Saturday, April 27, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (56)

Egotists and self-interested people are the bane of civilization.

Once upon a time, a nation divided up its countryside and farmed it. Everyone did roughly the same thing and required approximately the same knowledge and physical skills.

Then came city life and with it the need for specialization. No longer self-reliant and autonomous, those who embraced urbanization came to prize men and women who could manage the affairs of thousands efficiently. When they did it well, everybody enjoyed life. When they did it poorly and selfishly, everybody suffered.

Solomon comments on aspects of this phenomenon.

The “Men of Hezekiah” Proverbs (Proverbs 29:1-9)

Broken Suddenly
“He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,
will suddenly be broken beyond healing.”
It’s not impossible this verse speaks to the near-inevitability that those who ignore a series of earthly reproofs from earthly authorities will one day meet up with the normal earthly fallout from their choices. Sometimes that is how things go: you dismiss the warnings of the taxman, the local constabulary, the HR department and your mom and dad, only to find in the end that you no longer have a place to live, your creditors are chasing you night and day, and jail (or worse) looms on the horizon. In that case, the “brokenness” is simply the most likely natural result of bucking the system.

But I suspect that is not the primary meaning of this proverb. We all know way too many exceptions to such a principle: people who are coasting along doing it their own way and encountering no significant negative consequences from their rebellious and self-indulgent way of life.

Much more likely this has to do with one’s relationship with God. When God reproves us, we do well to pay serious attention.

How might we recognize correction from God? Well, it’s different from a landlord’s notice that your rent has not been paid, or a series of calls from the IRS to warn you that your first prepayment for the 2019 tax year is already months overdue. Like other kinds of correction, God’s reproofs come through men and women we encounter, but they come with the authority of Heaven attached to them, which is to say they are based on the Bible. These are the most powerful reproofs that exist. Christian fathers are usually good at making this clear to their children. “Here is what you did wrong, and here is why it’s wrong: God says so in his word.”

Now, not everybody who quotes scripture quotes it accurately or well, and even fewer apply it correctly. Once, back in our teens, a friend and I went out late. His mother, probably on her way to bed, rebuked us at the front door with “They love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil!” In actuality, we loved pizza, not darkness; we just happened to be hungry at 11 p.m. (Pizza delivery back then was not what it is today.)

It should be evident not all rebukes from scripture carry the same weight. But in the event our rebukers get context, meaning and application right, their corrective word comes to us with all the authority of its original Author. In short, a reproof from someone speaking for God is a reproof from God.

The poster boy for this proverb is surely the Egyptian pharaoh of Moses’ day, who met the phrase “Thus says the Lord” with an insouciant “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?” There was good reason for this: being a powerful man, Pharaoh was personally insulated from the consequences of most of the threatened plagues in a way that his people were not. His country took the brunt of God’s anger against him. It got so bad that even his servants begged him, “Let the men go. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” Still Pharaoh refused, until the Lord struck down not just all the firstborn of the Egyptians, but the crown prince as well, Pharaoh’s own son. After allowing Israel to depart, Pharaoh went back on his word and gave chase, a chase that ended at the bottom of the Red Sea.

Rarely are the great world powers so literally “broken beyond healing”. Those of us inclined to resist the reproofs of God should take note.

Building Up and Tearing Down
“By justice a king builds up the land,
but he who exacts gifts tears it down.”
This verse hits on one of the major problems evident in our current political environment, and that is this: the so-called Deep State, or civic bureaucracy, that is required to manage a kingdom and its subjects.

I do not think the words “he who exacts gifts” are intended to refer to the king, but rather to his subordinates. These unelected men and women are a necessary part of any administration. No king is capable of micromanaging an entire kingdom, nor is he wise to assign major responsibilities only to loyal relatives and friends. The job is too big. He has to delegate, and delegate to men and women who may or not be loyal to him or motivated by the same principles he is. Ask President Trump how that is working for him right now.

The Hebrew tÄ•ruwmah (“he who exacts gifts”) seems to mean something like “he who takes an offering”. So it’s not really talking about either gifts or excessive taxation. I think it refers to a willingness to receive favors in order to do favors for special interests. Bribes, in other words.

This being the case, then what Solomon is saying here is something like this: No matter how just and righteous a ruler may be, and no matter how carefully he orders laws and principles of government under his care, his intentions may still be undermined by a corrupted bureaucracy.

History certainly proves this to be the case. Perhaps churches should consider noting the principle. It’s not enough to have good elders. There are reasons that our Bibles give us a long list of moral qualifications for deacons (or administrators) too. “Mere functionaries” have vastly greater real-world decision-making power than most of us realize.

Turning Down the Heat
Scoffers set a city aflame, but the wise turn away wrath.”
Have you ever been stuck between two opposing factions, trying to negotiate an agreement that seems next to impossible, but which really needs to happen for the good of both parties?

I have. It seems to happen to me a lot: on the job, in church … wherever. Maybe it’s my personality. I always remind myself “Blessed are the peacemakers.” And indeed, sometimes we peacemakers are happier than others.

When you are trying to negotiate between a besieging army and a proud king with his back against the wall (I speak metaphorically here, but Solomon probably didn’t), the worst thing in the world to have to deal with on the weaker side is the scoffer: the guy who has very little personally at stake, but simply doesn’t care whether the deal gets done or not. He would rather things stay just the way they are, despite the fact that the present state of affairs is demonstrably unworkable. He is the kind of man who wants $5 million for a business with no assets and debt up to its eyesockets. Meanwhile, the enemy army is right outside the gate, with its superior numbers and massive engines of war. That wall between the two sides is going to come down. It’s merely a question of how soon and how hard.

And yet the scoffer’s great joy seems to be trying to sabotage the proceedings by winding up the other side unnecessarily. It’s guys like that who can get your world burnt to the ground. A scoffer is all about his rights, whether or not there’s anybody around to enforce them. He’s entirely unmoored from reality. He lives in a fantasy world in which he always wins, despite having no realistic means of making that happen.

Wise people are not like that. They calculate the cost of resistance, estimate the goodwill that can be reliably anticipated from the enemy based on the available evidence, and then make the best deal they can in each situation as it arrives. They do not reach for the stars, and they do not deliberately self-sabotage. They do not let their egos drive them, but consider the possible consequences for those they represent who have no ability to defend themselves.

Realistic negotiation skills are fine qualities to find in a representative when you need the best possible outcome for you and yours. Ladies, if you are going to entrust yourself to someone in this life, don’t choose an egomaniac or a bigmouth.

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