While Andrea, my daughter was driving her daughter Ariella to skating practice, she noticed on Monday, many police vehicles in the Village Mall parking lot. Just then she received a distressful call from her close friend, that she wanted our church to pray for one of her friends who had been viciously attacked. This friend’s husband was a physician at the clinic at the Village Mall. Andrea, immediately called Patty and I and then contacted our church prayer chain. As the events became to unfold slowly, we were numbed by the news of the attack of one of the doctors, but at the time didn’t know which one. People from our church family serve in this clinic. Was it one of them? If not, how were they responding to this crisis? Then we quickly heard that the victim had died. Our hearts were stunned, horrified, and broken by this tragedy.
How do we respond to tragedy? Shock, fear, anger, sorrow, and grief are some of the emotions that emerged in times of tragedy. Calls, financial gifts, and personal presence are some of the ways of showing support. Tragedies raise questions. We wonder why and then the question, ‘how this can happen?’ It shatters our sense of security. It is during times of instability and unrest such as our culture is currently experiencing with Covid and social tensions that we are witnessing in our world that causes us to reflect upon some important elements about this life.
Tragedy has a way to arrest our attention and cause us to consider how transitory or brief life really is. May we like the Psalmist pray, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).”
Proverbs is a part of the wisdom literature. It is designed to teach us in order for us to gain a heart of wisdom. It instructs us which path to take and how to live in a world of unrest. When we gain a right understanding and then act upon that understanding, we will gain a heart of wisdom.
One of the great benefits of gaining wisdom is that it helps us with the most important aspect of our lives, namely, how to have healthy relationships. The most important aspect of life is people. People make our lives rich, meaningful, and significant. At the end of life, what really matters is not what we acquired but rather that we invested in others. The Bible emphasizes the value of investing our lives in enriching the lives of others. As a culture, we often struggle with this aspect. People are often abused, exploited, and neglected. So the question is, ‘how we can have healthier relationships?’
In Proverbs 17 we see many of these proverbs focusing in on the ability to have healthy relationships with family and friends. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is in the law, he replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38).”
But Jesus didn’t stop there. So how does one really love God? One of the most important expressions of loving God is tied to the way we treat other people. Jesus goes on and adds to this great commandment these words. “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:39-40).”
Proverbs are designed to instruct younger people in the nature of a wise lifestyle. David Hubbard reminds us that “though indirectly these words may remind parents of the consequences of raising children well or badly, their primary purpose is to inform the young that they have a lot more to think about than just themselves.”[i]
One of the most important things we can teach our children is that life is more than just about them and their needs. We need to help children move beyond a self-centered focus and extend out to others. The happy life is ultimately one that is not self-absorbed but reaches out to others.
Hubbard then makes this challenge: “The cluster of sayings in chapter 17 and elsewhere in Proverbs has much insight to offer a generation that is blind with greed and drunk with ambition. No persons in any era or setting can deem themselves wise if they neglect to understand the effect of their drives and decisions on the people closest to them.”[ii]
There are a number of priorities and values that a wise person develops, which in turn means that we are helped in our interpersonal skills particularly in the most critical sphere, namely within our families. This extends into our friendship and into the context of our workplace or school. What does a home where wisdom is evident look like? What are the results of such a life that wisdom is challenging us to attain? We are looking at the ideal, which suggests that struggle will be a part of all of our lives, but when we trust God, we will move our families in a healthy direction. These proverbs are stated in comparative terms. Something is stated as better than something else.
THE FIRST VALUE IN CREATING HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS IS THAT LESS IS BETTER WHEN IT RESULTS IN PEACE.
Relational harmony is better than material abundance and prosperity when the end result of that prosperity produces interpersonal conflict. This is an important value that we need to hear over and over again in our materialistic society. “Better is a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife (Proverbs 17:1).”
O.T. scholar Bruce Waltke points out that this proverb is paired up with Proverbs 16:32, which speaks to the issue of having control over one’s one soul. It takes peace within us to facilitate peace around us and into the lives of others. Conflict is often an expression of the dissatisfaction within one’s own soul. “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32).” Here we see the tension between being combative as a person versus one who is able to demonstrate control over their own emotions. We need to learn to exercise self-restraint. This is one of those areas where the result of self-restraint can help foster healthier relationships. Self-restraint in acquiring things, spending time wisely, investing time with our spouses and children are critical elements in bringing peace and harmony into our families. We need to learn to exercise self-restraint in our words of frustration and criticism. Dr. Waltke goes on to say: “As inward control over one’s spirit has priority over external military might, so spiritual peace and quiet within a household have priority over its physical feasting.”[iii]
This proverb is just another way of expressing another proverb. “Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred (Proverbs 15:17).” So what is the application for us today? Bruce Waltke states that we need “to be ready to lower radically [our] economic expectations, and even [our] rights, to enjoy a feeling of well-being.”[iv] One of the tendencies of our age is the demanding of rights at the expense of relational peace. Yet, the Christian message is one of laying aside our rights in order to enrich and bless others. We certainly see that in the example of Jesus, whom we are called upon to follow. Paul in writing to a church dealing with issues of strife gives clear guidelines in how to achieve harmony and peace. He talks about coming to a place of unity and like-mindedness.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross![v]
In other words, Jesus didn’t exercise his rights in order to enrich the lives of others. He allowed the Father to be the person to show favor to Him.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[vi]
THE SECOND VALUE IN CREATING HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS IS THAT CHARACTER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN STATUS.
