“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
Does this proverb have any traction in your life? Or does it just seem like a negative generalization? It helps to remember that proverbs are not one size fits all truths. They are ethical flashlights, not spotlights. You are supposed to read a proverb and ask yourself-
What situations in my life and those of others does this proverb fit?
This proverb reminds me of some other common sayings and quotations:
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Be careful what you pray for.”
“When the gods wish to punish us, they simply answer our prayers.” (Oscar Wilde)
Proverbs 3:5-6 fleshes out Proverbs 14:12.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart.
and do not rely on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge God
and God will make straight your paths.
This last line is not a promise that God will make everything easy for us, but that God will abide with us all along our path and guide us in discerning which choices lead to spiritual life and healing and which lead to spiritual shriveling and death.
“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” (14:12)
I can think of some instances in which I got my own way and lived to be punished by it. Perhaps it was deciding I didn’t have time for something or someone and finding my life diminished by the absence of that person or commitment. Perhaps it was accepting a position because it flattered my ego only to find out that I was not well suited to fulfill its demands. Perhaps it was a situation in which a whole group of people imposed its oppressive will on another. Perhaps it was winning an argument with a loved one but feeling the wall between us begin to grow. This poignant proverb is pointing us toward times when we are faced with choices to do or not to do something the feels painful or sacrificial to us, that flies in the face of our personal agendas. And we choose the way that is less difficult or offers more ego gratification and we find, in time, that it leads to remorse and a shrunken life, with fewer opportunities for contribution and community.
In a scene from the novel Broken Harbor by Tana French the protagonist, Detective Mike Kennedy, offers advice on how to be an effective detective to his rookie partner Richie. (I’ve altered the language slightly)
“Your mind is a weak, broken…. mess that will let you down at every worst moment there is. If you trust your mind you will mess up and you will mess up big. Every single thing I’ve done right in my life, it’s been because I don’t trust my mind.”
Which leads us to the way we could rewrite this proverb:
“There is a way that seems wrong to a person, but its end is the way to life.”
The proverb doesn’t refer to actions that are morally or legally wrong. It’s not referring to situations in which someone abuses someone else or acquiesces to abuse.
It refers to a feeling that a particular choice is uncomfortable or impractical, or that it would entail an irretrievable loss. The proverb, as I’ve rewritten it, refers to times when I’m called on to make a sacrifice of short term comfort for long term benefit; to give up my own agenda for the good of someone else; or to step up to a responsibility I don’t have to confidence to fulfill, but find that I, in fact, can perform quite well. It could refer to my need to pursue a talent or goal that I have locked away, but am now called on to develop and pursue. In Proverbs “life” means living in harmony with God and contributing to the well being of the community.
Framed in this way, the proverb reminds me of Jesus’ saying that
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35 and parallels)
I’ll write more in the future about ways to improve our listening skills in our relationship with God so instincts become more aligned with God’s hopes for our lives.
But for now Detective Kennedy’s comment is like a cool, cleansing breeze.
“Every single thing I’ve done right in my life, it’s been because I don’t trust my mind.”
Fortunately, there is Someone else whose mind we can trust. More on that later…