Proverbs 25 — Seasons of Songs and Sorrow

Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.

–Proverbs 25:20 (ESV)

As the final scene of William Shakespeare’s King Lear opens, we see the villainous Edmund sending Lear and his beloved daughter Cordelia to prison. Cordelia is looking for some hope of escaping this fate, but Lear responds with this beautiful speech:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon us the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.

King Lear, Act V, scene 3, lines 8-17

Singing in prison, at the lowest point in your life, brings to mind the song of Paul and Silas in the prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25). We can reach even further back to King Saul, who was beset by a “harmful spirit”. Scripture tells us that “whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1 Sam. 16:23). When we are at our wit’s end, when nothing else can be done, it seems that we humans like to reach for music. Music gets past our defenses and allows us to “take upon us the mystery of things”. Singing when imprisoned in mind, body, or spirit is an act of desperation, yes, but also an act of defiance and of hope. It says to whatever it is that assails us, be it an enemy spiritual or temporal or just the pitiless workings of fate, that we are (in the words of St. Paul) “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). Where there is music, there is life and where there is life, there is hope.

Which makes it all the more perplexing that Proverbs tells us not to offer a song to those with heavy hearts. It’s either unkind, like removing someone’s coat when they’re already cold, or (at best) a useless show, like pouring vinegar on baking soda. The problem here seems to be one of attitude. Many people get very uncomfortable when confronted with strong negative emotions. So they will try to diffuse the situation by pretending everything is o.k. or offering trite optimism as the cure. Saying things like “it could be worse” or “there’s a reason for everything” show little compassion for the felt suffering of another person. The number of times I’ve heard well-meaning people tell someone who is mourning a death that their dead husband or sister or child “is in a better place now” makes me cringe. Suffering people do not need our platitudes and they don’t want us to pretend that everything is alright, as if “good” Christians never experience pain. Instead, we are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), just as Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35). Of course, we are not to be maudlin either, wallowing in grief and mutual self-pity. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:1, 4). We are to be sensitive to the “season” that other people are in and measure our response to them in accordance with that. To laugh and dance while those we love mourn and weep demonstrates a callous disregard for their suffering, just as dampening their good news with pessimism would steal their joy. It is the height of pride to insist that our own feelings and experiences should have priority over the feelings and experiences of those around us. As the Body of Christ in particular, we should experience it all, good and bad, together.

The NRSV, alone among all the English translations I can find, adds another line to this verse that comes from the Greek (Septuagint), Syriac, and Aramaic (Targum) versions of the Old Testament, but is absent from the standard Hebrew Masoretic Text: “Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood, sorrow gnaws at the human heart.” Whether or not it’s a later addition, it certainly is a resonant pair of images. Moths and worms silently and subtly destroy the integrity of clothing and wood (respectively). So does sorrow insidiously creep into our minds and hearts to steal the joy, peace, and hope that are our birthright as children of God. It is a deeply interior thing, unable to be shared even with those closest to us. We can’t really feel or even understand the secret sorrow of another. What we can do is stay with them, be present, and listen. We can, like Lear and Cordelia, pray together and tell old tales and even (as it is called for) laugh and sing. To love another person is to take upon ourselves the mystery of things, to be God’s spies on this enemy-occupied Earth we call home (for now). As a human being, you are the imago Dei, the image of God. Let us be that for one another, in joy and sorrow, in hope and despair, in life and death.

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Proverbs 24 — The Source of our Strength

If you do nothing in a difficult time, your strength is limited.

–Proverbs 24:10 (CSB)

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, letter 29). It is easy to tout your own virtues when there is nothing on the line. In times of prosperity, safety, and good fortune, we can all afford to be generous and forgiving and morally upright. But our real mettle is only tested when trouble comes. Indeed, I think this is the main reason that God allows so much suffering in this world. The only way to truly become holy is to triumph over adversity, to face temptation and defeat it. The only way out is through, or, as Winston Churchill put it, “when you’re going through hell, keep going”. Resurrection requires a man to die, and we will only get the crown if we bear our cross. That is why Paul admonishes us to “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4; cf. James 1:2-4). There is always a certain amount of suffering in bettering yourself, whether it be the bodily pain of exercise, the mental toil of study, or the emotional upheaval of an intimate relationship. To spend our lives primarily concerned with avoiding suffering is to deny ourselves the chance to build an enduring character, filled with wisdom and virtue.

