Growing in Character

Wisdom for Dummies: The Book of Proverbs1

People generally don’t like being called “dummies.” And yet how can we explain the overwhelming success of a series of books aimed at dummies? Beginning with the November 1991 publication of DOS for Dummies, the series now has more than 100 million books in print, dealing with everything from exercise and nutrition to managing finances to planning a European vacation.

From the very beginning, the concept was simple but powerful: Relate to the anxiety and frustration that people feel about technology by making fun of it through books that are educational and humorous—books that make difficult material interesting and easy. Throw in a dash of personality and some entertaining cartoons and—presto—you have a … for Dummies book!

The Old Testament book of Proverbs does much the same thing (minus the cartoons). It takes the timeless wisdom of God and makes it easy to understand for regular people with no theological training. You could call the book of Proverbs “Wisdom for Dummies.”

The Old Testament proverbs were collected and written down to help us make one of the most vital and basic choices in life—the choice between wisdom and folly, walking with God or walking on our own. In the book of Proverbs, both wisdom and folly are described as people who walk through the streets of the city and call out to us, hawking their wares and beckoning us to taste a sample (cf. Proverbs 1).

Solomon, who is credited with authoring the book of Proverbs, provides us with an excellent jumping off point for developing the character qualities essential to good leadership:

My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice, and He preserves the way of His godly ones. Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course. For wisdom will enter your heart and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will guard you, understanding will watch over you … (Proverbs 2:1–11)

Developing Character Takes Effort and Time

Leaders cultivate character by acquiring wisdom and understanding. Of course, those possessions don’t come without a price. They require the kind of dedicated and patient labor exercised in mining for gold and silver. Leaders must diligently “search” for the wisdom that is buried within God’s Word like treasure covered by layers of earth and rock. That means using the right tools and exercising patience and diligence as we spend time immersed within this life-changing book. Marjorie Thompson writes: “It would be nice if we could simply ‘practice the presence of God’ in all of life, without expending energy on particular exercises. But the capacity to remember and abide in God’s presence comes only through steady training.”2

You cannot pay someone else to develop your character strength any more than you can pay them to develop muscles for you. If you want to grow stronger, you will have to push the weight yourself.

Neither can you expect to have a muscular character overnight. It requires effort and time. Douglas J. Rumford said, “Character is like physical exercise or any form of learning; you cannot ‘cram,’ hoping to do in a day or week what can only be accomplished by months and years of consistent practice.”3

This is why the writer of Proverbs uses words that call his readers to energetic and passionate action.

As we dig, we must ask God to provide us with insight and understanding. Ultimately, only God can open our eyes to see spiritual truth and then enable us to apply that truth to our lives (Ephesians 1:18). As God fills our minds with wisdom, our character will develop so that we’ll possess the ability to consistently make right choices—choices that are just, fair, and moral. As Henry Blackaby and Claude King said in their book Experiencing God:

Once you come to believe God, you demonstrate your faith by what you do. Some action is required. … You cannot continue life as usual or stay where you are, and go with God at the same time. … To go from your ways, thoughts, and purposes to God’s will always requires a major adjustment. God may require adjustments in your circumstances, relationships, thinking, commitments, actions, and beliefs. Once you have made the necessary adjustments you can follow God in obedience. Keep in mind—the God who calls you is also the One who will enable you to do His will.4

As we seek to possess God’s wisdom, we’ll move beyond simply expressing the vision and values of a leader. We’ll possess the kind of character from which lofty visions and values flow, the kind of character that isn’t swayed by public opinion or fear but pursues true greatness and knows Who the real audience is. Our character will be truly godly, so that others will delight in following us.

As we seek God’s wisdom, we’ll move beyond simply expressing the vision and values of a leader. We’ll possess the kind of character from which lofty visions and values flow. —Ken Boa

God: The Source of All Wisdom

Think about the people you know and admire. Do you know any wise parents—mothers and fathers who demonstrate sound judgment in how they conduct their lives and raise their children? Do you know any grandparents who know when to cheer and when to rebuke, when to be tender and when to use force? Have you ever had a teacher who knew when to give advice and when to just listen, when to instruct and when to let life’s consequences be the teacher? Now try to put a value on those wise insights. How much are they worth?

We all esteem people who possess wisdom in their inward character. If we admire these quality people, how much more should we value the perfection of the living God from whom all wisdom, patience, and discernment is derived?

