Saturday, May 04, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (57)

Who are you? Who am I really? Good questions.

Well, we are the sum of any numbers of things, including but not limited to what we think, what we do, and — by far the most important — who we are in God’s eyes.

What do we really feel in our hearts when we’re under intense emotional pressure, and how would we react if everyone could see that on full display? What do we allow ourselves to engage in for the sake of polity or social acceptance, and is that consistent with what we claim to believe? How does God distinguish between us? What are his metrics?

Three consecutive proverbs contribute to the discussion.

The “Men of Hezekiah” Proverbs (Proverbs 29:10-18)

Unproductive Venting
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man quietly holds it back.”
The Huffington Post says, “Keeping your emotions bottled up could kill you.” That’s the standard line of assertiveness trainers and psychologists these days, but it’s too simplistic a view. If we assume our choices are limited to either saying nothing or blowing our stack, we are conflating communication and venting. The two are not synonyms.

What Solomon calls foolish is allowing one’s emotions to fully express themselves. “I feel” is almost never a useful statement in a business setting, where nobody cares about your feelings except the Human Resources department, and nobody likes them anyway. It’s a different story in the family, where the feelings of those we love ought to be an important consideration, but even at home you are far more likely to succeed in getting across your concerns about a situation or relationship if you stop well short of having a meltdown. Silence and screaming are not the only possible options. Solomon is not suggesting that a frustrated man or woman should say nothing to resolve a problem, but that he should choose his words carefully and avoid becoming emotional. “When words are many, sin is not lacking.”

In short, calm and orderly assertiveness is not at all foolish, but dumping one’s emotional baggage all over other people most certainly is. It will either get you studiously ignored or treated like a child, which is what such behavior most calls to mind.

Hey, If It Works for Him …
“If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.”
It’s an oft-stated principle that if you incentivize something, you get more of it. Outside of Christ, people often use every tool available to them in order to get ahead. They decide which tools are acceptable in any situation on the basis of what works, and what they can reasonably expect to get away with based on their observations of how others in their position have historically been dealt with.

There are plenty of reasons a ruler might become accustomed to being lied to, or even prefer lies to truth: confirmation bias, convenience, insecurity, ego, a poor grip on the facts — you name it. But the one thing you can guarantee is that if a liar finds success bending the boss’s ear, others will imitate his behavior. Before you know it, the only way to get ahead in such an environment is telling the ruler whatever it is you think he wants to hear.

This is not the practice of godly men in scripture. They were unflinching with the facts, and it worked for them. But even if it had not, as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego put it, “we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Others had a little less at stake, but were equally blunt. Joseph was entirely candid in his interpretation of the chief baker’s dream. Daniel, in a similarly awkward position of having to present very bad news to the greatest men of the day, was gracious but entirely honest with King Nebuchadnezzar, and courteous but quite ruthless with the weak and evil Belshazzar.

Things in Common
“The poor man and the oppressor meet together;
the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.”
This is an excessively literal rendering, but the meaning is still apparent. To meet together is to find common ground, as in “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” In Christ, it is possible to be both just and loving. The two need not be set in opposition. Likewise, to “meet together” is to have something in common, as all men do.

The poor man and the oppressor do very little meeting together in life in the literal sense — as little as the oppressor can get away with while getting what he needs out of those he is oppressing. But they do have certain things in common. Chapter 22 of Proverbs expresses a similar truism: “The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the Maker of them all.” Or as Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes just a little more morbidly, “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” When the light goes out of one’s eyes, it makes no difference whether you have accumulated millions or nothing at all, as the rich man discovered in Hades. All the differences we observe between the different strata of society disappear in death.

As Christians, it is necessary to give respect and honor in this life to those to whom it is owed, but we need to be careful not to confuse appropriate deference with the notion that some men are greater in the eyes of God than others merely by virtue of having being able to store up wealth and power.

It is frequently quite the opposite.

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