Lord, I struggle so much with trying to see, trying to anticipate Your will. I’ve this ocean of wisdom, all vanity.
What is vanity? We see the word “vain” everywhere, though not nearly as much as we used to, and we get that in one sense it means you’re superficial, but what does it really mean?
The Latin root of it is vanus, which is of sketchy origin, but it meant empty, hollow, without value. But the Bible was written well before Latin existed, so what was the word used in the Old Testament? It was sheqer, an adjective that means basically the same, but let’s delve further. Sheqer is a derivative of an older word, shaqar, a verb that means “to lie”. Now that’s interesting: the word for the act came before the word to describe it. Lying was an action and that was all it needed to be; it was separate from any need to talk about the idea. It was just something people did.
Remember that Hebrew is a heart language, inherently rooted in emotions and communication of deep principles. The idea of shaqar is not simply to lie, but to intentionally deceive either by lying or by not knowing what you’re talking about. Sheqer, then, describes both an active lie or an idea expressed without full knowledge and understanding. You can see how this lends itself to the idea of vanity, because when a person is shallow it’s not often deliberate, but often ignorance. The implication of this fascinates me.
I could delve into the letters, into how sh, the letter shin is the symbol for one of the most important names for God, El Shaddai – God Almighty, but you’d be here another 6,000 words. I’ll skip to the part where I say the implication is that vanity refers to anything not provided by God. Whoa. Look at the world through that frame for a second. Whether those pants make your butt look big? Whether or not Jim next door has a nicer car? Whether I can beat you in a political debate? We call them vanity, and indeed where is He in those things? But those are surface. How about something harder? What about the knowledge that if we open ourselves to others we will get hurt?
God is the source of wisdom and understanding, and all true knowledge. But there is another class of knowledge, knowledge not given by God, and that knowledge is sheqer. This includes big things, like the vast suppositions of faith science makes that we don’t discuss in polite, reasoning society, all the way down to small things like “you’re not smart enough.” Let’s go back to the very first vanity: “ye shall not ‘surely die’.” Words spoken by the serpent to Eve.
What the serpent meant, and what Eve heard and then vainly “knew”, was that “it won’t make you fall down dead as though you ate poison.” Darkness never does understand light. But never did God say it would make them fall down dead, He said if they ate it they would surely die. And sure enough, eating it brought sin into our nature and brought death, an end to each of our mortal bodies. Eve had knowledge, but it wasn’t from God. Her knowledge said it wouldn’t kill her; God said it would bring in sin which would kill us all. Her knowledge was vanity, not given by God.
The vanity of intelligence convinces us that we can foretell the outcomes of every path, anticipate every option or consequence and thus control them all. If we’re being truthful: each of us believes if we are observant enough, dedicated enough, we can define the exact path of our lives down to the minutiae. If we’re painfully honest we’ll admit that we don’t trust God to plan at that level; we don’t trust that He’s concerned enough with the effects of how people perceive us or how comfortable our lives are. We think He paints in broad strokes, oblivious to the details.
Sometimes it’s the stubborn refusal to submit — I certainly understand that one implicitly — and sometimes it’s the feeling of inadequacy and the desire to “save Him the time dealing with a wretch like you”. But regardless the cause we plan, we strategize, we study for patterns and generate predictions. We tell God to keep His nose out of the whole business because we’ve got it. Sort of a “Jesus, give me the wheel back.”
In so doing we set up these vain prophecies that are tinged by the darkness. Any plan we make we consider the worst-case outcome, and in so doing that’s the outcome we actually plan on, count on. This makes the prophecies self-fulfilling, full of pain and misery that we use to bolster our confidence in our deductive reasoning skills. We know that girl or boy will end up breaking our hearts so we enter the relationship cautiously, half-heartedly and when it ends we declare a victorious “I KNEW it!” We expect a person to behave stupidly and when they do we smirk as we smugly mark off another victorious prediction. We look at sinners with the expectation that they won’t accept God so we slap them across the face with the Bible and cry victory when they reject it as we thought they would. We’re the most eloquent of doomsayers for the world and for ourselves.
I don’t want to beat us all up here. I want simply to point out the vanity, the fallacy, the warped undercurrents that we have collectively decided to blind ourselves to. I want to see the pain stop. I want my own pain to stop. We all know that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Brothers and sisters: we have a problem. We listened to the serpent when he said “ye shall not ‘surely die’.” We have forgotten the Words the Lord spoke to us. We’ve taken up vain, short-sighted knowledge in place of real understanding.
