“Those with no vision from the Lord, will cast restraint away; but blessed are they who know God’s word, and willingly obey.” (Proverbs 29:18)
This is the twenty-nineth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 29, preceded by a brief reflection.
The percentage of Americans who self-identify as ‘Christian’ is dropping fast. The Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the religious makeup of the country for a number of years, has just published its latest report. The results couldn’t be more sobering for us Christians. For while the number was above 90% for as long as such statistics have been kept, there was a dramatic shift downward in the 1990’s to where roughly 64% so identify themselves today. Moreover, modeling suggests that the number will drop below 50% by 2070 at the latest.
This drop is due primarily to young people leaving the Christian faith they have been raised in. They are not leaving for atheism or another religion per se, but towards a secularized mindset that identifies with no formal religious belief. They are often referred to as ‘Nones’ (a name taken from the category ‘None’ under ‘Religious Preference’ on the survey). There are two primary theories offered as to what is causing this shift. One is that as secular institutions develop that take care of people’s basic needs, the need for religion decreases. The other is that it is a reaction to American Christianity that has become more and more associated with conservative political ideology. Both of these have some validity, but I don’t believe they explain the whole picture.
My perspective on this is that of a former “None,” who came to faith in 2000. Although ‘None’ was not a label then in use, it is nonetheless a good descriptor of my religious beliefs at the time. As I started on my spiritual journey in the late 1990’s, I tore into books on Christianity, but the single most critical factor in my faith decision was what I saw in the lives of various Christians I was closest to. I witnessed a number of believers who seemed to be living lives radically different (and better) than the surrounding culture – they were honest, caring, and humble. They had a clear vision for their life with God and were more or less living it out with compelling authenticity. They had something I wanted, and their winsomeness drew me in.
These days I still see many believers with an engaging vision of life in the Kingdom of God and who continue to attract and encourage me in my own faith journey. At the same time, I often feel depressed by the number of Christians in America who seem to have drifted away from God’s vision for life with Him. Proverbs 29:18 describes what happens when someone fails to have a godly vision for their life – namely, they go off the rails by casting away the natural restraint that comes from following the way of the Lord, “Those with no vision from the Lord, will cast restraint away; but blessed are they who know God’s word, and willingly obey.” Other translations are more explicit, saying that those without a godly vision will ‘perish’ or ‘decay.’ I believe the consequences of this decay is a plausible explanation for the dramatic decline reflected in the survey. For when Christians lose their godly vision, they affect not only themselves, but those who are observing them. And that which was once winsome becomes loathsome.
When I consider those who have drifted from a godly life, I am not primarily thinking about extreme cases such as clergy abuse scandals, even though their impact is often magnified far beyond their numbers. Nor even about various strains of racism or nationalism that have a foothold in some of our churches. I believe the problem is much more systemic, with large swaths of confessing Christians living lives in opposition to the spirit of Christ. Not surprisingly, the result is a turnoff to many young people.
I would point to three areas where this drift has recently been most striking: justice, mercy, and humility. These virtues, of course, are found throughout the warp and woof of Scripture. A familiar summary of which is Micah 6:8, “He has shown you O man what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord.” The pursuit of justice, mercy, and humility pretty much cover God’s vision for our lives.
Justice. All justice is based upon truth, which is why believing lies and conspiracy theories is so antithetical to a godly vision. Conspiracy tales are in full force these days. From the lie that the last election was stolen, to the heresy of QAnon, which claims that there is a satanic, cannibalistic group of child sex abusers that is being fought by Donald Trump. According to Pew Research, a staggering 61% of white evangelical Christians believe the lie that the election was stolen. And QAnon is particularly popular among white evangelical Christians – some 25% of whom believe it according to a recent survey. Such lies are a cancer that not only erodes society, but our Christian witness. According to Proverbs 29:12, “If any ruler listens to, the lies that people tell; then those who are subordinates, will learn to lie as well.” When rulers are influenced by lies, others are encouraged to lie as well to gain the favor of the leader. According to the NET footnote, “The servants of the monarch adjust to their ruler; when they see that court flattery and deception are effective, they will begin to practice it and in the end become wicked .” Think about the consequences for our faith. Why would any normal sober-minded person be attracted to a group of people where so many believe such nonsense?
Mercy. Mercy is a fundamental quality of God, and according to Jesus one which we are to imitate. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Mercy is how we show compassion, kindness and concern for someone in need. It is always based upon the needs of the other person, and requires sacrifice on our part. During the Covid pandemic, the wearing of facemasks in public became a visible symbol of the care and concern that we have towards one another. For some; however, it became a symbol of the erosion of an individual’s right to choose. Although no one failed to wear a mask when required to receive medical care, there were many who refused to wear a facemask in their church. This became a major problem for those most susceptible to the virus – the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, and by extension their families. To walk into a church and find some who steadfastly refused to wear a mask kept many away. Attendance no doubt would have dropped off in any event, but for many of us who might have gone, the risk of someone without a mask sitting close was too great.
Sadly, masking became a proxy for the culture wars in many churches. For those objecting based upon individual rights and government overreach, I believe they missed the point that mercy is something done in response to the needs of others, and not themselves. The pandemic was particularly hard on churches, and with attendance now plateaued at around 67% of pre-Covid levels (according to Pew Research) it seems a real likelihood that the numbers will never rebound to what they were. In a way, the pandemic simply accelerated a decades long decline in church affiliation. The disputes over masks might be only a secondary factor in the decline. Still, I can’t help but wonder how Christians would be perceived if we had been animated by a godly vision of mercy towards others and universally embraced the sacrifice of wearing a facemask?
Humility. Just as there is no justice without truth, and no mercy without sacrifice, neither is there humility without submission. The touchstone of humility is submission. The Apostle Paul wrote that we should, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) One might well ask whose interests were being advanced with all of the political endorsements by clergy during the last election cycle? Only a few pastors explicitly endorsed political candidates from the pulpit, being mindful of IRS rules that could jeopardize their church’s tax exempt status. Still, there was a sharp increase in the number of pastors endorsing political candidates outside of church. According to Lifeway Research, the percentage of such endorsements rose from 22% to 32% from 2016 to 2020.
Although perfectly legal and within their ‘rights,’ such endorsements have consequences for the advancement of the kingdom of God. The obvious one is that in a polarized political environment, there will always be a sizable number of people who oppose the endorsed candidate and may understand it as official Christian doctrine that God favors a certain candidate. It also runs the risk of putting a candidate on a pedestal that is unwarranted. But the greatest danger is that politics plays by power and Christianity plays by submission. It has long been known that when religion gets close to politics, it is good for politics and bad for religion. This is why we must avoid conflating purely secular matters such as politics with our faith. In the words of James, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” (James 4:4-6)
Barring a revival, when the history of the decline of American Christianity is written, I believe it will not be the result of an influx of foreign pagans, nor a direct defeat by the forces of secularism. Rather, it will follow the familiar pattern of similar declines throughout the ages. Namely, it will come from within – from the hearts of too many who lost a godly vision for their lives. It might then be said of us, in the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
1 The one rebuked repeatedly,
yet choosing not to yield;
Will suddenly be broken down –
destroyed and never healed.
2 When just and righteous rulers thrive,
the people shout and cheer;
But when the vile and wicked rule,
the people live in fear.
3 A man will bring his father joy,
who follows wisdom’s way;
But he who chooses prostitutes,
will see his wealth decay.
4 By justice does a king ensure,
a country will be sound;
But one who’s greedy for a bribe,
will surely tear it down.
5 The one whose words are flattering,
to neighbors when they meet;
Is surely spreading out a net,
to tangle his own feet.
6 The wicked are ensnared by sins,
that come from them alone;
But righteous souls shout joyfully,
with songs that they intone.
7 The righteous care that justice comes,
to everyone who’s poor;
The wicked though don’t understand,
or care what is de jure.
8 Those treating others with contempt,
will set a land ablaze;
But one who’s wise will calm down wrath,
and turn away such ways.
9 When one who’s wise goes into court,
with one who is a fool;
The fool will only rage and laugh,
and peace will never rule.
10 A murderer hates anyone,
who’s virtuous and true;
The righteous though protect the just,
and safely see them through.
11 The foolish vent what’s on their minds,
and let their anger roll;
But those with wisdom hold it back,
by showing self-control.
12 If any ruler listens to,
the lies that people tell;
Then those who are subordinates,
will learn to lie as well.
13 The poor and their oppressors are,
the same to this degree;
The Lord provides them both with eyes,
and light so they can see.
14 A king who judges faithfully,
the downcast and the poor;
Will have his throne and dynasty,
15 A rod that disciplines a child,
brings wisdom to the same;
But any child who’s unrestrained,
will bring a mother shame.
16 When wicked people multiply,
iniquity will rise;
The righteous though will see them meet,
their downfall and demise.
17 Correct your children when they’re wrong,
and they will give you rest;
They’ll fill your spirit with delight,
and you’ll be truly blessed.
18 Those with no vision from the Lord,
will cast restraint away;
But blessed are they who know God’s word,
and willingly obey.
19 A servant can’t be disciplined,
by hearing only talk;
Although they understand the words,
to follow them they balk.
20 Have you seen those with hasty words,
who speak without a thought?
There is more hope for fools than them,
for all their reckless talk.
21 A servant pampered from his youth,
and not told what to do;
Will turn out to be insolent –
a weakling through and through.
22 An angry person stirs up strife,
and makes a fight begin;
The one whose temper’s uncontrolled,
commits all kinds of sin.
23 The way of pride and arrogance,
will bring a person low;
But those with meek and humble hearts,
will see their honor grow.
24 A thief’s accomplice hates themselves,
for what is coming nigh;
They’ll have to hear themselves be cursed,
yet dare not testify.
25 The fear of other living souls,
will prove to be a snare;
But anyone who trusts the Lord,
is safe within his care.
26 While many seek a ruler’s ear,
to speak about their plight;
Still it is only from the Lord,
that one gets what is right.
27 The righteous hate dishonest souls –
such people they don’t trust;
The wicked hate high-minded souls –
the righteous and the just.