March 20, 2011
Only The Lonely – Part 5
Pastor Philip De Courcy
Ecclesiastes 4: 1-6

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Well, let’s take our Bibles and turn to Ecclesiastes chapter four. We’ve been on a little bit of an excursion on the subject of contentment and I want to come this morning and wrap that up with some further thoughts, further mile markers along the road to contentment. We’ve been bouncing off verse six in Ecclesiastes chapter four. “Better a handful with quietness than both hands full together with toil and grasping for the wind.”
As a rule, man’s a fool. When it’s hot, he wants it cool. When it’s cool, he wants it hot. Always wanting what is not. I think that little poem, that little ditty reminds us of something that’s very true in life and something that’s a real temptation to us all, not to want what we have and to want what we don’t have and to be discontent because of both of those realities. And we’ve been challenging ourselves to find a greater contentment, a greater containment in our relationship with God.
We’ve been working our way through Ecclesiastes chapter four. We’ve just stopped and driven our pegs down here into the soil of verse six, where we’re reminded, “Better a handful with quietness than both hands filled together with toil.” Sometimes less is more, especially when we find our rest in God himself who’s always much more than we need. And so we tried to identify some mile markers on the road to greater contentment. So far we’ve covered anticipate a struggle, want what you have. Don’t crave things you cannot keep. Live in the present, not the future. Stop making comparisons. And finally, last week, remember, it could be worse.
I don’t know what situation you’re in, but Thomas Watson remind us, if that’s all the hell you have to face, it’s not much, given the glories of heaven that awaits those who endure tribulation on this side of the kingdom of God. I want to pick up and try and cover three more things quickly this morning and then when I come back we’ll work our way through the rest of Ecclesiastes chapter four. If you’re taking notes, and I hope you are, here’s principle number seven. Here’s the seventh mile marker on the road to contentment. Develop an attitude of gratitude. Develop an attitude of gratitude.
Think about this. Light and darkness cannot coexist. When you flip the switch on your living room or draw back the curtains in your bedroom, light replaces and displaces darkness. And I believe in a similar fashion, discontent and then gratitude cannot exist in the same heart. If you really and truly are thankful for what God has already given you, which is more than you deserve because of your sin, then you cannot be discontent over what God hasn’t yet provided. Giving thanks heals the murmuring heart. Present thankfulness, a renewed gratefulness for what you already have, which is more than you deserve, will act as a harbor wall against the in rushing tide of discontent which is being pushed in our direction by the culture.
I think it’s of interest to note in the letter where the apostle Paul states his contentment, we’ll get to Philippians chapter four a little later on, but remember we looked at it early on in this study on contentment. He said, “I have learned to be content.” Here’s a man who’s content. Contained. Well, in the letter where he states that, I think it’s interesting that this is a letter given over to expressing his thankfulness to the Philippians for their ongoing care of him, and interest in his work. If you read the letter, you’ll find that they had sent Epaphroditus to Paul in Rome on their behalf to bring greetings, to bring gifts to the apostle Paul.
This isn’t the first time they have done this. They love this man. They love what God’s doing through this man and they have stood by him like no other church has. And Epaphroditus is sent back after a time of sickness to thank them for their kindness. In fact, chapter four, in the very context of Paul’s expression of contentment, Paul begins in verse 10, “But I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flowered again, bloomed again, though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity.” Paul acknowledges that indeed they have concerted with him, even in Thessalonica they sent once and again to meet his necessities.
So, what I want you to bear in mind is the letter to the Philippians where Paul states his own contentment is really a letter that’s a receipt of thanks. This is a letter that’s permeated with gratefulness and grace. In fact, the word joy shoots through the whole of this epistle. 16 times in the letter, Paul uses the noun joy and he uses the verb rejoice. God’s hand was evidently among them and God’s heart was abundantly towards them and Paul had a lot of thanks to give for what the Philippians had done on his behalf. The grateful heart is a contented heart. The grateful heart is a contented heart. That’s why you and I need to develop an attitude of gratitude.
