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Learning Patience in the School of Providence

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on Jan 19

Ecclesiastes 7:8

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If you would turn with me in your Bibles to Ecclesiastes chapter 7; that can be found on page 556 in the pew Bibles. And the question I want to start with tonight is, “What has God been teaching you lately?” We’re a few weeks into a new year and the end of one year and the beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect and to consider what God has been teaching us or has taught us in the year past from His Word and from our relationships, from the experiences that He has given us in our lives. And it’s good for us to be attentive and to be submissive to what God is doing, to hear His instruction and to follow His guidance no matter how difficult those lessons are to learn. “What is God teaching you?”

My answer to that question is, among many things, “Patience.” God is teaching me patience. And I use that word carefully. He’s teaching me patience because I don’t know how well I’m actually learning patience! But I imagine that most of us could say the same things because patience is learned over a lifetime. So I want to turn us to a passage, to a verse tonight that deals with the topic of patience, wisdom in the area of patience, from the book of Ecclesiastes; Ecclesiastes chapter 7. I want to look at this verse along three points tonight. One is - questions without answers. Two - wisdom without answers. And then three - hope without question. So with that in mind, let me turn us to the Lord in prayer and ask His help as we read and study His Word. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for the wisdom of Scripture. We thank You for the wisdom incarnate, for the Word become flesh, for Jesus Christ who was in every way perfect wisdom and the revelation from God that we might know You, know the way to You, that we might have life and joy. We thank You for Your Spirit and we ask for help now from Your Spirit that we would hear Your Word, understand it, apply it to our lives, live it out in all that we do that we might be wise and godly and praise You. And we pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Ecclesiastes chapter 7, verse 8, says this:

“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

Questions without Answers 

This verse is one among several in Ecclesiastes chapter 7 that is in the form of a proverb. It’s a short saying, it’s easy to remember, and it deals with everyday matters of life, of daily living, of wisdom. And like some of the other proverbs in Ecclesiastes 7, it makes this comparison. It’s a comparison that one thing is better than another thing. And these sayings, these proverbs in Ecclesiastes 7, they’re fairly simple, basic, straightforward, and yet understanding them is not just as simple as plucking them out of the context of the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes. And you see, Ecclesiastes is an enigmatic book. In truth, it is difficult at times to understand. And the writer is experimenting. He’s commenting on life under the sun. In other words, what is life like without the consideration, without the perspective of eternity, if you were just to consider our lives within the bounds of this lifetime, of time and space?

And the writer of Ecclesiastes sets out to examine and to experience under the sun pleasure and relationships and work and money and knowledge. And the refrain that he gives several times in this book is, “meaningless, meaningless,” or “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” It’s a word that means “vapor” or “breath” and he’s referring to the brevity of life, the fragility of life. In fact, the futility of life apart from God. And Ecclesiastes deals head on with the tensions and the frustrations that each of us experience in our lives. And it makes for - because he does that in this book - it makes for a book that has oftentimes more questions than answers. 

And Barry Webb wrote a book several years ago where he was writing about some of the shorter books, the shorter writings in the Old Testament, and he says that according to Jewish tradition, the book of Ecclesiastes came to be connected to the feast of tabernacles or the feast of booths. If you remember that festival, that religious festival from the Old Testament, it was the one in which the people would build booths or huts out of leaves and branches in the common spaces and they would stay in them for a week, and throughout the week as they remembered what life was like in the wilderness. It was one of those festivals that always sounded like a lot of fun, or at least it did when I was younger. They would build these little booths and set them up and stay in them. And it’s remembering life in the wilderness - life between Egypt and the Promised Land. It’s reminding them of the faithfulness of God to His promises and to lead them and direct them during that time in their history. And so the book of Ecclesiastes was read during that feast of tabernacles. 

But how does it fit there? That feast was a joyful feast. How does the book of Ecclesiastes fit into that festival of joy? Well it fits because life in the Promised Land, even in the Promised Land, had a wilderness component. And Webb writes that Ecclesiastes keeps joy anchored in reality by injecting the lessons of the wilderness into the celebration of the harvest. He says this. He says, “For in the wilderness, the Israelites learned about their frailty, their human frailty - that their lives were a mere breath - and to fear God and keep His commandments constituted the whole meaning of their existence.” In other words, even in the Promised Land their lives were fragile and brief and they needed God for everything. And so Ecclesiastes, it addresses the uncertainties of life. It addresses the unanswered questions of life, even in the Promised Land. 