When Moses asked God to reveal his glory to him, the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence” (Exodus 33:18–19 NIV). God had to shield Moses from the fullness of his glory by covering him in the cleft of a rock, and as he passed in front of Moses, God accompanied this awesome display by proclaiming the perfection of his own character:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:6–7 NIV)

When God revealed himself as the compassionate and gracious God who is slow to anger; abounds in love and faithfulness; maintains love to thousands; and forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin, he made it clear that his personal character is the absolute standard by which all of these qualities are defined. God is accountable to no one, and there is no higher standard to which he must conform. As the great thinker Anselm said in the 11th century: “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

Anselm originally made this statement in an attempt to prove God’s existence. But as Michael Witmer has pointed out:

The real legacy of Anselm’s argument is not its attempt to prove God’s existence but rather how it teaches us to speak about God. If God is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived,’ then we know there are certain things we must say about him. For starters, we must use only our best words to describe him. God must be righteous, powerful, loving, and kind—all the things that it is better to be than not to be. We may disagree about what items should go in the list … but we all agree that the list must include all the great-making properties we can imagine. …

God is qualitatively superior to anything in his creation. There is nothing that compares with the greatest possible being. He is in a class by himself—literally.5

God’s own eternal and uncompromising character is the unchanging standard that gives ultimate meaning to love, graciousness, faithfulness, and forbearance. And yet the incredible call of the gospel is that fallen creatures such as we are can now begin to reflect our Father’s character in our own lives. The One who is goodness in his essence, the One who defines virtue by his very being, promises to empower those who will trust him enough to live according to his will.

Character from the Inside Out

People are not impressed by façades or manipulation, but by authenticity and by those who are genuinely others-centered. Character is not a matter of outward technique but of inner reality.Twitter God is concerned with what you are really like when no one else is looking. Douglas Rumford, in discussing the sad situation of a Christian leader who lost his ministry due to sexual misconduct, explains that this kind of thing is bound to happen when we allow a “character gap” to develop in our lives. He wrote:

The character gap is a weakness that will one day become apparent, when the circumstances or stresses of life converge and reach a breaking point. We may be able to coast for a while, and we may feel quite secure. But raw talent, personality, and fortunate circumstances cannot substitute for the forging of inner holiness, resilience, and the convictions that comprise integrity of character.6

Second Peter 1:5–8 lists the qualities of life and godliness that God wants for each of his children:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Characteristics of God's Children

Faith
Moral excellence (or goodness)
Knowledge
Self-control
Perseverance
Godliness
Brotherly kindness
Love

The character qualities listed in these verses are admirable, but they are also overwhelming. We may aspire to these characteristics, but is it really possible for us to attain them? The answer, both from Scripture and from sheer human experience, is a resounding, “No!” In our own strength, this kind of character is not merely difficult to attain; it is impossible to attain.

If it were simply a matter of fitful human effort, the attempt would be futile. So what are we to do? Shall we simply throw up our hands and walk away from the text, claiming that it makes impossible requests? That would be foolish. What we should do is pay attention to the context into which Peter wrote those words.

The sentences just prior (2 Peter 1:3–4) provide the necessary key: In Christ we have been permitted to access God’s divine power and have been granted the incomprehensible privilege of participating in “the divine nature.” There is only one person who is able to live the Christlike life: Jesus Christ himself. You cannot live the life he calls you to without him (John 15:5). Only as you maintain your connection to him can he live this life through you. As Martin Luther said:

It is not imitation which brings about our sonship of God, but our sonship which makes possible imitation.7

We have not only received a new nature in Christ (Romans 6:6–13), but we are also indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whose power within us makes it possible for us to manifest these qualities of Christlike character.

True spiritual and character transformation takes place from the inside out, not from the outside in. The attributes of faith, goodness (or moral excellence), knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love all flow from the life of Christ that has been implanted within us.


Photo credit: Bill Fritz.

Footnotes

  1. This content is taken from chapter 3 of Dr. Boa’s book The Perfect Leader.
  2. Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 11.
  3. Douglas J. Rumford, SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996), 354.
  4. Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King, Experiencing God (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 147, 151, 153.
  5. Michael E. Witmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 40.
  6. Rumford, SoulShaping, p. 354.
  7. Quoted in Gordon S. Wakefield, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 209.