Have you ever gone to a Chinese restaurant and at the end of your meal, opened your fortune cookie only to discover that it’s not really a fortune at all? It’s more like a proverb or words of wisdom, something like, “He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at,” or “Life is not a mystery to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” Whenever I get fortunes like these I always feel sort of stiffed. Those aren’t actually fortunes–they’re just general words about life.
I guess I shouldn’t be too disappointed to receive these non-fortunes, given my theological convictions or whatever. But my experience, my sense of wondering, “Isn’t there more??” is not unique to opening fortune cookies. I get a similar feeling whenever I read Proverbs 22:13. It goes like this:
The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”
That’s it. That’s the proverb.
I actually laugh every time I read it because it’s so short and seems to give no apparent instruction whatsoever. It’s as if Solomon was in the middle of writing Proverbs when he started to doze off and write random stuff in a half-awake state of consciousness. (Which I actually did a lot in seminary myself. I’ve got some crazy notes about Augustine and grapes)
Fortunately we know that all Scripture is the inspired Word of God, which means we should always dig deeper in the face of Biblical oddities like this one. So to begin, what’s a sluggard? This word appears all throughout Proverbs, but it’s not exactly a word I use all the time, so what does it mean? As the word itself sort of implies, a sluggard is “a person who is habitually lazy or inactive.”
Knowing that, what exactly is going on in this proverb? To understand it, I think you have to imagine this scenario taking place in a quiet American suburb. There are perfectly manicured lawns, children riding their bikes across the street, and the sound of sprinklers gently watering the grass off in the distance. It’s peaceful, and it’s very safe.
Now imagine that your lazy cousin Ricky Bobby is in your house and refuses to go out and get a job. He’s just graduated from high school and had a brief stint working at Hardee’s, but the work schedule of 20 hours a week cut into his video game time, so he quit. Now he’s working hard at carving out a Ricky Bobby-shaped wedge in your couch, and he’s slowly amassing a pile of Cheeto’s bags and beef jerky wrappers all around him. When you try to get him to leave, he distractedly garbles out a response along the lines of, “I can’t go out there it’s not….safe. There’s uh….there’s a pit bull across the street that, uh…. doesn’t like me.” Then he turns back to his game.
Clearly this is crazy talk. But the problem is not that he’s a paranoid schizophrenic–the problem is that he’s unbelievably lazy. And that is kind of logic we see in Proverbs 22:13. It’s about as likely that a lion is lurking outside the sluggard’s house as it is that a pit bull is waiting to attack Ricky Bobby. Neither individuals is truly worried that an animal is out there ready to get them–it’s just an excuse to sit on their butts.
That’s ultimately what a sluggard is–someone who creates excuses out of thin air to avoid doing the will of God. And with that in mind, we can’t be too quick to judge the sluggard. While the proverb is perhaps an extreme example, we come up with similar “what if” excuses all the time. When we consider what radical discipleship to God might entail, perhaps giving our money away more generously, perhaps moving to another country, perhaps loving your husband and being kind to him even when he’s acting selfishly–all of these prospects create “what if” fears. What if we don’t have enough money? What if God calls us some place dangerous? What if he doesn’t change? What if there’s a lion in the streets?
And just as quickly as we ask these questions, we answer them. No, it’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it’s not gonna work. So we let ourselves off the hook, not because God has given us His answer, but because we don’t want to disrupt our comfortable lives. That is what a sluggard would do.
While the concocted tale of a lion in the streets sounds absurd, it’s no more absurd than our ideas of what’s best for our lives. We devise plans for ourselves, what we think is wisest and surest, all for the sake of avoiding those dangers and pitfalls that God has said we need not fear. When we fear the world instead of God, we fear a danger that doesn’t really even exist. And in doing so, we remain in a state of inaction. So don’t be a spiritual sluggard! Examine your fears and ask God if they have any basis in reality. Is it a fear that God has given you, or is it as realistic a fear as a lion in the streets?