See that connection between Paul’s contentment, certainly centered in Jesus Christ, nevertheless augmented by the love that they had shown for him. And so as he gives thanks, as he gets taken up in what God has provided for him through the Philippians generosity, there really is no room for griping and grumbling. Just as light and darkness cannot coexist in the same room, so discontent and gratefulness cannot exist in the same heart. Developing an attitude of gratitude therefore is important, one, because it’s right. Psalm 92 in verse one says, “It’s a good thing to give thanks to the Lord.” So, if you and I need a reason to give thanks this morning, that’s it. Just give thanks to the Lord for his goodness.
Someone has said that gratitude is a species of justice. If we are recipients of God’s goodness, it’s only right that we return thanks and acknowledge the source of those blessings. So, there’s a moral component, a moral component to the need for you and I to praise God, worship God, give thanks to God. It’s just right. It’s only an ungrateful wretch that wouldn’t pause to acknowledge all the blessings that God showers upon the just and the unjust. But it’s not only right, it’s beneficial. It’s beneficial. It’s not only got a moral component to it, it’s got a utilitarian component to it. Not forgetting God’s unrelenting benefits is a benefit to us. Look at the psalmist in Psalm 103 as he outlines God’s goodness, he won’t forget God’s goodness. He’s forgiven his sins, he’s redeemed his life from destruction, he’s satisfied his mouth with good things. The list goes on and as the psalmist gets taken up with that, God is praised, which is the right thing to do, but also the Psalmist finds himself just forgetting about all those problems in his life.
If you read Psalm 103, there is no complaint. There is no issues that the Psalmist brings up. He gets taken up by God’s unrelenting mercy and he’s left with this thought, we quoted it last week, he really hasn’t dealt with us after our sins, has he? He gets caught up in this idea, “I have more than I deserve,” and that’s what expressing thanks does. It’s not only a gift to God, it’s a gift to us. It kills the ingratitude that sometimes rises up in our hearts. It tears out the weeds of ungratefulness. And so it’s not only a gift to God, it’s a gift to us, because we have a natural inbred tendency to forget God’s kindness, God’s faithfulness, God’s generosity. We see that in the fact that only one of the lepers who was healed returned to the Lord Jesus in Luke 17:17-18. God had to warn the Israelites, didn’t he, in Deuteronomy eight not to forget him when they settle down into the land and they know his goodness and his blessing?
We tend to forget that all of life is a gift. We tend to forget our past blessings and future promises. We tend to forget that promotion and success comes from the Lord. We tend to forget and presume upon God and patronize ourselves. And like the Israelites of old in Numbers chapter 11, we shamelessly and sinfully fall into murmuring against God and that’s why we need to develop an attitude of gratitude, for at least three reasons quickly. Gratitude heightens our awareness of God. Have you ever thought about that? If you just give yourself to a time of rip up the shopping list, get a score of music and start singing and start praising God and start thinking upon his character and go over the lanes and paths of your life and see all the different mile markers to God’s mercy, you’ll find yourself being drawn into God’s near presence.
I love what the Psalmist says in Psalm 100:4-5, “Let us come through his gates with thanksgiving in our hearts, enter his courts with prayers.” Prayers transports us I think uniquely into God’s presence. That’s why we sing. Some of the most refreshing revitalizing times for me as a believer is in the company of God’s people singing. And as we sing those lyrics, those lyrics trigger thoughts and those thoughts bring us to think upon the things we so easily forget about how good God is and how good God has been. And we get caught up in the moment and we forget the thousands and thousands of mercies that have already washed over us, but we’re caught up in that one moment, this point in time. I think gratitude heightens our awareness of God. In the very act of giving thanks, we are made conscious of God’s faithfulness, his abiding presence and provision.
