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All Hat and No Cattle

Wisdom amidst the messiness of your life

Proverbs 14:4

4 Where no oxen are, the trough is clean;
But much increase comes by the strength of an ox.


Let me share a messy story with you. Being a homeowner is a mixed blessing. When my wife and I were first married we moved frequently as life, callings, and careers got underway. We mostly rented in those days, for we were young, in love, and had little money. 

Today we are older, still in love, and still seem to have little money–but these days it seems that most of our money goes to the house that we own. In the house we have two teenaged sons that seem to always be making noise and breaking things. Usually this is unintentional, for growing boys are often unaware of their effect on delicate things around them, such as lamps, small tables–and drywall. 

All day, and often through the night, our two Sasquatch-sized teens are clomping, stomping, flopping, and bumping into things. I have caught them leaping from the top of the stairs onto the landing. The tub has nearly overflowed because someone forgot to open the drain while showering. 

Styrofoam pellet beanbag chair guts gather in room corners, float along like tiny tumbleweeds, and are even coughed up by the dog. Comic books, candy wrappers, and gym socks are often found stuffed under couch cushions.

Towel racks “mysteriously” fall off of bathroom walls, the living room ceiling fan sways with upstairs thumps, and dishes in the china cabinet regularly dance and clink. Its like we have a noisy, messy, poltergeist that will not stop eating, and smells vaguely of B.O. 

Owning a home can be a frustrating, and raising kids can be a pain in the backside–but then I realize: I have a nice home. I have growing children to inhabit it with joy. Yes, being a homeowner and being a dad is a messy business, but it is what life is all about. God has blessed me and my family in this way, but His blessings often come with their own brand of challenge.

Solomon knows this, and as he writes in chapter 14 of the book of Proverbs, he illustrates this amazing principle of logic:

4 Where no oxen are, the trough is clean;
But much increase comes by the strength of an ox.–Proverbs 14:4

What is going on here with he oxen? What do cattle and feed troughs have to do with owning a home, raising kids, running a business or living life? One aspect of life on a working farm is that someone must clean up after the livestock. As a kid, I grew up on a farm, and every day it was the job of me and my brother to tend to the animals that we raised.

Bales of hay had to be hauled and placed into feed racks. Medicines and treatments had to be administered. Barn stalls had to be scooped, and in the winter, water troughs had to have the ice broken in order that the animals may drink. Cows and goats needed milking, and all of the animals we raised, including horses and chickens, needed to be fed. Every day.  

This is a lot of work, and for a fourteen year old, there are many mornings when the last thing you want to do is haul yourself out of bed to for chores. But you know that if you do not, then animals suffer, and you have no more prize heifers, or producing cows, or quarter horses to ride barrels at the county fair. So you get out of bed, warm yourself by the fire for a few minutes, and then–coffee in hand–you do it all over again. 

Solomon is using an interesting reverse image in this proverb to show you that if you want a clean food trough, the best way to do so is to have no oxen to dirty it up. 

In ancient times the ox was both a mainstay of an agricultural society, such as Israel. It provided labor, transport, food, and wealth. A farmer’s and a kingdom’s wealth could be measured on the number and strength of the herd of oxen possessed. A small farmer can become a wealthy lord as his herd of oxen increased. A weak kingdom could become a mighty one by the thousands of head of oxen in its lands–and the mighty armies they could serve by hauling supplies and weapons. 

All of this comes from hard work, and the “mess” of increase, for it is there that you and I can be tested most in life.

One of the most popular TV shows in recent years is the hit series “Yellowstone.” The epic drama of the Dutton family and the thousands of acres of ranch land that they command in the modern American west. Kevin Costner leads as fictional rancher John Dutton and his ruthless devotion to family and his ranch’s success enthralls millions of viewers.  

Yellowstone is created in the spirit of the classic American TV series “Dallas,” in which the wealthy, cattle-rich Ewing family played out their own family drama, soap-opera style. The climax of the 1979-1980 season of “Dallas” was the episode “Who Done It?” when scheming elder son J.R. Ewing is shot and presumed dead in a cliffhanger that had the words “Who Shot J.R.?” hanging on the lips of all of American culture.

(The answer was Kristin Shepherd, J.R.’s scheming sister-in-law and mistress in a fit of revenge.)

