to the One who is truly in control, your heavenly Father.
Christ: Power Through Submission
We often lose sight of Christ’s agony as he faced the cross. We often assume he faced his death with courage from the very start. But just before his arrest, he described the state of his soul as “crushed with grief to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). The Gospel of Luke describes Christ’s mental state as “in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44).
Christ asked fervently for the cup of suffering to be taken away from him. He really didn’t want to go to the cross. But while Christ was tempted, he never rebelled against his Father’s will. Rather, he submitted to him by saying, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42 NIV).
God’s will took Jesus to the cross, a place of torture, shame and death. But it was the only way to the resurrection, an event of glory, victory and life.
Jesus is the One who shows us the paradoxical route to meaning in a chaotic and hostile world. It’s the paradox of the gospel: Strength is found in weakness. Control is found in dependency. Power is found in surrender.
Noah fights hard to avoid this paradox. He believes, but he prefers a life that is not caught up in the struggles of Christ in the garden or Paul with his thorn in the flesh. And so do we. But God uses the frustrations of this life and the hurt of relationships to compel us to look beyond what we can control to the God who controls all things in order to woo us to himself. As we move from control to surrender, we move from chasing the wind under the sun to embracing God above it.
A Purposeful Life Above the Sun
From above the sun, we conclude that life under the sun was not intended to run smoothly. The road of life is bumpy and filled with obstacles—for everyone. This is the legacy of the Fall (Genesis 3). Life on earth is untamable. No human can control it.
And yet it is precisely in the untamable twists and turns that we actually meet God. We find ourselves compelled to surrender to his wisdom not when we feel strong and in control but when life careens off its expected course and we know we can’t do anything about it. In these moments we are reminded that we have no control over our world. What we can control, however, is our willingness to seek God in the midst of seeming chaos.
When we are alert to God’s working in our life, we can see how intrusions that overwhelm us, even those that are apparently evil, are his way of moving us toward something good. Surrender in this context is not an act of cowardice but an expectation that Romans 8:28 is true, that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”
Once we adjust our eyes to see God in the midst of the apparent chaos, we can affirm that, although life is not tamable, it is purposeful—if we surrender to God’s control and power. Surrendering doesn’t mean that we spend less energy, but it does mean that we spend less nervous energy. We can live with a confidence that does not presume on our ability to rope life in but rather grounds itself in the strength and power of the One who made us.
Taking a Closer Look
Read Ecclesiastes 9:1-12.
1. Do you agree that sometimes chance trumps skill or ability?
2. Does life ever feel like a “net” to you (v. 12)?
3. What does this passage say about our ability to control life?
4. How does this passage effect your view of life when competence and skill
seem to be bested by chance?
How Do We Chase After Power?
1. Over what parts of your life do you feel you have control? Where do you
wish you had more?
2. What do you have to sacrifice to keep order in your life? Time? Relationships? Leisure?
3. What emotions do you experience when you feel that something is beyond your power?
4. Does the “power of God” have any practical value in your daily life? Describe where you see his power and how it affects your power.
5. How do you and your family plan your day, your month, your life?
6. What does it mean to you to surrender your life to God? What does that
surrender mean for your planning?
7. Does the realization that life is ultimately untamable ever cause you to
8. What verses from Scripture give you hope in the midst of panic or helplessness?
Taken from Breaking the Idols of Your Heart: How to Navigate the Temptations of Life by Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III. © 2007, 1998 by Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. For more information, please visit www.ivpress.com.
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