Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Sermon Joel Osteen Would Never Preach... by J.I. Packer

Dear Joel:

 I watch your television broadcast regularly. I like that you give people hope. In fact, sometimes I even feel a bit uplifted after hearing you speak. Life can be so overwhelming at times. There is so much pain and suffering. That you inspire people to keep going on despite hardship challenges me likewise to have that sort of impact on people. For that influence, I'm grateful.  

I came across this section from J.I. Packer's book, Knowing God (pages 93-97). I thought of you as I read it. I read this particular section almost fifteen years ago, and I've never forgotten it. I'd simply like to know how you would square your consistent preached messages of positive thinking and hope with the positive thinking and hope that J.I. Packer  presents. I don't mean that sarcastically at all. I really do think that what's expressed below is a different message of hope than you are expressing weekly.  

`Ecclesiastes' (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew title, Qoheleth) means simply `the preacher'; and the book is a sermon, with a text ('vanity of vanities ...' 1:2; 12:8), an exposition of its theme (chaps. 1—10), and an application (chaps. 11-12:7). Much of the exposition is autobiographical. Qoheleth identifies himself as `the son of David, king in - Jerusalem' (1:1). Whether this means that Solomon himself was the preacher, or that the preacher put his sermon into Solomon's mouth as a didactic device, as scholars so conservative as Hengstenberg and E. J. Young have argued, need not concern us. The sermon is certainly Solomonic in the sense that it teaches lessons which Solomon had unique opportunities to learn.

`Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.' In what spirit, and for what purpose, does the preacher announce this text? Is it the confession of an embittered cynic, `a selfish and callous old man of the world who found at the end nothing but a dire disillusionment' (W. H. Elliot), now seeking to share with us his sense of the cheapness and nastiness of life? Or is he speaking as an evangelist, trying to bring home to the unbeliever the impossibility of finding happiness `under the sun' apart from God? The answer is neither, though the second suggestion is not so wide of the mark as the first.

The author speaks as a mature teacher giving a young disciple the fruits of his own long experience and reflection (11:9; 12:1,12). He wants to lead this young believer into true wisdom, and to keep him from falling into the `York-signal-box' mistake. Apparently the young man (like many since) was inclined to equate wisdom with wide knowledge, and to suppose that one gains wisdom simply by assiduous bookwork (12:12). Clearly, he took it for granted that wisdom, when he gained it, would tell him the reasons for God's various doings in the ordinary course of providence. What the preacher wants to show him is that the real basis of wisdom is a frank acknowledgment that this world's course is enigmatic, that much of what happens is quite inexplicable to us, and that most occurrences `under the sun' bear no outward sign of a rational, moral God ordering them at all. As the sermon itself shows, the text is intended as a warning against the misconceived quest for understanding: for it states the despairing conclusion to which this quest, if honestly and realistically pursued, must at length lead. We may formulate the message of the sermon as follows:

Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in. Take off your rose-coloured spectacles, rub your eyes, and look at it long and hard. What- do you see? You see life's background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature (1:4 ff.). You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control (3: 1 ff.; 9:11 f.). You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to good or ill desert (7:15; 8:8). Men die like beasts (3: 19 f.), good men like bad, wise men like fools (2:14, 17; 9:2 f.). You see evil running rampant (3:16; 4:1; 5:8; 8:11; 9:3); rotters get on, good men don't (8:14). Seeing all this, you realise that God's ordering of events is inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so (3:11; 7:13£ ; 8:17 RV; 11:5). The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.

But once you conclude that there really is no rhyme or reason in things, what `profit' —value, gain, point, purpose — can you find henceforth in any sort of constructive endeavour? (1:3; 2:11, 22; 3:9; 5:16). If life is senseless, then it is valueless; and in that case, what use is it working to create things, to build a business, to make money, even to seek wisdom —for none of this can do you any obvious good (2:15 f., 22 f.; 5:11); it will only make you an object of envy (4:4); you can't take any of it with you (2: 18 ff.; 4:8; 5:15 f.); and what you leave behind will probably be mismanaged after you have gone (2:19). What point is there, then, in sweating and toiling at anything? Must not all man's work be judged `vanity (emptiness, frustration) and a striving after wind' (1:14 RV)?-activity that we cannot justify as being either significant in itself or worth while to us ? It is to this pessimistic conclusion, says the preacher, that optimistic expectations of finding the divine purpose of everything will ultimately lead you (cf. 1:17 f.). And of course he is right. For the world we live in is in fact the sort of place that he has described. The God who rules it hides Himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it at all. Often and often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes. Be realistic, says the preacher; face these facts; see life as it is. You will have no true wisdom till you do.

