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Proverbs 17:1-28

May 4, 2015

Three proverbs in this chapter caught my attention:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart (v.3).  In the ancient world, the purity of silver or of gold was tested by melting it down and removing lesser substances.  In a similar way, the purity of our own hearts–our true loyalties and commitments–are only truly known when put through the fire.  We may think we love someone until we find ourselves in difficult circumstances.  We may think we are noble until we are placed under threat.  We may think we believe in something until tragedy strikes.  We may think we are patient and kind until we are stressed.  We may think we are committed until we are tempted by something more shiny or easy.

I remember someone telling me years ago I should not decide to marry someone until we’ve had a fight.  Couples need to see each other in conflict and under stress in order to assess the deeper aspects of their character.  We can all look like saints when all is pleasant.  It’s when circumstances are painful and threatening that we find out whether we really are saints or not.

I suppose this proverb is suggesting that we should look at the difficult times of life as a sort of testing by God, to ascertain the true nature of our hearts and minds.  It’s not that God needs to do this to find out who we really are; it’s that we need to go through this for us to ascertain who we really are.  Turn difficult times into something constructive by learning more deeply about yourself.

A rebuke strikes deeper into a discerning person than a hundred blows into a fool (v. 10).  What should we do when we receive criticism?  I think that first of all we need to assess whether the criticism is legitimate.  Was a wrong or mistake committed?  Some people may be offended and criticize us even when we did what we were supposed to do or had to do, or what was best for everyone in the long run.  Next we need to assess whether we were responsible for that wrong or mistake.  Sometimes we were following the counsel of a supervisor or the decision of a committee.  After making these two assessments, as honestly as we can, if we discern that a wrong or mistake was made, and that we were at least partially responsible for the action, then we ought to own up to it, feeling the pain of the other person who was hurt, and feeling regret.  This helps motivate us to change procedures or our own behavior.

But often this is not how we respond to criticism.  Perhaps our more frequent responses may include:  defensiveness, making excuses, minimizing what we said or did, shifting the blame to others, rationalizing our behavior, making false apologies that don’t actually take personal responsibility, or blaming the offended party for being too sensitive.  Or, we may take too much responsibility:  blaming ourselves for other people’s feelings, decisions or responsibilities; or emotionally whipping and denigrating ourselves.  None of these ways of responding is helpful or mature or healthy.

Determining what is and what is not our responsibility is not easy.  Determining what is and what is not an appropriate course of action in a difficult situation is also very hard.  So determining how much criticism we should take to heart is also complicated.  Are we a discerning person for whom a rebuke strikes deeply (and helpfully)?  Or are we a fool who receives a hundred blows without self-discovery and betterment?  It takes true wisdom to figure that out.

Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly (v.12).  As a new resident of Virginia I have become aware that one needs to take care while hiking in the mountains not to get in between a bear and her cubs.  Nothing makes a bear more dangerous than when a bear thinks her cubs are under threat.  This proverb is using a vivid image to suggest that confronting a fool doing foolish things is more dangerous than being possibly torn apart by an angry bear.

One might conclude that the proverb is saying:  So don’t do it!  But I’m not so sure that is the intent of the proverb.  Rather, the intent of the proverb is to warn, not to reject.  Whether one should (or must) confront a fool who is doing foolish things is a matter for careful discernment.  If one discerns confronting should (or must) be done, be ready for a possible angry bear.  But if we never confront because we’re too afraid of angry bears, then angry bears will simply keep doing foolish things–perhaps running (and ruining) our lives!

Of course, if we ourselves are fools then we may not realize we are the angry bears!

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From → Proverbs

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