And we’re no longer preoccupied with our problems, we’re preoccupied with the one who can solve them or who can give us grace to deal with them and the one who has brought us through many a problem. I was interested in a devotional reading I encountered this week where this particular writer made this comparison at around the time of Jesus. When people wanted to show sorrow, grief, what did they do? They ripped their clothes. But if you go back into the Old Testament, the high priest is warned never to rent his garment. I don’t want to make too much of this, but the author said this, I thought it was at least worth thinking about and going over, and it’s this, the high priest had a unique access into the holy of holies under the old covenant, under the old economy, and the writer said this, someone who has access to the immediate presence of God never has reason to consider a disaster, a reason for despair.
How can you despair in the presence of the living God? And you and I need never rent our clothes in grief and despair, because as those who have enjoyed the benefits of the new covenant, all that priesthood is now centered into one priest, our Lord Jesus, and he has given us the priesthood of all believers where we can immediately step into God’s presence where we need not despair. And prayers will do that. Secondly, gratitude shifts the focus from what’s wrong to what’s right. William Temple was right. He said, “Man is born crying, lives complaining and dies disappointed.” We have an eye to see the things that are wrong in life. We’re drawn to those things in our lives that upset us, and then those things eclipse the greater picture, and so we focus on what’s wrong, not what’s right. We focus on what’s absent and not what’s present.
But prayers guards us against that. Remember that scene back in Genesis 42 in verse 36 where Jacob is given a report from the brothers who have come up from Egypt and now he’s told that they must take Benjamin down and Jacob says, “All these things are against me.” Really, Jacob, is your life that bad? And what you don’t realize is actually all these things that you think are against you, are working for you. But many times have we found ourselves in Jacob’s shoes, “All these things are against me,” and we forget that God is for us and if God is for us, who or what can be against us? So, we tend to focus on the negative and we snivel our way through life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a sniveler, do you?
I don’t want to be a spiritual Eeyore, always feeling that something’s wrong. But we’re tempted, aren’t we? We’re tempted to complain. We’re tempted to focus on the things that bother us. I like the story of the woman who was obsessed with her minor aches and pains. She went to her doctor’s office to have her condition diagnosed, and as the doctor and the nurse went down the list of potential symptoms, “Headache?” “Yes,” she replied. “Back pain?” “Yes,” she replied. “Sinus trouble?” “Yes,” she replied. This went on for several minutes. There wasn’t an ailment on the sheet that this woman didn’t deal with. To play with her, the doctor decided to ask her, “Does your teeth itch?” Which the woman replied, “Now that you mention it…”
We all have a propensity to focus on the negative. You may have heard the story of the young man who went into the post office with a bandaged hand and he approached the clerk and said, “You know what? Would you write a message in this postcard for me?” The clerk gladly agreed, wrote the message, and just as they were about to post it, the man said, “Would you put ‘PS: Please excuse the handwriting?'” That’s you and me. Never grateful, never thankful, focused on the things that are wrong, the things that are absent, the pebbles in our shoes. Gratitude shifts the focus from what’s wrong to what’s right, because we have a tendency to overlook that.
The act of gratitude, the discipline of thanksgiving counteracts our tendency to focus on the negative by having us take stock of the manifold mercies of God. I alluded to this, read Psalm 103. There’s not a word of complaint. It’s just unmitigated worship and thanksgiving for all that God is and for all that God has done. And when you and I focus there, when we focus on grace, that draws us away from the vicious cycle of complaining. Now, that’s not to deny the presence of problems, okay? This isn’t the little religious shell game. It’s not to deny the presence of problems, but it is, “To taste and see that the Lord is good,” Psalm 34:8. And as we taste and see that he is good, we get caught up in that worship and our problems don’t seem as big, because they’re overshadowed by the greatness of God and the magnitude of his mercy.
We’ve quoted him a few times, Jeremiah Burroughs, the old Puritan. I like this quote. See if you don’t get something from. “It is a saying of Luther: ‘The sea of God’s mercies should swallow up all our particular afflictions.’ Name any affliction that is upon you: there is a sea of mercy to swallow it up. If you spill or pour a pailful of water on the floor of your house, it makes a great show, but if you throw it into the sea, there is no sign of it. So, afflictions considered in themselves, we think are very great, but let them be considered with the sea of God’s mercy and then they are not so much by comparison.
Love that. Here’s your we bucket of problems and that’s what you’re taking up with and you pour it at your feet, oh poor me. But throw it into the ocean of God’s mercy across your lifetime, it’s nothing. That’ll bring contentment, won’t it? To develop an attitude of gratitude, because it shifts the focus from what’s wrong to what’s right and it heightens our awareness of God. Here’s the eighth mile marker. The eighth mile marker, ponder providence. Ponder providence. Let me suggest something to you as it relates to contentment. When you and I lack proper contentment, it’s due in part to the fact that we have ceased to believe that God is God, and guarantee you that. And if you scratch beneath the surface of your discontent and your disquiet, you’ll find that your belief in God is being eroded.
You’re questioning something about God’s character, something about God’s power, something about God’s love. You see, discontent results from you and I not liking what’s happening in our life, and then we struggle to believe that God indeed would order this or even make it part of his plan for us, because believing that God is God, believing that he’s sovereign, believing as we study in Ecclesiastes three, that to everything there is a season and a time and every purpose under heaven, to believe that leaves you having to accept your circumstances as from the hand of a sovereign loving God. But if you’re willing to believe that God is sovereign, that God is ordering your life according to his providential rule and reign, then that will help you be content in whatever circumstances you’re in. Now remember what we said at the very beginning, that doesn’t mean you become passive.
It doesn’t mean that you necessarily just cave into the circumstances. If there’s a way out that’s godly, if there’s a path that can take you in another direction that doesn’t lead you outside the will of God, you’re free to pursue those things. But you know what, if God has you in a holding pattern and you’re dealing with a particular set of circumstances not to your liking, do you believe it’s from the hand of God? That’s the key. If your circumstances find you in God, you will find God in your circumstances. I like that. You see, the Christian, like the Apostle Paul in Philippians chapter four, can embrace the good with the bad, the rough with the smooth, the loss with the gain. Because regardless of the circumstances, they know that the God who created all things, controls all things, wisely directs and disposes all things to good ends in relationship to his people.
Basically that’s a definition of providence. Providence is made up of two Latin words, pro video, to see before. We have a God who sees all things, who orders all things while he sees it. He’s not a spectator. We don’t believe in the God of deism, removed and unmoved. God’s hand is in the thick of things in history, ordering the events to his glory and to the benefit of his people, his church, and his seance. That means by implication that there are no disappointments, there are really only appointments. God governs nations, they rise and fall at his behalf. He governs nature. He governs animals as he controlled the ravens to send food to Elijah. He even is sovereign over Satan. Satan is God’s devil and has to present himself to God and Job to get permission to touch one hair on the head of Job, that perfect godly man.
If you and I grasp that, then we believe that whatever’s happening in our lives is part and parcel of God’s purposes, and while it might not be easy and you might have to struggle to get to a place of contentment, we’ve already anticipated that, you can learn to be content because all things work together for good to them that love God. Let me give you an example of this, actually in the letter to the Philippians. Go to chapter one in verse 12, Paul’s in prison. There’s a lot of things going on in his life right now here in Rome while he writes the letter to the Philippians and gives it to Epaphroditus to bring to them. He’s just gone through almost losing Epaphroditus, but God was merciful and didn’t add sorrow to sorrow. You can read about that in chapter two. There are those, according to chapter one, who are cashing in on Paul’s imprisonment.
Sadly, seems you have a little bit of self ambition and ministerial jealousy going on in Rome, and Paul handles that with great class and says, “I just rejoice that Christ is being preached.” The motive’s wrong, but the message is good. Ideally, you want those two things to be married, but there’s all sorts of other things going on. But listen to what he says in chapter one in verse 12, speaking of his imprisonment, speaking about all the things that are going on, “I want you to know, brethren,” and they want to know, right? Because they love this man. “What’s going on in Rome.” Epaphroditus comes back and says, “Paul’s in prison.” “Oh, he’s in prison. Oh no, that’s going to bind the word of God. It’s curtailing limiting his effectiveness.”