I’ve spoken this exhortation before, but let me again make the appeal: Be still and know that He is God. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or what you’ll wear. Be anxious for nothing, but in all things by prayer and supplication, with THANKSGIVING, make your requests known unto God, and the God of peace shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Why bold “thanksgiving”? Maybe it’s not plain enough, so let me explain.
God wastes no words. When He told Adam “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” He wasn’t being coy. He wasn’t snickering to Himself that He’d created a riddle so He could watch man fall. The God of Peace is not Lucy holding a football out and begging us, Charlie Brown, to try and kick it. Be real: you see how we all treat Him that way, don’t you? Why do we feel that way? It’s because He said something to us that we didn’t understand.
Oh, how we hate that. We are socially programmed not to show ignorance. We all know the feeling of pretending we know someone to avoid the awkward minimization of “I don’t remember you”. We all know that situation where you didn’t hear what a person said, but you act like you did because you’d feel stupid asking them to repeat it or repeat it again. We all know the time when we pretended we knew enough about a subject to keep up with the conversation when we were completely clueless. We don’t like asking for clarification.
Likewise, we REALLY don’t like leaving things we don’t understand alone. We have an intense need to understand. “What are you thinking about?” “Where were you?” “What did she say?” I could go on forever, but we all know that we cannot abide knowing only a piece of something. We haaaaate it. That’s why movies have previews: we won’t go without some idea of what it is. It’s also why TV shows that end in unresolved cliffhangers get so much buzz: they stoke our outrage that someone would be so callous as to only half-explain. And what happens when we run into that? We fill in the rest of the story with our own ending.
Together these things are a little crazy: we need to understand but we can’t ask for clarification. Think about the pressure of that! If we don’t get it on the first go we’re hopelessly confused. Now throw God into that mix: He speaks plainly, but so plainly we can’t comprehend it. “Thou shalt surely die”? Ok, that plant is poisonous, check. “Be anxious for nothing”? I have no idea what to do with that. I can’t comprehend not worrying about anything. That sounds like some Taoist mantra about flowing like the river. I have a day to day life to live here, people, I can’t just “not worry” about anything. I’m not going to listen to some Bible-thumper telling me not to worry about what I wear as though I won’t get in trouble if I wear flip flops to a business meeting. Don’t tell me not to worry about what I’ll eat, do you know how broke I am?
Right? Do you find me off-base here? God gave us all these words, the Spirit gives us all this direction, and Jesus gave us all this Life that we don’t understand and we don’t know how to apply to our lives, and we’re not going to ask for clarification either because we think we already know the answer or because we don’t think He’ll give it. What father, if his child asks for bread, gives a stone instead? If a human father is capable of tending to his kid how much more capable and attentive is God the Provider? God the Healer?
So, why did I bold “thanksgiving” up there? We need to remind ourselves that He is a good father. We need to admit that we don’t understand Him, and instead of rejecting Him or closing off we need to seek Him the harder, we need to thank Him for giving us the chance to learn and to seek His help. We need to trust and believe that He will clarify. Eve never tried it, but I will tell you with all that I am that if she’d asked Him what He meant about the fruit He’d have told her. I can say first-hand that He will show you if you come to Him with an honest submission and request. It’s the things we refuse to yield our own prophecies on that He neglects to clarify, because He knows you wouldn’t listen, anyway.
I don’t want to convince you that you are wrong. I don’t want you to commit yourself to stopping the analyzing and predicting, the pattern recognition. I don’t mean to say we need to cease the vanity. That’s a monumental hill to climb. What I want to do is instead change your frame. Stop thinking about you, stop worrying about how to fix you. Instead frame the issue around Him. Who He is.
He is your glorious Father. He Loves us with a stupifying Love unlike anything we can begin to skirt the edges of understanding. More than that He made all of this, all of us. He knows the ins and outs of it. He names every drop of rain and every grain of sand. He stitched you together in the womb according to a plan He made before there was a universe. He isn’t a broad-brush painter: He works His way around the canvas in the most minute detail. There is nothing, no thought, no experience, no concern, no whim that escapes Him, that He doesn’t fully comprehend the implications of.
He knows. And He Loves. Actively He Loves. We can trust Him. In fact we can only trust Him; even our own vain hearts betray us. He is the static Truth, the immovable rock, the source of all and the most amazing Father, beyond what we could even hope for.
Father, I find my words again useless to express the lesson here. I have all this vain knowledge, all these foolish predictions that mean nothing. Help me, Lord, to turn from this vanity and seek Your will, because I know and I trust that Your will is to bring me closer to You, higher than I could ever reach on my own. No matter what my circumstance, no matter what my frame of mind, let these words ring always in my ears: nevertheless Your will, not mine, be done. I Love You with all that I am, Father. In the name of Your Word, and my brother, Jesus, I pray. Amen.