How can a woman who’s a natural fighter become a “woman of peace”?

Q. I have a question about something I was reading in Proverbs this morning:

She is more precious than rubies;
    nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
    in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
    and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
    those who hold her fast will be blessed.

It is a common theme in Scripture that women of peace are to be praised.

How should a woman who desires to serve the Lord respond when we are natural fighters? I believe the Lord blessed me with a passion for defending others and standing for what is right, but how do I balance “her ways are of pleasantness, and all her paths are of peace” with the tenacity I have for fighting for what is right? Thank you!!

I believe that the much of the answer to your question is actually in the passage you were reading. It’s actually not a description of a “woman of peace,” but of wisdom. It begins:

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her . . .

However, I can understand perfectly why you applied it to yourself. First, wisdom is personified here as a woman. Second, at the end of the book of Proverbs there’s a memorable passage that begins:

A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.

So it’s completely understandable that reading and meditating on this passage about wisdom got you thinking about how you could become more and more  a “woman of peace.” And as I said, the answer to that is in the passage itself. It’s part of the long opening address at the beginning of Proverbs that commends wisdom, which is defined as “the fear of the Lord.” And that is defined further as having so much respect for God, so much appreciation for his justice and power, so much devotion to God, that you don’t dare do anything that would be displeasing to him. As it says later in Proverbs, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.” And as it says in Job, another wisdom book, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”

On the one hand, losing your temper and giving in to destructive anger would certainly be something that was displeasing to God. Another proverb points out, “An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.” Proverbs contrasts giving in to anger with the fruits of the wisdom it is trying to teach: “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.” There are many other passages, both in Proverbs and throughout the rest of the Scriptures, that warn of the destruction caused by giving in to anger.

On the other hand, allowing injustice to go unchallenged is also something that is very displeasing to God. In the book of Proverbs, here’s the very last thing we hear just before that description of the woman of noble character who’s more precious than rubies:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice.

So in the very same book of the Bible, we hear mandates both to be an even-tempered person who does not create conflict and to speak up to ensure justice. Indeed, the Scriptures equate opposing injustice with the “fear of the Lord.” When one of the Judean kings restored the worship of the true God, he appointed judges and told them, “Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.

So how can a person balance these two things? I think the right approach is expressed very well in Ephesians: “Be angry, but do not sin.” Anger does not have to be sinful. That is, it doesn’t have to be out-of-control and destructive. It can be controlled, focused, positive, and constructive.

We actually need to get angry in order to become motivated enough to do something about injustice. Injustice is usually entrenched in social arrangements and relationships. You can’t address it without “upsetting the apple cart” and threatening the privileges that some people are maintaining at the expense of others. It’s all too tempting to say, “I just won’t rock the boat, I don’t want to make anybody upset.”

So I’m quite delighted to hear that God has given you “a passion for defending others and standing for what is right.” It’s wonderful to hear of your tenacity. We need many more people like that in our world. If you get so upset by injustice that you become angry, that’s not a sin, that’s an emotion. And it’s an appropriate one. Just don’t lose your temper so that your anger is released in destructive ways rather than constructive ones.

Instead, recognize your anger as motivation. Let it be a positive force that gives you the power and the willingness to speak up and address entrenched situations of injustice and unfairness. Ephesians also tells us to “speak the truth in love” and so “grow to be like Christ in every way.” In other words, mature Christian character—”wisdom,” if you will—is exhibited in the capacity to speak necessary truths in a way that brings benefit and blessing to those around us, rather than destructively breaking relationships and tearing people down.

So that’s the challenge. Stay passionate for justice. Don’t lose a bit of that passion. But cultivate patience, graciousness, and kindness in your speech and actions. There is no contradiction between the two.

Since you’re reading Proverbs already, if I could give you a challenge, it would be to notice all the places in the book that talk about restraining your speech and your temper, record them somewhere, and think about how to put them into practice. (“Practice” means that you might not get it perfectly the first time! But every time you try, you’ll get experience that will bring you closer to where you want to be.) But also notice the places that talk about doing what’s right and maintaining justice between people, and meditate on those as well. Pray that God will build the qualities of patience and graciousness into your life even as you expand and pursue your passion for justice and fairness.

The very fact that you’re asking about this says to me that God is already at work in you to bring about a balance between passion for justice and gracious speech that will make you even more effective in your walk with him and service to him. So may God bless you as you seek to cooperate with the work he has already begun in you!

What is “noble character”?

Q. What is “noble character”? How is formulated? How can we recognize it? What are a few virtues within character—the heavy hitters, let’s say. Thank you.