“I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually,” ain’t this beautiful? “Turned out for the furtherance of the gospel so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard.” We believe that’s the Praetorian Guard, the special group of soldiers attached to Caesar’s house who had been given custody of Paul who was under house arrest according to Acts chapter 28. But as they watch over him, he’s got a captive audience and he’s actually winning people to Christ at the very top echelons of Roman power. How cool is that? “These things have turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so it does become evident to the whole palace guard and to the rest that my chains are in Christ. Now most of the brethren in the Lord have become confident by my chains and are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
I want you to note the word furtherance, if you want to write in the margin of your Bible, that’s an interesting verb. It’s a military term. It speaks of a regiment of soldiers that spearhead battalion. The Seabees, if that rings a bell with anybody. That go ahead and build the bridges and remove the obstacles and clear the minefields so that the army can advance. That’s the word. It’s a beautiful word. Paul says, “Hey, I’m in Rome here spearheading another front on the gospel mission.” Ponder providence, it’ll help you become more content. A doctrine of God’s providence lances the poisonous infection of discontentment. To be discontent is to forget that all things serve God and therefore serve us as we serve God. It’s a great statement. You may want to write that down. I’ll repeat it for you. To be discontent is to forget that all things serve God and therefore serve us in the service of God. Therefore, there’s no maverick molecule in the entire universe, no unspent moment in all of history as it regards God’s rule. Knowing this truth and embracing this fact gives the Christian a rock solid contentment.
Contentment that rests in the wise and loving bestowment of God. We’re not just bearing our problems, we’re actually using them. That’s what Providence allows us to do, to anticipate that God’s not going to waste our suffering, that everything that God has put us through at this moment has design written all over it. Frances Havergal, I was talking to the ladies this week about her. She’s the British counterpart to Fanny Crosby. They were friends and wrote letters across the Atlantic to one another. She wrote a children’s book in 1881 titled Morning Bells, that contained some insights on a verse back in the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 3:36, “All the people took note of this and it pleased them. In fact, everything the king did pleased them.” You can read that, that’s the verse, and it speaks of Israel’s love for David, king of Israel.
Let me read the last phrase of it. Speaking of the people of Israel, 2 Samuel 3:36, “Everything the king did pleased them.” Now listen to her words. This is good stuff. Do you take notice of what your king does? Does it please you to hear and read of what he has done and is doing? It must be so if he really is your king. But the whatsoever is a little harder, and yet if it is once really learned, it makes everything easy. For if we learn to be pleased with whatsoever our king Jesus does, nothing can come that’s wrong to us. Suppose something comes today, which is not quite what you would’ve liked, heavy rain, for instance, when you want to go out, recollect your king, Jesus has done it, and that will hush the little murmur and make you quite content. Ask him this morning to make you so loving and loyal to him that whatsoever he does all day long may please you because it pleased him to do it.”
Love that. Write that verse down.2 Samuel 3:36, “Whatever David did, it pleased the people.” Here’s the last thought. Treasure Christ. Treasure Christ. Paul shows that contentment is found in properly prizing Christ. If you go back to Philippians chapter four in verse 11, we’ll read it together, make a couple of comments and head to a close, Philippians chapter four verse 11, “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatsoever state I am to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound. In everything and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The word here, content, is a word that was used by the stoics. You’ve heard maybe someone say that he’s stoic in temperament, kind of flat, unemotional, steady, the stiff British upper lip deal, just biting down and gritting your way through something, doesn’t reveal much. That kind of stoicism.
