Tag Archives: Proverbs

Facts and Doubts

I have doubts based upon indisputable facts, but I do not have indisputable doubts.

Living well is not a gift from God (but the ability to live well is): Seneca on God & wisdom

I should start with three quick notes on Seneca’s relevance in Christian history because some background will give reasons for considering his writings as relevant to thinking about God.

First, a general assessment of Seneca’s point of view in relation to Christianity:

His [Seneca’s] writings represent Stoicism at its best and have been much studied by Christian apologists for the similarities as well as the contrasts of their moral teaching with the Gospel ethic.  — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Second, John Calvin’s interest in Seneca:

In 1532 he [John Calvin] issued a Latin commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia’. — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

And third, a translator’s note on Seneca’s importance to four Christian thinkers:

While scholars and schoolmasters in the century following continued to condemn Seneca, early Christians were taking to this kindred spirit among pagan writers, so many of who ideas and attitudes they felt able to adopt and share. Anthologies were made of him and he was frequently quoted by such writers as Jerome, Lactantius and Augustine. Tertullian called him saepe noster, ‘often one of us’.  — Robin Campbell, in the introduction to his translation of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Furthermore, as Campbell also notes, Dante frequently quotes Seneca.

So, as I was recently reading Seneca’s Letter XC, I came across something that helped me think about what God does and what God doesn’t do for humans.

In a way, the following passage sounds like an overview of the biblical book of Proverbs.

From Seneca’s Letter XC, as translated by Campbell:

“Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? A corollary of this would be the certain conclusion that our debt to philosophy is greater than the debt we owe to the gods (by just so much as a good life is more of a blessing than, simply, life) had it not been for the fact that philosophy itself was something borrowed by the gods. They have given no one the present of a knowledge of philosophy, but everyone the means of acquiring it. For if they had made philosophy a blessing, given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her. What would have have worth looking up to in philosophy if she were handed out free?

“Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience, the sense of duty, justice and all the rest of the close-knit, interdependent ‘company of virtues’, never leave her side. Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belong authority, and among human beings fellowship.”

My takeaway:

Life is a gift from God. Living well is a gift of philosophy. Philosophy is also a gift from God, and philosophy has taught us to worship “what is divine.” But living well is not a gift from God. We must engage philosophy to learn how to live well.

The Penguin Classics edition of Letters from a Stoic, selected, introduced, and translated by Robin Campbell

“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell

Mutations of ‘apart from me you can do no good thing’ & ‘wait upon the Lord’ — cognitive dissonance in evangelicalism

Words like “sinner” and “depravity” and “fallen” are used often but rarely contextualized in a healthy way (I think Rob and Iain do a good job, although I think our congregation could think more about the meanings).

What does it really mean to accept that there are flaws at the core of human nature — flaws that require redemption?

Let me make an absurd example — from a true story.

I was convinced that I was a sinner at an early age — and that I should be a vessel for the Lord to work through.

I had a black heart that could be made white as snow.

I had a spirit within in me — deeper and more important than my mind — that needed to improve its connection to God.

I could only do good when my sins were confessed and when I had arrived at some poorly-defined, appropriate spiritual level (usually a feeling).

Anything I did without feeling strongly “led by the Spirit” was “done in the flesh.”

Anything “done in the flesh” was condemnable — and possibly destructive, possibly getting in the way of God’s work.

Because I was a child, these beliefs were not “intellectual arguments” I learned but instead the social and emotional environment that I was immersed in.

This bled over into my daily life, because God was about all parts of life — so everything had to meet a high, spiritual, supernatural standard and purpose.

The results?

Paralysis and a stunning lack of confidence.

A fear of making basic decisions — what if I made the wrong decision?

A fear of planning — what if I my earthly, human plans got in the way of what the Lord wanted me to do?

A fear of sinning — what if I had too much confidence in myself, my plans, my goals and my ambitions? Would I become too “humanistic”? Would God turn his back on me? Would I lose God?

As I grew older, I envied the non-Christians: They could make decisions and plan for the future and pursue goals. They could find new ways to provide for their families, treat their friends to special events, and donate to their favorite causes.

But I felt like I should “wait upon the Lord” and remain in an unattached, un-obligated state so I could move as the Lord led me. I didn’t want to do anything “in the flesh.”

I wasn’t even sure why Proverbs was in the Bible — it was too practical, it required an application of principles to decision-making, and it involved thinking for oneself.

Thinking for oneself — that was a major sin growing up, in two totally different circles: the Independent Missionary Baptists of my schools and the non-denominational charismatics of my churches.

Oddly enough, the two groups despised each other. The fundie Baptists thought speaking in tongues was demonic and waving hands in the air during worship was just very, very wrong.

The charismatics thought everyone should be open to the Spirit just a much as they were open to the Bible (in practice, more than they were open to the Bible).

This is what I was living in. I did not buy into an argument. I grew up in a social and emotional climate. (A Chinese proverb says, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.”)

Only the fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture was right; only those who were adequately plugged-in with the Holy Spirit could accomplish anything.

I tried to live inside these contexts for a long time and felt like I accomplished nothing.

I like the Reformed line: as humans, we cannot gain salvation for ourselves.

But if the language of the Bible is supposed to shape our daily lives, it isn’t really supposed to paralyze our daily lives; grace isn’t supposed to plunge us into fear and indecision.

Yet the most troubling thing of all: When people are left alone with their Bibles, crazy interpretations and applications of the texts, like the ones above, abound — and to a crippling degree. Absurd.

