Futility of Selfish Ambition

The Futility of Selfish Ambition

A Reflection on Ecclesiastes 4:1-6:12

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes turns to a reflection on the futility of human beings pursuit of selfish ambition. This pursuit has led to bitter tyranny and oppression. (4:1-6) Man’s envy is self consuming: “The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (4:5) Selfish ambition leads to a lonely alienation and foolish self-centered existence:

Chasing after the Wind

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. -Eccl. 4:7,8

Selfish ambition is the sin of presumption upon the grace of God. The words of our mouth are arrogant in what we purpose and vow to do. Our dreams and plans for ourselves are often not God’s ways and plans. Selfish ambition is futility–the equivalent of chasing after the wind. Not smart.

Ultimately, the selfish pursuit of more and more wealth will prove to be unsatisfying and stressful. The more you have, the more worries, because there is more to lose. And at the end of the day–it will all be lost.

“As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.” (5:15)

So hold earthly wealth loosely; enjoy it while you have it–and count your blessings as a gift from God! (5:18-20) The vain pursuit of earthly and temporal gain alone ultimately leads to despairing because the future is so unpredictable:

For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? -Eccl. 6:12

Like Jesus, the Preacher calls us to turn away from ourselves and surrender to the way and will of God. The re-orientation of our lives away from self and toward the Lord, not only brings significance back to the prosperity and adversity of life, but secures an eternal reward for all who trust in Him.

Stapled Fruit

A man and his wife had an apple tree in their front yard that always produced rotten apples. Every year the apples would develop, every year the fruit would be inedible to its core. One year, he came up with a brilliant idea. He went to the grocery and bought a crate of beautiful good apples. While his wife was not looking, he removed all of the rotten apples and stapled the good apples to the tree.

Image courtesy of pamsclipart.com

The next morning he encouraged his wife to behold the tree. She was delighted; her tree was filled with beautiful good apples.

In the Gospel reading this week (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus teaches his disciples that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles but what comes out of the mouth. When they asked for an explanation, he revealed that he was talking about the human heart. The Pharisees dealt with externalities: clean hands, dietary laws. Jesus is concerned about what is going on in a person’s heart. The Pharisees are “fruit staplers” concerned only about religious externalities. They strive to make the outside look right which requires a lot of work because it involves maintaining a elaborate façade. The tree in the above story will continue to produce rotten fruit because its problem is systemic—in its root system. Cure the root system and you cure the tree. Deal with the heart issues and a person’s life will truly be clean!

The fundamental difference between the religion and Christianity is this key, key point. Jesus is the only one who can change the systemic problems of the human heart. We must have a vital relational connection to him or else we are just stapling fruit. Likewise, Christian leaders are not primarily religious leaders. The goal in Christian ministry should never be about stapling good fruit on rotten apple trees. Jesus referred to the Pharisees as the blind leading the blind. We are called to see beyond the fruit to the heart. Consequently, Christian ministers are called to be instruments of heart change not fruit change. When the Holy Spirit changes the heart, the fruit will naturally be transformed.

So how is heart change accomplished? First and foremost, it is by being in a loving, submissive relationship with Jesus. Secondarily, heart change will only be possible when we have the eyes to see beyond both the rotten fruit and the stapled fruit.

With those whom we rub shoulders with in community, the rotten apples will present themselves. The staples can’t hold for long. We may in those moments be tempted to pull the rotten apples off the tree and staple on the good fruit. No. Jesus would call us to address the systemic issue. He challenges us to go deeper to the root system. When we see the rotten fruit in our own lives or in the lives of those within our care, we are called to question the heart. Ask, “what is going on deep in the heart that would produce such fruit?”

Heart change requires brokenness, grief, repentance, renunciation of idolatry and forgiveness. It requires reliance on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It requires submissive engagement with the Scriptures and prayerful conversation with Jesus Christ. Look at the fruits, but minister to the roots!

Rebuild the Walls, Restore the Soul

Rebuild

Rebuild the walls and you provide space to restore the soul. Healthy boundaries protect sacred spaces and times so your relationship with God can flourish.

Artist: Juan de la Corte

In the first eight chapters of the book of Nehemiah we read of a massive rebuilding effort to restore the walls of the City of Jerusalem back to integrity. Following the sacking of Jerusalem by Babylon (modern day Iraq), the city was utterly devastated and left in ruins. Of greater concern to The Lord than buildings was the state of the people of Israel’s hearts toward Him! They turned their backs on The Lord! Sound familiar?

Nehemiah 9:29 “You warned them in order to turn them back to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, of which you said, ‘The person who obeys them will live by them.’ Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. 30 For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. 31 But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. 32

“Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes—the hardship that has come on us, on our kings and leaders, on our priests and prophets, on our ancestors and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. 33 In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. 34 Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep. 35 Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways. (For the whole story see…Neh. 9:22-10:39)

But, following the exile, a period of great repentance, restoration and rebuilding was led by Ezra and Nehemiah. The determination, vision and wisdom of these men took on an impossible challenge. Rebuild the capital city of Jerusalem and restore the people of God. The rebuilt walls of Jerusalem served to provide a protected and sacred space within which the remnant of Judah could be rebuilt as the covenant people of God. The real issue was that the covenant relationship with the LORD was grave disrepair.

Renew

In Chapter 8, we read how the scribe Ezra assembled the people within the rebuilt walls to hear afresh the reading of the Word of God. The people responded with faith and a teachable spirit. (8:1-8) The people restored the festival of the booths, something which had not been celebrated in Israel since the time of Joshua (8:17).

