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A reflection on restraint (Prov 29:18)

A reflection by Rev John Gilmore, President, National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA)

“Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law. ” (Proverbs 29:18)

At times we hear ‘Without a vision the people perish’ from Proverbs 29:18. It is well used – yet a completely inaccurate rendering of the Hebrew. The NRSV casts it as ‘Without prophecy, the people cast off restraint’.

The contrast is fascinating. To have a vision could be ‘spiritual’ but most often it is about an organisation and its purpose. The concept of prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures is about having a clear sense of what God is wanting people to understand. The reference point of prophecy is God.

The casting off restraint suggests an opportunity to do whatever one wants to do – unrestrained (not keeping the law). The thought of being restrained is not all that popular or comfortable. We enjoy personal freedom and the opportunity to choose independently of others. Maybe being restrained is about boundaries, values and agreed ways of working so that the intent of the prophecy is fulfilled.

This past week the NCCA Board spent time in retreat considering the future possibilities for the NCCA. We used these words and also part of the prayer of Jesus in John 17 – that we might be one so that the world can believe. The words of Jesus call us to restraint. A restraint born in self-giving love. This is an invitation to not individualise everything and instead to focus on being in relationship, working and understanding each other such that Jesus can say he and the Father are completely one.

This prayer of Jesus and the words of Proverbs invite us to think more deeply about our own lives and our place in God’s world.

We can be united in calling for an end to war – for peace, compassion and justice – and not to look for a winner and loser.

We seek a unity in our own land, a unity of listening and respecting Australia’s First Peoples, and so seek ways to dwell together in our common home.

May we all find life and hope in our being restrained by the goodness and grace of God.