The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Culture (Page 1 of 10)

Scattered Reflections on Race-related Issues

Like many people, I have been distressed by so many aspects of the race-related incidents that have been erupting all over the nation:

  • The tragic and unjust deaths of African Americans, whether at the hands of overreaching and brutal law enforcement officers or racist vigilantes
  • The protests in response to these outrageous acts that have, at times, turned violent  (and seemingly, at times have been coopted and corrupted by outside influences)
  • In some places, the brutal and violent responses by police officers to even peaceful protests
  • The very poor handling of the entire situation by President Trump whose rhetoric only escalates the tensions
  • The negative attention received by countless law enforcement officers across the country who seek to serve and protect and want to be a part of the solution rather than the problem

Though I am deeply convicted by what I have seen and heard, I am always uncertain about how to respond, at least, in a public proclamatory way such as this. On the one hand, as a middle-class white guy in a largely-white context, I don’t presume to be an expert in such matters, and I have been doing my best to listen rather than to speak. Furthermore, I am not interested in virtue signaling, which can seem like an easy practice that doesn’t actually accomplish or help anything.

On the other hand, I have seen and heard from many black friends and acquaintances about how painful it is when white people (especially Christians) maintain silence, and how supported and loved they feel when people such as myself speak out in solidarity instead. So, that’s what this post is, in a disorganized sort of way.

Foundational Issues

As a Christian, there are two fundamental ideas that guide my thoughts on race before anything else:

  1. All humans are created in the image of God. This conveys the notion of being God’s representatives on earth, tasked with carrying out His will (we see this in Genesis 1-2). Unfortunately, due to sin, humans fail to properly reflect the image of God, but that doesn’t change the God-appointed identity given to each and every human. We are equal. This is antithetical to the notion and practice of racism.
  2. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we have, and the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Loving my neighbor is also antithetical to the notion and practice of racism. Beyond that, loving my neighbor compels me to try to see things from my neighbor’s perspective, and appreciate that his/her experiences may be different from my own.

Personal Repentance

My position is a fairly simple one: I think we have massive racial issues in our country. I think we come by those issues honestly because they are an original part of our national DNA, and I think that the solution to the problem is challenging and will never fully be realized until Jesus returns (more on that below). But the solution must start with me. Here is a statement made by a (white) minister friend of mine, which exactly echoes my own sentiments:

I don’t like the phrase “there’s not a racist bone in my body.” Because if I’m being honest with myself, I am inclined to judge a man by the color of his skin. Just because I don’t like that part of me doesn’t mean it’s not in there. The recent unjust killings of black folks in our country shouldn’t only cause us to point fingers at the perpetrators, though we should demand justice. These killings should also cause us to lift the hoods of our hearts to see the racism that might be lurking there. My goal as a Christian is not to deny my prejudice but to repent of it. The God I worship seeks to bring people of all colors into His kingdom, to make us all children of Abraham through faith in Christ. So I must turn my racist bone over to God so He can renovate my heart. True change in our churches and systems and nation starts with my willingness to say, “Lord, change this wicked way in me.”

Personal repentance must be my first response.

Systemic Racism

Here is a definition of systemic (or, institutional) racism from an excellent article by David French (I will discuss this article further below):

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.

This is a hotly-debated topic (along with the corresponding idea of white privilege), and I don’t really intend to get into it in this post, but based on my reading and listening to the perspectives of black friends and acquaintances, it seems clear to me that this sort of racism exists in this country. We could debate how and where we see it and how intentional it is in its various manifestations, but it exists.

If that statement upsets you or makes you defensive, but you are open to having your perspective changed, I would recommend Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessI read this book last year, and it was one of my top books of 2019, but let’s be clear: I did not enjoy reading it at all. It was a punch in the gut. But it was meticulously researched and footnoted, and it clearly established (to my mind, at least) one aspect of systemic racism.