There are some masterful descriptions in the New Testament of the components of mature, Christ-like character. One of the best known is Paul’s description in Galatians of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Another description of the qualities of noble character is Peter’s account of how we should progress into maturity: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Anyone would do well to meditate on these qualities and aspire to the ideal that these New Testament passages hold up for us of  mature character in Christ. This may be enough to answer your question. However, let me also describe one more aspect of noble character that’s identified by that specific term in the Old Testament.

At a key point in the story of Ruth, Boaz says to her, “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.” He has already explained, a little earlier in the story, why she has this reputation: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.

It seems to me that Ruth is considered a woman of noble character (literally a “woman of valor,” chayil) because she has honored the implicit obligations of her relationship to Naomi. At great cost and danger to herself, she has worked hard to ensure that her mother-in-law will be provided for.

Every relationship brings with it certain responsibilities towards another person. These may be things that we promise explicitly to honor when we enter the relationship (as, for example, in wedding vows), or they may be things that are implicit: When you bring a child into the world, for example, you’re accepting an implicit obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and raise that child.

The word chayil is used most often in the Old Testament to describe men who go out to war to protect their homes and families when these are threatened by enemies. It often has the sense of being brave in battle, but I think there’s also an overtone of fulfilling an obligation. Someone who could fight to protect loved ones but didn’t do this wouldn’t be considered a person of noble character.

But there are a couple of other interesting places in the Old Testament where chayil is applied to women, as it is to Ruth, apart from the context of fighting against invading enemies. One of Solomon’s proverbs says, “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a wife who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.” We’re not told specifically in what way the second kind of wife might cause shame, but in the cultural context of Proverbs, I believe it would have more to do with failing in relational obligations than with going off and doing some scandalous thing. Another proverb says, for example, “He who hurts his father and puts his mother out of the house is a son who causes much shame.” (By contrast, the one specific example that Jesus gave of what it meant to “honor father and mother” was to care for them as they got older.) The idea is that the community is looking on and that it’s aware of who is faithfully helping their family and friends (like Ruth) and who isn’t.

The other place where chayil is used to describe a woman is at the end of Proverbs:

A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.

This passage then goes on to describe how this woman faithfully and busily carries out all of her responsibilities, so that “the affairs of her household” are well-managed. She fulfills her obligations not only to her husband, but also to her children and servants, and to her neighbors in the community: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” (She would not have had to ask Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” as the teacher of the law did whom Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan!)

It seems to me, then, that the starting point for becoming a person of noble character is to honor and fulfill such relational obligations consistently. Unfortunately some people do not do this, and they fail those they should be protecting and providing for.

This might not sound like being a “heavy hitter,” just being faithful day by day in fundamental tasks. But that’s actually what baseball teams always start with in spring training: the fundamentals. Those who practice them well become the heavy hitters of the later season.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Ruth in the Field of Boaz.” When Boaz met Ruth gleaning, he explained, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law.” (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

What does Proverbs mean by “wisdom”?

Q. We’ve been studying Proverbs and throughout the book we are told to seek wisdom. Solomon tells us at every turn to seek it and while he provides many examples, he doesn’t really define it. On the surface, seeking wisdom seems simple and straightforward. But when I go deeper and ask myself what exactly wisdom is, things can get a little cloudy. Certainly many people think they are wise, but I don’t think Solomon is referring to earthly wisdom. God’s wisdom is in His holy word, and I can listen for God’s voice, but is that all Proverbs is referring to? What is wisdom, and how can I obtain more?

Proverbs is one book of the Bible written in the wisdom tradition, but there are others as well, and they help flesh out the picture of wisdom. Other books include Job, Ecclesiastes, and James. There are also wisdom psalms, such as Psalms 14, 34, 37, 49, 94, and 112. If we look at the entire biblical wisdom tradition, we get a good picture of what wisdom is.

It says at the end of the famous “hymn to wisdom” in the book of Job, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” In other words, if we’re seeking the wise course in life, when we rule out anything we know God wouldn’t approve of, then we are in the right position to discover the wise path God has for us.

Psalm 14 also offers something of a definition of wisdom: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” “Foolish” and “wise” are actually moral terms in the wisdom tradition. The fool is the person who lives without regard to God. Such a person believes that either God doesn’t exist, or that God can’t see what we’re doing, or that God doesn’t care. (As Psalm 94 puts it, “They say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.'”)

In other words, the fool leaves God out of the picture. But the wise person recognizes that God is alive and real, God is aware of everything, and God is actively at work to bless obedience and correct disobedience. In other words, the wise person keeps God in the picture, and is therefore able to find and choose the path to take on which God can and will bless them.

We can recognize the same general idea behind other definitions of wisdom in these biblical books. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Psalm 111 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.” James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

The consistent picture is that not daring to choose any path God would disapprove of, but in reverent fear doing only what we know will please God, opens up the way for us to find creative and insightful approaches we might have missed otherwise. To me, that’s the classic biblical concept of wisdom.

