My son, do not forget my teaching,but keep my commands in your heart, 2 for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity.3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. 8 This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.9 Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; 10 then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, 12 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.13 Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding,14 for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.15 She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.17 Her ways are pleasant ways,and all her paths are peace.18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
This is probably the most celebrated verse in this chapter. In Faith and Real Life many spoke of this Proverb as a source of great comfort. In the face of quarantines, closed churches, social unrest and fiercely politicized political discourse—not to mention the more personal struggles with parenting, employment, and the whole range of personal relationships—it is a comfort to know, it is not all up to us. We have an advocate and a friend who will walk with us, guide us and will make our paths straight. Perhaps the greatest gift of Christianity is the faith that God is with us. Without such faith, most of us would be crushed between our desire to make a difference and the enormity of the needs around us.
But there is a sterner, more difficult application of this proverb. The proverb includes a rebuke. Relying upon our own understanding is bad for us. It leads to incomplete knowledge, a failure to rely upon God and at its worst, leads to entitlement and self righteousness. In the face of secular values that emphasize ‘Trust your gut”; “Be your own woman”; “Be your own man”, this proverb warns us to choose a different set of values.
That does not mean what we know is ‘wrong’ but it requires us to acknowledge that what we know is incomplete. There is a big difference. If God is in the equation, we must always be careful about how we interpret events. Especially in today’s volatile and politicized times, it is even more important to listen. It is all too tempting to lean into our own understanding and assume we know what people are trying to tell us and to respond accordingly.
In this week’s FIRL group, we struggled with the concepts of ‘white privilege’ and ‘black lives matter’. The next day, one of the participants sent me an email which reads in part:
“As a man, I used to think I was pretty much just a regular person, but I was born white, into a two-parent household which now, whether I like it or not, makes me “Privileged”, a racist & responsible for slavery.
I am a fiscal & moral conservative, which by today’s standards, makes me a fascist because I plan, budget & support myself.
I went to High School, paid my way thru college, earned a degree, & have always held a job. But I now find out that I am not here because I earned it, but because I was “advantaged”.” ……
The list goes on but you get the drift. A ‘regular’ guy feels unfairly labeled and accused—-simply for doing his well intended best. From here it is a very short step to indignation, anger and defensiveness. (And I suspect we are about to see a lot of that as our national conversation continues). The email exposes a raw feeling of dismissal but it also makes the dangerous assumption that the regular guy actually hears what is being said. If he depends upon his own wisdom he will hear one thing but if he “trusts in the Lord’, he will hear something much more complicated.
The regular guy took each issue as an accusation. But in real life, none of these have to be heard as accusations, though God knows, it is a common reaction. (I commonly tell clients that if you need to feel badly, take everything personally, it works every time.)
It is absolutely possible to acknowledge we are privileged without being a ‘racist and responsible for slavery’. Fiscal and moral conservatism does not ‘make’ anyone a fascist. The ‘rewards of diligence and hard work’ are deferentially distributed. Any detached observer can see there are plenty of people who are smarter than we are, who work every bit as hard (and maybe much harder) who will never earn one tenth of what we earn. None of us can explain why some of us are born white in the USA instead of an untouchable in Kolkata. The regular guy is here because he is both advantaged AND he worked hard. It is very hard to live in a both/and world. It is simpler to live in an either/or world.
If we trust in the Lord and do not lean into our own wisdom, we have the humility and courage to see that we are all sinners. Very few of us do harm out of malice. Most of us mean well. Unfortunately that does not protect us from making errors or from doing harm.
None of us want to know we have been given an edge in life. It is a sad truth that one of our most common responses to receiving a gift is obligation. The enemy of grace is our need to justify ourselves. When we lean into our own wisdom we have to explain the gift, deny the gift or feel guilty and obligated. When we can trust the Lord, we stand honestly before a God who knows and loves us.
That gift changes everything. We do not have to defend and justify. We can listen and be curious. We are enabled to love like Jesus loved. We will want to give voice to the voiceless. We will want to reach out to the least of these. How we will respond is a question of discernment. But however we respond will be based in humility and gratitude.
Likewise, especially when we have good will and good intentions, none of us want to know we can cause harm. And we certainly don’t like the idea that our good intentions do not protect us from other people’s hurt and anger. Unfortunately our good intentions can not always translate into beneficial outcomes. Theologically, we confess every week that we are all sinners. But seeing how that is true in our real life is embarrassing and painful. We forget that Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world but to reconcile the world to himself. Finally, none of us want to know we benefit from the suffering of others. Yet we delight in a ‘good deal’ made possible by poverty level wages
It takes courage to look into a mirror and see in particular how we have been self centered, unaware and blind. None of this is news to God. If we depend upon our wisdom, we can not enjoy grace. We will be trapped in our need to be ‘good’. We will not listen. We will not be able to tolerate the suffering of others. We will argue, defend, explain and rationalize.
The agent of grace in our era may well be the smart phone. As a Christian, we are called to respond to the pain of the world and that is a big ask. Smart phones puncture our protective blinders. It is the difference between reading about an accident and witnessing one. If I am rigorously honest, I don’t want to know because I don’t want to feel the pain, I don’t want to feel helpless, I don’t want to feel blamed for systems that are generations old, I don’t want to acknowledge how I regularly benefit and how I maintain a distance between me and them.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…” It is our comfort and our rebuke. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.