Saying No, Saying Yes

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, had to fight his way past innumerable obstacles to return home after the battle of Troy.

One of the most daunting was the Island of the Sirens.  Its resident half-bird, half-female creatures were renowned for their songs, which lured transfixed sailors to their deaths on the island’s rocky shores.

Odysseus determined that he would hear that singing for himself.  He instructed his crew to lash him to the mainmast of their ship and to plug their own ears with beeswax.  He told them to keep rowing and to keep him tied up, regardless of what he might say to them.

The precautions paid off.  Odysseus, insane with longing, begged his friends to release him.  But they ignored his pleas and rowed to safety.

All of us should be so fortunate to be surrounded by people who will “lash us to the mast” when we become temporarily insane.

That’s the gist of Proverbs chapters 5-7, where a father warns his sons to avoid extramarital sexual liaisons – encounters that he foresees will shipwreck their lives.  They must avoid “the strange woman” (that’s the literal Hebrew term), which usually shows up in English translations as “the adulterous woman.” 

We read in 5:7-9, “Now then, my sons, listen to me; do not turn aside from what I say.  Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house, lest you lose your honor to others and your dignity to one who is cruel.”  Proverbs 7, in particular, describes the consequences of a young man who crosses relational lines, only to realize that his life will never again be the same. 

Here we need to pause and affirm that it’s important to bring these texts into the cultural milieu of the 21st century.  Proverbs isn’t For Men Only – as if the world is a sexual minefield of wayward women, and males are somehow victims-in-waiting.  Author and theologian Alice Ogden Bellis, for instance, has creatively suggested how this counsel might read if a mother were mentoring her daughters:

“Do not be misled by handsome faces, by beautiful bodies, by the right clothes, or the correct manners.  Especially do not be deluded by flatterers who tell you that you are beautiful (of course you are!) and then ask you to give them your body or your soul… Rather spend your time with men of substance and worth.  A good man is hand to find, but he is more precious than jewels.”

When faced with the siren songs that seem to be coming from every direction in our culture, what can we do?

We begin by saying No to relational compromises.  But that happens only if we affirm that it’s both possible and healthy for human beings to say No. 

Even the most open-minded social critics were taken aback in the early 90s when film director Woody Allen initiated an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former girlfriend Mia Farrow.  He was 57, she was 21.  Ultimately the pair married.  Allen later explained to an interviewer that he really had no choice in the matter: “The heart wants what it wants.”

Yes, the heart does want a great many things.  But that doesn’t mean we are helplessly obligated or genetically predisposed to pursue every desire.  We don’t have to be, as Proverbs 7:22 puts it, “like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into the noose.”

It’s possible to say No.  But it’s equally important that we choose to say Yes.

Yes to what?

We begin by affirming God’s good gift of sexuality.  Then we say Yes to surrounding ourselves with a small cadre of friends and accountability partners who will tie us to the mast, like Odysseus – people who will help us think straight when we’re in danger of losing our minds.   

In a culture that wonders if regular people can actually stay married, we also say Yes to keeping lifetime promises.  A 2002 study by Linda Waite and colleagues (“Does Divorce Make People Happy?”) reveals that two-thirds of unhappy marriages will become happy within five years if the spouses can somehow make it through the tough times – closing their ears to the siren songs that dangle the promise of “someone who will love me for who I really am, if I can just become free,” or advertise “a partner who won’t turn out like all the rest.”

The bottom line is that Yes is almost always a stronger word than No.

Since 1975 visitors to the St. Louis Zoo have reveled in Big Cat Country, a spectacular set of exhibits featuring lions, leopards, and other plus-size felines.  A few years back a pair of young moms came to the zoo with their preschool-age children.  A pair of brothers, excited about the giant cats, ran ahead to get a better look.  Their mom looked up in horror to see that they had somehow managed to squeeze past some barriers.  Nothing stood between them and a huge tiger. 

Instead of screaming, “Boys, no!” she responded brilliantly.  “Come give Mommy a hug!”  The boys, drawn by her love, immediately stepped back from disaster. 

It’s good to say No to what we want to avoid.  But it’s even more powerful to say Yes to things that are better.   

With God’s grace and help in such matters, our relational struggles can be transformed into the kind of odysseys we’ll never regret.