|The severest punishment God ever lays upon us is to let us have what we want.|
Proverbs 29.18, King James Version
This is probably the most well known rendering of that short verse, but it poorly communicates what the verse is trying to say. The KJV was done in the very early 1600s and for today, it just is not a good translation.
"Vision" refers to spiritual sight, more properly, spiritual insight. The verse, properly understood in its context and intention, is actually one of the most important warnings and assurances in the entire Bible.
Try this: When the people lose sight of God’s will, they go astray, but they prosper when they keep God’s law.
"The people" in the verse does not refer just to a worshiping congregation, but in the context of its time, a national people, the people of ancient Israel. The verse is talking about national consequences of ignoring God and the benefits of cleaving to God's commandments.
Bible Gateway has a long list of different translations and renderings. The ERV's translation is probably the best: "If a nation is not guided by God, the people will lose self-control, but the nation that obeys God’s law will be happy."
One Hebrew word study I read said that the real thrust of the verse is that when the nation loses sight of godliness, it descends into anarchy. We become what we focus on. When we lose sight of God and God's will for our lives, we become ungodly. That never ends well, either for individuals, churches or nations.
Here is a key point: God commandments were revealed to humanity. We did not make them up. We are so far removed from their revelation that we think that morality, as we understand it, is the natural way that people live together. In fact, the societies around the ancient Jews and early Christians were brutal. The Romans considered mercy, charity and forgiveness to be vices, not virtues. Roman parents beat their children for the showing weakness of mercy. Human morality absent divine commandment is base and as Proverbs says, descends finally into anarchy. We will either rule our passions or be ruled by them. As St Paul put it, "God can't be disregarded" -- note well, not "should not be" or "must not be," but cannot be disregarded; it is not possible. He continued, "You will harvest what you plant."
Morally, our capacities are weighted toward the negative side of the scale. People intend greater good than they achieve. Treaties, alliances, aid organizations, political parties, civic groups, even churches – all begun for good reasons to accomplish good things, and all fall short of what their founders intended.
Hence the necessity of God giving the moral law. My friend and former co-author Rabbi Daniel Jackson wrote, "There are obvious logical elements of the Law of Sinai that might be deduced logically (or rationally). Yet, much of the Scriptures is based on directives and rules that [we] would not have known if the Scriptures did not tell [us] so."
God's Law frees us from the baser demons of our being so that we may discover the better angels of our nature. Every choice to depart from God's Law chips away at our integrity as persons belonging to Jesus. Integrity matters!
During his time as a rancher, Theodore Roosevelt and one of his cowpunchers lassoed a maverick steer, lit a fire, and put a branding iron in it to heat. The part of the range they were on was actually owned by Gregor Lang, one of Roosevelt's neighbors. According to the cattleman's rule, the steer therefore belonged to Lang. Roosevelt saw his employee, the cowboy, raise the glowing branding iron toward the steer, but it was Roosevelt's brand. "Wait, it should be Lang's brand," he said.
"That's all right, boss," said the cowboy. "Lang will never know."
"Drop that iron," Roosevelt demanded, "go back to the ranch, get your things and get out." Roosevelt later explained, "A man who will steal for me will steal from me."
Integrity, says Webster's, is "adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty." And that takes the willingness and ability to cleave to a standard, whether you call it the law or a code or something else. Choices matter, and the choices we make are not isolated from one another.
The issue is more acute for young people than for me or those older than me. It sounds trite to say but it's nonetheless true that we grew up in a different time than you. The advice to "do your own thing" was unknown to us and we would never have even thought of agreeing that something may be right for you and wrong for me, or vice-versa, depending on our own inclinations, points of view and what we simply want to believe.
The problem is that to be a modern man or woman is to believe in nothing. Or more accurately, to believe in nothing in particular. Americans have come to prize personal autonomy so much that the spirit of this age gleefully embraces that nothing underlies fundamental reality, making, in the words of David Hart, "a fertile void in which all things are [claimed] possible, from which arises no impediment" to our desires and therefore we may decide for ourselves what is right or wrong and what we choose.
Which is to say that modern America as a whole no longer believes that there are objective criteria by which to judge our choices because being able to choose in the first place is the highest good there is. Therefore, all judgment, whether divine or human, infringes on choosing – and being able to choose according to one's own standards exercises "an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns."
This is a purely modern idea. In centuries past, even before Jesus was born, true human freedom was understood as liberation "from whatever constrains us from living a life of rational virtue" and that led to our intellectual and spiritual flourishing. Freedom was the ability to overcome "our willful surrender to momentary impulses, [including] our own foolish or wicked choices."
"In this view of things [said Hart], we are free when we achieve that end toward which our inmost nature is oriented ... and whatever separates us from that end -- even if it comes from our own wills -- is a form of bondage. We are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well."For to choose poorly is to enslave ourselves to the impermanent, the irrational and eventually the destructive. Simply choosing, unconnected from divine guidance and godly standards, is to choose ultimately to reject freedom and to be enslaved to what Paul called the body of death and finally to choose to perish rather than attain everlasting life.
God's law enables human beings to be freed from the shackles of spiritual and mental bondage that prevent us from being saved in this life and the next. Paul's advice of Romans 12 holds true: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
Even Jesus understood that a life of choosing rightly is not easy. "Enter through the narrow gate," he said, "for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
What to do and how? Paul tells us that in Philippians 4:8: “… Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
It's not easy to live rightly to remain free. It is bondage to death and sin that is easy. But we can break those chains if we keep focused on God. Then we will be free indeed.
See also, "How Jesus invented individual liberty."