A guest post from fellow Rogue Milliennial, Zachariah Martin.
Okay, so I have to apologize. Doubtless you have read the title of this and quickly assumed that it is an accusatory piece. Props to you if you didn’t though. I wrote this not to accuse anybody, almost the opposite actually, but more on that later. My hope in writing this is that maybe some of you are in the position that I am describing. Rather, we’re all in the position I’m describing, and I hope you will recognize and acknowledge it, if you do not already.
I’ve been reading and studying the book of Ecclesiastes lately. If you haven’t read it, it is just about the most depressing book of the entire Bible. You’ll want to have a nice cup of hot chocolate and a warm hug on standby for when you read it. To sum it up… life and everything therein is meaningless. Solomon, the writer and then king of Israel, lived to every extreme thinkable to see if there was any worth or lasting satisfaction in anything. There wasn’t. Nonetheless, this book is packed with wisdom worth understanding. For the point I am trying to make here, I will be camped out in chapter 7.
Ecc. Ch.7:15 “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness.”
All religions that I have studied and nearly every philosophy that I’ve studied teaches some kind of put good in-get good out kind of system. Karma, we’ll call it. Even many evangelicals teach it. If you do good, good things will happen to you. If you do bad, bad things will happen to you. We’ve all heard it, or used the phrases ourselves. “Well, he had it coming.” or “How could this happen to a good person like him.” or “It’s not fair.” If you do your devotional every day, pray, attend church every Sunday, don’t cuss, follow the rules, if you are a good person, then good things will happen to you. But Solomon has a problem with this. He says that he has seen godly good church folk die at a young age, and dirty wicked people grow up to be dirty wicked old men. Fit what happened to Houston, or Florida into karma. Or to be cliché, how about the holocaust.
More than that though, Solomon has another problem with karma.
Ecc. Ch.7:16 “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise– why destroy yourself?”
We’ve all got this one covered. Finally, something in the Bible that I’m good at. Sounds like we should take righteousness in moderation, right? I’m not a murderer, but I’m not a religious nutjob either. I’m just good church folk. I only cuss in my car, I don’t smoke, and I’m in church every Sunday. Check, check, check. Sorry, let me interpret this verse for you. It might hurt a bit. What Solomon is saying here is that there is a rightness that is wrong. He is attacking self-righteousness.
The problem here is that self-righteous people may read this and immediately think of someone else who is self-righteous and needs to hear this. Please be careful. Because spoiler… this is all of us. We all get caught in the trap of defining our righteousness as what we do not do. When we define it this way, our righteousness is coming at the expense of someone else. We’ve defined wickedness as some large scale evil event. Isis is wicked. Hitler was wicked. I don’t do that kind of stuff, so I must be right. But maybe it is just as wicked to live in a constant state of triviality, indifferent to the sorrows of the world.
For example, I am going to narrate a parable that Jesus told, because he was monumentally at odds with this way of thinking. At a church service, there is a man who always sits in the front row. We’ve all seen him. He’s got the WWJD bracelet, the bible that’s too big to carry (KJV version), he’d have a cross tattoo as well but he’s not sure if getting a tattoo is sinning or not and he doesn’t want to be a sinner. He’s furiously taking notes along with every sermon with his John 3:16 pen, saying “Mmhmm,” every time the pastor makes a good point. He’s a good guy, just enjoying the service. The only problem is that there is a distracting guy in the back pews who won’t quit sobbing. He’s a bit of an eye sore. He kinda smells bad. His sobbing is making it a bit hard to concentrate on the sermon. But at the end of the sermon there is a call to prayer. John 3:16 guy gets up and prays “God I thank you for everything you have given me, I thank you that I am not like this man in the back. I have not done the things he has done or lived the life he has lived. Thank you that I have no reason to sob or mourn.” Most of the crowd furrow their brows and nod their heads in agreement. A few people look a bit shocked, but the sobbing man doesn’t even notice what John 3:16 guy said. He’s too busy sobbing with his head down, crying “Forgive me Lord, I am a wicked man.” Jesus asks, which of these men walks away in right standing with God. Hint: it’s not John 3:16 guy.There is a rightness that is wrong.
Solomon is caught in a trap. Every time he tries to do right, he becomes overly righteous. He begins to look down on people. “Why destroy yourself?” the wrong kind of rightness, in the end, kills a piece of your soul. The soul is supposed to be filled with life, vitality, and joy. The right kind of righteousness will do that for you. The wrong kind of righteousness will rob you of that. Are you following? Next verse.
Ecc. 7:17 “Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool– why die before your time?”
