This year's Bible study is slightly different, in that it covers three books of the Bible; Ecclesiastes, Philippians, and James, instead of just one. I went once again to the same source for our study material, a church in the greater Philadelphia region, New Life Glenside, which shares the studies written by its Women's Ministry on its website.
We began by slogging through the book of Ecclesiastes, which felt at times as if we were wading hip-deep through mud. The meaninglessness of life outside of Christ is the focus of this book, and those of us who have been Christians for a number of years may have forgotten what that actually feels like. In fact, reading the thoughts of the Preacher, (Whoever he may be— likely not Solomon as was traditionally thought, but someone else writing in the style of Solomon many years later when the nation of Israel had experienced wars, famines, the oppression of dishonest kings, and exile, which Solomon himself never witnessed.) was not only depressing, but our initial reactions were to dismiss the book as unworthy of inclusion in a study on life in Christ!
And yet, as he rambled on in his negative fashion, we had to admit that what he said was absolutely true of reality. Life is hard, it is "unfair", there are injustices all around us and tragedy seems to wait around every corner. Anyone who watches the News must agree, the author of Ecclesiastes is painting a true picture of the reality of life in this fallen world. Outside of Christ, all of life is meaningless, hopeless, and a chasing after the wind. Life lived "under the sun" does not make sense, and we cannot see what God is doing.
But now our study brings us to the book of Philippians, wherein we find the hope which was missing from Ecclesiastes. Paul, from the chains of bondage in a Roman prison, a truly fearsome circumstance, writes of his unbound joy in Christ and his love and hopes for the Philippian church. He looks at his chains and sees not hopelessness, but an unparalleled opportunity to share the Gospel of our Lord with the Imperial Guard. His joy is planted in deeper soil than any earthly circumstance can reach. In the Introduction to his commentary on the book of Philippians, James M. Boice writes,
"The letter to the Philippians is one of the most joyous books in the Bible. All the way through the letter Paul speaks of inner joy, of inner happiness— sixteen times in four brief chapters. And he does it in such an artless way we know that the one who advised the Philippians to "rejoice in the Lord always" had himself found the true source of joy. He had not only learned in whatever state he was to be content; he had learned to rejoice in whatever state he was, He overflowed with rejoicing." James Montgomery Boice, Philippians, An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1971), 12
O, how I need to hear this. Now, I'm not sitting in prison, chained to a burly guard, with the possibility of execution awaiting me. Our personal circumstance aren't quite that dire. Yet, we are still facing my husband's continued unemployment in an economy that has contracted and is hopeless in light of reality. The difference in degree between my situation and Paul's is not where I find contentment or rest. To suggest that would be to diminish the truth of personal suffering in anyone's circumstances. The trials we each face are personal, real, and painful, regardless of the nature of the situation. To deny the reality of pain is to deny the magnitude of God's grace.
I had the opportunity to share the reality of our situation, and the magnitude of God's grace extended to us, at our homeschool group last week when the Moms took the devotional time to share "Cardboard Testimonies". Here's what I shared:
(Our reality "under the sun":)
Two and a half years of unemployment
The bill collectors are literally knocking on the door.
Tempted to Despair...
(Our reality in Christ:)
I Know that GOD works
for my GOOD!
"I count everything as loss
because of the
CHRIST JESUS my LORD!"
Though we are yet in the midst of this trial and cannot see the end, we know that God does see it. Not only does He see it, He has decreed it from beginning to end in order to work a greater good in and through us than we ever could have imagined or dreamed for ourselves. Our ideas of "good" certainly differ from what God in His wisdom decrees for us. As our former pastor Rick Phillips says, "I love myself very much and I have a wonderful plan for my life— Happiness!" As he also recently reminded us, we don't ask God to bring good out of a bad situation because He has already decreed that it is good, we simply ask Him to show us the good.
I don't study the Bible because it's filled with nice thoughts to distract myself from painful situations. I study the Bible because it is the Word of God which has the power to change my heart and lift me from the mire of this painful world to glimpse certain realities which cannot otherwise be seen. My deepest need— unfelt yet real nonetheless— was the reconciliation of my sinful self with a Holy God. That need was fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and nothing; no bill collector, no lack of finances, no inability on my part, can take that away. Through God's Word I may not see the particular good for any particular circumstance which I face, but I do see the great good which has been worked for me on the Cross, and in that I rejoice.