When the Judge is Crooked–Ecclesiastes 3:16-18

What happens when a high-schooler publicly insults the assistant principal on social media? When this happened in Judge Mark Ciavarella’s courtroom, the offender was sent to a juvenile detention facility. The problem with this “tough judge” was that he was receiving kick-backs from the owner of the for-profit detention facility. That might be the sort of thing Solomon had in mind when he spoke of “wickedness at the place of judgment”:

I also observed under the sun: there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness. I said to myself, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, since there is a time for every activity and every work.” I said to myself, “This happens so that God may test the children of Adam and they may see for themselves that they are like animals.”

Ecclesiastes 3:16-18

Lest we within the church grow too full of ourselves as we look at the corruption in government and justice systems, we need to remember that lots of bad things, not all of them newsworthy, have taken place on the church’s watch. From the unfathomable sin of sexual abuse by a senior pastor to the church member swiping a box of pens from the supply room, the “wickedness at the place of righteousness” is all too real.

Where are the hypocrites?

Hypocrites can be found in courtrooms and church-house for a very simple reason. People go to those places. There’s wickedness everywhere.

  • The climate advocates who fly around on private jets.
  • The free immigration advocates who build walls around their houses.
  • The actors who preach being happy with the simple life in multi-million-dollar roles.
  • The bank that claims to be on your side until you really need their help.

And of course there is hypocritical wickedness in your heart as well. At least I assume there is since there is such stuff in mine. And before you start judging me, we need to remember that the Apostle Paul had the same problem in Romans 7:15:

For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.

Why is everything such a mess?

Turn on the television news–something that I almost never do willingly–and you’re almost sure to see some story of incomprehensible wickedness. Again, it could be a woman being shot when she tried to break up a fight, a bunch of idiot adults brawling at a kids’ baseball game, or vandalism of the World War I memorial in Kansas City.

These stories leave a lot of people shaking their heads and asking a pointless question: What would make people do something like that?

What WOULD make people do something like that?

I called that question pointless because we all know the answer. People do unpleasant stuff because they are sinful. In the verse before the one quoted above, Paul provided a solid answer: For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold as a slave to sin.–Romans 7:14. Specifically, we’re slaves to

  • Pride
  • Covetousness
  • Lust
  • Anger
  • Greed

That’s five of the “seven deadly sins,” and I’m pretty sure that gluttony and sloth cause some of our public wickedness as well, but they’re just not quite so active.

Just like in Solomon’s day, the flesh is “under the sun.” As long as we are “under the sun” and in the flesh, we’re going to see this wickedness.

Getting in Tune

Rather than shaking our head at the wickedness we see around us, we need to acknowledge what this text says. We are like animals, and similar, although perhaps less visible, wickedness abounds in us.

Your prayer should be that God will more and more reveal your wickedness and help you to overcome it. If millions of Christians were to take that seriously, then the contrast with the Judge Ciavarellas of this world would become more pronounced and perhaps they’d not get away with their wickedness quite so long.

Rule #2: Maximize Inner Motivation

torah-scrollRecently, I shared my observations on an article called “Ten Rules Fit People Live By.” Since I was rather critical of the author of that piece, I’ve decided to see if I could do better by examining each of the rules in the light of Biblical teaching. You can check out Rule #1 here. 

The second rule, shared, like all of them, by a personal trainer named Joel Harper, is Maximize Inner Motivation. Here’s how the author explains that.

To do this you need to be absolutely clear about why you want to get fit. “Figure out what’s really important to you,” Harper urges. “Do you want to lower your blood pressure? Fit into a size two? Or do you just want to feel better?” Motivation that lasts can’t come from an outside source—like your doctor or a loved one who wants you to slim down. It has to come from a personal, deep-rooted desire for change.

Rule #2 is a sort of common-place of self-help literature. According to those writers, you can’t get motivation externally. You have to want something yourself in order to achieve it. This theory is related to the widespread lie, “You can do anything if you want it badly enough.”

I have to admit that I somewhat agree with Rule #2. It wasn’t social pressure or Penny or any other outside force that had me at the gym this morning lifting weights or out on the streets in Independence putting in 6 miles. That was all me.

On the other hand, if inner motivation were really the ultimate force in the universe, then why does the military employ butt-kicking drill instructors? Why do we need police to keep people from driving like maniacs? Couldn’t we save a lot of money and effort by just teaching everyone to self-motivate? Those motivational posters aren’t all that expensive!

There are limits to inner motivation. From a spiritual perspective, those limits seem to live in the space between our redeemed souls and our sin-afflicted bodies. Paul understood this limit well as he explains in Romans 7:21-25:

 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

When I ran that 6 miles this morning, my intention was to maintain a 9-minute pace along the way. What I found was that I couldn’t do it. But that’s a lie. What I found was that I didn’t want to do it badly enough to endure the complaints of my heart and lungs. I don’t believe that I actually sinned by falling off of that pace, but the descent into sin, the fall from intention to execution, is similar to what Paul describes here.

I’m at peace with my slightly disappointing run this morning, but there are other places in my life when inner motivation utterly fails, places where I need to imagine Christ watching me, where I need exterior motivation. In 1 Kings 8, during his prayer of dedication for the temple, Solomon prays that people, aware of their sins, will spread “out their hands toward this temple.” He doesn’t urge the people to look inward but to look at the temple, an external, physical symbol of God’s presence and power.

Rule #2 isn’t utter foolishness, but it is a limited thing. For the truly important things in life, exterior motivation is often a necessity.