Imagine it’s the night before your daughter heads off for her freshman year of college. You’re in the kitchen talking, and she asks the most delicious question in the world: Mom, do you have any advice?
Your first reaction is to begin a three hour dissertation. You want to give your eighteen-year-old all the wisdom you have acquired through your decades of mistakes, successes, and reading. But you catch yourself. You know that at some point during that three hour dissertation your daughter’s eyes are going to glaze over and she will quit listening.
So you limit yourself to a single bit of advice. Something simple enough she will never forget it.
Something profound enough that it will be relevant all her life.
You decide to give her a Bible verse. A memory verse from her childhood. Something that is already rooted deep in her brain.
What verse would you cite? What single passage would you wish to live most brightly in your daughter’s mind? In your son’s mind?
Another scenario: You are running for political office—state senator or governor. A reporter is interviewing you. “I understand you are a person of faith, a member of a church. If you were going to cite one Bible verse to illustrate the core of your religious convictions, what verse would that be?”
This could be a complicated question. Do you mention a Bible verse that non-church people will like or do you mention the Bible verse that means the most to you? Is there a difference between those two realities?
A third scenario: you are at the end of life. To everyone else in the room it appears you are comatose. You have heard the medical judgment. You will not recover. You are in a place of no return. You cannot speak, but your mind is still alive. You have moments of inner lucidity, times when you are aware that you are in a place of no return. You are aware that you are waiting for the next step of the journey, a step that comes eventually for everyone. In that place, what Bible verse would you most like to light up your mind?
Three texts: One for your college-bound daughter. One for an inquiring reporter. One for your last hours.
The Bible is a marvelous source of nourishment for our souls. It offers wisdom for our youth, slogans to guide our public policy, and solace in our times of weakness and loss. The wisdom of the Bible is so varied, so diverse, we can find words there appropriate to nearly every situation, every circumstance of life. This also means it requires wisdom to use the Bible appropriately.
If we ask the question what is the most important passage in the Bible, there are several obvious candidates. Micah 6:8. He has showed you O Mortal what is good and what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. Or Jesus’ declaration, “Love the Lord your God with your entire being. This is the first and great commandment. The second is similar. Love your neighbor as yourself. Or perhaps we could reference John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him might not die but instead have everlasting life.
But when we specify the circumstance and ask what is the most important Bible verse for this person in this specific situation, other verses may come to mind.
For kids headed off to college, I might propose Proverbs 23:29-30
Who has anguish? Who has sorrow?
Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining?
Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine.
I especially like the phrase: Who has unnecessary bruises.
I saw an article earlier this week in the Seattle Times about a group of mothers who are responding to sexual assault charges against their sons. These mothers asked the obvious questions: were their sons really guilty of the actions they were accused of. If they were guilty was the punishment—legal and social–appropriate. I was particularly struck by one incident. One of the mothers said her son had been expelled after having sex with a student who said she had been too intoxicated to give consent.
Later in the day when I was thinking back on the article that one sentence kept coming back to my mind. A woman charged a man with assault because she was too intoxicated to give consent. I wondered was the man too intoxicated to act responsibly? After asking that question and thinking of the trauma experienced by these two young people—the woman violated, the man shamed—I couldn’t help thinking of the proverb.
Who has unnecessary bruises? Those who linger over wine.
Or beer. If I could give kids headed off to college one Bible verse, this might be it. Guys, if you get drunk, you are likely to do stuff that is really, really stupid and maybe evil. You may bruise others. You may bruise yourself.
All the Bible verses about love and justice and mercy become useless in the mind of a person who has had too much to drink. If you are going to love your neighbor, you have to be reasonably sober to do so. Guys, if you’re going to be with a woman, don’t get drunk. The alcohol will poison your capacity to act in a noble, loving way. Gals, if you’re going to be with men, don’t get drunk. Because if you do you dramatically increase the risk of sexual assault.
If you don’t want unnecessary bruises—whether those bruises are on your body or in your soul—if you don’t want unnecessary bruises, don’t get drunk. After a glass or two, alcohol becomes stupid juice. Don’t go there.
Memorize Proverbs 23:29
Who has anguish? . . .
Who has unnecessary bruises? . . .
Those who linger over wine.
Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t hurt other people. Don’t be stupid. Don’t get drunk. That’s Bible. 🙂
I’m going to skip over the second scenario: a Bible passage we might cite as a slogan for public policy, a passage that embodies wisdom for those who are strong and smart and capable. I preach on the responsibilities we carry as privileged people nearly every week. Instead, I will consider the third scenario. What words of the Bible would we want to illuminate our minds when we face the end of our journey?
When I keep company with people facing the end of their journey, I come back again and again to the first words of Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd.”
The value of this picture is where it places the responsible action. Sheep are responsible for almost nothing. Which is a good thing because they are incapable of carrying out any responsibility. When sheep get sick because they have eaten some poisonous weed, we don’t blame the sheep. We figure the shepherd was negligent or ignorant. It is the shepherd’s job to make sure the pasture is safe. When a mama sheep rejects its lamb, it is the job of the shepherd to notice and rescue the lamb. If there are dogs in the neighborhood, it is the shepherd’s job to make sure the fence is secure. If a sheep gets out, it is the shepherd’s job to go find it.
There are times in our lives—lots of times—when we need to be reminded of our duties, our responsibilities. It is our assignment to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly with God. It is our responsibility to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are obliged to tell the truth. To speak graciously and kindly. To be faithful in our relationships. But everyone of us will come to the end of our abilities. We will not be able to do justice—or even injustice. We will not be capable of acting mercifully or unmercifully. The time comes when all we can do is receive.
At that time, the Bible offers these words of reassurance. The Lord is my shepherd. God takes on the responsibility. And because God IS a shepherd and is not merely a sheep owner it is not only his duty to feed us and protect us and sustain us, it is God’s pleasure to do so. When we pass beyond the limits of our capacity to act and do, God is our shepherd. We will lack nothing.
Those are the best words I can think of, the most important words, to take with us on that final mysterious journey. And they are good words, indeed.