When Life's Brief and Unpredictable (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)

Let me tell you how I think life is supposed to work. If you are a good person, love God, and do your best, then your life should go well. If you’re a bad person, and you hate God, and you’re undisciplined and lazy, then your life shouldn’t go well. The better you are, the better your life should go. It’s really like when you go to a candy machine. You put the money in; if you put the right amount of money in the machine, then the machine whirs, the candy drops, and you walk away getting what you paid for.

Here’s how life actually seems to work. If you are a good person and love God and do your best, all kinds of bad things still seem to happen. I know all kinds of people who deserve bad things, but their lives seem to be going pretty well. On the other hand, I know people who seem to do everything right, but they’ve had nothing but trouble in their lives. Every week I meet with good people who live well, but face huge problems in their lives: sickness, unemployment, burnout, family problems, and more.

So, in contrast to the way I would expect life to work, here’s what life is actually like: It’s like when you go to a candy machine, you put in the money, and nothing happens.

That’s essentially the message of the passage that we have in front of us. We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, and the Teacher has been trying to draw some conclusions. He’s observed life, and he wants us to confront the hard reality before he tells us what we should do. This passage confronts us with the hard reality of how little we know, and the vast extent of what we cannot handle. You are not in control. Life does not work the way we’d expect.

So this morning I want to do two things and two things only. First, let’s look at the problem so that we can be sure we’re seeing life as it is rather than how we wish it was. Second, let’s look at how to live in light of the brevity and unpredictability of life.

So first, let’s look at problem.

The Teacher says in verse 1 of chapter 9:

But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.

Here’s what he’s saying. The Teacher has just been examining the seemingly random nature of life. In chapters 7 and 8 he’s been struggling with the question of why bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. How can a good and powerful God allow this to happen? As he comes to chapter 9, he says he’s been thinking about this. He’s come to two conclusions. One: our lives are in the hand of God. God is sovereign. Life is not random. God is in control of what happens, even if we can’t figure it out. So far, so good. But he also comes to a second conclusion: nobody can tell whether God loves us or is angry with us. If you just looked at the events of life, you would really have no idea whether God is for you or against you, because life is very harsh.

St. Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said, "God, if that's how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few! "That’s not too far off from what the Teacher is saying. For good measure, the Teacher deals with two topics that really bring home the difficulty of trying to live in this world. There are a couple of things that are stacked against us that really make it difficult to know whether God is for us or against us.

First: death. See what the Teacher says in verses 2 to 6. Let me summarize what he says: we all die, and the dead have nothing. In verses 2 and 3, he says that the same event happens to everyone. It happens to both the righteous and the wicked. Everyone dies. In verses 4 to 6, he says that it’s much better to be a live. Of course, we say. The living have hope, he says in verse 4. They didn’t think much of dogs back in that day, but they thought a lot of lions. The Teacher says that a live dog is still way better than a dead lion. The dead, the Teacher says, lose everything.

  • no memory
  • no more reward
  • no remembrance of their lives
  • no more emotions - no love, hate, or envy

They will have no more share in everything that takes place in this world.

The Teacher is saying that death is kind of a bum deal. It’s hard to know if God is for us or against us when we all have to confront the brutal reality of death. As good as life is, there’s still death to deal with at the end. It’s like if someone dropped you from the CN Tower. The ride down would be all kinds of fun, but the ending not so much. If you think about it, life is like that. No matter what you experience in this life, there’s still the brutal reality of death at the end.

A medical student once came to see his pastor after dissecting his first cadaver. The student was shaken from the experience. As he cut through the muscle and other tissue to expose the internal organs, he said to himself, “If this is all that we become at death, what is the point of anything?”

This is all pretty depressing, but it’s reality. The Teacher isn’t going to settle for simple answers here. When you look at life, you have to realize that we have some things stacked against us, not the least of which is death.

