“The best laid plans will surely fail, without a learned guide; but with advisors to assist, success will soon abide.” (Proverbs 15:22)
This is the fifteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 15, preceded by a brief reflection.
Proverbs 15 has at least eight verses (5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 22, 31, and 32) on the importance of receiving advice and counsel. For example, “The best laid plans will surely fail, without a learned guide; but with advisors to assist, success will soon abide.” (Proverbs 15:22) and “Correction mockers always hate, chastisement they despise; they will not seek or ask advice, from anyone who’s wise.” (Proverbs 15:12) Solomon no doubt understood that life is too complicated to be distilled into a finite number of sayings, and that we need to seek the wisdom of others. To rely solely on our own thoughts and ideas is a formula for disaster. I like the way the fourth century Christian monk Dorotheus of Gaza put it, “Nothing is more harmful than self-direction, nothing more fatal … I never allowed myself to follow my thought without asking advice.”
But where do we turn for advice, particularly in spiritual matters? For some it is a discerning spouse or a close friend. For a few it is a pastor, counselor, or spiritual advisor. But no one is a font of all wisdom, nor do all of us have access to someone who can help. For us Christians, the Bible is the most reliable source of spiritual wisdom. However, even the most devout among us needs help at times in applying biblical principles to everyday life. This is why the Bible tells us to honor those who teach it, and why Solomon tells us to listen to other people who are wise. We see an example of this in the book of Acts where Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch who is reading from the book of Isaiah. “‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ the eunuch said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” (Acts 8:30-31)
The most available source of counsel and advice is found in books. It seems strange to mention books as a source of spiritual counsel given the wealth of wisdom they contain. But there are many people who have drifted away from reading as a source of wisdom. This is more than anecdotal as a 2017 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a 15-year decline in leisure reading among Americans from 30% to 20%. This is stunning! On average, only one in five Americans is reading in their leisure time. It was also noted in the survey that we are also watching TV roughly ten times more than we are reading.
It is not that reading is inherently more valuable than listening to another person. I have received excellent spiritual direction by hearing sermons and talking to friends. Nor are books inherently more reliable, because there are some books that are filled with spiritual nonsense and worse. But when we discover a writer with spiritual depth, we can gain insights into our souls that may otherwise remain hidden. When we read, we set our own pace. If we are distracted, we can reread a passage. If we question what we read, we can consult other sources. If we are moved by what we read, we can pause and ponder.
I write as one for whom books have been my primary source of spiritual guidance. Authors such as Dallas Willard, Judith Hougen, Richard Foster, Catherine Marshall, NT Wright, Kathleen Norris, Ronald Rolheiser, Henri Nouwen, and many others have been my teachers and advisors. Like Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch, they have explained Scriptures to me. In this, they have given me a framework in which to both understand the Christian life, as well as practical steps to live it out. They have helped reveal my sinfulness and hidden faults; encouraged me to serve others; and shown me how to pursue a life of faith.
As helpful as reading good books can be, we will always need others in our lives to encourage us, teach us, and sometimes to correct us. The choice is not between reading or listening to others – both are essential. Still, most of us are the poorer when we avoid reading good books. The breadth and depth of wisdom that is available from the best spiritual writers simply cannot be matched by listening to a sermon or casual interactions with others. But regardless of how we are receiving advice and counsel, we must constantly examine how it is affecting our spiritual life. Are we learning about our weaknesses and sins? Are we becoming more compassionate and loving towards others? And are we growing in our love for God?
1 A gentle answer on the tongue,
turns wrath and strife away;
But strident words stir anger up,
and instigate a fray.
2 The wise have knowledge on their tongues,
commending what they tout;
But fools just open up their mouths,
and folly gushes out.
3 The Lord is looking all around,
He watches every place;
He sees the wicked and the good,
there’s none he does not trace.
4 A soothing tongue’s a tree of life,
a healing balm replete;
A lying tongue will always leave,
the spirit crushed and beat.
5 A fool rejects a parent’s word,
and spurns their discipline;
The prudent heed what they are told,
when chastised for their sin.
6 The righteous have great treasure in,
a house that is secure;
The wicked find that what they earn,
brings trouble to endure.
7 The wise who know and understand,
have knowledge to impart;
But fools are just the opposite,
with folly in their heart.
8 God hates it when the wicked come,
to give their sacrifice;
But when the righteous offer prayers,
for him they do suffice.
9 The Lord detests the wicked for,
the ways that they transgress;
But loves the good and upright for,
10 Stern discipline awaits the one,
whose pathway goes awry;
And one who hates to be reproved,
assuredly will die.
11 If death and desolation lie,
in full view of the Lord;
Then how much more does he discern,
what every heart has stored.
12 Correction mockers always hate,
chastisement they despise;
They will not seek or ask advice,
from anyone who’s wise.
13 A happy and contented heart,
imbues a face with cheer;
But sorrow deep within the heart,
will make a spirit drear.
14 The heart of one who understands,
seeks knowledge to possess;
The mouth of one who is a fool,
just feeds on foolishness.
15 For those afflicted, days are bad,
their hardship can’t be ceased;
But happy cheerful hearts are like,
a never-ending feast.
16 Far better having not so much,
and fear the Lord most High;
Than living in prosperity,
with troubles drawing nigh.
17 Far better eating only herbs,
when served with loving care;
Than eating rich and fatty meat,
with hatred and despair.
18 An angry person filled with rage,
is sure to cause a fight;
But one who’s slow to show their wrath,
will calmly make things right.
19 The lazy face a thorny path,
with trouble as their fate;
The upright walk a level way –
a highway that is straight.
20 Wise children make their fathers glad,
and thankful they were born;
The foolish treat their mothers bad,
through disrespect and scorn.
21 To those who have no commonsense,
there’s joy in foolishness;
But those with wisdom walk a path,
from which they won’t digress.
22 The best laid plans will surely fail,
without a learned guide;
But with advisors to assist,
success will soon abide.
23 A person finds abiding joy,
to give an apt reply;
For timely words are very good,
as no one can deny.
24 The prudent find the path of life,
leads upward and away;
It saves them from the world below,
of darkness and decay.
25 The Lord destroys the dwelling place,
of everyone who’s vain;
But he protects the widow’s land,
securing her domain.
26 The Lord detests the thoughts of all,
the wicked and the vile;
But he delights in every word,
that’s gracious and worthwhile.
27 The greedy seeking unjust gain,
bring trouble on their tribe;
But they will surely live and breathe,
who do not take a bribe.
28 The righteous heart gives careful thought,
before its answer’s heard;
The wicked have a mouth that pours,
out evil with each word.
29 The Lord is far away from those,
But hears the prayers of those who walk,
the way of righteousness.
30 A cheerful look that lights the eyes,
brings joy to fill the soul;
As well, good news restores the bones,
to make the body whole.
31 The one who listens when rebuked,
to words that offer life;
Will be at home among the wise,
with knowledge that is rife.
32 The one ignoring discipline,
will tear their soul apart;
But one who heeds correction gains,
an understanding heart.
33 To fear the Lord brings discipline,
with wisdom as its aim;
While being humble comes before,
the honor of one’s name.