The restoration project in Nehemiah’s day is likened to a new exodus from bondage and a new conquest of the Promised Land. The remnant had wandered through the “wilderness” of the Babylonian exile because of their sin; and yet, God had proved faithful to show mercy to them–just as he had done in the days of Moses (9:1-38). Following a faithful confession of sin, the people made a vow of commitment to covenant faithfulness and offering of service to the LORD (10:1-39). They vowed:

We will not neglect the House of our God! –Nehemiah 10:39

The testimony of the people was to keep covenant and maintain the Temple through faithful worship, offerings and tithes. In our day the “House of our God” is the Church. Let me ask you an evaluative question: in your own life, have you honored or neglected the house of the Lord? The people of God are the New Temple of the Lord.

Just as the people of Nehemiah’s day had to rebuild the boundaries and protect that which is worthy and sacred. We must remain diligent to relationship to God. We must erect walls and boundaries to anything that would draw us away from a loving relationship with the Lord and sabotage our worship of the  Savior of our souls. Protect the sacred space! Give to the building up of the church! Vow with the people of old:

We will not neglect the House of our God!

Is covenant restoration needed? Are there areas in your life that need to be torn down and rebuilt to the glory of God? Have you allowed malignant influences access into the sacred spaces of your home and church life causing you to break covenant. Rebuild the healthy boundaries and renew your covenant to the God who has remained steadfast for you.

Prayer: Jesus your desire for me is a restored and rebuilt life of covenant faithfulness in you. Make my life a restoration project that brings you glory, honor and praise.

The Heart of a Reformer

King Ahaz was a corrupt and faithless king. He set up altars to false gods in every corner of Jerusalem, and he made unholy alliances with foreign kings. The most dramatic act of his rebellion against the Lord was when he “shut up the doors of the house of the Lord” (2 Chr. 28:24).

2 Chronicles 7:14

His son Hezekiah took the throne, and he was the complete opposite of his father. The very first act of his reign was “he opened the doors of the house of the Lord and repaired them.” (2 Chr. 29:3). The main point of the book of 2 Chronicles is to demonstrate that repentance leads to restoration. Earlier in the book, the Chronicler recorded this word from the Lord for King Solomon and his descendants:

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” 2 Chr. 7:14

Hezekiah stands as a model reformer of society for all time. By turning away from the “filth” and “unfaithfulness” of his predecessors and by seeking the face of the Lord, he demonstrates the character and actions that God is seeking in his people. The people followed his lead and were reorganized in the service of worship of the Lord. Hezekiah had the heart of a reformer:

“Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, in order that his fierce anger may turn away from us.” 2 Chr. 29:10

Have we not inherited a culture that has “shut up the doors” to the worship of the Lord, Jesus? Have we not experienced and even been participants in the “unfaithfulness” and the “filth” of a culture that has set up idols “in every corner”. In our day, just as in Hezekiah’s day, we desperately need leaders with the heart of covenant faithfulness. We need leaders who will make true worship of the one true Lord, Jesus Christ the priority of our common life. We need followers who will be ready themselves to be ministers of the Lord.

Do you have the heart and character of a reformer?


Lord, make me an instrument of reform and renewal in our day. Show me the place where my family, my work place, my church, my school, my government need godly change. Guide me to the places that can be reorganized and centered on you. Give me the courage to act in Jesus name, Amen.

I Have Overcome the World

    Brooke is the wife of Rev. Charlie Holt. She is a personal life coach, public speaker and inspirational person. She is the owner of Cross Train, LLC. and is a certified Take Shape for Life health coach. She is the founder of the Abundant Life Dinner Series at St. Peter's Episcopal Church.

    John 16:33

    “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

    This morning I was talking to a favorite friend of mine. We enjoyed light talk then moved into the realities of a chaotic and challenging summer.

    I loved her question: “Don’t you just want to take a break from growing, a break from being transformed?”

    “Yes!” I answered, “I love breaks and I do believe God gives us those. However, I want abundant life even more than the break.”

    This is what I have come to understand. The world showcases the glamorous lives of the rich and famous through movies, TV and tabloids. Facebook or “Fakebook”, as my friend refers to it, portrays problem-free life. What the movies, TV, tabloids and Facebook do not properly portray is what is underneath all the glamour shots. With a close up view, there are things that even facades and make up cannot hide.

    Struggle and Pain. Most of the time our lives have some element of struggle and pain. Yes, we can hide it behind facades, make up, busy schedules, exercise addictions, eating disorders, alcohol and anything else used to escape the reality of life. Nevertheless, underneath all the addictions and facades lay the same things — struggle and pain. It is the truth that we desperately don’t want to hear.

    Look at the life of Jesus. He shared many wonderful, joy-filled moments with his people. There was also struggle and pain. Jesus experienced much rejection, being misunderstood, anger at those who did not understand his Father, mistrust of his own family, abandonment by his closest friends, then a trip to Calvary and an agonizing death on the cross.

    Jesus understands struggle and pain. He did not die to guarantee you a pain-free life. He died to guarantee you a resurrected life. The struggle and pain in our lives are agents of change, agents to take us deeper into that resurrected life. They can be the means to our healing and freedom.

    Here is the question: are you willing to trust God with your struggle and pain? Are you willing to allow Him to take you deeper into His heart, His plan, His way? If so, you have to embrace the struggle and pain and allow God to convict, heal and set free. This is our cooperative work in transformation. Like Jesus, we can overcome the world. We can overcome the pain. To overcome, we have to be willing to walk through the process of transformation. The awesome promise of God is that through that transformation we are moving from one degree of glory to another.

    Yes, I know we all want a break from the transformation process God works in our lives. But brothers and sisters, we have to take heart. The victory has been won for us in the cross. It will be won in us through the Holy Spirit. We, too, will overcome the struggle and pain. In the meantime, we get to move deeper and deeper into the heart of our heavenly Father who loves us beyond comprehension and deeper into the abundant life he has planned for us.