But there’s more. It’s not just death that’s stacked against us. In verses 11 to 12, he says that life is not only brief; it’s also unpredictable. Verses 11 and 12 say:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

I don’t know any passage that does a better job of confronting the lies we tell ourselves about the way that life is supposed to work. If you’re at a race, which runner do you think is going to win? The fast one, of course. But not always. In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, American runner Lola Jones was expected to win the gold in hurdles. She was known to be the fastest in the world. But she tripped on the ninth hurdle and came in not first but seventh. The race is not to the swift. Life is unpredictable.

Which army wins in battle? Goliath was huge and strong. He had won many battles. He had impressive armor. But a young, inexperienced rookie with no equipment came out and took him on, and won. The mighty Goliath died. The battle isn’t always to the strong. Life is unpredictable.

Who’s going to succeed in life? The Teacher gives three types of people we think are going to do well: the wise, the intelligent, and the skillful. These are voted most likely to succeed in school. Everyone recognizes their talents. But go to a high school reunion years later, and who has actually made it? Not the people that you would have expected. Life is unpredictable.

You are not in control. We are not in control of our destinies. Accidents can cause us to fall short of our goal. Time and chance happen to everyone. Life is not only brief, but it’s unpredictable.

The Teacher gives one more example of this in verse 12:

For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

You’ve probably seen videos of the disaster in Japan. When the earthquake began, people were going about their business. There was no real warning. Disaster fell suddenly upon them. It’s like birds who are taken in a snare or fish that are taken in a net. There’s no warning. Disaster can overtake us like that.

I realize that this is depressing, but it’s so important that we realize this. The Teacher is helping us grasp that life does not work the way that we expect. Good things to not always happen to good people. Bad things do not always happen to bad people. Life is brief and uncertain. Looking at the events of life, it’s hard to know judging only from the events if God is for us or against us.

In a minute we’re going to look at what the Teacher says in light of this reality. What do we do with the fact that life is brief and uncertain? Do we just throw up our hands in despair? How are we supposed to live knowing that this is what life is like?

Before we do that, though, I need to make a couple of pastoral applications here. The first one is to encourage you to really get this so that you’re not surprised when the tough times come, and that you don’t go looking for easy answers when there aren’t any. There are whole groups of people who promise that if you are a good Christian, that you will experience good health, financial prosperity, and happiness. Your marriage will flourish, your kids will all get As and get married and have no problems. You won’t get sick. You will live long and prosper. It’s like a Christian version of Napoleon Dynamite’s campaign promise: live right, and all your dreams will come true. That’s not what the Bible teaches. I’ve been pastor long enough to know that really horrible things happen to really good people for no apparent reason. We need to stop being surprised by suffering.

The other thing I want to do is to say that we need a way of living that can face up to these realities - including death. I once brought home a carload of sod in my car. My car isn’t built to carry a heavy load. I got the sod home, but the shocks were at their full capacity. That car wasn’t meant to carry that kind of weight. We need a faith that can carry the weight of the type of life that the Teacher describes. We need a faith that can withstand the brief and uncertain nature of life. Otherwise we have a faith that’s not going to be of any use when the hard times come.

How do we live in light of this brief and unpredictable life?

Verses 7 to 10 say:

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

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 at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

The first time you read this, you may wonder how you can get from what he’s just said - life is brief and unpredictable - to this. This seems to contradict everything that he’s been saying about the frustration of life under the sun. But what he says here is very important, and we need to hear this.

Let me give you an example. You know that we were away over March Break. We had a great time. The last day I was wishing that we could stay another week. Our place was great. I was with my family. The weather was beautiful. Everything was absolutely perfect. But it was all ending, and the next day we would be going home. I could have spent the last day not enjoying the sunshine and family and vacation. In fact, there were a couple of times I slipped into this during the day. Or, I could squeeze every moment of enjoyment from the vacation as long as it lasted, not in spite of the fact that my vacation was brief and unpredictable but because of it. That’s what the Teacher is saying here. Instead of falling into despair over the brevity and unpredictability of life, use that knowledge to enjoy every minute that God gives you. Enjoy every good gift that God has given you as long as it lasts.

