Consider the connections between these three proverbs:
The lazy man says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets!” (Proverbs 22:13)
The lazy man says, “There is a lion in the road! A fierce lion is in the streets! As a door turns on its hinges, So does the lazy man on his bed. (Proverbs 26:13-14)
The wicked flee when no one pursues, But the righteous are bold as a lion. (Proverbs 28:1)
One important connection is in the word “Lion.” What is the difference between the individual whom Proverbs is exhorting us not to be, and the one held up as an example to emulate? One is scared of lions. The other is a lion.
This connection can be very instructive for us, as the lockdown in Pennsylvania is in the middle of its 9th week. Just before it began, when it became clear it was coming, I posted these thoughts here at the blog:
“Men’s hearts failing them from fear.” That’s how Jesus describes the emotional state of global society, right before he comes back. Now, it’s clear from the context of this statement (Luke chapter 21) that we are not in that particular stage of history at this moment, and yet… it’s no profound observation that, at the time of this post, those words are not far off from describing the emotional state of our time as well.
What brought us to this place? For a long time now, many of us have allowed anxiety to live in our heads. Like a mold that’s just behind the wallpaper, we know it’s there—but we haven’t taken the necessary steps to eradicate it. Instead, we’ve maintenance it, but let it live and thrive in us. Working with young people for years, and now young adults, I would call it a true epidemic—a crisis of emotional health. The medicines we’re using don’t work, and so many of the habits we’ve formed actually feed it. Screens and everything that come through them, both technology and content, feed and drive our anxiety. And now, at last, like all diseases do, it’s broken out into the open. Anxiety, evidently, can’t stay hidden for long. And now, it’s ruling us, from the highest levels of society, on down.
As of May 13th, it’s still ruling. Many, of course, have begun to look forward and ask what the other side of this will look like. And it’s important to note that protecting the vulnerable and taking reasonable precautions have become the basic agreed-upon course of action for everyone, including those in the American Christian community. Any Christ-honoring Christian will support (and take) real action to help ensure that at-risk people remain safe. By all means, protect those whom COVID-19 threatens. That’s basic love of neighbor. Followers of Jesus will be motivated more by love for their neighbors than worry about comfort or entertainment or money. Of course, Christian love is also intelligent and informed by the word of God. And the word of God holds forth, not a steady stream of words from media, but God’s wisdom, embedded in creation and made explicit in his word, as the reality that should shape and direct our love. True love loves wisely. Mature love understands that if God’s wisdom does not inform love, then other, parasitic things will take over, and blunt love’s edge, or rob it of its power completely. Things like sentimentality, or panic, or ideology will take over and ruin everything, and all in the name of love.
So where does that leave a culture who has explicitly turned away from God’s wisdom? It leaves us here, in May of 2020. Our rulers have manifested, and continue to obey, what may be the core weakness of our society. In the modern West, because we have been taught that we are nothing more than physical beings, and that there is nothing on the other side of death, the fear of death rules us. It’s the only real option. Our culture kept it under for a while, but its undeniable logic has finally won the day.
R.R. Reno pointed this out, back in March:
There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost. Satan rules a kingdom in which the ultimate power of death is announced morning, noon, and night. But Satan cannot rule directly. God alone has the power of life and death, and thus Satan can only rule indirectly. He must rely on our fear of death.
In our simple-minded picture of things, we imagine a powerful fear of death arises because of the brutal deeds of cruel dictators and bloodthirsty executioners. But in truth, Satan prefers sentimental humanists. We resent the hard boot of oppression on our necks, and given a chance, most will resist.
How much better, therefore, to spread fear of death under moralistic pretexts.
These are important insights into the things that beat at the heart of our Western culture. Think again about those proverbs. There is more going on than a simple condemnation of laziness in that scene of the man on his bed. These proverbs are part of the entire world of Biblical wisdom literature, which holds several characters up for our consideration who are all personifications of the person who rejects God’s wisdom. For instance, laziness may have nothing to do with someone who makes the same declarations about lions in the streets. It may simply be that this person has a really deep fear of lions!
Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke helps us think this through with some insight into how someone of that day would have read Proverbs 22:13. He says that the claim the speaker is making in the second half of the verse is that “the one forcing him into the streets will be guilty of murder.” But any reader from this time would have seen this as an absurd claim, Waltke points out, because, “in ancient times lions were plentiful in the forests. But they were not found in the streets of Israel’s fortified cities, and especially not in the fortified plaza area bustling with soldiers, merchants, administrators and common people…By absurdly claiming that there is a lion in the street that will kill him, he excuses himself from leaving the amenities of his home…to venture the hard work that builds a community…His life and his community are not in danger from his phantom lion in the streets but from his lazy lifestyle.”
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I am not saying that we are being “lazy” by staying home and in quarantine. But the Proverbs speak to our situation in this way: What happens when a people allows fear to rule them, and it is fear of anything other than God? The inevitable result is that they become the opposite of “the righteous” who are “bolds as lions.” It means they may find themselves “fleeing when no one pursues.” And it means that they will constantly find reasons to avoid “the hard work that builds a community.”
But followers of Jesus are called to better things. And we have an unending source of strength to transcend the fear that holds so many down. The presence of God and the word of God give us all we need. And the presence of God in the word of God gives us life. For instance, when we leave our homes, and venture out into the world, we should do so with words like these in our ears:
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.” Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge. His truth shall be your shield and buckler. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.
In other words, instead of fearing lions, we play the role of lions, facing every situation with boldness. Not afraid of the pestilence, not afraid of the destruction. Not afraid at night, not afraid at noon. Truly free, to love people in meaningful, helpful ways.
No weapon formed against you shall prosper, and every tongue which rises against you in judgment you shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is from Me,” Says the Lord.
So, when wisdom and love dictate staying home, out of a desire to do good to the community, we do so. But we do so with no fear. And we do so understanding that it is out of our fear of God, and not a virus, that we obey the dictates of love. This will keep us sane, and it will help us know when the time for other types of loving, fearless action has arrived.