In a culture that is status conscious, what we are told is that the proper desire and aim is for character rather than status. In the very next proverb, we see the emphasis of character over status. “A prudent servant will rule over a disgraceful son and will share the inheritance as one of the family (Proverbs 17:2).” In the ancient near eastern culture, to be a son was of high value, but in this text, we discover how prudence or insight is superior by a servant over the offspring of one who is bringing disgrace to the parents. Richard Clifford points out that, “virtuous and shrewd behavior opens doors, even providing access to the privileges and wealth customarily reserved for the family members.”[vii] This proverb was certainly given to instruct sons and daughters to bring honor rather than shame to the family. When we are young, we need to think of how our behavior is affecting not just ourselves and our friends, but how it is going to impact our parents; those who raised us and invested their lives into us.
Here we see throughout Proverbs certain behaviors that are classified as foolish, or morally deficient. These behaviors reveal the true condition of our soul. How do wrong attitudes come to light? What we are on the inside is exposed through the tests that come into our lives. We are exposed through the challenges of life. God allows things to test our character and reveal our true nature as seen by our responses. “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart (Proverbs 17:3).” None of us knows the true condition of our souls. We are often blind to the things that will, if not addressed, ultimately cause pain not only to ourselves but also to those closest to us. God can expose what is in our hearts in order for us to address those issues through repentance and renewed dependency upon Him. In our quest for personal happiness we make superficial and easy decisions that at the time seem the right way for us, without much consideration how they will impact others in our family, and ultimately how our decisions affect our spouse, our children’s futures and ultimately even our own. Or if we are a young person, how our decisions impact our lives and the lives of our parents. There are a lot of lonely old people who made selfish choices when they were younger and are suffering the consequences later. There are others who made selfless choices that enriched the lives of others. We may not all see the rewards in our lifetime, but God certainly sees what is being done and time has a way of revealing outcomes.
A word of caution is needed when we are serving others. We must move away from the temptation of developing a martyr complex and becoming angry and bitter over the things we gave up for others. We need to cultivate the right attitude that as we give, we do so with joy knowing that this is shaping us into a Christlike person. Let’s remember that Jesus was willing to suffer for us because of the ‘joy set before him.’ He knew that his sacrifice would bring about our ultimate salvation.
THE THIRD VALUE IN CREATING HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS IS WE BECOME WHAT WE FEED OUR SOUL.
In other words, I can only give you what I am. What we are shapes the kind of relationships that we will develop. So, what shapes us? We are what we feed ourselves. I’m not just talking about what we feed our bodies, but even more critically, what we feed our souls. Here in Proverbs 17:4, we see something of the nature of how we can be deeply influenced in a negative manner. “A wicked person listens to deceitful lips; a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue (Proverbs 17:4).” This proverb provides an observation that allows one to evaluate oneself and others. “…This may be done through lies, slander, gossip, rumors, false accusations, and the list can go on. Often in Proverbs this foolish type of talk is condemned; here we see that listening to such talk is equally condemned.[viii]
What is he talking about? Simply that when we listen to evil, it is actually an indictment against us. What we are feeding ourselves we eventually become. Derek Kidner states it so succinctly, “Evil words die without a welcome; and the welcome gives us away.”[ix] Of course this means that the reason we are listening to these things is that we in reality are becoming guilty of those things ourselves. What we listen to reflects who we are. We need to decide that we will not entertain verbal and moral garbage that in the end pollutes our soul.This in turn affects how we see ourselves and others and then affects how we treat ourselves and others.
No wonder the apostle Paul in writing to the Philippians challenges them in what they were giving their minds to. Much of our current anxiety is coming from all the evil that we are feeding our minds upon. There is so much ‘information’ out there that is designed to stir us up. Yes, there are things that we need to be concerned about and address; but today we can be constantly worked up about so much injustice in our world. If we keep focusing on the evil it breeds continual frustration and anger within our souls and the grace and goodness of God will not come out of our lips, but rather criticism and judgment.
So, what should we be feeding our minds? What should be our attitude? In Philippians 4, we have an antidote to all the mental anguish and distress that the evil causes us. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness [The Greek word translated is epieike, which could also be translated kindness and tolerance] be evident to all. The Lord is near (Philippians 4:4-5).” Once again, we are reminded that how we should respond to life’s challenges toward us. “The gentle person does not insist on his rights. ‘It is that considerate courtesy and respect for the integrity of others which prompts a man not to be forever standing on his rights; and it is preeminently the character of Jesus (2 Cor 10:1).”[x]
So how do we handle the injustices and evils in our world today? Paul is not telling us to bury our heads in the sand, but we should take these things to God in prayer. We need to cultivate an attitude of confidence and gratitude that God is in control and will attend to these things and direct us in what we are to do. God will help us maintain a proper perspective and attitude and not surrender to fear, doubt, frustration, despair, and anger.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.[xi]
THE FOURTH VALUE IN CREATING HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS IS WHAT WE COMMUNICATE TO OTHERS.
Our words reflect our attitude toward those around us. Do we speak uplifting, encouraging and comforting words or is our conversation filled with frustration, criticalness, and irritation? Here we see a number of proverbs that speak to the issue of what we say and how it impacts those around us.
1. In verse 5, we see a warning in criticizing those who are poor. “Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker; whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished (Proverbs 17:5).” There are people struggling financially because of injustice, or a member of the family spends unwisely driven by addiction issues in their lives. There are others who struggle because of economic disadvantages built into our economic system. Some people’s incomes are marginal, and they live a thread bare existence. Here we read that when we ‘mock,’ ‘despise’ or ‘criticize’ the poor, we are showing contempt for God and not just that person. Yet, we also realize that there are people who are lazy, and the wisdom writers challenge that behavior (cf. Proverbs 6:6-11). Often, we make assessments simply on external factors, without fully understanding the underlying issues in people’s lives. Not everyone starts out in life with the same advantages. For those who have much, God requires more of us to help those who have less.
2. For those of us who are in positions of leadership (parents, employers, older siblings), we must not use our standing or position to advance one’s own agenda by dishonest communication. When we use dishonest communication to advance our position at the expense of others it creates relational disharmony. “Eloquent lips are unsuited to a godless fool- how much worse lying lips to a ruler (Proverbs 17:7).” It is critical as leaders to be honest in our dealings with others. Once trust is betrayed by deception it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ever gain the confidence of people. Trust is a critical issue in all relationships. What does it mean that it is unsuited for a godless fool to have eloquent lips? People who are morally deficient and persuasive will do tremendous damage by deceiving people and causing much evil. One of the current challenges is not to live a life where we are constantly criticizing leaders and becoming an embittered person. Remember the course of wisdom is not to live an offended life.
3. Having now warned us against using our words to advance sin, we are challenged to show love to those who do trespass against us or offend us. Jesus taught us to forgive others even as we seek forgiveness from God and others. Here the wisdom literature teaches us that love learns how to forget and not carry the offense. “Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends (Proverbs 17:9).” One of the ways to maintain relationships is to accept people for who they are. That is not to say we never speak into another person’s life, but the need to be forgiving and willing to overlook offense is critical if we are going to have friends. There are times when we part company because the offense is of such a nature that it is creating unhealthy dynamics, but we must also show greater degrees of forbearance in our day. Forbearance means a greater degree of acceptance and forgiveness.
Tremper Longman wisely points out: “Don’t keep bringing up the faults of others if you want to enjoy an intimate relationship with that person.”[xii] The issue that is specifically dealt with in this particular proverb is repeating the transgressions of others to others. How often when we are wounded that we seek the solace of a sympathetic party, but when we do so, we are in reality sinning against those who have transgressed against us. What we need to do is to seek reconciliation with the offender. In Matthew 18 we have clear guidelines to go to that person and try to resolve the issue, and if unable to bring a third party in to mediate.
4. While we are challenged to overlook offenses, we also should be able to lovingly correct those who are sinning, as well as be open for personal correction in our own lives from others. Wisdom realizes that growth comes from the positive changes often made in response to shortcomings being pointed out by others. “A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool (Proverbs 17:10).” People who are discerning value correction when they are wrong rather than trying to justify their behavior. They learn that repentance; a change of mind is a key to learning and growing. The morally deficient person is unteachable and even discipline cannot transform their behavior. However, that does not mean they shouldn’t be disciplined but the reality is that people who are morally deficient keep doing the wrong things over and over again until they finally destroy themselves in the process.
There is so much more that could be said as we are evaluating values and priorities in relationships, even from Proverbs 17, that will instruct to enrich marriages, families, and friendships. A great assignment would be to continue to study the chapter and find other values that are stated. But let’s quickly review the few that we have touched on:
1. People are more important than things. The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.
2. Who we are as a person is more important than what we do. Character is more important than status. Who we are is more important than what others think of us.
3. We become what we feed our souls. Let’s focus our minds on what is good, godly, pure, and holy.
4. What we say impacts people far more dramatically than we think. What we say comes from who we are.
As we consider these four values, what area do you and I need to focus in on? Am I investing in others? Are people more important than things and status? Am I working on my character? What am I feeding my soul? Do I need to make significant changes in what I’m inputting into my life? How do I speak to others? What does that say about my soul? Do we have some soul work to do? Let’s ask God to search our hearts and give us the grace to address issues in our lives in order to enhance our marriages, families, and other interpersonal relationships.
[i] David A. Hubbard, Proverbs, The Communicator’s Commentary, 15A, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1989), 256.
[ii] Ibid, 255.
[iii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 38.
[iv] Ibid, 39.
[v] Philippians 2:5-8, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[vi] Philippians 2:9-11.
[vii] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 164.
[viii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 343.
[ix] Derek Kidner, Proverbs, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), 123.
[xi] Philippians 4:6-8.
[xii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 345.