The Teacher mentions a few pleasures we should enjoy.

One is food and drink. Don’t rush through your meals, the Teacher says. Don’t gulp down your food. God made us so that we don’t just eat to live; he made us so we can enjoy it. He’s provided us with a rich variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, meats, and spices, all for our enjoyment. So “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” Psalm 104:15 says that God gives “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart.”

Then, in verse 8, “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.” In the Teacher’s time, white garments and oil were symbols of joy. When people were sad they wore sackcloth, and they put ashes on their head. It’s like the Teacher is saying: get out the nice clothes from the back of the closet. Do your hair if you have any. Get out there and enjoy the night. Enjoy your life.

He then gets more specific: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love..” I have to be honest and confess that I did not always appreciate my wife as I should have. There was a time when I was more likely to grumble about my wife than to enjoy her. It’s hard to imagine now, because I honestly see my wife as one of God’s greatest gifts in my life. I have no reason to complain. The Teacher says that we should not give up until we get to the point at which we can find enjoyment and pleasure and contentment in the marriage that we have. For some of you right now, this is hard to imagine. Trust me: it’s worth fighting for. The Teacher isn’t all sentimental and unrealistic about marriage. You’ll notice how the verse ends: “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 at which you toil under the sun.” Your life is not going to be without difficulties - so find joy in your marriage.

There are people who think that true spirituality is joyless. If you laugh, you’re in danger of compromising your faith. When you smile, they think, the devil smiles. Nothing can be further from the truth. Enjoying God’s gifts is true spirituality.

C.S. Lewis wrote a fictional book from the perspective of a senior devil trying to tempt a junior devil. I’ll never forget the senior devil chiding the junior devil because he allowed his patient - the human that he was trying to tempt - to read a book he enjoyed, and take an enjoyable walk and have some tea. “Where you so ignorant as not to see the danger in this?” he asks. “How could you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet?” There’s something profound there. We were meant to enjoy this life, not despite the brevity and unpredictability of life, but because of it.

How do we do this? How can we live so that even though life is brief and unpredictable, we can find joy in this life? In the beginning, God created the world so that we would love him and enjoy him and all of his good gifts forever. Sin entered the world and destroyed all of this. But now Jesus has died and he’s risen again to save us from our enslavement to sin, so that we could live life as he intended from the beginning: enjoying our food and drink; wearing the best clothes; enjoying our spouses; finding joy and peace even when things are hard.

When we see that life is a gift from God, we will enjoy the gift. When we see that life is brief, but that God has granted eternal life to those who accept Christ’s gift, then we’ll understand that death is not the end. When we see that God is for us, we’ll have a faith that will withstand even the most difficult times. We’ll find joy in this brief and unpredictable life. We’ll be able to say, “

Former White House secretary Tony Snow returned to work after five weeks of cancer treatment. He said, “Not everybody will survive cancer. But on the other hand, you have got to realize that you’ve got the gift of life, so make the most of it.” That’s what the Teacher is saying. And by God’s grace, and especially because of what Jesus has done, that’s exactly what we’ll do.

Let’s pray.

Living with Adversity (Ecclesiastes 6:10-7:14)

A couple of years ago I took my son to see the Pixar animated movie Up about the last adventure of a 78-year-old balloon salesman named Carl Fredricksen. I thought I was going to see a fun story. I wasn’t prepared for one poignant, four-minute scene.

The scene is wordless. The vignette starts with a brief glimpse of Carl and Ellie's wedding day, and then moves to their first home and first jobs. The couple race up a grassy hill together, then look up at the sky and imagine pictures forming in the clouds. Then the clouds are all shaped like babies, and then Carl and Ellie are painting a nursery together. It's an idyllic look at young love and marriage.

