Turning the darkness into light

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21)

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
    along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
    and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
    I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:16)

One of the property owners I work with told me about an office secretary he knew who was told to duplicate a letter she had been given. (This was in a developing country and long before the availability of inexpensive photocopying.)

When she flipped to the second page, somehow a fly had been squashed between the onionskin pages and the flattened remains were stuck to the paper. After typing the letter she—wait for it—found a flyswatter and finished duplicating the letter right down to the flattened thorax.

Foolish, yes, but not foolish as the Bible generally defines it. So forget the dumb-blonde jokes, the woman who called 911 to say she was locked inside her car or the two Little Rascals who called to ask what the number for 911 is.

For the sheer number of occurrences, the book of Proverbs must win the prize for fool and foolish. Proverbs deals in generalizations based on observation and reflection. It’s not, as I’ve heard some Christians try to interpret it, a catalogue of ironclad, there’s-never-an-exception rules or promises yoked with certain specific fulfillments.

So, for example, one of the perennial favorites for posters and fridge magnets is, “Train up a child in the way he should go; Even when he grows older he will not abandon it” (Pr 22:6). It’s describing a typical outcome, not a 100% guarantee. As much as I sympathize with parents whose children have lost interest in the faith—and I’m one of them, too–some children wander away and don’t return. Experience and observation reveal that as well.

Proverbial wisdom tells us that what’s really meant by this aphorism is those conversations grown children have with their parents in the kitchen at Thanksgiving (through masks this year, I suppose) about, “You know, Dad, when you said [wisdom offered at the time and taken lightly], you were right. Just last week, Heather was having this problem with a couple of classmates at school and I realized that [same wisdom magically returning like a boomerang]. The wisdom has come full circle.

What Proverbs deals with is the disposition to foolish behavior, which originates with the first verse quoted above: Unwilling to honor God as God leads to an immediate diminution of our ability to see things clearly.

Our “foolish hearts were darkened” [please note: darkened, not eclipsed; there is a big difference] and our “thinking became futile,” which is another way of saying it does not lead to wise choices and therefore wise behavior. It can actually lead to not just foolish, but self-destructive, behavior.

The best way to illustrate this is from my life, especially some of the most foolish phases. I’m not boasting, but I’m an intelligent person who was valedictorian of my high school class, an honors student at the Johns Hopkins University and the possessor of a master’s degree from Boston University. None of this prevented me from foolish, self-destructive behavior.

Most people think the next narrative detail will deal with something like substance abuse, etc., but I was a pretty straight arrow, your basic Velveeta-on-Wonder-Bread kid and never wandered from the fold (that’s a metaphor referring to a flock of sheep, not the way my mother used to fold my grilled cheese sandwiches). But that also doesn’t matter.

That’s because Proverbs’ generalizations have to do with the common lot of humanity, the human tendencies we share that are part of our nature. If there wasn’t a certain universality to these there would be no point in reading a book (the Bible), parts of which are 20-30 centuries old and which reaches even further back in the book of Genesis, that is mostly narrative.

When a baby giraffe emerges it may be a miniature version of its parents, but it’s going to look like a giraffe. A banana will always be yellow and, well, banana-shaped.

If I used banana-shaped to describe something, you’d know instantly what I meant because every banana you’ve ever seen has the same gentle curve in it. (Except for the one that fell out of your daughter’s lunch box, landed on the concrete steps and made you banana-shaped momentarily when you hit the ground.)

But back to me. As a young believer, I made many changes to my lifestyle in the wake of my conversion, most of them, with 44 years’ hindsight, pretty superficial. But one thing didn’t change and, in fact, took many years to subdue: fear of man.

If you’re a regular Bible reader I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase. If you’re not, it may sound strange, quaint or foreboding. Not surprisingly, it appears in Proverbs, because it is just one of many human tendencies that merit comments: “The fear of man brings a snare, but one who trusts in the Lord will be protected” (Pr 29:25). In the NIV translation, that’s the only occurrence of the phrase, though the concept makes several biblical appearances.