Many people today seem to have just given up. They aren’t trying to make the world a better place; heck, they aren’t even trying to make themselves any better. We see this particularly with young men, who are avoiding marriage and (in many cases) regular employment to lose themselves in video games, social media, and pornography. While this is usually chalked up to laziness, I think there is a different culprit: fear. The adult responsibility that comes with employment, marriage, and parenthood can be a terrifying prospect, and it can be easier to just not try than to make an attempt and risk failure and humiliation. And because strength is built through practice (just as lifting weights builds a muscle), this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fear of failure leads to inaction which leads to anger and depression which leads to actual failure to live up to one’s calling. Looking at the state of the world right now, the temptation to just throw up our hands and let it all burn is very strong. Why bother? Nothing I do will make a difference anyway because I’m not rich or beautiful or powerful enough for anyone to care about me. In the famous quote from Thucydides: “the strong do what they can and weak suffer what they must”. Indeed, our strength is limited.

But what is the source of our strength? Does it come from our own willpower and mental fortitude? Of course not. In comparison to God, our strength should be accounted the ultimate weakness, for “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25, NIV). Indeed, we can do nothing in our own power to save the world, and, as the Collect for 3 Lent in the Book of Common Prayer so aptly puts it, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”. It’s all grace. Only through practicing the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit can we hope to act in these hopeless times. And God has promised through the Scripture to give us all the strength we need to endure:

  • The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace. (Ps. 29:11)
  • [The Lord] gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. (Is. 40:29)
  • The Lord is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed. (Ps. 28:8)
  • Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Is. 41:10)
  • But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
  • I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:13)

So let us fight the temptation to apathy and defeatism. We cannot just stand around and wait for the world to change. We are Christ’s hands and feet. Have courage and trust in the Lord. Stand firm in the strength of God and the truth of the gospel in these difficult times, trusting that God is faithful and that His grace never fails.

Proverbs 23 — The Forgotten Deadly Sin

Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.

–Proverbs 23:20-21 (ESV)

Of the seven deadly sins, I think gluttony is the most neglected. I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon, even in passing, condemn this particular kind of sin. The closest you will come is disapproval of drunkenness, and even that ends up tilting away from advising moderation into calls for the absolute prohibition of alcohol. Indeed, Christians seem to have difficulty finding the Aristotelean “golden mean” when it comes to the issue of food and drink. On the one hand, we just ignore prohibitions against gluttony and eat to great excess and to great financial cost (which money could have been used for better Kingdom purposes). On the other hand, we have calls to severe asceticism, either teetotalism or a sort of body-hating regimen of fasting and exercise. Lost in all this is the idea of treating your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and an image bearer of God. Gluttony is not about food, really. It is about our attitude toward the gifts God gives us and learning to use them wisely. Among the most precious gifts we have is our body, and we ought to take care of it as such. This means learning to love our body (even when it is unlovable) and giving it what it needs to thrive. You already know what that means: eating healthy food in a moderate way; getting adequate sleep; not abusing drugs, tobacco, or alcohol; exercising; visiting the doctor and dentist for regular check-ups; treating sickness and injury seriously and carefully. Gluttony is a form of self-hatred in that we abuse our body with excessive food or drink. And given that we are children of God by virtue of our baptism, self-hatred is really just hatred toward God. Gluttony is not a minor sin, because, like sexual immorality, it is a sin against your own body. The obesity epidemic in our country is sign enough that we are not treating this sin with the gravity that it deserves. While we ought never to shame someone for being overweight, we ought to examine ourselves to see if our lifestyle is having a deleterious effect on our body. Because if our body is out of shape or sick (or drunk), we cannot be effective witnesses to the love of God in the world.

I should point out that there is one other way we can miss the “golden mean” when it comes to gluttony. A person who is overly-fastidious or snobbish about food may feel like their actually being virtuous when they are actually committing an insidious form of sin. In letter 17 of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s devil Screwtape points out that the “patient’s” mother is enslaved to gluttony to the exact extent that she demands small portions at dinner:

What do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?…She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile “Oh please, please… all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast”. You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practicing temperance…her belly now dominates her whole life.