But this isn't an idyllic life. The scene shifts to Carl and Ellie in a hospital room with pre-natal diagrams on the walls. A doctor is talking and gesturing. Ellie is weeping into her hands. Next, Carl comforts his wife by reminding her of an old dream they shared when they were children—traveling to a place called Paradise Falls together. Rejuvenated, Ellie creates a dream jar labeled "Paradise Falls," and into the jar goes all of the young couple's spare money.

Again, however, life happens. First their car pops a tire. Then Carl visits the hospital. Then a tree falls and damages the roof of their home. Each of these inconveniences necessitates the dream jar be smashed and the money spent. Soon, Carl and Ellie have gray in their hair. And in a flash they become elderly.

Near the end of the vignette, Carl remembers their dream of visiting Paradise Falls, and he purchases two tickets from a travel agency. But Ellie collapses on her way back up the grassy hill from their youth. We see her in a hospital bed, with Carl holding her hand and kissing her forehead. Then we see Carl sitting alone at the front of a church. He holds a solitary balloon in his hand. The vignette closes as Carl carries the balloon into his house, which has turned cold and gray. The balloon is a lone spot of color against the gloom, and then everything fades to black. In four minutes you see a lifetime come and go.

It's a wonderful triumph of filmmaking. But more importantly, the series of clips and scenes is a portrayal of the human story. Our lives are fun, deep, tragic, and tender. But they are also brief—"a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14). The scene ends, and you’re left thinking about the brevity of your life. It’s brief, filled with both tenderness and tragedy. How do we live in a world that’s short and filled with so much beauty, but also so much that’s tragic and out of our control?

That’s exactly what the book of Ecclesiastes is about. We’re at the midpoint of the book. Let me give you the abridged version of what the Teacher has examined so far. He’s examined life to try to find meaning. He’s looked at all the ways that we try to find meaning and fulfillment in life - pleasure, work, riches, and even social justice - and he’s found that none of them provide the meaning we’re looking for. He calls it all vanity. Everything, the writer says, is fleeting, elusive, and very temporary.

That’s been the message of the book so far. We’re now in the second half of the book. The second half of Ecclesiastes is about the conclusions that the Teacher is drawing. Given that we can’t find meaning in pleasure, work, or riches, how then should we live?

How do we live when we’re not in control, and when we don’t know what’s good for us?

The problem is put in stark terms in 6:10-12:

Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 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? (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12)

Here’s what the Teacher is saying. The future, he says, is largely determined by God. God is sovereign; his will prevails. Whatever happens has already been determined by God in the past. We are so weak that we are not able to contend with God about his will. God is the powerful Creator; he is in control; we are mere creatures who cannot dispute with the sovereign Lord of the universe. We don’t know what’s coming. We don’t even know what’s good for us. The things that we think are good for us are often bad; the things we think are bad often end up being good for us. What’s more, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Will tomorrow be a good day? Or will tomorrow be a day of adversity? We don’t know. Will we be happy? Or will we be mourning? We don’t know. The future is hidden, and we’re not in control. How then do we live?

You know those antique car rides for kids? The cars run on a track, so they go wherever the track goes. The kids get in, and for the first time in their lives they have a steering wheel in front of them. They’ve never driven before. Dad’s beside them, and inevitably as the car comes up to the curve the Dad yells out in mock panic, “Turn! The curve’s ahead!” The kid turns, and in the back the Mom is rolling her eyes. You see, the kids aren’t in control of the car, even though they think they are. The track is. That car is going to go where the track wants it to go no matter how much the kid steers.

The Teacher is saying that we like to think we’re steering our lives. But we’re not. God is in control, and he is taking us exactly where he wants us to go. The problem is that we don’t know where he’s taking us, and we don’t even know if it’s good or bad. So how do we live in a world in which we’re not in control, and we don’t even know what’s good for us?