Slang equivalents would be man-pleaser or people-pleaser. (Other entries are vulgar.) The virtue signaling that seems to light up Twitter about every five seconds has the same symptoms. It means that you’re dominated by the need for others’ approval and acceptance.

Though fear sounds negative, the same fear of man motivated some of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, but it’s described in slightly different terms: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God” (Jn 12:42-43).

The last phrase, coming right after the fear they felt, summarizes their tendency or disposition, which, remember, is what Proverbs means by foolish. It’s a guiding light in their life, in other words.

We all have our moments when someone bends our will by becoming angry, impatient, or weepy and clingy. It usually leaves a bad taste in our mouths or a sense of regret. What it doesn’t necessarily do is dominate us.

Here’s another way to think about it. We all get tired at work. If we’re tired all the time, however, if tiredness dominates us, then we may have a medical or workplace environmental problem (e.g., chemical fumes that make us drowsy or dizzy). In the life of a believer, dominate is what something does when it displaces God so that you no longer honor God as God.

And, as described earlier in this post, that has consequences. “Our foolish hearts are darkened” and our “thinking becomes futile.”

When I was at Boston University, I lived near Symphony Hall and had to ride the Green Line to one of the BU stops on Commonwealth Avenue. At the time, BU had something like 26,000 students, so that line could be busy almost any time of the day.

One morning I boarded the train, stumbled on something as I walked in and then got bumped as well. I had my book bag in one hand, but my free arm went up and my elbow caught some guy right in the nose. He reacted loudly, and, mortified at what happened, I instinctively blurted out, “I’m sorry!”

It was an accident, of course, and most of us feel momentarily flustered when accidents, even relatively small ones, happen where someone gets hurt. It’s one of our human tendencies.

But as I moved forward to grab a strap, the guy kept complaining—still loudly, and longer than I thought was necessary. It was an accident, for goodness’ sake, I thought. He didn’t seem to appreciate that.

But as he kept complaining, seemingly, for the benefit of half the car, something happened in me. My fear of man instincts kicked in as I glanced around the car and saw that most of the eyes were looking in our direction. I felt the warmth in my face rising. I averted their gaze, looked down, then looked out the window so that the only faces I saw were reflections.

What was I feeling? My guilt, my embarrassment, my shame even, because 10-15 other passengers were looking in my direction with what seemed to be accusing eyes. There I was, facing the jury of my peers, when someone from the Transit Police walked right up to me and laid a black cloth atop his head. (OK, I made up that last detail. I just watched Dial M for Murder.)

Where did it all come from? My imagination. My imagination dominated by the fear of man, which turned a reasonably intelligent man down a blind alley into “futile thinking.” Nearly everything I started to imagine was incredibly foolish. There is no other way to put it.

OK, the whiny guy was real enough. But if I could look inside the minds of some of the other passengers what would I find? Guy wearing the hard hat: That guy needs to stick a sock in it; he sounds like a nine-year-old. (What do you know? He agrees with me!)

Another: I hope the delicatessen still has a couple of slices of baklava left. (Doesn’t give a fig about what happened. Does baklava contain figs, btw?) Still another: Why on earth did I eat those pancakes that are now sitting in my stomach like a sweet lump of clay while the stop-and-start lurching of the train is making me nauseous? (The sour look stems from a sour stomach, not the hip check to the guy’s nose as I assumed.)

So where did this self-centered, “can’t restrain my impulse to wonder what others think of me,” “save my life” at all costs tendency put me? Like the proverb, in a snare–strait-jacketed, trapped, unable to break free, feeling immeasurably worse for all my futile efforts to please and find approval from others. Is it any wonder that Paul wrote “though they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Rom 1:22)?

So who was there to deliver me? Turns out no Christians I knew about that time could even discern the root of the problem, much less provide an antidote. More on that in another post.

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