“The one who hurts their family, inherits just the wind.” (Proverbs 11:29a)
This is the eleventh in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 11, preceded by a brief reflection.
It was June of 1858, almost three years before the start of the Civil War, and Kansas was bleeding. Violent clashes were rocking the territory from the political debate over whether it would enter the Union as a free or slave state. People were being shot and murdered, buildings burned, armed militias roaming, and elections rigged. Anger and hatred had the day. Meanwhile, two states away in Illinois, a lawyer from humble roots had just been nominated by the state Republican party to run for a U.S. Senate seat. It was the occasion of his acceptance speech that Abraham Lincoln prophetically spoke these words: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” The reference to a “house divided,” as we know, comes from Jesus, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” (Matthew 12:25)
So here we are today, more than 150 years later, and once again living in a deeply divided country. Not that these times can be compared to the Civil War, few things can. Yet, we are frightened by the social, medical, and economic consequences of a worldwide pandemic. We are struggling to understand the racial and economic roots of ongoing protests. We are confused by what is spread on social media. And if this were not enough, we find ourselves polarized by a toxic election cycle that is breeding conflict and division. The person we elect to lead our nation for the next four years is certainly critical. But even more critical is how we as Christians react and respond to those whose views are different than ours. Jesus spoke forcefully that murder starts in the heart and that anger is murder in the eyes of God. By God’s reckoning, the hearts of many of us are daily killing others. We may not be using the weapons of war, although some are, but we are using the weapons of our words to vilify and demean all those who believe differently than we do.
While there is much in Scripture that can inform us on the qualities of a good leader, there is much more on the qualities that God wants to be formed in us. Proverbs 11 touches on both of these. Before commenting on the former, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that I am a recovering lawyer. As such, I fight the urge to use Scripture as a proof-text for my viewpoint. Instead, I would hope to follow the words I recently heard from a Benedictine monk. While stating that he knows intellectual reasons regarding the Bible, even how to rationally reject it, he also knows the Bible feeds him in way that never ceases to amaze him. And so I would simply highlight several verses in Proverbs 11 that have fed me as I have reflected on them over the past several weeks.
Verse 14 speaks directly to two foundational qualities of a leader. “When there is no wise guiding hand, a nation’s hope is done; but with advice of counselors, a victory is won.” (Proverbs 11:14) The first is wise guidance, which starts with self-control, and a set of core moral values that are displayed daily in word and deed. From this foundation, vision and direction that are in the best interests of the nation will emerge. Without such guidance, we are told that the nation’s hope is done. The second involves the “advice of counselors” who are informing the leader. A good leader needs really smart, moral people who will provide honest facts and the best advice available. The leader who only wants “yes men” or “yes women” is sure to endanger the nation.
Beyond verse 14, there are many ancillary verses in Proverbs 11 that speak to the moral fitness of all of us, including our leaders. These include: honesty (verse 1); humility (verse 2); integrity (verse 3); discernment (verse 12); no slander (verse 13); kindness (verse 17); morality (verse 22); and generosity (verse 26). When I was a child we had prayer in school. We also had something called Citizenship and were instructed in moral values. These verses in Proverbs 11 are a pretty good sampling of what we learned. They were taught not only because they were Judeo-Christian values, but because they were our shared American values.
There are other qualities that are no doubt important in a leader, but ultimately whomever is elected will not be our savior. And that is why we must trust in God and look principally to the qualities he expects in us.
This is a uniquely challenging time for us Christians because at the heart of our division is the central issue of the importance and role of character in an elected official. I don’t need to spell it out because there is no sincere Christian who is not grappling with this at some level; for virtue as it is spelled out in Scripture has always been a foundational Christian value. On one side are those who believe that, assuming a candidate is competent, character is more important than policies. On the other side are those who believe that a candidate’s policies trump basic morality and respect. Indeed, this is the point of the spear that has divided us – the relative importance and weight we place on the moral character of our elected officials. And as we have polarized over this issue, we have drifted away from another central value, which is the unity that Jesus desires for us. In John 17, his longest recorded prayer in Scripture – Jesus prays for his disciples, and for us. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
It is interesting that in his final prayer for us, Jesus asks only for our unity. Elsewhere in his final discourse he reminds the disciples of the importance of virtue through obeying his commands and loving one another. In his prayer however, his focus is on our remaining one in him. He does not ask that we agree on every matter that comes before us, but that whatever our differences they must not destroy our unity. This is hard for me to do when I feel the pull of my desires and fears for the election alienating and estranging me from some in my family and church. Fortunately, there is a verse in Proverbs 11 that speaks into my emotional state and helps bring Jesus’ prayer into sharper relief. “The one who hurts their family, inherits just the wind.” (Proverbs 11:29a).
