When you read through the proverbs, you very quickly discover that many of them offer a choice between stark alternatives. Always a choice – an either/or, if you will:
either wise or foolish
either hard working or lazy
either righteous or wicked
either upright or devious.
Looking at these either/ors in the book of Proverbs reminds us of words we read in Deuteronomy chapter 30 – words of God through Moses:“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”
Again, a stark choice is set before us:
either life or death;
either curses or blessings.
This way of thinking about life and decisions may feel pretty heavy to us – and not only heavy. It will feel almost impossible for us human beings to apply this way of thinking to all of our decisions or actions. These either/ors are too stark for us. In the first place, if we thought about every decision and action as a choice between life and death, between light and dark, between wisdom and folly, we would probably be like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights – we’d be trapped and unable to move or make a decision. If every decision carried the weight of good and evil, light and dark, then with every little decision we would be wrestling with ourselves and the situation: “O my goodness, is this decision light or darkness – is this decision good or wicked – am I giving life or dealing in death?” If every decision we made carried that kind of weight, it would be a recipe for immobility and exhaustion on our part.
There’s another reason we can’t easily apply this either/or way of thinking to every decision and action. Not only would it be too much to bear – but there are also all kinds of decisions that simply aren’t one or the other. There all kinds of decisions that aren’t light or dark, wisdom or foolishness. Every day we make decisions that are mixed. Often life is a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils – often a matter of simply doing our best with the resources at hand.
When I was thinking about the difficulty of applying such stark either/or thinking to life, I thought of a quick shopping trip I made this summer. I went into The Children’s Place to get some shorts and a shirt for Esther. And doing so I discovered that there are boy’s clothes and girl’s clothes. Our culture sets these in such opposition to each other. On the one hand you have pink and purple and fairies and princesses and bows. And on the other hand you have brown and grey and trucks and skulls. Really – that’s it? Is gender really so clearly defined. But you still have to buy something – so you do your best. And then on top of gender issues, you don’t know where these clothes were made – and who was exploited in factory to make them. Almost every decision in our globalized and complex society is like this. If we tried to turn every decision into a black or white, wise or foolish, good or evil scenario – we would have to just stop and give up. That is not an excuse to stop working toward justice and compassion and equality – but it is recognition that we cannot simplistically apply this good vs. evil, wisdom versus foolishness way of looking at life.
Now my goal this morning isn’t to stand up here and criticize the proverbs – or to criticize the word of God that came through Moses. In fact, my suspicion is that those who wrote the proverbs and first tried to live by them – and that the people of God’s who recorded and lived according to the teaching of Moses – my suspicion is that they understood that life is more complicated than a simple either/or – that life with God is more complicated than a simple either/or. They lived daily lives like you and me, and they knew that every decision did not necessarily carry this kind of weight.
And yet at the same time the people of God have passed on to us stark questions of character and identity. In fact, their stark message about life in God’s way is much in line with Jesus. After all, Jesus is one who said to the crowds:
Blessed are you who are poor.
Blessed are you who are hungry.
Blessed are you when people speak evil of you because of me.
woe to you who are rich;
woe to you who are well fed;
woe to you when everyone speaks well for you.
Jesus himself understood the ambiguities of daily life – even as he faced his own suffering and death he wrestled with the purposes of God. But like the writers of the Proverbs, and like Moses – Jesus often felt compelled to set out the possibilities for our lives and our decisions in very stark terms. In some sense, then, these stark contrasts – these heavy either/ors – they help put our lives in perspective.
This morning we are going to look at one of these either/or questions – not because we want to be immobilized by the fear of getting it wrong in life – and not because we think every decision must carry great weight – but this either/or can be helpful for putting our lives in perspective –understand who we are and what is at stake in our living and thinking and acting and relating to others.
So here is the either/or we are looking at this morning. In a way it’s the biggest either/or – the most significant either/or. It is this:
Either God’s way or my way.
Am I on God’s path, or am I on my own path?
Is my life rooted only in what I think is important and good and beautiful? Or am I living a live that is shaped by the purposes of God the creator – a life that is shaped by the God who gives the gift of life.
God’s way or my way?
Am I on God’s path, or am I on my own path?
Before answering that, of course, we’d have to answer this: What does it mean to be on God’s path? How do I know if I’m living in God’s way?
We are going to look at just a few proverbs this morning to briefly explore this question – and we’re going to look at only two themes. Here are two proverbs that introduce us to the first theme for this morning.
Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.
Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers, they succeed.
Putting together our question with these Psalms, here’s what we can say. That we will know we are on God’s way when we seek the advice of others around us about life and decisions. Of course, things don’t necessarily go well when we seek the advice of others, but things rarely go right when we don’t seek the advice of others.
To be a person is to be born into the human family. To be a person is to be born into a context of language and family and culture and experience. God does not give us life as autonomous, independent individuals. Rather, God creates us life in and for human community. And this means that all on our own, we very rarely have the resources and perspective and wisdom to respond well in various situations. By definition, in the deepest sense, we need others – we need their advice.
Becky and I lived for a number of years over on Draper Avenue – an upper duplex, as I’ve mentioned before. And at the front end of the house, at the end of a very long hallway, was a little room that at one point we were turning into a baby’s room. It was a bit of a cold room, and so we decided to put some carpet down. But when we put down the carpet in the room it meant that the door, which swung into the room, wouldn’t close properly. It would rub on the carpet and get stuck.
No I’m almost certain that the people who now live in that upper duplex, sometimes walk down the long hallway today and wonder – what is that big gash at the bottom of that door. Well, when I decided to take off a bit of the bottom of that door, to let it ride above the carpet, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought I could use a jig saw to cut off a bit of the bottom – well, wrong answer! That’s why there’s a gash – that jig saw blade bent and cut into the underside of the door.
Now I’m almost certain that it was before I started cutting the door that Becky suggested I ask my brother-in-law how to do it. Of course that could only be interpreted as an insult to my masculine identity. So not only did I not get advice on what to do with the door – I didn’t take the advice to get advice. And, the gash in the door. Well, I called my brother-in-law after making the gash, and Al said – well, a planer of course. Ah, yes, of course, how obvious – a planer. I knew that…
To live according to the purposes of God in which we were created – to live in the way of God – is to understand our indebtedness to the community around us. We only have our life in and with that community. When deciding about work and relationships and studies and retirement and travel and so many other aspects of life – we are called to seek the wisdom and advice of others. And not only the wisdom who live alongside us today – it also means seeking the wisdom of those in generations past. Seeking advice in this way is an expression of wisdom – and make us wise. We must seek their advice about life and decisions, to attain the wisdom that God would extend to us.
On this question we also have to add another comment this morning – namely, that we are members of the Body of Christ. Which is to say that we are not only to seek the advice of neighbours, friends, and family members. We have our life in Christ, which means we have our life together with women and men who follow Jesus and his way. We are defined by his narrative and by the life we have in him. To live as the people of God does not mean ignoring the advice of those in the world – but to live as the people of God is to understand that the advice we need, is very often advice rooted in our shared life and faith in Christ. We listen to the stories of Jesus together. We seek to embody the justice of Christ together. We pray together. We worship together. And so in this community, to be on God’s way, is to seek the advice of those who share that way with us. We cannot be fully alive as God’s children without acknowledging our indebtedness to sisters and brothers – without seeking their wisdom and input for our lives.
Seeking advice is an expression of life on God’s way – a sign that we are not simply following our own way.
And finally we pick up a second theme this morning, a theme that arises out of this passage from Proverbs 16:
The plans of the mind belong to mortals, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All one’s ways may be pure in one’s own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.
Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. To walk in God’s way, rather than simply in our own way, is to commit our work and our relationships and our decisions to God. But this can’t simply mean that we take whatever decision we think best and then ask God to bless it. We can’t say – ok, God, I’m going that way – now bless me as I go.
Committing our way to God – committing our work to God – committing our relationships to God – means knowing something about God to whom we commit our way and our work and our relationships. Here’s a simple and exaggerated example to illustrate the point. It would be inconceivable for us to say God – God, I am going to rip off my neighbour by selling him this car that I know isn’t worth a dime – God please bless my decisions and action.
To commit our work and our way and our relationships to God means opening ourselves up to who God is and what God desires – to commit our work and our way and our relationships to God means having an interest in discovering the character and identity of God. And this we cannot do without conversation with God – this we cannot do without attentiveness to the moving of the Spirit in our lives and world – this we cannot do without opening ourselves to the risen Christ and his story.
None of this means that we can do away with all of the ambiguity of life – in some cases that stark either/or will make sense – but in many cases it will not. There will be many instances when we live with ambiguity – many instances when we call upon God to bless the path we follow with some uncertainty. But to really commit our way to God, and to seek God’s blessing, is to know this covenant of God of love – and to know his beloved Son, in whom is embodied the wisdom of God and of the human. As we know this God, we will know the way he will bless.
What does it mean to be on God’s path, rather than simply on my own path?
It means seeking advice and direction and support from others around us.
It means leaning on the gracious resource that sisters and brothers in Christ are for us.
It means seeking the blessing of God, even as we seek to know who God is and who God in Christ calls us to be.
Thanks be to God – Christ is on the way with us – and we are on God’s way.