I appreciate the book of Proverbs. I didn’t always; it wasn’t always intuitive to me what I was reading. The proverbs themselves seem to hold out various promises, and yet they clearly were not absolute rules. (Indeed, I, like all converts, am a counter-example to Prov. 22:6.) So what are they? A number of years ago I started compiling a list of common English proverbs, to the tune of “A penny saved is a penny earned,” which helped me see the value of this book of wisdom.
Prompted by a post on another blog, I have included here a number of proverbs that have struck me previously, some seriously, some humorously, with brief comment.
“Where there is no guidance, the people fall, / But in abundance of counselors, there is victory.” (Prov 11:14, NASB)
I’m a younger sibling, so I take this proverb to heart. I have watched many other people charge ahead without first asking advice, and often regretting it. In consequence, I like to ask people for advice regarding important decisions. I make no express or implied warrant that I will follow any advice, but I am happy to ask (and less happy to receive advice unasked-for).
Of course, the proverb speaks of “abundance of counselors,” and what one usually learns when one asks for advice from even two people is that they don’t agree. Professional advice in particular I have found to be often diametrically opposed, though personal advice often diverges. Why is that? When people give you advice, their counsel most often reflects their own experiences of what worked and did not work for them. Most advice has no greater validity than that. And this is where the proverb’s “abundance” comes in: if one can ask many people, they will not all agree. But they will give you a broader range of human experience than just your own experience. My own inclinations also reflect only my own experiences, and have no broader validity than that! So asking for others’ advice allows me to identify if something surprising always works, or always fails, or has mixed results which might be managed in some way. It’s not rocket science, but it can be helpful.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov 13:12, NASB)
“Desire realized is sweet to the soul, / But it is an abomination to fools to depart from evil.” (Prov. 13:19, NASB)
The first of these proverbs always make me think of the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes (also known as “A Dream Deferred”). Christianity, somewhere along the line, got an odd reputation for being against any sort of fun or pleasure. Some people’s distorted view of God is as a giant killjoy. But apart from clear evidence in creation and prophecy that God knows how to have a good time, these proverbs also tell us that we long for things, and when we get them we do better (caveat to follow). Putting off our longings, perpetually missing out on what we hope for, is hard, and not good for us. Getting what we want is, at some level good for us.
(Now for the caveat.) As the second part of the second proverb shows, however, we often want the wrong thing. So when our desires are “disordered” (to use the jargon of Catholic moral theology) or “messed up” (means the same thing), then getting what we want may in fact do us harm. This is the point of another proverb, which early in my post-conversion life indicated to me that we cannot trust people to know what is best for them:
“There is a way which seems right to a man, / But its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12, NASB)
If people cannot be trusted to know what is best for them, this places limits on individual autonomy (because most people don’t in fact seek counselors, as described in I. above) and calls into question the moral virtue of permitting people to go their own way. But that’s a digression for another time, if I ever feel inspired to write on political economy.
For my purposes now, it suffices to show that the problem with fulfilling our bad desires, as indicated in the second half of Prov. 13:19 or in Prov. 14:12, is not that we are fulfilling desires, but that we’re stupid. It’s not a problem of having desires, as if it would be virtuous to desire nothing (a frequent teaching in certain varieties of Buddhism and sometimes Hinduism), but of desiring the wrong object. We need to learn to direct out desires to good things, above all to God who gave us good desires in order to delight us with satisfying them! We are not called to be Stoics; we are called not to be idolaters, substituting bad things for the good that God made us to desire.
“Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, / But much increase comes by the strength of the ox.” (Prov. 14:4, NASB)
When I first came across this, as a new convert to Christianity, it shocked me. It seems to directly contradict the common English saying (or perhaps only common American saying?), “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Indeed, it approaches, though without the connotations of violence, “You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.” I had never liked “cleanliness is next to godliness,” as it sounded judgmental and I didn’t like doing chores, but when I became a Christian I was resigned to accept that as part of package. Coming across this proverb revealed to me that there are more important things than being tidy. I mean, I suppose most people like to appear “put together” and like they “have their ducks in a row,” but sometimes real good interferes with those appearances. Sometimes in order to get something done, something really good, I need to “get my hands dirty.”
On a much lighter note:
“In all labor there is profit, / But mere talk leads only to poverty.” (Prov. 14:23, NASB)
As a soon-to-be teacher, I marvel that the Bible explains so clearly why teachers don’t get paid much.