One of the more fascinating prayers recorded in the Bible is voiced by a man named Agur, whose prayer is one of the “Proverbs.” He writes:
“Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-9, NIV, Copyright 2011 Biblica)
I encourage you to go back and read Agur’s prayer again.
Some people would label the neighborhood where I live as “poor.” As a reflection of income and available resources, the label may be accurate, though our neighborhood has other kinds of wealth. Still, I have a greater appreciation for Agur’s deep insight, living where I live among some who have been “given poverty.” I see what Agur saw.
Desperate people often do desperate things.
“Or I may become poor and steal.”
One of the great aches of my heart is how often I stereotype people and how often my “narrative” about other people is negative. I grieve how quickly I embrace the worst narrative as the obvious narrative. There are people who sell drugs or steal stuff or sell sex on a shadowed street. I embraced a narrative about “those kinds of people.” The story is obvious, really. They have no regard for the law, no moral compass, no respect for authority, no conscience. They are greedy and lawless and insensitive. Criminal types. Or…
Or they may be people like Agur or like me who became desperate. Having inherited poverty, they choose a way to get income that they really don’t like, don’t want, don’t believe in. I have thought about this a great deal.
Here is what I wonder. How many kids grow up just dreaming of the day when they will be able to give sexual favors to strangers for money? How many teens or adults “just love” that source of income? How many kids grow up hoping they can get a job selling illegal drugs, always looking over their shoulders for fear of either their dealer or a police officer?
I have a friend in another state who sold drugs as a child to help support his sister and himself in a home where Mom might be “out of it” for days at a time. My friend was given poverty…and he made a desperate choice. Was it the right choice? No. Choice, however, is a complicated word. What were all the choices my friend actually had? Perhaps he had two obvious wonderful legal choices, and he chose the illegal choice because he was just a lawless, disrespectful thug with no concern for others. Or maybe he did what Agur feared and did the only thing he thought he could do to survive.
I’d love to think I’d never break the law in a desperate moment, but I can’t say I wouldn’t. Can you? If your child suddenly began convulsing in the back seat of your car, and you were 5 miles from the hospital, would you break the speed limit or run a red light, even though those choices were wrong and could endanger other lives? Perhaps that is an easy decision for you, and you would never consider breaking a law.
I can’t say I would not break a law in a desperate moment. Neither could Agur…which is exactly why he prayed that God would keep him from poverty. But a lot of people do end up in poverty, and it creates a terrible tension. I think God wants us to remember that there are many different stories behind wrong choices. And I am certain He wants us to be gracious and humble and compassionate…which takes me to one other thing Agur is concerned about.
“I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’”
I have had abundance most of my life, and there is a great temptation that comes with that, one into which I’ve often drifted. “Who is the Lord?” It’s that subtle thought that I really don’t need God…or anyone else, for that matter. If I don’t need God, I certainly don’t need others. It is a terrible arrogance.
And it is in that arrogance that I think myself superior to people who steal. I, the person with far more than I need (and a bit smug about it), think myself better than “one of those people” who steals. How convenient! How hypocritical. How broken.
Arrogance and stealing. One is illegal. Both are evil. Using Agur’s words, both dishonor God. Both work against God’s plan for the world.
May God give each of us grace to honor him, whether we have very much or very little. May we be gracious to others who are as broken as we are. May we assume the best of people rather than the worst. And may we live each day as if we desperately need God.