‘Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is’ (Ephesians 5.17)
Paul is not messing around when he speaks to the Ephesians. They are to know that ‘the days are evil’; in other words, time is short. Once they realize that, there is only one appropriate response: Figure out what really matters.
That’s why Paul says, ‘Understand what the will of the Lord is.’ Because, really, there’s not a lot of time to mess around with things that don’t matter.
But can we talk about ‘the will of the Lord’ for a minute? Because typically in North American evangelical contexts, we refer to ‘the will of God’ like it’s some existential, mystical path for our lives that we need to discover. It’s behind door number three… or two… whichever I choose, I just hope I get to ‘live in God’s will.’
We think it has something to do with what job we take, where we buy a house, whom we marry; this determines if we’re ‘in God’s will.’ Sometimes we talk about it like it’s a secret for unlocking the good life where there is nothing but ease and blessing, as if it’s some kind of fortune-cookie sweet-spot with the Divine.
But do you know what Paul is getting at by the phrase ‘the will of the Lord’ here? He’s talked about it earlier in the letter. In the working of his plan to forgive sinners, through the redemption of Christ, he has made ‘known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth‘ (Ephesians 1:9-10).
I’ve Got a Problem
Tomorrow I’ll know more than I do today. Or at least, I hope so.
That’s the typical pattern, right? Who of us hasn’t been horribly embarrassed by reflecting on things we did and said five years ago? Yet, at that time, it seemed like the right thing to say or do.
Sometimes I’ve wondered: ‘If twenty-years-from-now me could speak with the me-of-right-now, what would I say to myself?’ I usually think that having this kind of input from my future self would be of value.
But, sadly, I’m not so quick to extend that grace to others.
Here’s what I mean: There are Christian brothers and sisters all around me who are 20 years ahead of me already; but do I listen to them? And when they speak, do I treat their words with as much reverence as I would the words from future-me?
The Problem Played Out
Recently I’ve been listening to an excellent new album by James Hoffman. One song in particular resonated with me over the last day (it’s the song cued up below). In the song, Hoffman is singing about the experience of holding his newborn daughter. He’s reflecting on the truth of what his mother told him: ‘Now I know what my mother meant when she said I’d never understand — fully — till I held you.’
This morning I read through Joe Carter’s 9 Things You Should Know about the 9/11 Attack Aftermath. Remembering that day certainly brings back something of the shock and horror of that terrible event. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. I remember gathering with friends around the TV, watching the news as everyone (newscasters included) were trying to figure out what was going on.
Making Sense of It All
Making sense of that day was hard, even from a distance. We don’t live in New York — we don’t even live in the USA — but the events of that day still felt like they struck very close to home.
One of the things I remember about the immediate aftermath was the heightened tensions in even-more-present religious conversations. Some people blamed God; other people looked for him. Some people blamed Islam; others blamed fundamentalism in all its forms.
Among Christians, many went to work seeking to defend God, his providence, and his plan. Some said it was his judgement on America for sin. Some said it was merely the result of human free will — that God had no part in it at all. And while both of those answers, in some sense may have some grounding in truth, it’s hard to think anyone would find those things, on their own, to be emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually satisfying answers. Those answers wouldn’t (and still won’t) satisfy because they don’t rightly reflect the biblical God who loves justice and mercy, who decrees all things — including his creation of humans who will choose to rebel against him.
Lord, give me balance.
Between faith in your work and faithfulness in my work,
Between speaking with conviction and hearing with compassion,
Between knowing things and knowing people,
Between speaking truth with winsomeness and saying words of wisdom,
Between working with diligence and resting in providence,
Between leading as a servant and serving as a leader,
Between living in secret for your rewards and letting my light shine for your glory,
Between mourning sin and rejoicing in the cross…
Lord, give me balance.
There are lots of things I don’t want to be. Right near the top of the list is stupid. I definitely don’t want to be stupid. Whatever it takes to avoid being the stupid guy, I want to learn that and be that.
Proverbs 12.1 tells us who the ‘stupid’ guy is, from a biblical perspective. It says ‘Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.’
I think there are at least a few ways that you can be biblically stupid, in keeping with this verse. I’ll try to tease a few of them out.
1. Fight Back
One way you can hate reproof is by fighting back against it. If someone corrects you, you resort to pointing out the log in his eye, you draw attention to her hypocrisy, or maybe you accuse them of having impure motives in bringing that correction to you. Either way, you’re hating reproof by turning the attention away from the reproof on to something else. That’s one way to be stupid.
2. Believe You Are Superior
Another way, though, that I think is far more subtle–and perhaps more common in our circles–is to politely receive the reproof (outwardly), while all the while thinking to yourself how ridiculous it is. We smile outwardly and in the best impression of feigned humility we can muster we thank the person for their reproof. But in our minds we think, ‘I’m actually far superior to this person spiritually–how dare she think she (of all people!) is qualified to bring me reproof!’ And then we go on our way, unchanged, not heeding the reproof. That’s another way to hate it… and to be stupid.
Who doesn’t want to be wise? Everyone wants to be wise! No one wants to make foolish decisions that they will later regret. And Christians especially want to know how to make decisions that are pleasing to the Lord.
That’s why we have the wisdom literature in our Bible (for my purposes here, I’m lumping in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, all in this category). These books are given specifically so that we could know how to live wisely.
But the problem is that when we pick up these books, we’re often filled with more questions than answers: How come these statements aren’t always true in my life? How come some back-to-back statements seem to contradict each other (Prov 26.4-5)? What are all these strange forms of sayings and strange images? How is someone ever supposed to live on the corner of a roof anyway (Prov 25.24)?
Here are ten hopefully helpful principles for interpreting Wisdom Literature. It’s important that we get this right, since this is God’s means of helping us to become wise.
Seeing the Obvious
It doesn’t take the hermeneutical genius of Don Carson to realize that the first several chapters of Proverbs emphasize wisdom. That much even I can pick up on. But in the past, I’ve always read these chapters as the ‘son’ who is called to gain wisdom.
And, to be sure, that is what I need to hear:
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever you get, get insight.
Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honour you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a graceful garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”
(Proverbs 4:5-9 ESV)
But now that my kids are getting older and approaching the age when they will go to school and need to begin making decisions on their own, I’m seeing these passages through a new lens. I’m beginning to see myself as the ‘father’ in Proverbs 1-9 as well as the son.
But Wait, There’s More…
The other night as I was reading through the same chapter (Proverbs 4), I began to contemplate my parenting. I read this and got reflective: