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Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A superstar running back for the Indianapolis Colts, No. 28, refuses to take the field during training camp because he’s holding out for higher compensation. The team’s brass grudgingly decides to trade him.
No, we’re not talking about Jonathan Taylor, who, because of an ongoing contractual dispute may actually have been traded to another team by the time you receive this reflection.
We’re turning back the clock instead to 1999. Prior to the start of that season, the Colts traded Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams. Faulk had just given the Horseshoes five superb seasons, and he went on to set an all-time record for yards from scrimmage by a running back the following year, not to mention helping the Rams win Super Bowl XXXIV. Today Faulk is in the NFL Hall of Fame.
What in the world were the Colts thinking?
Actually, they were thinking strategically. They received two high draft picks in the trade with the Rams, and used their first round pick the following spring to select Edgerrin James. “Edge” went on to help Peyton Manning and the Colts win Super Bowl XLI. Today James is also in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Just in case you don’t have the slightest interest in pro football, let’s examine these happenings from another perspective – one that shines light on how our lives are unfolding every day.
When it comes to purpose – the reasons that we choose to do the things we do – philosophers and theologians distinguish between what is proximate and what is remote. Proximate actions are the ones that are staring us in the face. They demand our attention right now. That which is remote, on the other hand, reflects our ultimate hopes and dreams. Ideally, our proximate actions help us fulfill our remote purposes.
The Colts’ proximate quandary is what to do with Jonathan Taylor, their current No. 28. As recently as one week ago, it seemed inconceivable that they would consider trading their best player.
But if the Colts’ ultimate purpose is to win another Super Bowl – and as a Colts fan, I sincerely hope this is the case – they may end up making a proximate decision that, on the surface, seems ludicrous. Losing Taylor appears to be a step back. But in view of the ever-shifting fortunes of pro football, it’s just possible that “one step back” will open the door to “a giant leap forward.”
Theologian R.C. Sproul suggests that grasping the proximate and the remote helps us understand some of the Bible’s most important stories.
Jesus’ death, for instance, appeared to be an unmitigated disaster. Crucified messiahs were failed messiahs. Everybody in Israel knew that. His cause was now over and his friends scattered. But the proximate horror of Calvary is the very thing that enabled Jesus’ ultimate victory – Easter’s empty tomb and the gift of his resurrection life to all of his followers.
Likewise, consider the poignant meeting of Joseph and his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis.
Their father Jacob has died. The brothers, who had sold Joseph into slavery, discover that he has risen to a position of great power in Egypt. Now they expect payback, which they know they richly deserve. But in Genesis 50:20, Joseph sees the story in a different light: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” This is one of the most extraordinary statements in all of Scripture.
In the book Vanity and Meaning Sproul reflects, “Here the proximate and the remote seemed to be mutually exclusive. The divine intention was the exact opposite of the human intention. Joseph’s brothers had one goal; God had a different one. The amazing truth here is that the remote goal was served by the proximate one. This does not diminish the culpability of the brothers. Their intent was evil and their actions were evil. Yet it seemed good to God to let it happen so that his purpose might be fulfilled.” (emphasis mine)
This helps us understand an intriguing text in Ecclesiastes:
“Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future” (7:13-14).
Here the author is insisting that God is the artist behind both our good times and our bad times – always with an aim to fulfilling his ultimate purposes. But in the present moment, we often struggle to see where things are going.
This can be hard to accept.
Proximate events can seem to unravel our worlds. An egocentric boss, a raging spouse, a drunk driver, or a cancerous tumor can change everything we thought was safe and predictable about the world. Not a few people, overcome by such shocks, lose faith that a gracious God can possibly be orchestrating the flow of history, let alone our private histories.
Therefore they affirm the author’s opening salvo: “Meaningless!” (1:2) Everything is hebel. Life is leading nowhere.
But proximate events – which may come across as disappointments or even tragedies – can only be judged in light of the remote. As Sproul observes, “Our problem is this: We do not yet possess the full light of the remote.”
What we do know is that God is able to use what we judge to be major steps in reverse as the primary means of accomplishing his ultimate purposes.
We may not be able to comprehend how things that happen to us today can possibly be part of a larger happy story. But we do know why we trust God – the God who assures us that he is weaving a narrative that will leave all of us stunned, at the end, by its goodness and beauty.
Today may feel like Good Friday. But Easter is coming.
And the possibility that the Indianapolis Colts will be playing in the Super Bowl at the end of this season?
I’d say the chances are remote.
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