A Pepper Grinder Post

Two Wishes

Remember the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp?  When Aladdin’s mother rubs the lamp to clean it, a powerful genie (or jinni) comes out of the lamp.  This genie is bound to do the bidding of the person holding the lamp.  I remember the genie being bound to grant three wishes to the owner of the lamp (though I don’t think there was any limitation of the number of wishes in the original story).  My question for you is this: If a genie came out of a lamp and offered you two wishes, what two things would you choose?  The reason I ask is that in the chapter of Proverbs I studied for this posting, the author asks God for two things (much more practical than asking a genie, in my opinion).  Here is what he asks:

Two things I ask: don’t refuse me before I die.  Keep me away from deception and lies.  Don’t make me poor or rich; just give me my allotted food.  Otherwise I might have more than I need and deny you, saying, “Who is Yahweh?”  Or I might become destitute and steal, and dishonor the name of my God.  (Proverbs 30:7-9, my translation)

Wait a minute!  The top two wishes on this guy’s list are that God will keep him honest, and that he will have just enough to get by?  Who is this guy and what planet did he come from?

wise manI automatically tend to think of Solomon when I think of Proverbs, but chapter 30 of the book was written by someone named Agur son of Jakeh.  We know nothing about Agur beyond what we pick up from the chapter he wrote.  He sounds like a very humble man.  He starts out this chapter by claiming to be ignorant and without understanding, and goes on to profess his ignorance of God.  This sounds quite different from Elihu in the book of Job, who announced to the older men with whom he was speaking, “Be assured that my words are not false; one perfect in knowledge is with you.”  (Job 36:4 NIV)

At the same time, it is hard to imagine that Agur’s sayings would have been bundled with King Solomon’s if he had not been regarded as a wise man.  At this time, being a wise man was a big deal.  Just as Old Testament passages point out men who had great military skill, they also mention men who were wise, such as Ahithophel in the time of David, and Ethan and Heman in the time of Solomon.  A wise man was not just someone who uttered sound moral pronouncements.  This was a time before specialization of knowledge.  A wise person, like Solomon, was someone who had masterful knowledge in a number of fields.  He might be a combination of a biologist, a poet, and a religious teacher.  He was a renaissance man.  Now let’s look more closely at Agur’s two wishes.

Keep me away from deception and lies.  I don’t have a problem with this first wish.  It might not be what most people would think of requesting if a genie came out of the old lamp they were cleaning, but I can see the wisdom in it.  I have spent much of my life with the tendency to present myself to whomever I’m speaking in such a way that they’ll like me.  The strong temptation for me is to emphasize the parts of me I think someone will like, and downplay the parts they won’t.  I think this is unfortunate in a lot of ways.  It has kept me from showing things about myself that might have challenged the assumptions of both non-Christians and Christians.  It has also left me with the lonely feeling that hardly anyone really knows me, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t like me.  I am trying to become a more open and honest person, so I will definitely go along with the prayer to keep me honest.

It is with Agur’s second prayer that things become really odd.  Don’t make me poor or rich; just give me my allotted food.  As I’ve pointed out before, the Bible’s idea of having enough is extremely different from what is considered an average middle-class existence in the U.S.  Agur is not asking for a medium-priced cell phone plan, a reliable (but not flashy) car, a decent apartment, and enough money to eat out once a week.  He is asking to have enough food to eat, but no more.  By our standards, this is really poor!  Does this mean that we should aspire to be someone who is on the verge of homelessness and hunger?

genie's lampDoesn’t the Bible also present having an abundance of food as a blessing from God?  How can we reconcile this seeming contradiction?

I think the key is that Agur is making a general point, and using abundance or scarcity of food as one example.  What he is saying ties in to a basic component of our fallen human nature: the desire to be independent of God.  The reason Agur doesn’t want to have too much is that he knows himself well enough to realize that if he is too comfortable, he will turn away from God. 

This is, in fact, precisely what seemed to happen when God made the Israelites comfortable in the Old Testament.  He would bless them, and within a few years or a generation, they would be following other gods or going through the religious motions without living their lives for God.

On the other hand, Agur also realizes that if he is too desperate, he will be driven to disobey God in order to satisfy his basic needs.  And so he asks to be in that sweet spot where he knows he needs to rely on God every day, but where he is not tempted to take desperate action.  This would be an interesting passage if it were only about food, but I think it applies to all sorts of areas of life.

I could picture a young woman praying, “Don’t let me be too beautiful, or I might come to rely on my attractiveness and forget about you.  Don’t let me be so unappealing that I lose all self-respect.”  Or someone in the workforce might ask God not to give him too high a salary, lest his pride kick in, but not to give him so little that he’s tempted to compromise his principles to get by.  If you think about it, there are tons of areas where you could apply this type of thinking.

bushThe saying, “You can’t have too much of a good thing,” is firmly entrenched in the American psyche.  Some people think you can’t have too much money or too much fame.  Many would say that you can’t be too good looking or too smart.  But Agur would say that as soon as you have enough of a good thing that you turn your back on God, you have too much.

Speaking for myself, I can say Agur was spot-on in terms of diagnosing my tendency to put God aside when things get too easy.  At the same time, if things are too hard for too long, it is easy for me to give in to despair.  What I find God often doing in my life is not balancing out every single factor, but having some areas be good, while others are challenging.

It’s no secret that we are desperately in need of God, even when everything seems to be going smoothly. But until I know that, in the depths of my soul, rather than just in my head, I think I will need to keep praying Agur’s prayer.  I challenge you to think about the areas where you are tempted to rely on something other than the Lord of the Universe.  Ask God to protect you from those things by taking them away when he needs to.  You may lose out on some things you want, but you will gain something far more valuable.


*Photo of lamp with genie coming out from sb2w.org; photo of wise man from nlooie.blogspot.com