I also recommend David French’s wonderful article that I referenced above: “American Racism: We’ve Got So Very Far To Go”. French is a thoughtful, conservative commentator, and shares his own journey in coming to terms with the immensity of the racial problem in the US. This is a calm, even-handed, and reflective piece, and I like the simple way he handles systemic racism as a logical progression (emphasis added by me):

  1. Slavery was legal and defended morally and (ultimately) militarily from 1619 to 1865.

  2. After slavery, racial discrimination was lawful and defended morally (and often violently) from 1865 to 1964.
  3. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end illegal discrimination or racism, it mainly gave black Americans the legal tools to fight back against legal injustices.
  4. It is unreasonable to believe that social structures and cultural attitudes that were constructed over a period of 345 years will disappear in 56.
  5. Moreover, the consequences of 345 years of legal and cultural discrimination, are going to be dire, deep-seated, complex, and extraordinarily difficult to comprehensively ameliorate.

Black Lives Matter

There are specific groups that use the “Black Lives Matter” slogan that have detailed ideologies, portions of which I disagree with (I am decidedly not a Marxist, for example). But “Black Lives Matter” as a slogan is completely true and I have no issues with it. Frankly, I have a hard time understanding those who do. From the beginning, to anyone who is listening, it is clear that the slogan means “Black Lives Matter too” rather than “only Black Lives Matter.”

“Black Lives Matter” is a true statement. It doesn’t need qualification (Here is a thoughtful article, written from a Christian perspective,  on that very idea.)

Colorblind

I was raised at a time when I think it was a popular idea to promote “colorblindness” as the solution to racism, and you hear these notions a lot today: “I don’t see people in color! We are all the same! There’s only one race; the human race.”

I think these statements generally come from very well-meaning people who truly wish that racism wasn’t a problem, but I think they are problematic. From a theological perspective, God clearly appreciates diversity, because it is what He created! The story of the Old Testament is the promise of God to save all peoples of the earth through Abraham and his descendants, and in the New Testament, we see this become a reality as people from all points of the globe become part of God’s multi-ethnic family. So much of the New Testament writings reflect the tension between Jews and Gentiles, and the answer isn’t a colorblind approach that pretends no differences exists or that forces one group to become just like the other, but for different parts of the body to learn to live in unity with one another! This same idea is what is portrayed in beautiful and vivid language in the Book of Revelation:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

(Revelation 7.9-10)

Furthermore, I think “colorblind” perspectives are also problematic because they fall short of loving our neighbors. Part of loving our neighbors is trying to understand them and what it is like to walk in their shoes. It is to sympathize with their struggles and support them in those struggles. I don’t see how we can do that while doggedly insisting that we don’t see color and failing to appreciate the way in which color shapes who we are and what we experience.

On this topic, I found a comment from another friend to be particularly helpful:

As a Native American man, I get nervous when I hear people say they don’t see color. In essence you are saying you don’t see the beauty and diversity of God’s creation. The Psalmist says that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14). The problem is not that we see differences—for God made us all intentionally and unique from one another. The problem arises when we conclude others are lesser because of those differences.

Notice different skin colors.

Observe the beauty of other cultures.

Admire different languages.

Then praise God for His creativity and love.

“…Brown and yellow, black and white – they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Calls For Patience

Sometimes, well-meaning but truly oblivious people wonder why there is such an urgency to deal with this now. Why all the protests? Why the frustration? Why the violence? Instead, the suggestion is made, wouldn’t it be preferable to be patient and work for the change that you want to see?

Well, I certainly don’t approve of violence, but I wonder, just how patient can you expect people to be?

At times, it seems to me that we (as a society) ask African Americans to have superhuman amounts of forgiveness and patience: forgiveness for the inhumane ways they have been treated in the past (and continue to be treated), and patience as they wait for things to get better. Not only is this unfair, it is also highly ironic, considering the fact that, historically in the US, African Americans have been treated as subhuman. This is an undeniable fact, from the practice of slavery, to the 3/5 Compromise, to the practice of segregation, and more.

The following words from Langston Hughes touch on this, and are both prophetic and haunting:

Negroes
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!

Wind
In the cotton fields,
Gentle breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

The reality is that it has been far too long, and we are reaping the consequences of that reality.

