I Choose Heaven

The last time my David and I were in Nashville, my best friend loaned me 4 books–The Hunger Games Trilogy and The Devil and Miss Prym. Melinda’s words to me regarding the Paulo Coelho book were, “Just make it through the first chapters. I promise it’s worth it.” Knowing I was more likely to read the possibly-boring Coelho book if I did it before I launched into the certainly-entertaining Hunger Games, I opened it that night.

I was on a plane in my usual corner when I finished it. I’d spent a good part of the flight tapping David on the shoulder and demanding he read a poignant line here and there; his first moment of peace was when I closed the book and sat in awed silence for a good 20 minutes. I don’t know that any book has ever had that effect on me. It was both thought-provoking and affirmative, simple and deep.

The plot–a man comes to a sleepy village and offers gold to anyone who will kill an innocent person–is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” But where her story reflects on the dangers of mob mentality, Coelho studies the effects of injustice on an individual. It probes the popular question, why do bad things happen to good people? He ultimately argues that the why doesn’t matter; we decide for ourselves how to react in all situations: we can be happy in “hell” or miserable in “heaven.” I agree with this overall sentiment. How many people choose a woe-is-me attitude in the best of circumstances? How many others choose to find joy in misery?

“Your problem hasn’t to do with God’s justice…it’s more the fact that you always choose to be a victim of circumstance” (The Devil and Miss Prym, 123).

The perennial example of this dichotomy is Job, whom Coelho references in his story. Coelho argues that in the Scripture, Job curses God for his misery and that God is okay with being cursed because He sins against us as well. With this interpretation I disagree wholeheartedly. God does not sin against us; it is impossible for pure Righteousness to sin. In Job’s story I look past the flawed arguments of all four of Job’s “friends” and see that there is no logical, rhetorical answer to the human question of why bad things happen. If ever God had an opportunity to answer that question once and for all, this was it. But He chose not to. Instead He reminded Job–in great detail–of His glorious and unique creation (Job 38–41).

Would you go so far as to call into question My judgment?
Would you imagine Me guilty merely in order to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm just as powerful as God’s
and does your voice thunder as His does? (Job 40:8-9, The Voice).

Literarily, God’s answer to Job is a non sequitur: He circumvents the question why? by saying, “I’m the Creator. I’m the Greatest.” Theologically, God’s response makes perfect sense. You want to know why? Then you have to know God.

As we grow closer to God and walk in lock-step with the Spirit, God reveals more about Himself to us and we can see His righteousness even in our pain. The Holy Spirit then molds our attitudes toward the injustices in our lives, turning personal misery into joy. When we choose to know God, we choose to be in “heaven” no matter what we are experiencing.

Do you think I’ll find The Hunger Games so thought-provoking?

Still Not a “Proverbs 31 Woman”

Do you remember this blog from last Summer? It inspired a conversation A. J. and I had about Proverbs 31 in the most recent episode of “Living in Exile.” Check it out!

No such thing as a “Proverbs 31 Woman”

This post was first published at HearTheVoice.com.

I first heard the phrase “Proverbs 31 woman” when I was in high school. I had a male friend who liked to call me that. He intended the moniker to compliment the evidence of my faith, the products of my kitchen (he loved my Magic Cookie Bars), and the way I cared for others. Five years later, after we’d both graduated from religious universities and more thoroughly studied the Old Testament, he confessed that in high school he had no idea of the context of Proverbs 31, and that I was not in fact like the woman described in that chapter. It wasn’t an insult–I agreed with him completely. I am not, and will never be, a “Proverbs 31 woman.”

Today Proverbs 31 is “trending” in popular Christianity. There’s a company by that name, there’s a women’s ministry that claims it, and I hear my own girlfriends quoting vv. 10-31 as some lofty goal they have for their lives:

Who can find a truly excellent woman? One who is superior in all that she is and all that she does?
     Her worth far exceeds that of rubies and expensive jewelry.
She inspires trust, and her husband’s heart is safe with her,
     and because of her, he has every good thing.
Every day of her life she does what is best for him,
     never anything harmful or hurtful.
Delight attends her work and guides her fingers
     as she selects the finest wool and flax for spinning.
She moves through the market like merchant ships
     that dock here and there in distant ports,
     finally arriving home with food she’s carried from afar.
She rises from bed early, in the still of night,
     carefully preparing food for her family
     and providing a portion to her servants.
She has a plan. She considers some land and buys it;
     then with her earnings, she plants a vineyard.
She wraps herself in strength, carries herself with confidence,
     and works hard, strengthening her arms for the task at hand.
She tastes success and knows it is good,
     and under lamplight she works deep into the night.
Her hands skillfully place the unspun flax and wool on the distaff,
     and her fingers twist the spindle until thread forms.
She reaches out to the poor
     and extends mercy to those in need.
She is not worried about the cold or snow for her family,
     for she has clothed them all in warm, crimson coats.
She makes her own bed linens
     and clothes herself in purple and fine cloth.
Everyone recognizes her husband in the public square,
     and no one fails to respect him as he takes his place of leadership in the community.
She makes linen garments and sells them in the market,
     and she supplies belts for tradesmen to carry across the sea.
Clothed in strength and dignity, with nothing to fear,
     she smiles when she thinks about the future.
She conducts her conversations with wisdom,
     and the teaching of kindness is ever her concern.
She directs the activities of her household,
     and never does she indulge in laziness.
Her children rise up and bless her.
     Her husband, too, joins in the praise, saying:
“There are some—indeed many—women who do well in every way,
     but of all of them only you are truly excellent.”
Charm can be deceptive and physical beauty will not last,
     but a woman who reveres the Eternal should be praised above all others.
Celebrate all she has achieved.
     Let all her accomplishments publicly praise her (The Voice).

