Something you should know about me is that I’m the kind of woman who loves hiking in theory, but not in practice. I get so excited to see the forests of trees, hear the birds chirping, breathe in the fresh air, and caress the moss on old branches as I pass by – all those elements of the outdoors that are typically enjoyable. What I don’t like is when I get my sleeve caught in a thicket of inch-long thorns or when I know the end of the trail (and the beautiful view that awaits there) is just upward to my right, but the trail appears instead to wind down to the left amidst a muddy stream where snakes and salamanders lay hiding amidst rocks that wobble under my uncoordinated feet. I also don’t like when I lose my way and accidentally take a different path than I originally intended to.
Why can’t the trail be more clearly marked? Why doesn’t someone clear out the briars that obstruct the way I’m trying to take? Are the traits of the path I chose any indication of the view at its end? What on earth am I doing this for, anyway? By the end of the trip I find myself emotionally exhausted by the journey, and all I want to do is successfully reach the end of the path I’ve been diligently trying to follow. It may be a cliche analogy, but I find life to be a lot like hiking in this way.
Proverbs 22 seems to be a bit incoherent at first glance, but when we dig deeper we see that it really gives us a wide-angle view of all kinds of instances in which our character and choices lead us down certain paths, for better or for worse. Our “ways” in the plural and specific sense are what make up the whole of our “way” in an overarching, big-picture sense. It reminds me of a hiking trip where I am offered different routes to different ends, and each of those routes offers its own set of obstacles or advantages that I am either hindered or propelled by along the way. There always comes a point when I ask myself whether or not I’ve been given the right directions and why it matters so much to me whether I reach a certain end.
The 22nd chapter of Proverbs gives its usual list of contrasts between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, but what we tend to miss in this comparison is “the way” itself. One of the first things you learn when studying Latin is a word “via” that indicates a certain “way” of going or doing. A common translation of the word “via” is the phrase “by way of”. What I think is interesting in light of the word “way” in Proverbs is that this word “via” is also commonly translated as “road” or “path.” Some verses in Proverbs highlight this direction-oriented concept of “ways” in which the righteous and wise differ from the wicked and foolish. One of them is verse 5, which says, “Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked,” and the next verse contrasts it by instructing parents to “train up a child in the way he should go.”
The ESV Study Bible notes that “in the way” is equivalent to “in the right moral orientation.” The root of “orientation” is “orient,” and to orient around something is to be contingent on and motivated by it. So where Scripture exhorts people to train a child in the way they should go, it can mean to teach them to be oriented around that which is righteous – the natural result of this prioritization of godliness being a prosperous future in the Lord. A later verse indicates that this good direction – and a subsequently good future – does not come naturally to us: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (v. 15). We must be actively led in the path of righteousness and motivated to continue on it by valuing that path and its end more than we value sin and selfishness. Good ends are the natural outcome of good directions – but good directions do not come naturally to us in the first place because of our sinful nature. We must constantly be reoriented in the way of wisdom.
This is why the character of our motivations are so vitally important when it comes to what we can expect in the outcomes of our lives. We cannot live life without direction and a sense of where exactly we need to be traveling to, and we also cannot forget that not all paths are worth taking or destinations worth pursuing. Our true character is revealed by what we value. And what we value is revealed by the path we actively pursue.