The Screwtape Letters, Letter 17

As for the young man Wormwood is tempting, Screwtape advises turning him into a snob about food, so that whenever he doesn’t get a delicacy he likes or whenever his food is prepared incorrectly, he becomes angry and uncharitable. In addition, Screwtape points out that lack of discipline about food can also lead to unchastity. You see how gluttony can so easily metastasize?

The last point to make is the connection of gluttony with sloth that our verses from Proverbs emphasize. This is the attitude of “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Is. 22:13; 1 Cor. 15:32). If we are alive, we have a vocation from the Lord; this is true even for those who are retired or physically incapable of holding down a job. As much as we would like to sit around indulging in food and drink, that is a sure road to poverty and ruin. Even when we do work hard to provide for ourselves, if we do it for gluttonous motives, we will also regret it. That’s the message of the parable of the rich fool, who tears down his barns to build bigger ones and then says “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). The man dies that very night and all the food he had intended for himself went to others. So we see how gluttony leads to greed. I think the bigger point here is that all sin from gluttony to lust to sloth to greed is connected. Each feeds into the other, and sin in one area always makes sin in other areas worse. So let us not allow ourselves the indulgence of “minor” sins, but commit to holiness in every aspect of our lives, body and soul.

Proverbs 22 — Protecting the Boundaries

Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.

–Proverbs 22:28 (ESV)

One of the most important and most under-taught principles in right thinking is a concept known as Chesterton’s Fence. It’s named for the great British writer (and Christian apologist) G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). I’ll let the man himself explain the concept:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

G.K. Chesterton “The Thing” (1929)

In our day and age, we have a gleeful willingness to tear down every institution and idea that got us this far in order to build a more ideal world. Capitalism is repressive, so let’s overthrow it; marriage is a tool of the patriarchy, so let’s abolish it; religion is the opiate of the masses, so let’s destroy it. There seems to be little reflection about why these institutions and ideas exist to begin with. We seem to just think our ancestors were ignorant and repressed and bigoted, and the sooner we move on the better. This is certainly the case when it comes to issues of Biblical morality and religious practices and institutions. Ironically, many of the people yelling the loudest for individual liberty, women’s rights, and for trusting science don’t seem to realize that all three of these concepts (and many more like them) are a patrimony passed down by Christianity (for a terrific book on this topic, which also serves as a nice introduction to Church history, see Dominion by Tom Holland [who is a non-Christian, and is also not Spider-Man]). People want to have the fruits of Christian virtue without Christianity (or virtue). We act surprised that our culture is in such bad shape when it could hardly be any other way. In another famous passage, C.S. Lewis points out the problem: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (The Abolition of Man, p.26).

I am broadly interpreting today’s proverb, which deals with a specific kind of crime against our ancestors. Boundary stones were set up to mark off a person’s property and to move them was to encroach upon another person’s claim (see also Prov. 23:10). This constitutes theft. Indeed, this crime is serious enough that it reaches above the level of proverb to the force of Law: “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess” (Deut. 19:14). Desiring our neighbor’s inheritance is a form of envy, the covetousness condemned in the Tenth Commandment. Indeed, envy explains many of the problems in our society today. Those who have less envy those with more, be it money, power, or privilege. So they attempt to enact revenge, if not literally, then figuratively through making being part of a certain class, race, sex (etc.) unvirtuous or “problematic”. Hence the rage against “the patriarchy” (aka men), the 1% (or anyone richer than me; my wealth is, of course, fairly earned), and “white privilege” (in which even bankrupt white opioid addicts in Appalachia are “privileged” when compared with a wealthy black CEO because of their race). This leads to calls for a total reordering of our society, up to and including repudiated free speech and freedom of religion; abolishing law enforcement; and enacting (de-facto) communism. And, no, I’m not going to “both sides” this particular issue. While reactionary conservatives have little respect for “boundary stones” like freedom of the press, their ideas do not command the respect and power of the universities, the media, Hollywood, and the federal bureaucracy like the radicals’ ideas do. I think the Bible calls us to be “conservative” in the sense that we protect Chesterton’s fence and uphold the traditions of our fathers and mothers in the faith.