I believe that all of us could say that oftentimes our lives present to us more questions than answers. I heard Sandy Wilson say once that he spoke at a service for graduating seniors and his message to those graduating seniors had two points and one of them was, “You have far more potential than you realize.” Based on your background, your gifts, your education, your opportunities, you have far more potential than you realize. And then he said, number two is, “You know a lot less than you think you do.” And I’m sure that all of us would agree that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did as high school seniors, and if we’re honest, we still don’t know as much as we think we do. And we’re always running into things, aren’t we, that we thought we knew something about until we actually had to test that knowledge.

I remember a friend of mine confessing one time - he was about to be a first time parent, or he had just become a first time parent. And he said that he thought to himself before his child was born, he said, “You know, I’m almost thirty years old, I’ve lived in another country, I’m fluent in another language, I’ve graduated from law school - surely I can handle life with a newborn baby!” And then it almost flattened him; it did him in! And we’re all confronted with questions, aren’t we, that we don’t know the answer to. Questions like, “How do you get a baby to sleep through the night?” Questions like, “How will I make it through junior high? How will I know what to decide on what major to study in college and what will I do with my life? Will I get married or have children? Will my children turn out okay? Will I have enough money to retire? How long will this period of suffering go on in my life? What should I do about the injustices that we see in the world? What will I do if my spouse dies? How will my life end?” 

There are all sorts of things and we don’t know the answer to those questions. In fact, we don’t even know the answer to the most basic question, “What’s going to happen tomorrow?” And James reminds us in James chapter 4, he says, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” We don’t know what tomorrow brings, and so often the way forward seems unclear, it seems muddled, and there are no easy answers. 

Wisdom without Answers

And the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes is our friend in just such a situation as that because he teaches us what wisdom looks like when there are more questions than answers. Just because we don’t know all the answers doesn’t mean that we can’t live with wisdom. And so what is wisdom without all of the answers? If you look back, if you look at chapter 6 of Ecclesiastes, the very last verse, notice the question that he asks. He says, “Who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow?” That’s the question that he asks. And one of the answers to that question is what he gives to us in chapter 7 verse 8. He says, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” And one thing he is saying there is when we don’t know what’s going to happen, the end is better than the beginning. Spurgeon says that many people would take that and say that that’s true about sermons - that the end is better than the beginning!

But what about for the events in our lives? You see, the end of a thing, it’s the end of a thing that reveals to us the will of God. We don’t know what God is going to do in a particular situation until He has done it. I remember hearing a pastor say one time that somebody asked him, he said, “When did you know it was God’s will for you to marry your wife?” And his answer was, “It was when she said, ‘I do.’” It was not until they were married because something could have happened before then that could have prevented them from getting married. So it wasn’t until she actually said, “I do,” that he knew it was God’s will for him. 

We can know God’s will for certain things - not to steal, not to lie; to love God and to love our neighbor. We can know His will in those situations but there are other things we can’t know. We can’t know God’s will for everything. The shorter catechism tells us that “God’s providence is His most holy, wise and powerful, preserving and governing, all His creatures and all their actions.” You see, God rules and He reigns and He guides and He directs everything to His appointed end. Nothing happens outside of God’s control. Nothing happens outside of God’s plan. But as one Puritan writer put it, he said, “The providence of God is like Hebrew. It can only be read backwards.” See, Hebrew is written and read from right to left; it’s, in our mind, it’s backwards. And so God’s providence is that way. It’s read backwards. It’s only by knowing the end of the matter that we can be sure of God’s plan.

That doesn’t mean that we are passive bystanders, that we can’t make decisions. We can. We can still make decisions. We can still take action. In fact, God’s providence actually liberates us in making decisions and it spurs us on to taking action because we can take into account the desires that God has given to us, the ways that He has prepared us, the opportunities that are before us, and we submit our decisions, our actions, everything to God in prayer and in obedience to His Word, and then we trust. We trust Him with our decisions; we trust Him with our actions. We rest in His sovereignty, even when we don’t know all of the details. You see, the providence of God means faith and not fear. 

Recently, we’ve been in our house, we’ve gotten into watching some wilderness survival shows. And you know the likelihood of any of us ever having to build a shelter and survive in a snowbank is probably very, very unlikely! It’s probably not going to happen! But we’re fascinated to know how to do it and to learn how to build a shelter out of a snowbank. And I think there’s something in all of us, there’s something in all of us that goes to, our mind gravitates to the worst case scenario. There’s something about us; we go to that. But what happens when we get to the end of a matter, when we get to the end of a thing? What do we find out? We actually find out that our fears were liars. And our fears tell us to expect the worst case scenario. And yet what does God’s Word tell us? God’s Word tells us that “what man meant for evil, God meant for good.” And that “God works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” I think it was Thomas Watson who said we are to “trust God’s hand when we can’t trace God’s hand.”

