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The Genius Trap
Oscar Wilde, the brilliant British writer, was asked by a customs agent if he had anything to declare upon arrival in New York. He said, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Joe Namath, the legendary quarterback, often let others know he that he thought himself a genius on the gridiron. He was chided for bragging, but said, “It’s not bragging if you can do it.”
Genius, it turns out, is a two-edged sword. It can produce an outstanding writer, quarterback, businessperson, or teacher; it can also corrupt a soul. Genius can move us from glorifying God to glorifying ourselves.
Solomon has a strong claim to being the most outstanding genius in the pages of the Bible. As a military strategist, he extended the borders of Israel and masterminded an army to protect them. His economic policies as king of Israel enriched the nation through trade. He composed hundreds of songs, including The Song of Solomon, one of the great romantic poems of all time. He catalogued the region’s flora and fauna. He wrote the book of Proverbs. The Queen of Sheba and other potentates honored him for his great mind. Beyond all this, he loved God and built the first Temple in Jerusalem.
Which of us would not rest happily to have accomplished half of Solomon’s resume? Yet by the end of his life, Solomon himself saw that his life had taken a terribly wrong turn. He wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me . . . Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done . . . all was vanity and a chasing after wind.” Too late, Solomon discovered that his genius had betrayed him. He had received his abilities from God, but instead of using them, in the end they used him, leaving him a prisoner of his own genius.
The burden of genius is that it affects perspective. The thrill of the work at hand and the applause as success follows success is a narcotic. After a while, one’s work does not serve God or others; genius serves only ego. The Bible says that Solomon’s “heart had turned away from the Lord” (1 Kings 11:9). Solomon’s good work remains: God did not expunge his books from the Bible, nor withdraw from the Temple he built. But Solomon was a shell of a man, celebrated by all and distant from the only One whose approval mattered.
Each of us has been given abilities by God. May they compel us to seek deeper intimacy with the Giver as we serve others, so that in the end, we will love and serve God and others through the high calling of our daily work.
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