The solution to all of our societal problems will not be found in political solutions and certainly not in destroying everything, whether for radical or reactionary purposes. The way things are now is, indeed, unacceptable. We live in a fallen world. But we cannot save the world, and even our best efforts and best intentions don’t amount to a hill of beans (to quote Rick from Casablanca). Only Jesus can save us, and He does that one person at a time, by turning us into new creations in Him. And there is only one institution that will be the instrument of lasting change, because it is the only institution that will last forever. I mean, of course, the United States government. I kid, I kid, of course, I mean the Church, the Bride of Christ, who is being prepared even now for her Bridegroom. And as we build the Church, we must protect her boundary stones from those who would move them to make them more “inclusive” of the world and, thus, of sin. Let us always stand for the Truth, conserving the patrimony passed down to us, and preaching the one and only gospel of Jesus Christ. The world will rage against us, but our Lord promises that His Church will stand forever.

Proverbs 21 — The Sacrifice That God Requires

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

–Proverbs 21:3 (ESV)

The most famous version of this proverb is in the book of Micah, which is worth quoting in full: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:6-8). The Old Testament never preached works righteousness. The sacrificial system was never intended to justify sinners “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). God would never be pleased with burnt offerings alone, but rather He wanted to see changed hearts (Ps. 40:6-8; Heb. 10:5-9). Proverbs 21:3 offers the two pillars of wisdom and godliness: righteousness and justice. Righteousness is about personal holiness and moral living, while justice is about the way we deal with our neighbors and order society. In a way, righteousness fulfills the command to love God, while justice fulfills the command to love our neighbor. In Micah’s formulation, we do justice and love kindness (Heb. chesed “mercy, goodness, lovingkindness”; akin to agape) in order to walk humbly with God.

People love to pit St. Paul and St. James against each other. On the one hand, Paul says that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28), while James says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). But notice that Paul is speaking of works of the law. While Paul would certainly say that good works writ large cannot save, the main point of his doctrine of justification (as presented in the books of Romans and Galatians in particular) was that the Torah in general and the sacrificial system in particular could not justify. This concept actually unites the epistles of Paul with the epistle of James. Paul decries people who think that being circumcised is enough without demonstrating faith in Christ, while James upholds the moral aspects of the Law and says that lawbreakers stand under God’s judgment (see Jas. 2:8-13). Paul lambastes “religious” people who enslave believers to religious rituals that avail nothing, and James similarly upholds that true religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas. 1:27; in other words, practice justice and righteousness). And, of course, our Lord Jesus was constantly reminding the Pharisees that outward religious ritual did not matter without a changed heart (see Matt. 23:23-28).

My point in all this is that Scripture speaks in a single voice on this issue. We are saved by grace through faith, as Proverbs 20:9 says: “who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?”” This means that worship, confession, tithing, and the like (while all good things) cannot make us right with God. If we are doing these things with wrong intentions or just out of a sense of duty, they won’t do anyone any good (least of all us). Only by loving God (in righteousness) and loving our neighbor (in justice) can we truly please God. We can only do this by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. So we must, ironically, be faithful in prayer and worship and study and service. We do these things not to earn heaven so that we can live like hell, but rather so that we can become more like Christ every day. Therefore, let us offer not the sacrifice of empty religion, but instead the sacrifice of our very lives, which is the only sacrifice the Lord requires

Proverbs 20 — Keeping Our Promises

Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?…It is a snare to say rashly, “It is holy,” and to reflect only after making vows.

–Proverbs 20:6, 25 (ESV)

“I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:34, 37). These words of Jesus have lead to a lot of conflict and misinterpretation. Many people will not swear on a Bible in a court of Law due to this command (opting instead to “affirm” that they will tell the truth, which strikes me as a distinction without a difference). This command comes in the midst of a series of interpretations (or re-interpretations) of the Law by our Lord. The Law says “don’t murder” while Jesus says “don’t be angry”; the Law says “don’t commit adultery” and Jesus says “don’t lust”; the Law says “you must have a certificate to divorce” but Jesus says “don’t get divorced at all”. The command against oaths is along the same line. Jesus does not outright condemn taking vows (he’s a fan of marriage, after all), but He is interested in the attitude of our hearts. Many Jews at the time seemed to think that if you took a vow by anything less than the Lord (for example, by your property or even your life), the consequences were less dire. Also, swearing an oath was often no more than a bargaining chip — the person making the promise had no more intention of keeping it after taking the vow than before. By swearing an oath, especially while doing business, you are implying that your can be trusted only when doing so. If I’m not swearing an oath, it makes it okay to be shady in my dealings. In this chapter of Proverbs, we see a number of admonitions not to cheat others in business (e.g. v. 23: “The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him”). Jesus cuts through all of it by saying that you should always be good to your word, whether you swear an oath or not. So Christ’s command does not preclude us from entering contracts or taking marriage vows or swearing to tell the truth in court. It simply means that Christians should be known for trustworthiness, for keeping their word.

