The biblical wisdom tradition is very rich and deeply helpful in guiding us to navigate the complexities of life well. One of the reasons that I’m deeply appreciative of the richness of the writings included in the canon of scripture is that they offer us a word for the different seasons and situations of life.
The Proverbs give us a good foundation of wisdom to stand on. Undergirding them is the admonition to fear the Lord and allow him to direct our paths. (Proverbs 1:7 and 3:5-6 for example).
The idea that I come away with from reading the Proverbs is that if I make wise choices, things will go pretty well for me.
My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,Proverbs 3:21-26
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.
Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked,
for the Lord will be at your side
and will keep your foot from being snared.
Make wise, responsible choices and you’ll be just fine.
This is indeed wise council and is true most of the time.
It’s what’s on our heart when our children and friends make foolish decisions again and again and face similar consequences again and again.
But it’s not true in every case. That’s not how the Proverbs work. As I’ve written about before, Proverbs aren’t promises.
That’s why we have a book like Job.
Job and his friends lived in a Proverbs mindset. But in that case, the Proverbs did not apply to Job’s situation. Yet his friends couldn’t let go of that mindset.
They treated that which is most often true as being always true.
What we as the readers of Job know is that according to the narrator of his story, Job is blameless. You can search as far back in his story as you want but he’s not done anything that would lead to all that bad that’s happening to him.
But his friends are locked into that world. They were asking if it occurred to Job that if he hadn’t done anything wrong, this wouldn’t be happening to him? And what’s true much of the time was not true at that time.
This is what Eliphaz said to Job:
“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?Job 4:7-9
Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
at the blast of his anger they are no more.
Friends, many of us are more like Job’s friends than we’d like to admit. And when we find ourselves in situations that don’t make sense of the way that we trust the world works, instead of questioning our assumptions, we double down on them.
We don’t ever allow our assertions and assumptions to change.
In some places, that is happening right now.
There are individuals who are pushing Proverbs in more Job-like circumstances.
Here’s one way it’s showing up in this moment, when many of us in the USA are coming to terms with the painful exceptions to the Proverbs like trust that we have in the working of our systems and structures.
“Has anyone mentioned that the police will leave you alone if you don’t do illegal stuff?”
How you respond to that statement may well depend on your personal experience. Based on MY personal experience it’s more true than not. But my experience is not everyone’s experience. Not even close.
Proverbs like advice is helpful in counseling your teenager or your friend who seems to make one foolish decision after another.
But that statement shared in this moment strikes me, and strikes me HARD, like something in the mouth of one of Job’s well intentioned but ultimately wrong and unhelpful friends.
Almost everyone that I know believes that most police officers are generally honorable yet imperfect men and women who do their jobs well. But to assert the Proverb that ‘if you don’t break the law, you’ll be just fine’ right now is unwise at least and flat out wrong when we think of some of the particular examples.
To give just two examples from this year, Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor were shot dead by police officers in their homes and while or after having committed a crime.
So, in this moment, the question ‘has it occurred to me that if we don’t do anything wrong we will be just fine?’ leaves me simply baffled.
Regarding these two young women, that quote above is false. It’s a lie.
And it this moment it’s totally unhelpful.
Friends, we must know all of the Word. But we must always seek to bring a word in season.
Please don’t bring a Proverbs word into a Job situation.
Of course none of us is ‘blameless’. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve all messed up and done and said hurtful and harmful things.
Some folks will use that reality to preserve the airtight nature of our Proverbs worldview. Whether it’s a view of the universe or the universal reliability of our police officers.
They might make an argument trying to show that George Floyd wasn’t that great of a guy. As if somehow that would take off the pressure off the reality that a man who was a police officer would literally squeeze the life out of a man begging for air.
Sometimes we will do almost anything to preserve our existing narrative of how the world works.
Bad things just don’t happen to people who follow the law, right?
We want to beleive that things are simple. That some people are just good and others are just bad. We want to believe that we always reap what we sow.
Most of the time we do.
But when we don’t, acting like we do is hurtful.
We can do better.
On one Friday many years ago, two criminals hung on crosses. Most of the time, when you break the law, you face the consequences.
But I wonder if it ever occurred to the man hanging between them that if He had only refrained from doing anything illegal, he wouldn’t be there?