Saturday, September 15, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (24)

Most proverbs are by their very nature generalizations. Two-liners are too pithy to cover every eventuality. Really, they just give you a good sense of what the odds are that Behavior X will produce either a favorable outcome or a bad one.

Now, for any individual sub-optimal way of doing things, there are almost always a few rare favorable outcomes. Exceptions to the rule. People love to point to these oddities as if they somehow invalidate the wisdom of the sages who warn us about the consequences of bad behavior:

“My dad drank all day, every day for 40 years and his liver is just fine!”

Hey, sure, there are probably a few dads around like that.

But multiply stupid, self-destructive behaviors (as people almost invariably do), and you vastly increase the likelihood of disaster. Show me the guy who drinks every day for 40 years, smokes every day for 40 years, drives like a maniac for 40 years, picks fights in every bar he drinks in, runs drugs across the border month after month and takes chances daily with women who are walking bacterial cultures. That’s right, you can’t. He’s in jail, in a hospice or on a slab.

Or, to put it another way, if you keep jumping your motorcycle over large objects, eventually you’ll make your way into Guinness, if only for breaking more bones than anyone else in history. The numbers always catch up with you.

10. Wisdom and Folly Contrasted (Proverbs 9:7-12)

The Bit in the Middle

If you read last week’s installment in this series, you may have noticed that I jumped from the beginning of the chapter to the end, comparing and contrasting the two passages that serve as its bookends. I left out the middle. Here it is:
“Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
For by me your days will be multiplied,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, you are wise for yourself;
if you scoff, you alone will bear it.”
Why Solomon would choose to interrupt two parallel, very-much-related passages with six verses of what appear to be extraneous material is not instantly obvious. The Pulpit Commentary says this:
“These verses form a parenthesis, showing why Wisdom addresses only the simple and foolish. She giveth not that which is holy unto dogs, nor casteth pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).”
I’d like to think there’s more to it, but I’ve yet to come across a better suggestion.

The Wise Man and the Scoffer

In any case, the six verses are all related in that they contrast the wise man with the scoffer. The scoffer, abusive and hateful, learns nothing from attempts to correct him. He may even strike out at those who attempt it. The wise man not only adds to his store of knowledge, but remembers you fondly for having blessed him with wisdom he had yet to encounter.

The scoffer’s fundamental problem is not just that he refuses necessary correction, but that he has no fear of God (v10). He has no governing principle and no direction beyond his own whims. The fear of the Lord was introduced in the same words (the “beginning of wisdom”) back in chapter 1, and we will read in chapter 10 that the same godly fear prolongs life. In chapter 14 it is called “strong confidence” and “a fountain of life”. In chapter 22 it is called “riches”. Here, we read that the days of those who fear the Lord will be multiplied. Wisdom produces all kinds of advantages.

The Common Thread

Solomon is not specific about the sorts of dangers that shorten the lives of scoffers, but a glance around us at society makes his case for him. Today, people who think they know it all and mock those who are trying to help them end up in doctor’s offices being tested for social diseases. They drink themselves into stupors and find themselves waking up in dangerous places. They get into bar fights with bigger men and stumble around in the daylight looking like they’ve been dragged face-first down nine miles of bad road. They drive too fast, get their licenses suspended, lose their jobs and wind up in jail. They try to cross borders with a concealed stash and end up with a record that follows them around for decades and limits their mobility. If this all sounds insufficiently dramatic, it’s because I’m confining myself to stories about people I actually know.

The common thread with the scoffer is his inability to see that the principles that govern civilized society and have operated relentlessly throughout history have any application in his own life. The scoffer is convinced that, no matter what the relevant statistics may be, the risk-taking he engages in will somehow end differently for him. If you know a young person who believes themselves the exception to every rule, that’s this guy.

The Obvious Challenge

The climax of this section of the chapter is this statement:
“If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it.”
On one level, verse 12, being the stereotypical proverbial generalization, invites the obvious challenge: “What do you mean, ‘You alone will bear it’?”

It’s a good point. Scoffers hurt their wives, their parents, their children, their friends and associates, and even society at large. Their refusal to listen does damage that costs the taxpayers, runs up pointless debt, breaks hearts, ends friendships, drives up insurance premiums, clogs up the justice system and hurts almost everyone.

There’s a lot of “bearing” that goes on where a scoffer is concerned.

The Obvious Comeback

All the same, the scoffer is the biggest victim of his own idiocy: if he lives long enough to get old, he dies alone, broke, ignorant and miserable. He alienates his most patient allies and enablers, fails as a father and husband and becomes a cautionary tale rather than an example to follow. Most tragically, he learns nothing from all the havoc he has created and all the tears he has produced. He goes into eternity no wiser than he was born into the world, always insisting the real problem in every train wreck he ever encountered was somebody else’s.

Likewise, it may be argued that the wise man is actually wise for a bunch of people, not just himself. He is of benefit to many. He changes lives for the better. His wisdom saves marriages, makes his wife’s life a joy, encourages and nurtures his children, preserves him from life-wrecking errors and makes him lasting, meaningful friendships wherever he goes.

But again, the greatest profit is to the wise man himself. While many benefit from him, no one person reaps all the blessings he does. Best of all, even when everything in his life does not work out perfectly, and even when he experiences the obligatory tragedies and sorrows that are part of all human experience, he has a view of reality that enables him to understand why that might be, and what good may yet come of it. The universe is not obscure and arbitrary to him; it’s full of meaning and purpose and life and love.

While none of us are islands, and the things we do in this life often impact everyone we know and sometimes even people we don’t, in the end, we are always the biggest beneficiaries of the wise counsel we embrace.

That, or the most convincing evidence of the truth we reject.

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