I think one of the most important ways to keep relationships intact, be they familial or marital or business relationships, is to not make promises that you cannot (or will not) keep. It is easy to swear steadfast love on your wedding day, but staying faithful for a lifetime (for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health) is a much greater challenge. We often dedicate some project or idea or goal to the Lord, only to immediately begin to hedge our bets or take control of the process or even use dishonesty to get our way. The wise and prudent count the cost of making a vow before they enter into a contract or covenant with God or man. We have a God who forgives, but constantly making and breaking promises to the Lord can weary the soul. It is better to follow Christ’s command to ask for daily bread (Matt. 5:11) and not to spend too much time worrying about tomorrow (Matt. 5:34). Moreover, being rash in our relationship with God can begin to bleed into our lives, both personal and professional. Being faithless toward God can lead to an unfaithful marriage, shallow friendships, and dishonesty in our work. Likewise, making a concerted effort to be trustworthy toward our spouse, our friends, and our coworkers/clients creates an environment where the fruits of the Spirit can blossom. I’m sorry if this all seems obvious, but unfortunately Christians do not have the best reputation of being the pillars of honesty and integrity in either marriage or business. Trust is a disappearing commodity in our world today, and the only way we can regain it as a society is if the people of God are unimpeachable.

Times are hard for many people right now, and the temptation can be to make a promise, any promise, to God (“if you get me out of this, I’ll…”) or to others. Especially in matters financial, this can put us in debt to people or institutions that do not have our best interests at heart and can use their leverage over us. This is the “snare” referred to in verse 25. I should note that you can slide passively into this snare if you don’t make an active commitment to God. It’s not so much a choice of committing or not committing, but rather to whom you are committed. We all must take vows and sign contracts from time to time. The admonition of Proverbs is not to run away and bury our head in the sand, but rather to enter such vows or contracts with our eyes wide open, seeking the Lord for His wisdom and guidance. God has also given us the Church, our fellow believers, to help us make big decisions and to raise red flags when warranted. Isolated people are easy prey for the unscrupulous, so remaining in the Body is crucial for avoiding the many traps the world, flesh, and devil have laid for us. But if we remain faithful to Christ and His Church, He has promised that He will be with us until the end of the age. So let us be a people known for keeping our word, for plain and honest speech, and for supporting one another in our marriages, families, friendships, and vocations. May our declarations of steadfast love be a sign of our commitment to lives of faithfulness and service.

Proverbs 19 — The Heart of Discipline

Discipline your children while there is hope. Otherwise you will ruin their lives.

–Proverbs 19:18 (NLT)

I studiously avoided this topic when it came up in chapter 13, but I suppose it must be addressed. What, exactly, does Proverbs have to say about the subject of disciplining a child? The whole debate becomes such an unedifying back-and-forth on the issue of corporal punishment that the real message is lost. So lets get that matter out of the way first. The famous saying “spare the rod, spoil the child” is NOT from Holy Scripture. The actual source of that quote was a 1663 poem called Huldibras by Englishman Samuel Butler, who was satirizing the Puritans. The saying is a modified form of Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (see also Prov. 23:13 & 29:15). This verse is reason enough, some say, to spank a child for misbehavior. First off, we must remember that biblical proverbs are not laws (like the Torah), but guidelines for godly behavior. Indeed, many of the proverbs seem to contradict each other because they apply to different contexts. This is why we must seek wisdom to guide us in how best to apply the proverbs in our specific situations. Secondly, the Hebrew word for discipline, musar, is translated elsewhere as instruction and correction. “Discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root. I’m not entirely sure how whacking your child’s backside is supposed to instruct them in anything. Third, the “rod” (Heb. shebet) here, while it does refer to a literal tool for herding animals, is translated elsewhere as “scepter”, thus symbolizing the authority of parent over child. Shebet is the same word used in Psalm 23:4: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me”. A rod comforts someone who is being guided by a confident and loving authority figure who knows the Way and guides them into it. This is not some blanket admonition to hit your child if they do something wrong, or else they’ll turn into brats. In fact, the opposite is often the case, when spanking is used instead of thoughtful and proportionate discipline intended for instruction and correction.

