Based on Proverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
What do these activities or job descriptions have in common: parenting, being a manager of other humans, being a teacher, coach or trainer, a human resource professional or counselor, a worker in a customer-facing job? One correct answer is that they all bring one face-to-face with willful human beings. Almost every day some portion of my internet feed highlights a “Karen” or the male equivalent, attempting to impose their will on an unsuspecting person. Usually, these incidents devolve into the offending person in a full out temper tantrum which would impress and surpass many a two-year old child. At issue is the misunderstanding of free will, these days interpreted as “don’t tell me what I can or cannot do!”, with the unencumbered ability to decide the best course of action from a given set of options.
To emphasize that last point, Os Guinness, in a book entitled, “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future” writes: “…We are rapidly reaching the point in Western consumer societies where people confuse freedom with choice, as they are dazzled daily by an ever-expanding array of external choices in consumer goods and lifestyle options. But the pursuit of freedom has led to an abundance (surfeit) of choices and a scarcity of meaning and value – a point at which choice itself, rather than the content of any choice, has become the heart of freedom. The result is that modern people value the ability to choose (choice) more (rather) than the quality of the (a good) choice….”
In our scripture readings this week, the message of the writers of Proverbs, James, and Mark all agree: Willful people do foolish and destructive things that get in the way of God’s plans. In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom cries out to those who use their free will in simple-minded ways and whose actions lead to negative consequences. We’re cautioned that when predictable calamity strikes, she will laugh, for all of us have been warned. The writer of James speaks of the dangers of freely engaging in gossip and errant teachings, warning that a willful and undisciplined tongue can unleash the very fires of hell. In the Gospel according to Mark, Peter rebukes Jesus for his talk of dying and Jesus rebukes Peter for continuing to set his mind on worldly things. Finally, the psalmist proclaims that freely choosing true worship (translated here as fear) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Let us go to God now in prayer that God has given us the ability to have free will and offers us the wisdom to use it wisely…
Most Christians have never spent much time in the Book of Proverbs, and even if they have, they have gone to the pithy sayings which start in Chapter 10 and have ignored the challenging scripture in the first nine chapters. Today we encounter such challenging scripture beginning in verse 20 of Chapter One. Lady Wisdom (the Holy Spirit and Wisdom are always referred to as female) cries out to all of us who behave in simple-minded manners, “How long will you love being simple?” Lady Wisdom offers her counsel freely for us to choose – yet we often do not heed her advice and correction, instead freely choosing our own path that leads to panic, distress and needless anguish. Lady Wisdom laughs and mocks us for the natural consequences of our free will choices. In Robert Alter’s translation, Lady Wisdom says, “…For the waywardness of dupes will kill them and the smugness of fools will destroy them….”
The writer of the letter of James is following up his teaching on faith without works being dead. In our reading today, the writer is talking about teachers of the faith, and how difficult it is to harness our tongues for good. He boldly states, “…With our tongues (it) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so….” We can tame animals and plants and even harness the power of the atom, yet none of us can consistently control our language – written or verbal. Free will, when applied without wisdom and mercy, allows our untamed tongues to be, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison”.
Jesus is traveling to the pagan city of Caesarea Philippi in the northern part of Palestine. On the way, Jesus asks the Disciples about who people say he is – and what they say as well. Peter responds with the impulsive answer that Jesus is the Messiah, but it is clear he has a different understanding of what this means than does Jesus. Jesus explains wisely that the Messiah must suffer, be rejected by the Temple leaders and be killed in order to rise again in glory. Peter, being simple-minded, cannot process this future for his friend and mentor and admonishes Jesus for his words. Jesus turns that rebuke around and wisely teaches the Disciples that they must deny their free will and become followers who are willing to lose their lives for Jesus and His good news.
How do we follow the wisdom of Jesus and the whole of the Bible and learn to subjugate our wills in order to do the will of God? In a sermon entitled, “Free Grace”, John Wesley speaks plainly about our free will which is acted upon by God’s prevenient grace. He said, “…It (prevenient grace) provides the ability to choose salvation, an ability that was surrendered by Adam’s sin. The freedom, which was lost in Adam’s sin, is sufficiently restored (through God’s grace) to enable people to choose salvation. Prevenient grace provides people with the ability to (freely) choose or reject God. Prevenient grace operates through the law and conscience to bring conviction of sin and despair of ever pleasing God. People have the freedom to resist the conviction of sin that comes from the law and conscience. Prevenient grace leads one to the very brink of salvation if one responds positively to the means of grace that precedes saving faith. Prevenient grace provides the power to respond positively to God and gives free will to every man; but it does not guarantee that the good will be chosen; it simply provides the freedom to choose salvation….”
We as United Methodists follow the teachings of John Wesley on the different forms which God’s grace takes in our lives. Prevenient grace surrounds us even before we understand that there is a God who loves and seeks relationship with us. If Wesley is correct, this love modifies our free will decisions and allows us to decide to seek after God. Then, God’s Justifying grace works in our lives so that we understand ourselves to be sinful persons in need of the forgiveness and redemption available through God’s love as made visible in Jesus. Once we freely admit our sins and understand ourselves to be forgiven, we can then devote our wills to following God’s Sanctifying grace to form us ever more fully into the mind and heart of Jesus.
Wesley was clear that even though our sins are forgiven through God’s justifying grace, that while we will continue to sin, we are more aware and able to repent and ask for forgiveness. Clearly, as the writer of James states, “no one can tame the tongue” – we see this every day in the world of Facebook and other social media sites. Further, we often make decisions not to follow Lady Wisdom due to our unwise and simple-minded approach to our lives, both personal and communal. We decide that we know better than anyone or anything, and freely choose the path of panic, distress, needless anguish and death. We need only to review the events of the last 18 months to see how many simple people have chosen to foolishly follow their own free will and to openly scoff at scientific knowledge and public health wisdom. Lady Wisdom is laughing at the natural consequences of our collective calamity brought on by not following the wisdom of our Lord and Savior as depicted in the Bible.
Thousands of years ago, the inspired writers of the Bible communicated the wisdom and truth of God to those of us who would follow. They wrote that our free will choices would lead us to wander away from the wisdom and love of God. They wrote that our collective hubris, written in Proverbs as the “complacency of fools”, would destroy and kill us. Only freely willful fools would not be able to draw the connection between the scriptures today and the world in which we currently live. God gives us the freedom to choose to follow God’s wisdom or worldly wisdom. When we continue to choose God’s wisdom, God grows us through God’s grace into the mind and heart of Jesus and promises us that, “…those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster….” How long, O simple ones, will we ignore God’s wise counsel, correction and knowledge in favor of our own free will? May God have mercy on us all! Amen.