Many of us need this admonition. For not only are we caught up with the `York-signal-box' conception, or misconception, of what wisdom is; we feel that, for the honour of God (and also, though we do not say this, for the sake of our own reputation as spiritual Christians), it is necessary for us to claim that we are, so to speak, already in the signal-box, here and now enjoying inside information as to the why and wherefore of God's doings. This comforting pretence becomes part of us: we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all His ways with us and our circle thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future. And then something very painful and quite inexplicable comes along, and our cheerful illusion of being in God's secret councils is shattered. Our pride is wounded; we feel that God has slighted us; and unless at this point we repent, and humble ourselves very thoroughly for our former presumption, our whole subsequent spiritual life may be blighted.

Among the seven deadly sins of medieval lore was sloth (accidie)—a state of hard-bitten, joyless apathy of spirit. There is a lot of it around today in Christian circles; the symptoms are personal spiritual inertia combined with critical cynicism about the churches and supercilious resentment of other Christians' initiative and enterprise. Behind this morbid and deadening condition often lies the wounded pride of one who thought he knew all about the ways of God in providence and then was made to learn by bitter and bewildering experience that he didn't. This is what happens when we do not heed the message of Ecclesiastes. For the truth is that God in His wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which He is working out in the churches and in our own lives. `As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all' (11:5 RV).

But what, in that case, is wisdom? The preacher has helped us to see what it is not; does he give us any guidance as to what it is? Indeed he does, in outline at any rate. `Fear God, and keep his commandments' (12:13); trust and obey Him, reverence Him, worship Him, be humble before Him, and never say more than you mean and will stand to when you pray to Him (5: 1-7); do good (3:12); remember that God will some day take account of you (ii :9; 12:14), so eschew, even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light at God's assizes (12:14). Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly (7:14; 9:7 if; 11:9 f.);present pleasures are God's good gifts. Though Ecclesiastes condemns flippancy (cf. 7:4-6), he clearly has no time for the super-spirituality which is too proud, or `pi', ever to laugh and have fun. Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do (9:10), and enjoy your work as you do it (2:24; 3:12 f.; 5:18 f£; 8:15). Leave to God its issues; let Him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you (11:1-6).

This is the way of wisdom. Clearly, it is just one facet of the life of faith. For what underlies and sustains it? Why, the conviction that the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption. We can be sure that the God who made this marvellously complex world-order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what He is doing, and `doeth all things well', even if for the moment He hides His hand. We can trust Him and rejoice in Him, even when we cannot discern His path. Thus the preacher's way of wisdom boils down to what was expressed by Richard Baxter:

Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing.
Take what He gives,
And praise Him still Through good and ill Who ever lives.


Ken said...

Excellent summary of the book of Ecclesiastes - thanks James, for the reminder of this.

". . . sloth (accidie)—a state of hard-bitten, joyless apathy of spirit. There is a lot of it around today in Christian circles; the symptoms are personal spiritual inertia combined with critical cynicism about the churches and supercilious resentment of other Christians' initiative and enterprise. "

This description of sloth and cynicism and apathy and bitterness sounds a lot like atheists who claim to be former Christians and some westerners who converted to Islam, and also claim to be former Christians; and former followers of the Osteen and Word of Faith Copeland/Hagan/Creflo Dollar property heresy.

It was a great description of their attitude.

James Swan said...

Thanks Ken.

I first read this section from Packer some years ago, and never forgot it.

Recently I spoke with someone who in a study group using Packer's book. None of them seemed to recall this section.

I think it was one of the most profound short explanations of Ecclesiastes I've ever read.

Ken said...

Do you know what Packer means by the "York signal-box" in this context?

I googled it and it seems to be the controlling box in the 1950s for railroads in York, England; but I am still wondering how he is applying that to his subject here; of being already in the signal box and having inside information - is he saying Christians think we know all the answers to everything, and therefore "control" things, like the "signal box" ??

James Swan said...

Hi Ken-

If you Google J.I. Packer and York signal box, you'll find some explanations.

The analogy comes from pages 91-92 in my 1973 edition. The basic gist is that people seems to think that the more they learn about God, the more one will have insight into God's providence in regard to the things going on around them. He explains that the York signal box shows a good portion of the train tracks and where the trains are currently, and where they are going. This of course is a fallacy.

Ken said...

Thanks James,
I need to read Knowing God all over again, more carefully. I now see that explanation a few pages earlier in the book, a few pages before the Ecclesiastes section.

I did not notice that the first time I read it.

This is one of the few really good books that has been translated well into Farsi, so I am enjoying learning more also as I study it in Farsi.