It is an interesting fact that episodes of “Dallas” were picked up by citizens of the Soviet Union, who watched the episodes in shocked fascination. “Do all Americans live like this,” the Russians asked each other, “with big cars, big hats, and big ranches?” Mikhail Gorbachev, admitted that the people watching and loving episodes of “Dallas” was one factor in bringing down the Iron Curtain. 

While impoverished Communists watched and craved the extravagances of ranch life, Americans were most attracted to the mess of the Ewing family. The intrigues, the betrayals, the dalliances, the schemes–drew in millions hungering for more.

The grand messes of the Ewings or the Duttons somehow make the mess of your life seem small and manageable in comparison. You spend much time, effort, and emotional energy trying to prevent your life from being messy. You fuss at the kids, complain to your husband or wife, and stress over job challenges and wish everything could be easy–but is this the wisest thing to do?

Solomon is implying in a way, that the mess of life can be good in that it shows your business, family, and investments in things are growing. Hard work must come with necessary clean-up. A good investment may have cost, but the benefits in the end far outweigh them. As writer of Ecclesiastes, Solomon knows this and shares his wisdom:

10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.–Ecclesiastes 9:10

Time is short for you on this earth, and what you make of the time you have matters. If you own a business, or work for a living, it is your calling and duty to do it “with all of your might,” and all for the glory of God:

17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.–Colossians 3:17

Do you spend the time working to glorify God, or trying to avoid the hassles of life? Do you jump into child rearing with both feet, or do you continuously wish your kids would “get with the program” and stop making things difficult? 

Of course you do, because you are normal. In this proverb, God is calling you to see the big picture-to see life and its messes through His eyes. Here are some things to consider.

Do you own a business? If so, you have had to make tough decisions, and have known that to grow you had to “spend money to make money.” In my career I have been hired, fired, downsized, relocated, demoted, promoted, and honored by the company president. 

Not all on the same day, of course. 

Looking back, I can see that the mess of every one of these events and steps was something used by my heavenly Father to help make and mold me into the image of His Son: 

18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.–II Corinthians 3:18

How is God using the messes in your life to your benefit as part of your sanctification? Just as a clean trough means no oxen and no growth, so a life spent avoiding the discomforts and even pain of living out the Gospel can mean a life devoid of spiritual wealth.

Is your church a messy place? Chances are, if it is filled with people just like you, it is a house of hot messes. You fuss over budgets and expenses, and clash over songs in worship. Instead of wishing someone would keep an opinion to himself, or sharing delicious gossip, perhaps recognize the need for prayer and love instead. 

A messy church is often a growing church! The influx of new people to hear preaching and to become part of the church family will cause the flock to jostle and bunch together. Instead of squabbling or asserting yourself, rejoice that the Lord has blessed His people with more to hear His Word and grow in grace!

Lastly, you are probably quite a mess yourself, and yet your loving savior has won you for the Father and has died for your sins. The mess of your life has been seen, and you have been loved in return. As Jesus came to the woman at the well, Jesus did not come for the water, he came for her–knowing the mess that was her life.

Can you give the mess of your life to Christ? Can you step back and see His gentle, loving hand leading you through the piles of legos, broken dreams, and unpaid bills? In the end, you will see that the big picture of knowing Jesus is all that matters. 

Erma Bombeck shares similar thoughts on the messes of life in “If I had my life to live over:”

If I had my life to live over…

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.
I would have eaten popcorn in the "good" living room and worried less about the dirt when you lit the fireplace.
I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.
I would have burnt the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored.
I would have sat cross-legged on the lawn with my children and never worried about grass stains.
I would have cried and laughed less while watching television ... and more while watching real life.–Erma Bombeck 

Instead of wishing away the messes of life, learn to listen to what God is telling you through them, and see what Jesus is doing for you while they happen–and with it, share His glory with the world around you. 

Artist Zach Williams tells you that God will turn your mess into a message in his song "That'll Preach:" 

My whole life is a testimony
And I can't help but tell the story
Of who He is
And what's He's done for me
I'm born again and resurrected
He turned my mess into a message
Cause when you're saved
Called by name
Forgiven and set free 

Is your life a mess? Then make it a testimony to the One who brings order from your chaos, and loves you endless grace.



The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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