Well, the Teacher is no pessimist. Chapter 7 gives us the Teacher’s response to the question of how we should live in a world that’s out of our control, a world in which we don’t even know what’s good for us. At first it looks like he’s making a number of random comments in verses 1 to 13. They look like proverbs, like pithy statements that communicate basic truths. But there’s a theme to what he’s saying.

He’s been saying that God is in control of our lives, and not us. We can’t argue with God’s purposes, and we don’t even know what’s good for us. So how do we live when we’re not in control, and adversity may be coming our way? In chapter 7, the Teacher gives us the answer. He gives us three examples of things that could come our way that might be bad, and then argues that they’re actually good. The main point he’s making in this passage is this: God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad. There are three things that we normally think are bad, and that could come our way, but the Teacher says they can actually be good. These three things are death, rebuke, and persistence. Nobody would choose to experience these three things, but the Teacher says that they are actually better than if we avoid them.

First, death. Read verses 1-4 of chapter 7:

A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Here, the Teacher says, thinking about our death is better than living in denial. This is surprising at first. We can understand the first part of verse 1: “A good name is better than precious ointment.” Nobody would debate that. You know the value of a good name. You can buy ointment; you can’t buy a good name. But then he says that in the same way, the day of death is better than the day of birth. How does that make sense? One would think that there’s more joy at a birth than there is at a death. He goes on to say in verse 2 that it’s better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting. Is it really better to go to a funeral home than to a wedding reception? Few would say so. Then the Teacher gives us the reason why this is so: “for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”

Here’s the reason: because we can’t afford to live in denial of death. Everything in us wants to believe that we’ll never die. It’s so easy to buy into this, and there are a lot of products at Shoppers Drug Mart that will help you perpetuate this belief. We can’t afford to live in denial about the fact that our life is short, and that we will die.

A family from our church visited a crypt (Capuchin Crypt) in Rome this past summer. The crypt displays the skeletal remains of over four thousand bodies of its friars buried in its order. At first they were scandalized by this. As they were leaving the crypt, they came across a sign that explained the display: "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” All of a sudden it made sense. The display is a silent reminder that this is our future too.

Charles Spurgeon said this about death:

It is much nearer to us than we think. To those of you who have passed fifty, sixty, or 70 years of age, it must, of necessity, be very near. To others of us who are in the prime of life, it is not far off, for I suppose we are all conscious that time flies more swiftly with us, now, than it ever did. The years of our youth seem to have been twice as long as the years are, now, that we are men. It was but yesterday that the buds began to swell and burst—and now the leaves are beginning to fall and soon we shall be expecting to see old winter taking up his accustomed place. The years whirl along so fast that we cannot see the months which, as it were, make the spokes of the wheel! The whole thing travels so swiftly that the axle thereof grows hot with speed. We are flying, as on some mighty eagle’s wing, swiftly on towards eternity. Let us, then, talk about preparing to die. It is the greatest thing we have to do—and we have to do it soon—so let us talk and think something about it.

You’re not in control of your life, and you wouldn’t choose to encounter death. But it’s a good thing, because it keeps us from living in denial about our own future death, says the Teacher.

But there’s more. There’s a second thing that we’d rather avoid, but that can be very good for us.

Second, rebuke.

In verses 3 and 4, the Teacher has already told us that sorrow is a better teacher for us than laughter. Verses 5 and 6 continue this theme:

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fools;
this also is vanity.

The Teacher is drawing a contrast. On one hand you have boisterous laughter, the songs and the laughter of fools. You can picture the silly laughter of a group of friends who have had a bit too much to drink, or the locker room antics of a bunch of guys acting goofy. He compares this to the sound of crackling thorns under the pot - in Hebrew it’s a rhyme, sort of like saying that it sounds like “nettles crackling under kettles” (Phil Ryken). If you burn thorns, it will make a lot of noise, but it won’t last long, and it won’t give much heat. You can laugh and sing at a party, but it’s not likely that you’ll learn anything.

On the other hand, the Teacher says, is the rebuke of the wise. If you had to choose between door number one (laughter and singing) and door number two (the rebuke of the wise), which would you choose? The Teacher says that it’s far better to hear the rebuke of the wise. We need this. The rebuke of the wise can save our souls.

Tony Evans tells about the time that he was driving down a one-way street. All of a sudden he saw a car coming towards him. He was alarmed; that guy was totally wrong. He heard voices all around him trying to get his attention. It turns out that it wasn’t the other car that was going the wrong way; he was. They were trying to get his attention, to prevent him from going further down that road. He writes:

I suspected that there were two reasons for their concern. One is the damage that I could do to myself. The other is the damage I could do to others. They could have simply ignored it, and said, “That’s his business.” Or, they could do what they did, which is try to get my attention, because they understood that when you’re going the wrong way, somebody needs to confront you, so that you can reverse your direction.

Nobody goes looking for rebuke, but it’s needed. It’s better than the laughter of fools.

Finally, the Teacher says, there are occasions that call for patience.

Read verses 7 to 10:

Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

Here, the Teacher first cautions us against the abuse of power in verse 7. But then he tells us to take the long view as we look ahead. The end of a thing is better than the beginning, he says, and the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit. Don’t become nostalgic and long for the good old days, and don’t get impatient. When you’re in the middle of the muck, this is hard stuff! If you have a job you hate, you might long for the past, or want to escape from the present, but in the meantime you might miss what God wants to teach you if you just stick with it. If you’re trying to save a marriage, you might have to commit for the long haul before you see any payback. It’s easy to long for the old days or to want to give up, but hang in there. The end is better than the beginning, but you’ll never see it if you’re not patient.

Our temptation in adversity is always to look for the easy way out. It’s always tempting to look back in nostalgia or to look for a way out. How often do we miss the payback that comes from patiently enduring and looking to the end with true grit?

God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad. Look for what’s good even in the face of death, when being rebuked, and even in the middle of a situation you’d rather escape. These things aren’t what we’d choose, but there’s a lot of good in them if we’re willing to learn.

What’s really needed, the Teacher says, is wisdom. In verses 11 and 12, the Teacher sings the praises of wisdom. If you have wisdom you’ll be able to see the good even in what’s bad. Wisdom is as valuable as an inheritance or a small fortune. It’s even better, actually. It will give you life. When you’re wise you’ll be able to see the good even in what’s bad.

So here’s the conclusion in verses 13 and 14:

Consider the work of God:
who can make straight what he has made crooked?

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

Here’s what he’s saying: God is in control of your life. You don’t know what’s coming your way, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know what’s good and what’s bad. So enjoy the days of prosperity that God gives you! But even in the days of adversity, consider God. You don’t know what he’s up to. He has a purpose that you may not know about, so look for what’s good even in adversity. God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad.

Paul wrote:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

If God loved us enough to give us his Son, who took our sins and died for us willingly and out of great love, then we can trust that God has a purpose even when we don’t understand it, even when we are going through times of adversity.

In his book If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, author Randy Alcorn recalls when his friend, writer Ethel Herr, had a double mastectomy. Two months later doctors discovered that the cancer had spread. One of Herr's friends, shocked and fumbling for words, asked her, "And how do you feel about God now?" Reflecting on the moment the question was posed to her, Herr says:

As I sought to explain what has happened in my spirit, it all became clearer to me. God has been preparing me for this moment. He has undergirded me in ways I've never known before. He has made himself increasingly real and precious to me. He has given to me joy such as I've never known before—and I've no need to work at it, it just comes, even amidst the tears. He has taught me that no matter how good my genes are or how well I take care of my diet and myself, he will lead me on whatever journey he chooses and will never leave me for a moment of that journey. And he planned it all in such a way that step by step, he prepared me for the moment when the doctor dropped the last shoe … God is good, no matter what the diagnosis or the prognosis, or the fearfulness of the uncertainty of having neither. The key to knowing God is good is simply knowing him.

God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad.