This past Sunday, as I continued my duties as a substitute preacher, I spoke on Ecclesiastes 10:8-9:
Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;
whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them;
whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.
This struck me as being about good intentions. And we’re told that the road to Hell is paved with them.
For the author of Ecclesiastes, that’s what life consists of: lots of good intentions, but they take us to the bad place. Why? Because we’re human and have limited knowledge and abilities. We know what we want, but we can’t always make it actually happen. Our good ideas are less than perfect.
So how do we get off that road to Hell?
All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord (Proverbs 16:2)
Proverbs: everything a person does is right in his own eyes; so next time you’re at the DMV or the Post Office, remember that the people behind the counters, they are not trying to piss you off; the stupid politicians, the driver that cuts you off. So I try to keep Proverbs 16:2 in mind.
I also try to remember the little dictum attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte—I know, dictator, imperialist, yada yada. But one day, so the story goes, when his advisors told him about a general whose battlefield actions were so bad that he must surely be a traitor and should be taken out and shot, Napoleon just shook his head and commented, “Never attribute to malice what is more easily explained by stupidity and incompetence.”
And certainly we should have good intentions, and certainly, God looks on the heart, not the outward appearance. But good intentions by themselves are dead, to paraphrase words from a letter written by the Apostle James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:14-16)
And we all have this kind of problem, sometimes. We are imperfect, we make mistakes. And even in the best of circumstances, well…
The author of Ecclesiastes seeks to counter a notion that infects the minds of many: that we can make life entirely safe: that we can foresee every possible problem and set up safeguards to keep pain away.
Pain will come.
You can’t plan for the unexpected. By definition.
What are we to do then? How do we avoid good intentions that go awry?
Proverbs 3:5-6 suggests a way, perhaps:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Of course, this solution is sometimes easy to forget, because, how God might decide to “make our paths straight” is not always what we really want.
There is more than one way for him to make our paths straight. Sure, he might just fix the problem for us. More likely, he’ll just give us the strength to endure it; he’ll stand by our sides and offer us comfort. Or, we might just die—and end up in eternity with him.
Of those three possible fixes, there’s only one do we really want. We know that we will be with him forever—but that’s not what we’re going to be thinking about while we fix a flat tire in the rain, now is it? Or when a snake bites us when we were repairing a wall.
Proverbs tells us we need to trust God.
Which makes me think that perhaps we need to be like a dog.
Dogs utterly trust us. We take a dog to the vet, and the vet does hideous things to the poor beast: separates it from its person, pokes it with needles, leaves it alone in a cage. A visit to the vet is a sheer horror for the dog. From the dog’s perspective, there isn’t anything positive in a visit to the vet.
When I take my dog to the vet, I know why he’s there. I understand that the shots keep him healthy and protect him from illness—but my dog doesn’t understand. My dog can never understand. And there’s nothing I can do to help the dog understand. But the dog will still love me, still trust me, will never stop believing and hoping and loving me.
So maybe we need to be like dogs.
Instead, we’re more like cats.
My cat’s food dish starts getting a little low. "Meow, meow, MEOW. Feed me. You’re going to let me die of starvation aren’t you?” says my cat. “You don’t care about me, I know it.”
Cats are aloof; they ignore you a lot of the time—and they never, ever trust you and always assume the worst about you.
I yet love my cat. I think cats are wonderful.
But I enjoy watching cat videos, where bad things happen to cats. I laugh.
I’d never enjoy seeing the things that happen to cats happen to dogs.
I think in our relationship with God, we are cats.
Good thing God likes cats.
Dogs trust us no matter what, love us no matter what, even when we take them to the vet. We need to be more like dogs.
And less like cats.