We are to discipline our children as God disciplines us. So what does that look like? Let’s do a list! (1) He sets clear guidelines and expectations of right and wrong. (2) He takes misbehavior (sin) seriously and does not allow harmful behavior to continue without consequences. (3) He does not condemn us (Rom. 8:1), but rather uses correction (be it through suffering natural consequences, hardship, Church discipline, etc.) to train us in the Way we should go. (4) He eagerly rewards us with blessings when we follow His will. (5) Ultimately, God forgives our sin if we express remorse for our actions and show a real commitment to amendment of life. All of this serves as a good guideline for the Christian parent. On the one hand, we are not to allow our children to run wild (as many parents do nowadays). We must set clear standards and hold to those standards. Sometimes, we must apply proportionate punishment. This is done not out of anger or in retribution, but as a loving way to train a child in proper behavior. On the other hand, we must be eager to reward good behavior and willing to forgive our children over and over again for repeated misbehavior, just as God has forgiven us. We should always make it clear to our children that they are loved and valuable and that nothing they do can take that away. We also must be good models of righteousness for them, because kids have a good eye for hypocrisy. Our children will follow the model that we give him — if your kid is doing something wrong, ask yourself where they might have learned it from. Lastly, parents should give their children every chance to succeed and expect excellence from them. With that as both the goal and the attitude in discipline, you set your kids up for success.

I guess I should actually talk about the verse in question. Solomon reminds us that we only have a little time to shape our children into the adults they will become. Those who fail to train their children in righteousness set them up for a lifetime of mistakes, failure, and regret. Of course, we are all ultimately responsible for our own behavior, and I have known some great parents who produced rebellious children (and terrible parents who produced saints). But seeds of righteousness that are planted while young will not fail to bear fruit in due season. So let us train up our children in the Way of wisdom, to follow Christ and keep His commandments. And let us learn, as children of God, to accept His discipline and learn from it that we may grow into the new creations in Christ that we are called to be. As the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us: “we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:9-11).

Proverbs 18 — Listening to Understand

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion….An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.

–Proverbs 18:2, 15 (ESV)

The first and greatest commandment in all of Holy Scripture (according to no less an authority than our Lord Jesus) begins with the Hebrew word Shema: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai ehad” (“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One” [Deut. 6:4]). Shema means “hear”, of course, but it has the greater sense of listening intelligently, giving heed to someone with the intention of understanding and obeying. The Hebrew Bible could be summarized as a catalog of different ways that God tried to get His people to listen to Him. He did succeed in getting through sometimes (such as when Josiah rediscovered and read the Torah in 2 Kings 22-23), but rarely did it make a lasting impression on His people. The people of God, then and now, have proven to be okay at listening to God, but terrible at heeding His voice. This is what James talks about in his epistle with his famous analogy of looking at yourself in a mirror and then walking away and immediately forgetting what you look like (Jas. 1:22-25). In order to love the Lord our God, we must hear Him, and to hear Him means to listen with the intent of putting what He says into practice. Seeking knowledge just to be a smarty-pants or as a “life hack” or whatever will not lead to true wisdom. Nodding along to a good sermon and singing a few praise songs amount to nothing if we do not exhibit changed lives.

Proverbs 18:2 made me actually laugh. Today, with social media and podcasts and the like, everybody seems to have an opinion and nobody is shy to express them. We all like to be heard and so we spout off about the issues of the day, often with little or no understanding of the complexity behind these issues. No matter: the loudest voices usually win out, so just keep shouting until everybody else gets tired. We act as if the short-term pleasure of being heard outweighs the slower, long-term pleasure of true understanding. Our current social and political climate does not encourage thoughtful, careful, and nuanced approaches to issues. You need to pick a side and wave the team flag proudly or you will get trampled. Sadly, the Church is as guilty of this foolishness as the world. We get so caught up in day-to-day culture war skirmishes (some of which are about truly important issues, to be fair) that we miss sight of the bigger picture. Worse still, we are unwilling to actually listen to those with whom we disagree in order to understand why they believe as they do. Of course, they may prove to be “scoffers”, the type of person one must simply avoid, shaking the dust off your feet (Matt. 10:14). But in other cases, if we take the time to listen, we can find common ground and even, perhaps, share the gospel with them. Sometimes the best results come when we truly seek knowledge together rather than pitting ourselves against each other in debate. Either way, in a society suffering through a loneliness epidemic, showing the love of Christ often just means being a listening ear.