Well, it comes from this, the stoics of Paul’s day were a group of people who believed that the best way to handle life was to be detached from your surroundings and rely on yourself. The stoic ideal was a self-contained superman who could rise above it all in independent self-sufficiency. The Marlboro man. The stoic was encouraged to be indifferent towards things and independent towards people. Paul takes that word and he puts it through a Copernican revolution. He baptizes it in Christian theology so that it comes to have a Christ-centered meaning. So, when Paul says, “I’m content,” he uses a word that’s translated in 2 Corinthians 9:8, a sufficiency. Listen to the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:8, “God is able to make all grace abound toward you so that always having all sufficiency in all things, we may have an abundance for every good work.”
That’s our word there, sufficiency. But this isn’t a self-sufficiency, right, that Paul’s talking about? Because in verse 13, what does he say? “I can do all things.” Now, that doesn’t mean he can leap off buildings. He can’t turn dollar bills into a hundred dollar bills. The all things are the all things that God has appointed for him to do, that’s within God’s will. Whatever God asks us to do, we can do because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. That word strengthen is a verb, very strong verb. I think it’s only found in this passage in the New Testament, it means that which is poured out. I can do all things through Christ who pours out his strength into me. Do you get how Paul could be content in every situation? Because whatever he lacked in outward comfort, whatever was removed from him, whatever he faced in terms of hardship, he was able to deal with it.
Why? Because Christ, Lord of lords and King of kings was making his strength and his grace available to Paul in abundance so that Paul became sufficient, adequate for that which he was dealing with. What Paul is driving at here is that in union with Christ, the Christian is abundantly resourced by means of God’s sufficient grace. I like what John says in John 1:16, “Of his fullness have we received grace upon grace upon grace?” Listen, as we close, the Christian can live anywhere and face anything. Do you believe that? You should. The Christian can live anywhere and face anything, because their adequacy and ability does not require the propping up of outward circumstances. They have an artesian well, the living water of the Holy Spirit, John seven, bubbling up, bursting forth, that allows them to draw upon God’s strength. And it’s a well that never runs dry.
Therefore, we can be content in whatever circumstance we’re in. Christian contentment as a matter then of finding our satisfaction in Christ in every circumstance. It is to look away from self and outward circumstances and to place one’s faith and hope upon Christ and that which he has promised. Victory doesn’t come by pulling up your own bootstraps. That’s stoicism. Victory doesn’t come by pulling up your own bootstraps. We don’t teach moralism here, that you kind of do good in your strength to please God. The marvel of graces that God is willing to do through you in his strength what He asks. So, we’re not asking you to pull up your bootstraps. Paul’s asking you to fall upon Christ in dependent prayer and expectant faith, because Christ is enough all of the time.
And so whatever a new day brings, the Christian is able to weather its variable conditions through God’s abounding, adaptable grace. Listen to this as we finish, Christ for sickness, Christ for health, Christ for poverty, Christ for wealth, Christ for joy, Christ for sorrow, Christ today and Christ tomorrow. Christ my life and Christ my light, Christ for morning, noon and night. Christ, when all around gives way, Christ my everlasting stay. Christ my rest, Christ my food, Christ above my highest good. Christ my well-beloved, my friend, Christ, my pleasure without end. Christ my savior, Christ my Lord, Christ my portion, Christ my God. Christ my shepherd, I his sheep, Christ himself my soul will keep. Christ my leader, Christ my peace. Christ has brought my soul release. Christ my righteousness divine. Christ for me, for he is mine. We can do all things through Christ who pours his strength into us. Therefore, we can be content in whatsoever state we find ourselves.
Lord, we thank you for this study this morning. We pray that it will indeed draw us along the road to further contentment to where we become satisfied in Christ alone. That Christ becomes all in all to us. The fullness of the Godhead bodily was to be found in him, and he fills us, and we are complete according to Paul in his letter to the Colossians. Therefore, Lord, help us to detach our dependence upon things, upon fathers, upon mothers, upon friends, upon spouses, upon pastors. As good as all those things are, may we throw ourselves ultimately and finally upon the one who will never leave us and never forsake us. May we find our containment and our contentment in his fullness. May we be grateful for it on a day-to-day basis. For Jesus’ sake, amen.