“. . .far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.” (1 Sam 12:23)
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Mt 7:24)
1 Samuel 12:23; Matthew 7:24
Modern ears have a special sensitivity to false dichotomies and oversimplifications. There are usually far more than two sides to every story. And though Occam offered some salutary insight into how the simplest explanations of events tend to be the most likely, history (and our own experience) reveals myriad examples of events attributable to astoundingly complicated antecedent causes.
That’s why Jesus’ stark picture of the distinction between wise and foolish living strikes modern sensibilities as well beyond the pale—as our pastor commented in his sermon on Jesus’ summary of His most famous sermon. Sure, Jesus may have sage advice worth applying. But to make alignment with His teaching determinative of our destiny sounds like the sort of binary thinking from which humanity has long sought to escape. Surely, it can’t be that simple.
But let’s set aside for a moment how modern ears grapple with Jesus’ dichotomy. For there may be something even more disturbing about what He declares than the counter-cultural notion of there being but two options in one’s approach to life. It has to do with the complex interplay between how life unfolds and how we tend to respond to its unfolding. Only a few would quibble over whether there is a wise and foolish way to live—though many would over what is wise and foolish. But few would deny that we tend not to see our own (or others’) folly until we feel its consequences most profoundly. We notice too late, or perhaps choose not to notice until it’s too late. Consider a few examples.
The slab beneath our home rarely cracks on the day we take possession, but later when the homebuilder has filed for Chapter 11, or vanished behind a cloak of corporate rebrandings. We don’t detect the degradation beneath our feet until it dearly costs us.
Our financial investments can fail so quickly and profoundly that we don’t have the time to compensate for the loss. Ask the lion-share of most former Enron employees.
Some of the most lasting effects of our parenting don’t emerge until long after we’ve lost the ability to influence our children like we could when they were younger.
And as you’ve heard many times, marriages rarely die overnight, but over time. Like the proverb of the frog in the pot of hot water, death slowly but surely overtakes a marriage as the heat is subtly but consistently increased—while husband and wife remain insensible to the danger.
In each of these scenarios, folly isn’t seen as folly until we feel it as folly. Sadly, the delayed recognition tends to be more the rule than the exception.
So let your modern sensibilities bristle all they want at the dichotomy Jesus paints at the end of His Sermon on the Mount. But what shall we do with the fact that our folly too often wreaks such havoc that it seems no amount of wisdom can salvage our sorry lot?
Consider an episode of Israel’s history when their folly became suddenly clear: Israel once clamored for a king (1 Sam. 8). But their importunity stemmed not primarily from a desire for a leader to represent them to God, but as a replacement for God. In calling for a human king they were implicitly rejecting their Eternal King. That’s why Samuel, priest and judge over Israel, warns the people of what their motive for a king reveals, and what it will lead to (1 Sam. 8:10-18).
After Saul is installed as king but before he demonstrates his unsuitableness to reign, Samuel again confronts Israel for her misshapen motive for a king. This time though Israel realizes her folly. To Samuel the people cry out, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king” (1 Sam. 12:19). Samuel responds with a wonderful juxtaposition of phrase, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil.” At the same time he assures them that hope is not yet lost, he reaffirms how much a mess they’ve made of things. They repent in hope as they survey the carnage of their choices.
Caught red-handed with folly we, too, need neither the cynical nor the saccharine; we need hope and honesty. But then we need something more than just an awareness of our madness. We need to know what to do next. Hear Samuel’s ensuing guidance:
Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king (1 Sam. 12:20-25).
The magnitude of our mistakes and the toll they’ve taken notwithstanding, it’s neither too little nor too late to follow the Lord’s directives. Though their list of regrets be sizable—though much may have already been lost—it befits even those most embarrassed by their own folly to find their way in God again. To evacuate the premises of their former insanity and take refuge in the God who will not forsake those who remember He is their King.
Though folly was not the cause of their plight, residents of Japan and Joplin, MO have had no choice recently but to begin again—to sift through the devastation, recover what can be used, and lay a new foundation, brick by brick. But what if yours or others’ folly has decimated more than the tangible? What if your self-inflicted losses can’t be replaced?
You have to turn to the One who sets our folly and its losses in a wider perspective. You have to circle back to the promises of deeper significance than even our most cherished dreams and most profound failures.
Samuel pointed Israel to her king but he was also a foreshadowing of their future king. Samuel anticipates Jesus in how he reminds them of God’s promises, warns them of their folly, and prays for their renewed obedience. But Jesus far exceeds what even Samuel does in how He expends His own blood to ensure His own will never be forsaken. He died for their folly, and was raised to confirm that nothing can separate us—not even our folly—from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:39).
Should our folly seem to have taken everything from us, it’s never a waste to turn and follow Him afresh.
No two ways about it.