I share these goals with my girlfriends. I want to be a woman my husband honors, a woman who is good at everything she does, and a woman who is godly. (Who doesn’t?) But God did not include this passage in the canon to command that of me, as current popular Christianity may indicate; the Teacher of Proverbs didn’t slip this poem into the book to give me a checklist of everything I’m required to do as a woman. However, I fear most Christian women interpret the passage as such a checklist today.

Whenever we read a portion of the Bible, we should consider the context of the passage.

Proverbs is a book written for young men by the “Teacher,” an unidentified older scribe. The purpose is to encourage students to seek God throughout their lives, and much of the book is concerned with the dichotomy between Wisdom and Folly. These traits are personified in Proverbs, rendered in The Voice translation as “Lady Wisdom” and “Lady Folly.” Men are encouraged throughout Proverbs to follow the path of Wisdom, which leads to God. Lady Wisdom is depicted as an unmarried woman reaching out to young suitors. She is challenged by Lady Folly, who reaches out to the same men in insidious ways. The virtues of the former and vices of the latter are emphasized in Proverbs.

The conclusion of Proverbs–this very passage my friends (and I!) claim as personal goals–is actually the conclusion to the struggle between Wisdom and Folly for the hearts of men. Here, Wisdom is pictured as a married woman; she is the winner of the struggle with Folly. The Teacher is emphasizing to his students the perks of following Wisdom: safety, success, wealth, progeny. Wisdom leads to happiness.

Ladies, Proverbs 31 is not a checklist of what we should do as married women. It IS a depiction of the benefits that can come from choosing Wisdom over Folly. When you read this passage, please don’t interpret it as an unattainable goal for your life. Understand it as a vision for the life you could have when you choose Wisdom over Folly.

Only You Can Prevent Wildfires

You’ve heard of Smokey Bear? I think his slogan has changed a bit since I was a child. I remember, “You, too, can prevent forest fires!” I guess somewhere along the way someone realized that fires aren’t limited to forests.

Since we’ve moved West, David and I have heard a lot about wildfires. We’ve seen the scorched earth from the window seats of airplanes and underneath our feet as we’ve hiked. Wildfires bring death and destruction. They leave you wondering, What if? How tall would that tree have grown? How many more families would have built cabins there?

Never leave your campfire burning. Never drop a smoking cigarette out your car window. One spark can cause a fire; that’s what Smokey tells us. That’s what the apostle James tells us too:

And do you know how many forest fires begin with a single ember from a small campfire? The tongue is a blazing fire seeking to ignite an entire world of vices. The tongue is unique among all parts of the body because it is capable of corrupting the whole body. If that were not enough, it ignites and consumes the course of creation with a fuel that originates in hell itself (James 3:5–6, The Voice).

James tells us this in the context of his caution to teachers in the first-century church. He warns his readers not to encourage a lot of people to become teachers because “teachers will be held to a higher standard” (3:1). Every time I write a blog or prepare for a podcast, I remember this verse. It terrifies me.

If you ever tell another Christian what to think or how to act, you are putting yourself in a teacher’s role. You may not be doing it consciously, but you are doing it. Before you presume to know anything better than your brother or sister, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Has the Holy Spirit gifted me as a teacher? (1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:7)
  2. Will my words edify or corrupt the body of the church? (James 3:6)

I would argue that if you answer no to either question, you should keep your mouth shut. No matter how passionate you feel about something, don’t put yourself in the position of being “held to a higher standard.”

More often than not, a wildfire is started by accident. It was that smoldering campfire some hikers thought they extinguished or that idiot with the cigarette butt. No matter how innocently the fire started, the one with the spark is responsible for the destruction. How do you keep from starting a wildfire? Don’t ever strike a match.

Of course, not all fires are bad. Where would we be in winter without matches to start our heaters or light our candles?

This same tongue can be both an instrument of blessing to our Lord and Father and a weapon that hurls curses upon others who are created in God’s own image. One mouth streams forth both blessings and curses. My brothers and sisters, this is not how it should be (James 3:9–10).

James tells us that in the church, our tongues are the matches. When the one speaking is a teacher–whose words are truly motivated by the Holy Spirit–then the flame he or she starts is beneficial to the body. The words may be instructive for every member of the church, or better yet, they may be praising God.

Unfortunately we are more likely to burn the body of Christ with our words than to enlighten it. Knowing that Satan uses our tongues to “corrupt the whole body” with words that are “a fuel that originates in hell itself,” we must choose them wisely and use them sparingly. Always remember that

A fool does not think before he unleashes his temper,
but a wise man holds back and remains quiet (Proverbs 29:11).

Be the wise man. Hold back your words use them only to enlighten your church family, not to scorch them.