I’m reminded of the old saying that God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we would listen twice as much as we talk. I think that’s not a bad rule of thumb. This all ties back to my previous post about making our words few that we may gain wisdom and not lose friends. As the previous chapter of Proverbs reminds us: “even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (17:28). Or as the modern formulation has it, “it is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” [Pedantic, nerdy side note: Though versions of this quote are often attributed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain, it appears that the earliest known appearance of the adage was in the book Mrs. Goose, Her Book by Maurice Switzer (1907). O.k., trivia time over. Back to the post!]. In an age of constant noise and opinionating, to listen carefully to the voice of the Lord and to try to speak only as He would have us is an act of countercultural rebellion. Christians should be known as thoughtful people, carefully weighing words and arguments against Scripture, tradition, and common sense. So let us listen in order to understand; let us seek knowledge in order to become wise; and let us heed the admonition to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).

Proverbs 17 — Dealing with Conflict

Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends….The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out.

–Proverbs 17:9, 14 (ESV)

Sigmund Freud, who was wrong about almost everything, postulated that the mind was like a steam engine. If we repress our feelings and don’t act on what we want to do, pressure builds up inside of us until it either explodes in aggressive misbehavior or implodes into neuroses. This idea is almost unquestioned in our culture. We are told constantly to express ourselves, to put it all out there. We are to always be interrogating our feelings and constantly sharing our opinions (social media has exacerbated this exponentially). Also, like Oscar Wilde said, we feel that the only way to overcome temptation is to give into it. Particularly on matters of sex, we are told that to exert self-control is just to bottle up our true self. This stands is stark contrast to the ancient (and Biblical) views of the self. Aristotle said that virtue was finding the “golden mean” between extremes. For example, courage means finding the balance between foolhardy overconfidence and cowardice, while generosity finds the middle ground between prodigality and miserliness. The mind is not a steam engine and learning to control our impulses to find virtue and mental health is essential.

I bring all this up because I think that our over-sharing, “express yourself” culture creates as many problems as it seeks to solve. Much interpersonal conflict comes from dwelling on past slights, relitigating both actions and feelings to the point that it endangers the relationship. The Christian virtue of forgiveness means not only giving up the right to retaliate, but also letting go of the offense. This doesn’t mean that we minimize the harm that sin can cause or live in denial when someone else has hurt us. Indeed, we ought to follow our Lord’s advice in Matthew 18 to directly confront those who have sinned against us, bringing along other believers if necessary. However, once the situation has been dealt with, drop it. Indeed, if you can settle the matter between the two of you, it should not come up again, and, ideally, nobody else should ever even hear about what happened. There can be a temptation to gossip or brag about your own magnanimity, but that risks reopening the wounds that have just begun to heal. As we have already seen, words are powerful and we must be very careful about how we speak to others and about others. One of the deadliest things in a marriage (for example) is to bring up old conflicts when new conflicts arise. Reminding your spouse of their past mistakes can feel like a useful weapon in an argument, but it is a really bad idea. Do not risk the integrity of your relationship to win an argument; that would be winning a battle, but losing the war.

Sometimes, you have to give up the need to be right. That is why I started this post with the steam engine analogy. Freud would say you cannot bottle this stuff up, and, in one way, he’s right. If you give in too often in an argument, you will begin to resent the person with whom you are arguing. But we have something Freud didn’t have: prayer. We can lift up our concerns to God and release our bitterness and express our sorrow and anger to Him. Of course, sometimes it helps to talk to a priest or accountability partner, too, but our secret sorrows sometimes cannot be expressed in words. The best policy is to allow ourselves to experience the love of God in worship and the Sacraments; in prayer and Bible study; and in quiet meditation. Once we have experienced the infinite agape of God, then we can share it with those who have hurt us, especially those closest to us. We can let it go because “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Also, side note: we should not be inserting ourselves into conflicts that don’t concern us. Some people love drama and stoke conflict for that reason (among others). If an interpersonal conflict doesn’t involve you and your advice has not been sought, stay out of it. The only exception I can think of is if that conflict has begun to affect the whole Body, and thus it is, in fact, your business. In general, though, try not to meddle in other people’s relationships. It leads only to trouble.