The Solution to the Problem

I don’t actually think that the problem of racism will be solved until Jesus returns, because ultimately, it is one of the many consequences of sin that plagues the broken world in which we live. That does not mean that I think we should do nothing about it and just wait until Jesus returns to sort it all out. On the contrary, I think the sin in my own life will continue to be a problem until I die or until Jesus returns, but identifying that sin and repenting of it is a major concern of mine!

So, to be clear, I am in favor of efforts to root out racism and bring about reconciliation and equality in our society. It is my hope that recents events will lead to change in that direction.

Having said that, as a Christian,  I don’t believe that the primary way in which I am called to change the world is through the political process. Rather, it is being salt and light, living as a citizen of God’s kingdom, and being an agent of new creation in an old and dying world. This may sound naive (“Christians have excused and supported racism in all sorts of ways over the years!”), but I don’t think this is naive at all: if each and every person in the world who names Jesus as Lord actually lived according to the kingdom principles Jesus established, then the world would be radically different.

Ultimately, this will be the solution to racism. When Jesus returns, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then racism and every other form of sin will be a thing of the past. In the meantime, the best thing I can do is to allow God’s Spirit to transform my life and bring it in line with the character of Christ.

If all Christians, by God’s grace, were to do that, imagine the leavening influence that could have in our families…and our churches…and our communities…and our world.

Lord, have mercy. And come quickly.


Additional Resources to Consider:

“Racial Turmoil in America: A Biblical Response”

“A Christian Response to George Floyd’s Death in Minnesota”

The Christian Response to a Broken World

Over the weekend, my family and I passed the 50-day milestone of our COVID-19-inspired home isolation. I have tried to view this as an opportunity for growth, and there have certainly been some benefits to this season, but like the vast majority of folks, I acknowledge its challenges and am ready to move on to something else.

There is no denying that this is a rough time all around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and millions have contracted COVID-19. Financial uncertainty is widespread, as millions have lost their jobs.  The quarantine directives have been particularly devastating in parts of the world with food insecurities where starvation is a legitimate threat. Closer to home, financial stress and sheltering-in-place have created a volatile mix that, according to some reports, has led to a spike in abuse, mental health issues, and suicide.



In light of what is literally a worldwide crisis, you would like to think that perhaps this shared experience could bring us together somewhat—unify us in a time of need as we all pull together to jointly overcome. To be sure, that has happened to a degree, but louder, shriller voices continue to sow discord and division, placing blame along party lines and even promoting wild conspiracy theories.

From my perspective, the response to these events from a lot of Christians has been pretty disappointing as well. Too often, we are quick to speak and slow to listen instead of the other way around (see James 1.19), and when we react in that way, we can often add fuel to the fires of heartache, division, and confusion that are already waging.

The reality is that we live in a broken world marred by lots of problems. As Christians living in this context, how should we respond when tragedy occurs? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are three responses that I believe are helpful in the face of tragedy:

(1) In response to a broken world, Christians should lament. Perhaps our most basic response to suffering is that we should weep with those who weep (Romans 12.15). That seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but recently, instead of this, I have seen Christians telling those who weep that what they weep about isn’t really a big deal or worth weeping about at all! When the world gives us evidence of its brokenness, we should acknowledge that brokenness, allow ourselves feel distress, and bring that distress before God. It has become popular, in some circles, to criticize prayer as a response to horrible tragedy, but as Christians, we should take no note of such dismissals. Christians believe that God is ultimately sovereign over the universe, and thus, He is the one who can do something about the brokenness in our world. It is absolutely appropriate that we bring out laments before our Father, as we yearn for a day when He will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21.4).

(2) In response to a broken world, Christians should aid the suffering. I think part of the reason that a lot of people are critical of prayer is that they feel that this is all that Christians do. And perhaps that can be a fair criticism at times, because God certainly expects us to accompany our prayers with righteous actions. Philip Yancey says that the church forms the front line of God’s response to the suffering world, and I think he is right: Christians have a responsibility to get into the mess of the world and try to do something to clean it up. That is probably accomplished less by questioning the statistics that are released, distrusting the media, or berating government officials, and more by being present with those who suffer, and looking for ways to aid those who are in need: offering a shoulder to cry on (even a socially-distant one!) for the grieving, a card or phone call for the lonely, a bag of groceries or a check in the mail for those with financial needs.[1]

(3) In response to a broken world, Christians should proclaim Jesus. Too often, this part is neglected. In John 16.33, Jesus was speaking to His disciples on the night of His arrest and He said simply, “In this world you will have tribulation.” Though not spoken directly to us, those words certainly apply to us as well; as recent and ongoing events remind us, we live in the same world, a world which was created good but has been tainted by sin and is now characterized by heartache. As Christians, we weep with those who weep, we do what we can to help those who are suffering, but we also remember the second half of John 16.33: “In this world you will have tribulation…but take courage, I have overcome the world!” As Christians, we also proclaim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that sin, illness, suffering, strife, injustice, and death do not get the last word. As Christians, we long for the day when Jesus returns, when death dies, and when every tear is wiped away from our eyes.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I am certain that more could be said. At the same time, I am equally certain that if Christians everywhere would respond to suffering and tragedy in our world in these ways, the Christian witness would be strengthened, the suffering of people would be limited, and the borders of God’s Kingdom would be expanded.

This is an updated version of an older post


[1]If you have been blessed with financial means and would like to share with those who are in need, please contact me. I am working to help some ministers in impoverished areas who are providing food for vulnerable populations who are at risk of literally starving, and I would be happy to help your gift get to a place where it could accomplish much good.

Self-Denial in a Self-Discovery World

One of the advantages of being a youth minister is that I have the opportunity to read and hear a lot of good teaching from a variety of different sources. Some of these are basically available to anyone (books, sermons, podcasts), while others I gain access to by traveling to different youth events and hearing gifted and thoughtful speakers.

A while back, I was blessed to listen to my friend Shannon Cooper, who made the point that we live in a society that is obsessed with self-discovery: for many, the central goal of life is to “find out who we are” so we can “be true to ourselves.” Self-help books constitute a lucrative industry. Discussions related to sexual and gender identity become issues of the utmost importance. We seek to define ourselves by our hobbies, or the music we listen to, or our peer groups.

There is a problem with this, though: self-discovery leaves us with no point of reference beyond ourselves. Fundamentally, it is limited, subjective, and, ultimately…selfish.

It is also not Christian. A more Christian way of thinking about identity is not based on self-discovery, but on self-denial and the imitation of Jesus.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

(Matthew 10.38-39)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

(Matthew 16.24)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 11.1)

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

As Christians, we cannot force our worldview on nonbelievers (nor should we try to), but we should certainly hold ourselves and one another to that worldview. And the way of Christ is not about finding purpose and meaning through discovering “who we really are,” which is another way of saying “doing what we want to do.” Rather, it is about denying the urge to do what we want to do and instead to prioritize what Jesus wants us to do in partnering in His work to reconcile the world to Himself. This is where purpose and meaning is found.

Jeroboam and the Lure of Political Power

The Story of Jeroboam

Jeroboam is one of the Bible’s incredibly tragic characters. He was a man who God granted an amazing opportunity, and he squandered it away. 

Jeroboam’s story begins with King Solomon, who himself was a tragic character: a man who was given wisdom, power, and great wealth by God, but who turned away from God and began to worship other gods (1 Kings 11.1-8). Because of this, God ultimately determines to divide the kingdom of Israel in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. Rehoboam remains king over two tribes in the south (creating the Southern Kingdom of Judah), while Jeroboam is established as king over the remaining ten tribes (creating the Northern Kingdom of Israel).

The story is absolutely clear that God, in His grace, has offered a covenant agreement to Jeroboam: God will bless him, make him king over Israel, and give Him all that he desires if he will listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways like David did. And moreover, God promises to build Jeroboam a house or a dynasty like He did for David. 

Jeroboam’s rise to power was the work of God’s providential hand, and Jeroboam knew this. And yet, as soon as he sits down on the throne, Jeroboam’s thinking seems to shift from providential to pragmatic: the question Jeroboam asks himself is, “What do I need to do to stay in power?” 

Ironically, Jeroboam already had the answer—God had told him he simply needed to listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways as David did, but Jeroboam ignores that answer and pursues his own plans instead.

After some initial efforts to fortify some of his cities, Jeroboam makes his big mistake. He reasons that if the citizens of the Northern Kingdom return to the Jerusalem Temple (in the Southern Kingdom) to offer sacrifices as they are supposed to, it will draw their hearts back to Rehoboam king of Judah, and then they won’t want to follow Jeroboam anymore, and will overthrow him and return to Rehoboam and Judah. So Jeroboam gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea, and he makes two golden calves; he sets one up in Dan and another in Bethel, representing the northern and southern borders of the territory of the Northern Kingdom.

Scholars debate whether Jeroboam is trying to get the Israelites to worship another god by doing this, or, rather, if he is simply introducing an innovation in the way in which they worship Jehovah/Yahweh. I tend to think it is the latter, but calves are so closely related with Canaanite pagan religion that it is hard to be sure.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Even if Jeroboam was not setting up worship of a new god (and thus not violating the first commandment),  he was still guilty of creating an image to serve as a symbol of God (which violates the second commandment). So at the very least, he perverted the worship of the true God. Jeroboam’s disregard for the religious statues that God had set up did not stop there, as he also created alternate worship sites on high places at Dan and Bethel, put in place non-Levitical priests, and instituted his own feast day. These actions broke God’s commandments, and also revealed Jeroboam’s feelings that civil matters were more important than religious conviction.

Jeroboam has not been on the throne for long, but already he has dramatically departed from God’s instruction to walk in all His ways as David did. Instead, Jeroboam seems to have forgotten Who placed him on the throne in the first place, and rather than obey the real Power behind the throne, takes matters into his own hands to secure his position by his own power.

In 1 Kings 13, a prophet comes from God and condemns what Jeroboam has done, also predicting that judgment will come upon him because of it:

O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.” And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: ‘Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’”

(1 Kings 13.2-3)

Not surprisingly, Jeroboam isn’t a big fan of this message and stretches out his hand: “Seize him!” But as soon as this happens, his hand “dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself” (1 Kings 13.4). Ironically, in this very act, Jeroboam actually gives credibility to the prophecy—clearly, there is some power behind it because Jeroboam’s hand shrivels up, and furthermore, the altar was torn down as the prophecy said. Jeroboam asks the prophet to entreat God for him that his hand might be restored, and the prophet does so, and Jeroboam is healed.

Jeroboam is probably grateful to the man of God for his healing, and invites him to dine with him, but the prophet refuses because God had commanded him to return directly after his mission was completed. It is possible that dining with the king would have made the prophet appear to approve of the religious apostasy that Jeroboam was promoting.

Here, the narrative takes leave of Jeroboam and follows the young prophet and his strange interaction with an old prophet from Bethel. Since our focus is on Jeroboam we won’t dwell on this, but it is a tragic story of the young prophet from Judah being deceived by the older prophet from Israel, disobeying God, and dying as a result. This may seem like strange information to include in an extended narrative on the reign of Jeroboam, but it reinforces the idea that God expects to be obeyed, and severe consequences fall upon those who refuse to do so.

Regardless of this cautionary tale, 1 Kings 13 ends by saying:

After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.

(1 Kings 13.33-34)

So this story also shows us that Jeroboam remains unrepentant—he is determined to continue his disobedience to God. 

The rest of Jeroboam’s reign isn’t very happy. His son grows sick, and when he enquires of a prophet of God to determine if his sone will recover, he learns that not only will his son die, but because Jeroboam had incited the wrath of heaven by leading the Northern Kingdom into idolatry instead of being faithful to the covenant God had offered him, judgment had been pronounced not just on Jeroboam, but on every male from his house—the line of Jeroboam will be wiped out.

We also know that he was a man of war, and that he warred constantly with Rehoboam, and also fought against Rehoboam’s son, Abijam/Abijah and was defeated by him (2 Chronicles 13) and never recovered the level of power he had previously had. 

And that is basically what we know about Jeroboam.

Sacrificing Principle for Political Gain

Jeroboam is one of the truly tragic characters of Scripture. His legacy is that he is the man who “made Israel to sin”—this lamentable epitaph is mentioned over 20 times in Scripture, and his sinfulness really summarizes the entire period of the Divided Kingdom. I think there are a lot of things we can learn from the sad story of Jeroboam, but I want to focus on just one that I believe is particularly relevant for a lot of people today.

Jeroboam’s blessing, security, and power rested in his obedience to God. Instead of trusting in God, however, he chose to do the pragmatic thing. He made religious changes for political reasons, thinking that this would ensure his longevity as king. Instead, it led to the downfall of his kingdom. Jeroboam’s power and position rested on his faithfulness, not his politics. 

If there is a lesson that I think American Christians need to hear in 2019—a time of rampant political division and rabid political devotion—it might be this one: political power is not the means by which Christians are called to change the world. 

As most of my readers know, I am a part of Churches of Christ, which find historical roots in the American Restoration Movement. Our heritage has an interesting and diverse relationship with politics. Some Restorationist voices were highly involved in politics: Alexander Campbell, one of the key early leaders in the movement, served as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-30. James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, was a Restoration Movement preacher. 

Others had a much different view of politics. David Lipscomb, the longtime Gospel Advocate editor and a major leader in Churches of Christ in the decades following the Civil War, was avowedly apolitical. He was a pacifist who didn’t think Christians should serve in the military or even vote. J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, was strongly influenced by Lipscomb and had similar views.

I take this brief historical detour as a way of saying that I think that, in the spirit of Romans 14, the Christian’s relationship to politics is one of those areas where we are to do our best to follow the teachings and ethics of Jesus and be careful not to judge the scruples of others. 

Having said that, when it comes to politics, let us never sacrifice principle for political expediency.

In the crisis of the moment, it might seem like a good thing to do, but as Jeroboam learned, it never pays off. I think Jeroboam’s disobedience was largely motivated by fear—he was afraid of what would happen if he let the people go to Judah to worship, so out of his fear, he made a politically expedient decision. 

We live in an environment where political fervor always seems to be at a fever pitch. If we aren’t focused on a current or coming election, we are enamored with the latest political scandal or partisan feud.

In the last Presidential election, I heard a lot of fear from Christians (regardless of their political views) about what was going to happen. Speaking for myself (again, in the spirit of Romans 14, I am not placing judgment on those who disagree), I found myself unable to vote for either major party candidate. Both candidates had been in the public eye for a long time, and I knew plenty about the kind of people they were and the sort of character they had, and I didn’t feel like I could vote for either one. What really bothered me, though, was how often I was told or read from other Christians who supported one candidate or the other (because I got this from both sides of the aisle), that I basically needed to ignore my principles and vote for the “lesser of two evils” (whoever that may have been depending on the person I was talking to at the time), with the implication being that if I didn’t, our next President would likely bring about the end of the world.

You know, I don’t care who you vote for, but it does bother me:

  • When Christians encourage others to choose the lesser evil…because we aren’t supposed to choose evil in greater or lesser varieties!
  • When Christians encourage others to ignore their principles…because we aren’t supposed to ignore our principles!
  • When Christians suggest that the future hinges upon some human ruler…because God is the one who is in charge! When Pharaoh ruled the world, God freed His people from Egypt! When Nebuchadnezzar ruled the world, God saved three Hebrew teenagers from a fiery death! When Nero ruled the world, God orchestrated the greatest growth in the history of the church!

It is up to you to choose what your relationship with politics will be, and in my personal opinion, our political voice is an opportunity that we have to glorify God. However, let us never make the mistake of thinking that political power is the means by which Christians are called to change the world, or that it is acceptable for us to sacrifice our principles for the sake of political expediency.

The lure of political power is strong, and it can easily deceive us into thinking that the ends justify the means. But as Jeroboam learned, they do not. 

Gifts & Contentment: A Thanksgiving Message from Ecclesiastes

This is an adapted version of a sermon a preached this past Sunday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. I enjoy spending time with family, and I enjoy the good food that you get to eat at Thanksgiving. I’m also a big fan of Christmas, and to me, Thanksgiving always kicks off the Christmas season, so I like that about it too.

But most of all, as a Christian and a minister, I really appreciate that we have this time built into our yearly rhythm where we are encouraged to stop, reflect, and give thanks for what we have. That is an incredibly biblical thing to do. Thanksgiving is the basic response that God’s people should have in light of what God has done, and although this may be something that we lose sight of at times, this holiday, anchored on our calendars, helps remind us of this action which is central to our lives as followers of Jesus.

This particular Thanksgiving meditation comes from a somewhat unusual source: the Book of Ecclesiastes. I say “somewhat unusual” because the Book of Ecclesiastes is not something we focus on too much. Many people have a quotation from Ecclesiastes that they like, but they don’t really study the book in detail. A big part of this, I think, is that a lot of people think that the Book of Ecclesiastes is really depressing! Many people (including biblical scholars) suggest that Ecclesiastes has a very pessimistic view on life.

I disagree with that, though; I don’t think Ecclesiastes is pessimistic, I just think that it is very realistic. My wife would laugh to hear me say this, because all the time she tells me that I am a pessimist, and I disagree and say that I am a realist. I am just very aware that the world is broken, that people are deeply flawed, that we tend to get let down a lot, and that there is a lot of disappointment in life. I don’t always walk around with a scowl on my face or imagine the worst possible outcome of every situation, but I acknowledge that there are a lot of things that happen in life that are out of our control, that we don’t understand, and that we wish didn’t happen. And I think that is exactly how the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the world. I love Ecclesiastes.

And in this very realistic book, I think we are given a great perspective on Thanksgiving.

Real Talk About Money

I want to look specifically at the last half of Ecclesiastes 5, but to give a little bit of context, Ecclesiastes starts off with the author (who calls himself the Teacher or Preacher depending on your translation) saying that life is vanity, like chasing after the wind. And what he means by this is not that life has no meaning, but that life is brief and it’s hard to grasp, both literally and metaphorically—we don’t get to determine how long our lives are, and there are things about life that we simply can’t understand. It’s like trying to catch the wind or smoke.

And then the Teacher talks about all of these things in life that he sought after to find meaning, and he says that none of it lasts. We could say more, but that’s sufficient to give us an idea of what is going on in Ecclesiastes. Picking up in Ecclesiastes 5.10-17:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

The Teacher begins by talking about money, and he has some important things to say about it. The harshest feedback I ever got from a sermon came once when I preached about money, but here’s the deal: the Bible talks about money all the time! The Law of Moses discusses it in detail, it is addressed repeatedly in wisdom literature (like Ecclesiastes), the prophets deal with the (mis)use of money, Jesus talks about it frequently, etc. If we want to be biblical, we will talk about money a lot—not because we worship it, but because we want to make sure that we don’t!

From earlier chapters in Ecclesiastes, we know that the Teacher was incredibly wealthy. He knew all about what money could buy, and he said it was vanity—vapor, smoke. It doesn’t last, and therefore doesn’t provide real significance. Here he goes on to list some of the problems that can come with money: addiction (v.10), it attracts the greedy (v.11), it promotes worry and lack of sleep (v.12), it leads to hoarding (v.13), it can easily be lost (v.14), and it cannot follow us after death (vv.15-17).[1]

Here I am, thinking that things would be a lot better if I just made a little bit more, but the Teacher doesn’t seem to agree. What a downer!

I should be clear here that money is not inherently a bad thing, but Scripture has a lot to say about wealth that should make us very careful in how we view it. Money can very easily become bad for us. It can compete with God for our devotion, twist our hearts, and destroy our lives.

To combat that, we should consider our money and indeed, all of our material possessions, as being a loan from God. All that we have belongs to God, but He gives us our possessions so that we can use them for His glory. Therefore, we should take care of our money and be good stewards of it, but we should always remember that it isn’t really ours. This perspective will help us to not get too attached to our money, and also to look for ways we can use it which will glorify God.

Everything Is A Gift

If this sounds pessimistic (first, it’s not; it’s realistic!), keep reading in Ecclesiastes 5.18-20:

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. 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. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5 ends with a summary statement emphasizing the importance of enjoying the blessings that God has given us (cf. Ecclesiastes 2.24-26).

Work is a good thing; we were created to be workers. When God created Adam, He placed him in the garden and told him to tend and cultivate it. From the beginning, we were intended to be workers. Think about those who are disabled and cannot work, or those who need jobs to provide for their families but can’t find them; those are unfortunate situations. If you are able to work and have a job, that is a blessing. If you enjoy your work and enjoy the people you work with, that is an even greater blessing.

In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher doesn’t understand everything about life (and if you go through the book, he is very clear about the parts of life that don’t make sense to him), but he does know that work, food, and family are blessings—gifts—from the Lord and should be enjoyed as such.[2] It is incredibly important that we view these things as gifts rather than achievements; if we do so, it completely changes our perspective.

Gifts are not something that we deserve. They are something that we receive because of the gracious nature of the giver. When you think about things in terms of gifts, it really changes your perspective. And here’s the secret, according to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: everything is a gift! Life—as confusing as it is, as filled with heartache as it can be—is a gift. Work is a gift. Our food, our families…all of it: gift. If we look at the things that we have as gifts, it changes everything.

These are blessings God bestows on us to enjoy, not objectives for us to obsessively strive after. There is a lot of joy to be found in living a simple life that is satisfied with meaningful work, sufficient food, and edifying relationships.[3]

Content No Matter What?

This is all tied very closely to the idea of contentment, and if you’ll allow me, I want to jump to the New Testament for a minute to say a few words about that idea.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a favorite for a lot of people; it is one of his more positive letters, despite the fact that he wrote it from prison. He begins it by sharing his thankfulness for the Christians at Philippi. As Paul contemplates the possibility of his impending execution, He speaks of his great concern for spreading the Gospel and how Christ is at the very center of his work and identity regardless of what happens to him. He talks about the humility of Jesus and how He serves as an example to us, how as followers of Christ we are to be lights in the world and seek the standard of Jesus.

And then as Paul is closing the letter and encouraging the Philippian Christians, he says this in 4.10-13:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

I think contentment is less about what you have and more about your attitude of thankfulness toward what you have. Paul says that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance he finds himself. That confirms to me that contentment is an internal quality rather than an external one; it does not depend on what is going on around us. Paul had a lot of difficulty in his life (he was beaten, imprisoned, scourged, left for dead, shipwrecked, etc.), but he was able to find contentment regardless.

This also helps us better understand what Paul means in his famous “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” quote. This verse gets taken out of context and abused a lot, but Paul isn’t talking here about passing an algebra test or getting a job promotion or winning a basketball game. Instead, what he means is that Jesus Christ empowers him to find contentment in all situations.

And to me (and to tie this back to Ecclesiastes), one of the simplest and most powerful ways of finding contentment in all situations is to remember that our blessings are a gift from God.

Our world is filled with people who are chasing after the standards and achievements of the world in some obsessive quest for significance. As Christians, though, we are not to live lives of hopeless desperation; we find our significance and our meaning in the God who gives us all things. Our identity and purpose is not based on achievement; it is based on gift from our Creator.

And that is a cause for great Thanksgiving.


[1]See Chad Landman, Wisdom for Life: 6 Weeks in Ecclesiastes (Hashtag Media, 2013), 18.

[2]Phillip McMillion, Wisdom Literature Class Lecture Notes (Memphis: Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Fall 2010).

[3]William P. Brown, Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 136.

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