“Inherit the wind.” Perhaps you remember it from the title of the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee?” In one scene, the minister is preaching to a cheering crowd against a local teacher accused of teaching against the Bible. When the minister’s daughter suggests that they forgive the teacher, the minister in his zeal actually calls a curse on her. At this point, another character in the play cautions the minister by reminding him of Proverbs 11:29, but to no avail. At the end of the story, the crowds are gone and the minister’s daughter moves away leaving him all alone in the world. The prophetic words of Proverbs coming true – what he has to “inherit” at the end is nothing but the wind.
I need the commonsense of Proverbs and a big measure of grace to understand those Christians whose political views are different than mine. But in my zeal I know that I need that same grace from them. Proverbs 11:29 has helped me remember that elections come and go, but my relationships are forever. No matter how right my beliefs or just my cause, no matter if I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have not love, I am nothing. And, indeed, I will have nothing.
I end this reflection where I started – with the words of Abraham Lincoln. It is now January of 1861, the country is on the brink of the Civil War, and these are the closing words of his inaugural address. Words with an import similar to those of Jesus in John 17, but words that were unfortunately ignored as they were drowned out by the passion of the times. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
1 The Lord detests dishonest scales –
a measurement not right;
For truthful weights are what he wants –
in them he takes delight.
2 With arrogance and haughty pride,
disgrace and shame is known;
It’s only with humility,
that wisdom will be shown.
3 The righteous have a steadfast guide
through their integrity;
The faithless though will be destroyed
by their duplicity.
4 There is no wealth that saves a soul,
when judgment day is here;
But righteousness delivers one,
whenever death is near.
5 The blameless walk by righteousness,
that makes their pathways straight;
The wicked live by evilness,
so ruin is their fate.
6 The upright walk by righteousness,
which saves them from distress;
The vile are captured by their thoughts
of sin and wickedness.
7 When wicked people pass away,
their hopes will surely die;
The confidence they placed in wealth,
will end without a sigh.
8 The righteous will be saved from harm,
when trouble comes along;
The wicked though will feel its weight,
because of doing wrong.
9 The wicked strike their neighbors down,
by harmful words they speak;
But righteous victims will escape
through knowledge that they seek.
10 The righteous thrive and towns rejoice,
for everything is great;
And when the wicked fall apart,
their cities celebrate.
11 The righteous lift a city up,
so it is truly blessed;
The wicked tear a city down,
with every word expressed.
12 The one who cuts a neighbor down,
But one with understanding stops
their tongue from running free.
13 A gossip and a slanderer
betrays a confidence;
But one of trust keeps secrets safe,
ensuring their defense.
14 When there is no wise guiding hand,
a nation’s hope is done;
But with advice of counselors,
a victory is won.
15 The one who backs a stranger’s debt,
is certain to be harmed;
But one whose hands won’t shake in pledge,
will never be alarmed.
16 A woman who is generous
has honor for her gain;
A ruthless man may gather wealth,
but nothing more obtain.
17 Those kind to others help themselves,
and harvest what they’ve sown;
Those cruel will know a troubled way,
that ruins them alone.
18 The wicked earn a phantom wage,
that’s valueless to hoard;
The righteous sowing what is good,
will reap a just reward.
19 The righteous in their steadfast ways
acquire life and breath;
The wicked find their vile pursuits
will only lead to death.
20 The wicked are abhorred by God,
and loathed within his sight;
The righteous he finds innocent,
in them he takes delight.
21 The wicked surely won’t get off,
as punishment they’ll see;
The righteous though will be absolved,
as they will be set free.
22 Much like a lovely golden ring,
a pig wears in its snout;
Is one whose face is beautiful,
but morals are in doubt.
23 The righteous have a hope that ends
in goodness for their path;
The wicked though will find their hope
devolving into wrath.
24 The generous who freely give,
will certainly gain more;
The miserly who hold too tight,
will surely wind up poor.
25 The generous who bless, will be
For those who water lavishly,
will find themselves renewed.
26 The one who hoards is cursed by those
who need provisioning;
But one who freely sells will get,
their prayers for God’s blessing.
27 The one who faithfully seeks good,
finds favor and delight;
But one who looks for evil things,
finds viciousness and spite.
28 The one who only trusts in wealth,
will fall without relief;
The righteous though will surely thrive,
much like a verdant leaf.
29 The one who hurts their family,
inherits just the wind;
For such a fool will serve the wise,
which no one will rescind.
30 The righteous are like trees of life,
that yield abundant fruit;
The wise are those who capture souls,
through glorious pursuit.
31 The righteous will receive their due,
when they are disciplined;
The wicked suffer so much more,
because of how they’ve sinned.