One final point: verse 14 reminds us to not let things fester. This seems like a contradiction of everything I just said, but it really isn’t. A small leak in a dam threatens the integrity of the entire structure. This is why Jesus tells us that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Letting go of an offense after it has been dealt with is different than not dealing with it in the first place. We need to nip conflicts and offenses in the bud before they metastasize into a full-blown crisis. If we do that, it becomes much easier to forgive, reconcile, recommit, and cover the offense with love. Sometimes this means learning to be less easily offended and believing the best of other people, particularly those close to us. We can quite often stop quarrels before they start if we take the time to listen and understand the other person. You may have to learn to agree to disagree about some things, but if a relationship matters to you, you must learn to find the “golden mean” between self-expression and self-abnegation. This is called discretion, and it is one of the pillars of wisdom. So let us show discretion in all our dealings with one another, stopping conflict in its tracks, forgiving one another, and letting bygones be bygones. May we always act in humility, considering others ahead of ourselves (Phil. 2:3), that the world may see the love of Christ in all that we do.

Proverbs 16 — Our Plans and God’s Way

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord….Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established….The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

–Proverbs 16:1, 3, 9 (ESV)

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans….Life is what happens while you’re making plans….Man proposes; God disposes”. Most of our modern proverbs about planning seem to be against the idea. At the very least, making plans with any sort of confidence is seen as a fool’s errand. God or fate can step in and upturn your carefully arranged apple cart at any moment. You are better off just winging it, closing your eyes and running headlong into the future in hopes that something might accidentally work out. Such fatalism serves the two-fold purpose of anesthetizing our fear of failure and helping us cope with disappointment (“it was never going to work out anyway”). It also flatters our laziness with the veneer of wisdom, making diligence appear as hubris. It all sounds very spiritual, doesn’t it? Just live moment-by-moment with the Lord, no need to look ahead. In fact, it’s foolish or maybe even sinful to make plans.

The ancient book of Proverbs has a bit more of a nuanced approach to this topic. These three verses, taken together, give us a more complete picture of the relationship between divine providence and our plans. Verse 1 is basically a version of “Man proposes; God disposes”. We can make all the plans we want, but God will always have the final word. On a personal level, this can be frustrating, but on a global scale, I think it’s comforting. So many powerful people think that their plans cannot be thwarted, and average people can feel so powerless in the face of an uncaring political elite. But the Psalmist has their number: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed….He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Ps. 2:1-2, 4). Those who make plots against the Lord or His people will be thwarted. On a smaller scale, any plan made without consulting or considering the Lord, while not necessarily doomed, is at least ill-advised. This leads to verse 3 which tells us that our plans will be established if (and only if) we commit our way to the Lord. Once again, we see the importance of following God, of staying on the Way. If we are committed to the Lord, our plans will always be made in light of His will and His commands. Which brings us to verse 9: when we implement our plans, it is God who determines how things play out. It is faith, not fatalism, to believe that the success or failure of our plans depends not upon us, but upon the Lord. While it is good to seek discernment and use common sense, our future is always in God’s hands and we must place our faith not in what we understand, but in whom we believe.

“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28) Jesus, it seems, was an advocate for careful planning. That said, His admonition to “count the cost” has more to do with our attitude than with our ability to organize a “pros-vs.-cons” chart. This passage in Luke is about how we must renounce everything we have, take up our cross, and die to ourselves in order to be His disciples. There is nothing wrong with being careful, with making plans, with charting out a hoped-for future. But our strategies must always be made in light of the ultimate truth: we belong to God. We are called to be good stewards of His creation, carefully tending the garden of our life, but it is God who make the fruit grow. We may dress the vines, but God owns the vineyard. So make big plans and dream big dreams, but do it all in submission to God, understanding that nothing will ever work out quite the way we thought it would. But that’s o.k., because we have a God who loves us and who never leave us to face the future alone. If we commit our way to the Lord, He will establish our steps.