If you live wickedly, part of your soul dies here too. So don’t be overly righteous, and don’t be wicked. Simple enough, right? Next verse.
Ecc. 7:18 “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.”
Grasp what? Grasp righteousness. The right kind of righteousness. It’s a good thing. Solomon says that the one who fears god will find out a way to live out the right kind of righteousness, without being wicked and without slipping into being overly righteousness. The problem here is the next verse.
Ecc. 7:19 “Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city.”
The one who can figure out how to do this is smarter than ten men, not just men, but rulers of cities. Um… I’m not that smart. And I’ll readily admit that I can’t find this balance. Solomon himself says that he couldn’t find a way to do this.
Ecc.7:20 “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
Hmm? Solomon just backed us into a corner. Strive for righteousness, avoid wickedness, don’t be overly righteous. Oh yeah, and It’ll never work. You’ll never be righteous. The key to life is being righteous, and you have no chance. Next verse.
Ecc.7:21-22 “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.”
To sum this one up, we throw a spiritual, maybe even physical, tantrum anytime we are treated like we ourselves treat others. And in that moment, you will think about all of the good things you do instead of the fact that the things you are angry about, you have done to someone else. Your self-righteous. No one is right, because even their right is wrong.
Ecc. 7:23-24 All this I tested by wisdom and I said, “I am determined to be wise”– but this was beyond me. Whatever exists is far off and most profound– who can discover it?
So, the old testament tends to ask questions that the new testament answers. What Ecclesiastes shows us is that karma isn’t working for us. It’s broken and it leaves us with the question of “how then?” But in the midst of this confusion inside of us, Love steps in. let’s move on to Romans.
Romans 8:1 “Therefore, there is now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
Something has happened in Jesus that has removed the law of karma in our lives. You and I are worthy of condemnation because even our right is wrong and when we’re not doing the wrong kind of rightness, we’re being wicked. So, we deserve condemnation, but somehow in this man Jesus, there is NO condemnation for us. Whatever horrific things are in your past, there is no condemnation for it. Whatever things you’re doing now, there is no condemnation for it. Even now, those who are in Christ, God does not love some future version of you. He loves who you are now. He is pleased with you at this moment. He is, at this moment, proud of you. And the same goes for every moment in the future. So something happened in Jesus, and it is this thing that separates Biblical Christianity from all other religions out there, even what a lot of evangelicals teach.
Romans 8:2 “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
There was a shift in the leading law of your soul. God has replaced the law of karma with the law of King Jesus. Now the next verse is incredibly important.
Romans 8:3-4 “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, GOD DID by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by Zachariah, GOD DID.
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by ________, GOD DID.
Place your name in there. Jesus became flesh to absorb the reactions of your wickedness and over righteousness, and your weakness to overcome it, and died to pay the debt it created. Love stepped in, Grace paid the bill. Past, present, and future, your shortfalls and mistakes were condemned through Jesus, leaving you to walk the rest of your life out living in the spirit free from condemnation. This is the difference. It’s what separates us from every other religion and philosophy in the world. We don’t ascribe to karma, we ascribe to Grace.
Why am I writing all this? I think that Grace is this beautiful reality that most of us miss out on. Whether we admit it or not, we tend to just run back to karma over and over again. Maybe we just don’t meditate enough on what Jesus has done for us. Have you ever wondered why Christians worship in the way that we do, why we sing loud and out of key, with our hands raised, dancing (if you’re not Southern Baptist). It’s because we know that we didn’t do anything here. God did. It’s such an overwhelming reality to us. Worship is home to the soul. Some guy telling us a moral code to follow doesn’t lead us to worship. It’s the kindness of God. But so few of us sit and dwell on the cost of Grace that Christ paid to purchase us, and so we slip right back into karma. Its why I’m willing to bet many of you just don’t believe that God is pleased with you right now. Most of you have your eyes fixed on this future version of yourself where you’re the right kind of guy who God favors and enjoys. These sins that you’ve committed, you just don’t believe that the blood of Christ has covered them. So you try to do right to make up for it, and it’s the wrong kind of right.
Righteousness is a state of being, it’s the way we are. It’s not a list of actions. Hopefully you understand the title now. What have we done? The answer is nothing. God did it all.
Let me finish this with a couple of questions that I recommend you dwell on thoughtfully and honestly.
Are you currently defining your righteousness by what you do or do not do? If I were to walk up to you right now and ask, “Tell me why you are right before God. What makes you a good person?”, what would say?
Does God love you? Do you bring God joy? When he looks at you, is he pleased?
Special thanks to Matt Chandler and his podcast series on Ecclesiastes.