Well see, the end of a thing, it lets us be able to look back and trace God’s hand, to trace His designs to see, to see that our fears were liars and to see that God is good and that He has something good for us, even in the difficult situations in our lives. We just sang it a few minutes ago, didn’t we? That great hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” stanza 3 says, “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break with blessings on your head.” When we have questions without answers, when there’s a gap between the familiar and the unknown, there’s a gap between the beginning and the end, we tend to fill that gap with our fears. But it takes wisdom, it takes God’s wisdom to trust His providence and to remember that “better is the end of a thing than the beginning.”

And yet there’s another question we could ask, and that is, “What do we do in the meantime?” What do we do between the beginning and the end? That’s what the second part of verse 8 is teaching to us. It says that it takes wisdom in the meantime, between the beginning and the end, to know that “the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” I started off by saying that I feel that God is teaching me patience. What this verse is teaching us, what this verse shows us, is that when we think we’re learning patience, we’re actually learning something about pride and humility. It’s a much tougher situation than we may have thought because impatience has deep and stubborn roots. It’s more than just needing to wait a little bit longer. It’s more than just needing to be a little bit more understanding or to have an attitude adjustment. No, impatience comes from pride. It’s pride that refuses to be inconvenienced. It’s pride that complains about our current estate. It’s pride that demands our way and in our time. 

One writer has diagnosed many of us as having “hurry sickness.” He says you know that you have “hurry sickness” as if you are approaching a stoplight and there are two cars in front of you in each lane and you look at the year and the make of the two cars to pick which lane you’re going to get in so that you can get out of the stoplight faster. He says you also know you have “hurry sickness” if you’re in the grocery store and you’re looking at all the items in the carts in front of you to pick which line is going to go faster. And that’s one thing, but it’s even worse when you keep an eye on that line that you didn’t pick as you’re going through the line to see if you made the right choice! “Hurry sickness.” We’re guilty of “hurry sickness,” of impatience, of stress and busyness. 

But that’s more than just a desire for order and efficiency. It’s actually pride. And pride is at the root of all sin. Pride is dangerous. And so learning patience, becoming more patient means nothing less than putting pride to death and cultivating a heart of humility. It means preaching the Gospel to ourselves every day that we are much worse than we thought we were and we are much more blessed than we could ever imagine. It means cultivating humility, putting pride to death. 

I think that means at least four things. It means repentance. That we are putting ourselves in a posture of humility before God and confessing our own sinfulness and unworthiness before Him. It also means gratitude. That we are remembering, calling to mind the blessings of God, especially those blessings that are ours in Christ Jesus, and being content with what God has given us in the moment. It also means generosity. That we are looking out for the needs of others; that we are attuned to what others need and we are ready to give up our time, we’re ready to give up our resources to help those who need it. And I think it also means that we are ready to ask for humility, that we ask God, we look to Him, we depend upon Him for His help; that by His work and the work of the Holy Spirit that He would provide humility and patience in our lives. 

See, pride is in a hurry and it wants things done our way. But patience, patience waits for God’s timing and it trusts that God’s way is the best way. Patience means viewing difficult people not as a problem, not as a nuisance, not as an interference to our plans, but as actually having a role in God’s plan for us and in God’s plan for them. We don’t look at others as a problem to solve but as a relationship to nurture. We don’t look to them as what they owe us, but what we can actually give to them. Patience means using our time and our money, our resources, food and drink, not to waste or to try to get more enjoyment out of them than they were ever meant to give. It’s not trying to maximize pleasure in the moment or find immediate gratification. Patience means being a good steward of what God’s given to us and having an ultimate view that we’re looking for the true blessing; we’re looking for the delayed blessings of an eternal reward. And patience means facing challenges in suffering, not as an unfair surprise, not as something that we didn’t expect and we don’t deserve. Suffering is not something, it’s not a problem that we just fix and get out of the way. No, the trials in our lives, they are the things that are meant to loosen our grip on this world and on the things of this world and to prepare us for the world to come. 

John Bunyan has a scene in Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s when Christian is in the Interpreter’s house. And if you remember that scene, the Interpreter is taking Christian to different rooms in his house and he’s showing him these scenes to prepare him for the journey that he has ahead of him. And he goes to one room and there were two children sitting there. One of the children is named, the oldest one was named, Passion, and the other child’s name was Patience. And we’re told that Passion was unhappy. He was not pleased. And yet Patience was there sitting quietly. So Christian asked the Interpreter why was Passion so discontent and unhappy. And Interpreter told him that their caregiver had promised to give him his best things next year, but Passion wanted them right now. But Patience, he said, is willing to wait. And Christian watched, and as he watched Passion demand his best things now, he was brought a gift of treasure and he was happy, he enjoyed it, he even laughed at Patience. And yet after a while, all he had left were rags. 

