I've been reading Ecclesiastes. If you've never read it, it goes a little something like this: "Life's short and then you die." Yeah. Very encouraging. Very uplifting. "All is vanity and a striving after the wind." Over and over and over. "Hey you, everything you do is pretty meaningless because you will die and then it will all be gone." I'm not exactly sure why I picked this book to read through, other than remembering that our pastor preached through it at a time when we were living elsewhere. I like to read an Old Testament and New Testament book, just a little bit each day. I picked up where I left off in Hebrews some eight months ago and started in on Ecclesiastes.
Something very curious happened today while I read. These two books, 864 pages apart in my study Bible, came together, wove together, connected, in a sort of heart-stopping way. I'm toodling along in Ecclesiastes, "yeah, yeah"-ing Samuel (or whoever wrote it) as he continues to go through the same stuff. But then this verse caught my eye: "Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil." (Ecclesiastes 9:9) He has addressed this before. Life is short, then you die, so while you're here, eat, drink, and be merry because it is all fleeting. He doesn't mean this in a "damn it all, it doesn't matter what you do" kind of way, but more in a "don't get attached to this world" kind of way. For some reason, verse 9 chapter 9 really caught me. "Because that is your portion in life." What is? "Joy." Maybe it's because I had just given my toddler a bite of my breakfast, his little portion of my bagel, and he took so much joy in that little bite. His little piece of a much bigger meal, his portion, brought him joy. And here God says, in your big, big life with all its people and things and things to do, your portion... the part you get... is joy. I held this in my heart for a minute and tried to convince myself that I really believed it as that same once-joyful toddler burst into tears because his toy was stuck. And we're up-up-up, look at all that joy! Now we're down-down-down because life is broken.
I moved onto Hebrews, chapter 12, the money chapter. A lot of people quote stuff from this chapter, but reading it in the context of the whole book is so interesting. I read that verse one, the "run with endurance" one that people always pray before marathons or whatever other insane things they do, but the part that stuck with me was not the part about running. (No one is surprised by this.) It was the "lay aside every weight". "Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." (Hebrews 12:1) It's like Ecclesiastes and Hebrews just linked hands and skipped off into the sunset. Put them together:
All you have in life, your whole portion, everything you get, is to take joy in your life and in your work. To do this, to "run this race", you have to set aside whatever it is that is holding you down.
That weight on your shoulders: throw it off. Fear? Throw it off. Depression? Throw it off. Discouragement? Throw it off. Greed? Throw it off. All these things, they are weights, they are holding us down, and it's not just that they make us slow; they steal our joy.
And joy? It's all we have. It is our portion.
I sat in my chair for a minute, tears welling up in my eyes because, man, I have a lot to throw off. I began to read again and that is when the tears began to flow. I tell you to throw off your weights and you look at me like I am from Mars. How am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to just magically not let these things consume me? I am stuck here, weighted down. My leg is pinned under the rock and the water is rising and I am not strong enough to move this boulder. Hebrews tells you how. Continued from verse one, Hebrews 12 says this: "Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross." (Hebrew 12:2) WHO FOR THE JOY. Jesus, for joy, endured the cross. God-made-man allowed Himself to hang... not to prove a point or "finish" or win. He endured the cross... for joy.
Your portion in life, all you have, is the joy you take in your life and work. Anything else is a weight. Anything else holds you down, holds you back, breaks you, and takes from you. But it's not as simple as plastering a smile on your face and pretending you love losing your job or your loved one or any and all sense of control. It's not as simple as ignoring all the hardships and focusing on the positives. It's not as simple as just saying you believe this while inside, your heart churns with the injustice of it all. It's not that simple. It's layered and deep and hard to see. It's Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, waiting for his accuser, "saying, 'My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.'" (Matthew 26:39) It is Jesus saying, "God, if there is another way..." yet WHO FOR THE JOY.
If I had known the cup coming our way, I would have prayed for another way. I would have prayed for God to take the cup and throw it out the window. It is not the cup I wanted to drink. But. It is also not what lasts. My daughter's health struggles, your layoff, your friend's failing marriage, the injustices of war, and every other terrible-awful: they are fleeting. They come, they go, and they do not last. It doesn't mean we shouldn't care. It doesn't mean we should close our eyes tight and just wait for it all to finish. It doesn't mean it's not important or real, but it's not what is most important or most real. If it was, then God is dead and all of us be damned. But Jesus did not drink the cup of God's wrath for us to be weighted down by our lives. He did not take your sins and failings onto Himself so you could drown. He did it for the joy. He knew the joy coming after the pain. He knew the promise, the rainbow, that would shine, and in His suffering, painful death, He held on. He didn't free Himself or wave His magic wand. He hung on that cross and allowed Himself to die... because He knew it wasn't the end. He knew His death wasn't the final chapter of the story, but rather the first, the beginning of something beautiful, of the most beautiful something that ever was.
Believe me when I say, it is very easy to let your life swallow you up. Life is not easy, and bad things happen to the most beautiful people. But the bad things don't win. The bad things don't win and neither do the good things or the just okay things. Joy wins. Joy wins because it is our portion. It is all we have. Joy doesn't require that we fake it til we make it or that we be happy, pretty, perfect people. Joy comes from God and we open our mouths and eat. We take that bite and savor it and thank God for our portion. We can chew on the evil all day. We can gnaw the fat of our sorrows til our jaws ache. Or we can take joy in all of it and know that of everything we face -- all the big, weighty bads and the high, fleeting goods -- joy endures. Joy lasts. Joy carries us, as it carried Jesus, through anything that God brings our way.