Whenever my husband and I enjoy Chinese food, we always look forward to the “fortune cookie” at the end. The little aphorism tucked inside usually brings a chuckle and a skeptical “oh, sure” response. I always thought that fortune cookies went way back, maybe to Marco Polo or beyond. How wrong I was. Two stories claim to be its real history. One is dated 1914 and concerns a Japanese immigrant who designed the famed Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. A boss who didn’t like people of his ethnicity fired him; a sympathetic boss hired him back. The grateful employee created the cookie with a thank-you note inside and later made them in quantities to pass out at the garden. The second credit, dated 1918, goes to a Chinese immigrant in Los Angeles who was concerned about the poor he saw wandering in the streets. He created the message-cookie, putting in tiny papers with inspirational scriptures supplied by a Presbyterian minister. After World War II, the cookies become commonplace in Chinese restaurants, and contained aphorisms or sage advice. The demand continues: one fortune cookie company makes sixty million a month.
Of course, few would consider these little sayings to be messages from God. Yet I’ve observed people who trifle with Bible verses as though random passages were their “fortune cookie” from God. There’s a joke (albeit sad) about a fellow who wasn’t much for reading his Bible. One desperate day, he decided to open it, close his eyes, and put his finger on whatever passage showed up. His finger landed on Matthew 5:5: “Then Judas went away and hanged himself.” That didn’t seem like a good choice, so he did another random stab. This time it was John 13:27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
Don’t do that! The Bible is not a fortune-telling instrument. But it is a truth-revealing book taken in its entirety. So...what do we do with books like Proverbs, which seem made-for-fortune cookies with its two-line nuggets? In my Bible, Proverbs is full of highlighting and notes. For example, one that’s especially meaningful to me is Proverbs 16:10:
When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.
Sadly, I’ve learned that’s not always true. Some people are so steeped in bitterness and misinformation that their hearts are closed. But I balance that with the counsel of Romans 12:18-19:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.
The verse goes on to quote a proverb about returning kindness to an enemy. In the culture in which it was written, that included kindnesses like supplying food and water. And no, you don’t throw burning materials at them, as some misinterpret verse 20: “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” This harkens to long-ago lifestyles before the invention of matches. Fires kept people warm and cooked their food. To have a fire go dead was a hardship. Sending a pot of live coals to rekindle a fire (usually carried in a pot on one’s head) was a generous and caring gesture.
Next time you open a fortune cookie, remember to take the counsel with a grain of salt (or pepper). And remember another Biblical nugget that praises God for His wisdom and provision for our lives:
he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. (Psalm 107:9).
Lots more, and lots better, than bent little cookies.