And Bunyan is giving us a picture. He’s giving us a picture of living for this world versus living for the world to come. And Interpreter tells Christian, he says, “He who has his portion first surely must have time to spend it. But he who has his portion last must have it lastingly.” And he quotes that Scripture that says, “The things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” And he says this. He says, “But though this is so, yet since things present and our fleshly appetites are such good neighbors to one another, and because things to come and carnal sense are such strangers to one another, that is why it is so easy to be like Passion and so hard to be like Patience.” It’s so hard to be like Patience. It’s hard to be patient. There’s really nothing natural at all about it. In fact, this kind of wisdom, to say that it’s better to be patient than to be proud, it only comes through the fear of the Lord. It only comes through an eternal perspective. It comes from having a hope that is certain; a hope that is without question.

Hope without Question

The writer of Ecclesiastes, you see, he could never say this; he could never say that the end is better than the beginning and that the patient is better than the proud unless his frame of reference, unless his focal point was beyond that which is under the sun. Because you see, under the sun, the only thing that matters is right now. And under the sun, it’s the proud that are powerful and successful. And yet, an “under the sun” way of life is vanity and it’s futility, but wisdom, a truly good life, is lived in light of eternity. It’s lived in the fear of the Lord and the love of Christ. Hope for eternity and a relationship with God, those are the blessings that are ours by faith in Jesus Christ because Jesus died and He was raised to give us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. The cross and the empty tomb, that means victory over sin and over pride. 

And our inheritance in Christ is imperishable. It’s undefiled and it will not fade away. It’s a certain hope. And so patience, patience is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we wait for the fullness of God’s blessing, the blessings that are ours as a gift in Christ. Galatians 5:22, the Fruit of the Spirit, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” Colossians 2 says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” James 5:8, “You also be patient. Establish your hearts for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Patience is a gift of the Spirit and it’s a Christ-like virtue.

I read a short story a while back. It was about a man who was visiting another country and he had gone out into this open field and there was a stream there in front of him and he was just enjoying the beauty of the landscape. He noticed a shepherd come up and the shepherd has his sheep with him and the shepherd went down to the water, to the stream, and he found a reed and he picked up the reed but it had been damaged. He plucked the reed but it was damaged and it wasn’t going to do him any good. So he bent it in half where it was bruised and he threw it onto the water and he watched the reed go down the stream. He said then the shepherd plucked up another reed. It was strong and it was straight and he worked it; he made it into a flute and he played music. And this man had not seen, the shepherd had not seen the man so the man was watching the shepherd play this music and he went up and decided to make conversation with him. And they enjoyed a time there in this field. 

And then the shepherd invited the man back to his house so they went back to the house. And as they entered the house, the shepherd went and he found a lamp, an oil lamp, and he lit it and placed it on a table and went out to get some firewood. When he came back into the house, he found that the whole room was smoking, so he put out, he smothered the wick and he threw the lamp away and went and got a new wick, a new lamp, a better lamp, and lit it and it filled the room with light. And they were able to carry on and continue their time together. And he says that as he thought back on the events of his day, what came to his mind was the verse from Isaiah chapter 42 verse 3, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice.” 

See, the shepherd had no use for the bruised reed. He had no use for the smoking lamp. And yet it’s the One who “a bruised reed He will not break and a smoking wick he will not quench,” it’s Jesus, it’s the One who has been patient with you, who gave His life and was raised for you in order to deal with our sin and to deal with our pride, to forgive us, to make us whole, to give us life. He will bring forth justice. He will make things right and good. And so it’s only as we trust in Jesus that we experience the work of the Holy Spirit in making us patient, that we would be more like Christ as He has been patient with us. 

And so when we don’t have all of the answers, wisdom means trusting God’s providence and being patient because ultimately our hope in Christ, our hope for eternity is secure. We praise God for that and we ask Him to help as we seek to become more patient like Him. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for Your love for us, that You have been patient with us. That even while we were sinners, Christ died for us. You have demonstrated a mercy which is beyond comprehension; a grace which sought us and bought us and made us Yours. And You’ve given us Your Spirit to make us more like Christ. So we ask tonight that You would help us to bear fruit for Your glory in our relationships, in the sufferings that we experience, in the opportunities and responsibilities in our lives. We ask that You would point us again to Your Gospel, point us again to Your hope, point us again to the inheritance that we have in Christ that we would look to You and be patient, that we would wait and see Your blessing to come. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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