Many people in our church have committed to reading the book of Proverbs three times this summer. When I made this commitment, I also decided to change my actions and thinking when the Holy Spirit highlighted certain passages. The book promises wisdom to young men and I wanted my heart open to receive whatever instruction it offered.
Having read the book several times (dad would make me read through the whole thing as punishment whenever he heard me use foul language, which means I have some catching up to do), I expected to have one or two minor confrontations in what I would read this time. Certain passages about work and savings challenged the way I approached finances. Verses regarding family especially shifted my thinking from “something in the future” to “something I need to prepare for today”. Already, I see the benefit of living according to scripture.
A certain verse stood out during my prayer time one morning. Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” Being a man who frequently suffers from seasons of arrogance, many people around me had quoted “Pride comes before the fall”. It’s not as if I had never noticed the verse before, so I put it out of my mind as a simple moment of recognition, like when I come across old Sunday School memory verses.
Some time later, a friend of mine told me about how he had to discipline his daughter. “She’s a really great kid,” he said. “I don’t want her to feel punished because she’s bad. I want to encourage her with correction.” He asked her to read The Screwtape Letters so she might see some of the ways the enemy uses deception. We talked about Lewis’s point in Mere Christianity where Satan creates nothing and only perverts everything God already created. God creates strength, Satan turns it into brutality. God creates alcohol (believe it, people), Satan pushes for drunkenness. God creates sex, Satan develops porn. This reminded me of a Graham Cooke teaching where he talks about praying in “the opposite spirit”. The idea is that truth is stronger than lies, purity is stronger than impurity, and so on. So when a person is struggling with sin, pray for God to reveal who they are in Jesus and encourage them to live they way He intended. During this teaching, Cooke jokes, “Nobody ever thinks to themselves, ‘I want to be the worst Christian in history!’”
Then I remembered Proverbs 16:18. God has given us all certain gifts and talents. He gave Samson strength, but he became proud and used his strength for selfish purposes. The Bible specifically talks about David’s good looks in 1 Samuel 16. He was attractive, and he eventually gave into sexual sin in 2 Samuel 11. His son Absalom possessed great leadership qualities, but Absolom used his power over the people to incite rebellion in 2 Samuel 15.
Dad used to tell me that my greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. During that period of my life, I could easily detect this in others. A guy I knew in Michigan had incredible relational skills and powers of persuasion. At one time, he told me, it was his life’s mission to get as many people as possible on drugs. Particularly acid. Then Jesus got a hold of him and he became a pastor, using those same gifts for the Kingdom of God. A girl at my old church was an actress and model. She was beautiful and had the ability to capture people’s attention. For about a month, she managed to date two guys at the same time. The dudes were friends and eventually found out about the two-timing. Both confronted her separately and she convinced them that she had broken up with the other. I knew she could use her talent as a way to speak truth onstage, but it turned ugly when she used that talent for people-pleasing offstage.
In my younger days, I used to feel so justified by all these stories. I may have problems, I thought, but at least I’m not like them. The truth was, however, that I was a massive liar. I mean world-class. Half the fun of summer camp was seeing what preposterous story people would believe. At the age of 13, I told people I used much heavier drugs than the ones I actually tried. Supposedly, I’d been in several fights where I came out victorious when in fact I lost almost every one of those humiliating and lackluster scuffles. When I was 14, I told people about how I could have signed a record contract but turned it down. Once, I even convinced a small audience of people that my dad was black.
My strength and weakness were the same. I realized that I had the ability to tell a good story, a believable story. The enemy had used me as an effective tool to spread lies. I was so duped that I even believed some of these stories and many years after my reform had to remind myself, “Oh wait, I made that all up when I was a teenager.” There was a two-year period of time when I dabbled in something called “automatic writing”. I used to blank out my thoughts and write whatever came to mind. At first, the writing was interesting. Over time, though, I wouldn’t even think about what my hand wrote and the material became increasingly dark. It never occurred to me what evil voices I had allowed to speak freely in my mind. Toward the end of this experiment, I even saw some of the stuff I was writing, not necessarily understanding that I was writing the vision. The whole experience freaked me out so much that I stopped writing outside of school papers for a few years. In a perverse sort of way, I was even proud of my ability to keep from sinning by not writing.
God gave me these gifts to glorify Him but then I became proud when I realized the power of what I possessed. The enemy had me using my storytelling for sinful purposes. Automatic writing twisted a God-given gift and proved a counterfeit of my ability to hear His voice. When I first decided to repent of these things, I feared what would happen if I continued to use my gifts and stopped altogether. At first, I was in bondage to sin, and then I was in bondage to the fear of sin. Both prevented me from using the gifts God had given for His glory, and so both forms of bondage proved unrighteous. Pride in my abilities truly had brought destruction.
A similar verse in Proverbs 29 says, “A man's pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.” This goes back to Xerox Copies. God is ultimate and so deserves all glory, honor, and praise. The gifts and talents we have make us proud when we think they originated within ourselves, but they can become powerful, kingdom-building tools when we recognize their purpose and source in God. If a Christian recognizes the truth of Galatians 2:20, having their identity in Jesus, then a humble attitude of his strength will bring honor to the One who truly deserves it.
In terms of sin, it can also bring freedom. Think about your struggles. To my friend who used to be the Apostle of Acid, God humbled him and put him in public ministry. That part of his life found redemption. After my life as a career liar and automatic writer, God told my dad to help him write his book. Now, years later, I find myself writing to God’s glory and telling stories to build people’s faith. Where I once feared I would sin using these gifts, I rejoice in the redemption I have experienced.