A sculpture of wisdom above the door of a cathedral. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman who calls out
A sculpture of wisdom above the door of a cathedral. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman who calls out “at the entrance,” “Leave your simple ways and you will live, walk in the way of insight!”

Why does the Bible tell us not to be “overly righteous”?

Q. I’ve just noticed that there’s an actual warning in the Bible not to be overly righteous. Ecclesiastes says, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.” Can you give us the reason for this? 

I think in this case the term “righteous” doesn’t refer to to our degree of inward Christ-likeness.  That’s something we can never get too much of.  Rather, it refers to our degree of fastidiousness in following religious observances, such as the spiritual disciplines we adopt to make sure our relationship with God keeps growing.  Being “overly righteous” in this sense means missing the “spirit of the law” because we are so concerned about following the “letter of the law.”

This was something Jesus was always trying to warn the Pharisees about, and correct them. For example, when a synagogue leader got upset because on one Sabbath Jesus healed a woman who’d been disabled for many years, and this leader told the people only to come to Jesus for healing on the other six days of the week, he was definitely being “overly righteous”! Jesus rebuked him publicly and “his adversaries were put to shame,” but “all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.”

The statement you’re asking about is in keeping with the general emphasis in the book of Ecclesiastes on being free to enjoy life in the present, as a good gift from God, because we can never count on being able to do things in the future. In other words, it’s saying that we shouldn’t be so “righteous” (in the fastidious sense) that we miss God’s good gifts in this life.

This means that we need to be flexible (though not compromising) in how we understand the way to live out our spiritual disciplines.  For example, suppose you’re committed to attending church on Sundays.  If some friends you made from another country are back in the U.S. for a visit, and they can only reunite with you at a time that would make you miss that week’s service, should you say, “Too bad, I’m going to church instead”?

I don’t think so.  That’s the kind of thing Ecclesiastes is warning us about.

An 1866 engraving by Gustave Dore of Solomon, who’s identified in the book of Ecclesiastes as its author.

What does it mean to “fear” God?

Q.  There’s been something that’s been eating away at me about our relationship with God.  Jesus said the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, your soul and your strength.  Okay, that might be possible if it weren’t for the  “flip side.”  In Matthew 10, Jesus said not to “fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. Fear Him, rather, who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell.”  I don’t think I’m alone in having felt far more fear during my life than love.  I don’t think anyone can truly love and trust someone they’re scared “to death” of.  People have told me that “fear of God” means “reverential awe,” but the idea of body and soul being destroyed in hell seems more like “terror and shaking” to me.

You’re right, there’s no question that Jesus told us both to love God and to fear God in the sense of being afraid of what might happen to us if we really displeased God.  But I think the essential issue is, “What is God’s fundamental disposition towards us?”  Is it to welcome and heal and bless, or is it to accuse and judge and punish?  I believe that God is both loving and just, gracious and righteous, so the real question is whether we can count on God wanting most of all to see us healed and transformed and restored, or whether God is basically out to get us, just waiting for us to mess up so he can nail us.

God’s own self-description in the Bible leads us to believe that he is fundamentally gracious and loving.  Moses begged God, “Show me your glory,” and in response God “proclaimed his name” to Moses in a special divine appearance. He said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”  Here we see the two sides of God, the side that attracts us to love him and the side that makes us afraid he will punish us and even makes us wonder how God can go after the children and grandchildren of offenders.  (But that’s for another post.) However, the loving side is clearly primary and predominant.  So we can be eager to love and please God knowing that he’s working with us to make that happen, and not looking for every chance to punish us.

I remember that when I went to the dentist once when I was a kid I reached up for some reason to try to move his hand when he was working on my teeth.  He quickly and powerfully slapped my hand away.  But then he explained patiently and kindly that I could hurt my mouth and teeth badly if I ever moved his hand while he was at work.  (Not that I’d really have had the strength to do that!)  He told me I could just raise my hand and he would stop what he was doing and listen to my concern.  So, should I have been afraid to go back to the dentist after this, fearing that he might slap me again?  Or should I have been reassured that all he wanted to do was protect me and care for me?  So long as I didn’t reach for his hand again, I could be perfectly secure and safe trusting him to care for me.

I think it’s the same way with God.  He has great power that he will use to keep us from harming ourselves and others.  But what he really wants is to help and protect us.  If we know that he wants the best for us, and that we’re working with him to help bring that about, we don’t need to have the “terror and shaking” kind of fear.  But we should still have a healthy respect for what God can and will do to protect us and others from the destructive things we might do.  And that, in itself, shows that God is essentially loving.