Bible study: A brief exercise that illustrates a literary element in Proverbs

I tried this exercise at Charlie Jordon’s small group several days ago, and I think it more or less worked to show three ways that the writers of Proverbs used parallelism.

Here’s an example of parallelism: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” — Abe Lincoln

Notice the similar order: “I would not be a … I would not be a.”

In Proverbs, the parallelism isn’t always a matter of perfect repetition of a grammatical or sentence structure.

Sometimes parallelism is a matter of how ideas relate within a structure.

The following exercise will help illustrate the point. You’ll need a pencil or pen and a sheet of paper. After the exercise, I’ll explain how it relates to the Proverbs.

1. Think of something that is generally true, and write it in a short sentence at the top of the page. Take heart — your sentence can be simple, basic, and obvious. It could be an observation about life, work, family, or anything else. For example, “Happy children make for an easy day.” This is your first line, and we’ll recycle it in the next steps.

2. Skip down a couple of inches, and write that first line again. Now write another short sentence right beneath the first; this line should restate the same idea of the first line, but in different words. Think of it as repeating or reiterating what you said in the first line. You might connect the two lines with an “and.” For example, “Happy children make for an easy day, and little smiles cause things to go smoothly.”

3. Skip down a little more, and write the first line again (same line from step No. 1). This time, underneath it, write a line that expresses the opposite of what you said in the first line, or maybe shows a consequence when the first line isn’t true, or respected. You might connect the two lines by using the word “but.” For example, “Happy children make for an easy day, but cranky children make for a bad day.”

4. One more. Skip down a little again, and repeat your first line. Now, underneath it, write a line that extends or advances the thought in the first line. Something like this: “Happy children make for an easy day, and the guidance that makes them happy will lead to a peaceful household.”

OK, so what’s this all about? I’ll explain using terms from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.

The first line you wrote might qualify as a popular sentence. These are familiar sayings that make a basic observation, like Matthew 13.57, when Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” (He had a way with the wry expression, no?)

Now let’s get into the parallelism of the Proverbs.

In the second step, you wrote a proverb that illustrates synonymous parallelism, which underscores or restates the first line. Synonyms are different words that basically have the same meaning within a given context: on Sunday morning, at least in principle, we worship God, we adore God, we exalt God. So in synonymous parallelism, the second line repeats the first with different words. You’ll find the highest concentration of synonymous parallelism in Proverbs chapters 18 and 19.

In the third step, you wrote a proverb that demonstrates antithetical parallelism, which shows the opposite of the first line, or perhaps shows a consequence of not following the first line. “Anti” means opposite or opposition; “thesis” is a premise or point being argued. So an antithetical statement would be the opposite of the main point. Proverbs chapters 10-15 are packed with antithetical parallelism.

In the fourth step, you used synthetic parallelism, which “advances and completes the thought” of the first line, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. You synthesized your first point with new information or new context. Synthetic parallelism isn’t as common as synonymous and antithetical parallelisms, but an example would be Proverbs 18.8: “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.”

I was thinking about how the synthetic compares to the synonymous. The writer of Proverbs 18.8 could have said, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; tasty are the whispered rumors” — that would have been synonymous parallelism. Instead, the author decided to extend the thought: not only is gossip yummy; it comes to occupy a place deep within us.

Another example of synthetic parallelism would be Proverbs 10.22: “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it.” Again, a synonymous parallelism might have run this way: “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and the barns of the blessed are overflowing.” But there was something more to say.

These forms of parallelism have uses in our daily lives:

-Sometimes a message needs to be reiterated, repeated, or explained in another way.

-Sometimes a message needs to be expressed in terms of contrasts or consequences.

-Sometimes a message needs elaboration, extension, or advancement.

-You certainly could do all three within a single speech, lecture, or sermon.

Of course, I’ve only looked at parallelism in Proverbs. Imagery is a huge element, too. Maybe in another post.

At Trinity, we’re spending 22 weeks on the book of Proverbs. Click here to watch videos of the sermon series.

Proverbs footnote: Information versus Wisdom

When I read the following excerpt this morning, it made me think about the difference between mere information and true wisdom — a theme close at hand when we read the Old Testament book of Proverbs.

“A few verses before the angel appears to Mary in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, another annunciation occurs; an angel announces to an old man, Zechariah, that his equally aged wife is to bear a son who will ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ The couple are to name him John; he is known as John the Baptist. Zechariah says to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so?’ which is a radically different response from the one Mary makes. She says, ‘How can this be?’

“I interpret this to mean that while Zechariah is seeking knowledge and information, Mary contents herself with wisdom, with pondering a state of being. God’s response to Zechariah is to strike him dumb during the entire term of his son’s gestation, giving him a pregnancy of his own. … I read Zechariah’s punishment as a grace, in that he could not say anything to further compound his initial arrogance when confronted with mystery. When he does speak again, it is to praise God; he’s had nine months to think it over.” — Kathleen Norris, in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Favorite Proverbs, Part 5

Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy. — Proverbs 14:10

At Trinity, we’re spending 22 weeks on the book of Proverbs. Watch the sermons here.

Favorite Proverbs, Part Four

A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. — Proverbs 18:24 (New American Standard Bible)

What does this say to today’s business networkers and social networkers?

Time to pare down my Facebook friends! — How’s that for Life-Application?

But seriously, I can imagine the first part of that proverb has been sound advice to people in politically risky offices.

So who is the friend who sticks closer than a brother?

My wife says it had better be her. Just kidding.

At Trinity, we’re spending 22 weeks on the book of Proverbs. Watch the sermons here.