Our money, words, relationships, and reputation show what’s in our heart

Q. What verses in the Bible discuss the power of the tongue?

My study of the Bible over a lifetime has concentrated on the Scriptures as a collection of literary compositions—stories, songs, letters, laws, oracles, etc.—rather than as a collection of individual sayings or Bible verses. In  light of my studies, however, I can commend the entire book of Proverbs to you. It discusses the power of the tongue—that is, the effects of our speech on ourselves and those around us—within the context of a comprehensive understanding of how our speech, our use of money, our relationships, and our reputation combine to reveal the content of our heart and constitute an outward extension of ourselves. In the rest of this post, I’ll quote from a couple of the sessions in my study guide to Proverbs that explain this understanding. (The premise of the guide is that the groups or individuals using it are reading through Proverbs session by session, about 50 sayings at a time. The questions are provided for either individual reflection or group discussion. You can see or download the entire study guide here.) I hope this is helpful to you.

  1. According to Proverbs, each person has a core-of-being, or “heart,” that’s difficult to know because it lies so deep within them. However, because everything anyone says or does flows from their heart, its character and quality can be seen in certain personal spheres that give direct and effective expression to what’s in the heart.

The first of these spheres is a person’s use of money. Money is a prime area where the heart overflows because it gives us the capability to fulfill our desires. So long as we can afford it, we can pretty much get anything we want.

But money also reveals what’s in a person’s heart another way. Not how much money they have, but what kind of money they have, shows how they’ve gone about living their life. Those who are wise, who live in the fear of the LORD, will accumulate “good money.” It will last a long time and bring joy and satisfaction with it. Those who live without regard to God will acquire “bad money”: even if they make lots of it, it will come with trouble, and soon disappear. So Proverbs often cautions that we shouldn’t pursue money as an end in itself. But if we pursue wisdom, a steadily increasing supply of “good money” will ordinarily be a by-product.

~ Do you know anyone who suddenly came into a lot of money (such as by winning the lottery, receiving an inheritance, or getting an insurance settlement) and was able to buy pretty much anything they wanted? What did they do with this money? How long did it last? What did their use of the money say about what was in their hearts?

~ Read each of the following proverbs aloud and decide whether it’s describing “good money” or “bad money” or drawing a contrast between the two:

– “A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare.”

– “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Or, “no trouble comes with it.”)

– “Dishonest money dwindles away, but whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow.”

– “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.”

– “Good people leave an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.”

– “The house of the righteous contains great treasure, but the income of the wicked brings ruin.”

~ Do you know a person or family that has “bad money”? Why would you describe their money this way? Do you know a person or family that has “good money”? What makes it good?

~ If someone could see all of your expenses for the past year, how would they describe your priorities in life?

  1. What a person says, particularly when they’re free to say whatever they want, is a second area of life where their heart is directly expressed. To put it simply, what’s in your heart will come out of your mouth. “The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction.” “Stay away from the foolish, for you will not find knowledge on their lips.”

In this area as well, what matters is quality, not quantity. Just because a person is a “real talker,” never at a loss for words, this doesn’t make them wise. Indeed, the more a person talks, the more they may be trying to hide, excuse or rationalize. “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” (Or, to paraphrase, “whenever there are many words, something wrong is probably going on.”) Proverbs encourages us to speak valuable words, in prudent quantities, that will be a blessing to others, and not to speak a constant stream of worthless or deceptive words. “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value.” “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.”

~ Often we excuse something we’ve said by insisting, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that.” If words inevitably express what’s in the heart, can a person ever actually say something they don’t mean?

~ Think of a person who’s been helpful and influential in your life. Are there particular sayings of theirs that you remember and repeat, treasuring them like “choice silver”? Share one or more of these sayings with the group.

(If the topics of money and speech are of particular interest to you, keep an eye out for the many other sayings in the book of Proverbs that talk about them.)

  1. Our relationships are a third area of life where what’s in our heart gets expressed directly. It’s revealed, first of all, in what kind of friends we have. Like attracts like. The more our hearts have been shaped by the “fear of the LORD,” the more we will strike up friendships with wise, godly people. The more we live without regard for God, the more we will fall in with people who don’t care about God, and who won’t care about us, either. “The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

Our relationships reveal what’s in our hearts in another way as well. The effect we have on the people we’re close to shows what kind of people we really are. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.” When you’re in a close relationship with another person, they begin to take on your character, and you take on theirs.

Just as the blessing of God is seen not in having a lot of money, but in having good money; and not in having a lot to say, but in having good things to say; so it’s seen in not necessarily having a lot of friends (being “popular”), but in having good friends. It’s a matter of quality, not quantity. Fake friends, who are only around for what they can get out of you, are a dime a dozen. “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many ‘friends.'”

~ If we want to be wise and “choose our friends carefully,” how should we go about doing this? What qualities should we look for in a friend? What are the signs that someone would be a bad friend to have?

~ Think of someone who’s been a good influence on you over the course of a close relationship. By what means has their character “rubbed off on you”? In what ways are you a better person because of their influence in your life? Where are you beginning to have the same effect on other people yourself?

~ If you know someone who’s been betrayed by “fake friends,” tell what happened (without naming any names or revealing any identities). Once everyone in the group who has a story to share has told it, see what general lessons you can draw from all of the stories together.

  1. A fourth area of life where our heart is revealed is in our reputation. This doesn’t mean fame or celebrity. People can quickly achieve short-term notoriety for all kinds of things that have little to do with character. Rather, reputation is the way a person is regarded by the community of people who interact with them over a long period of time. Character comes to have a social footprint: “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but people are tested by their praise.”

In a society that judges by superficial, inborn characteristics such as appearance and talent, a person who isn’t living in the fear of the LORD may initially achieve a very high “positive recognition factor,” while a godly person may languish in obscurity. But sooner or later, what’s really in a person’s heart will be expressed in their actions. If these actions are unjust and destructive to other people, the person will get a bad reputation. By contrast, those who quietly but consistently do good may eventually be recognized and celebrated. “When wickedness comes, so does contempt, and with shame comes reproach.” “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”

Reputation, too, is a matter of quality, not quantity. What matters is not how many people have heard of you, but what the people who have heard of you think of you.

~ “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” Are there sometimes circumstances in life where we have to choose between “a good name” and “great riches”? Do you know someone who has a “good name” because they pursued honor and integrity even though it cost them money? Tell the group about them if you can. Can you give examples of people who’ve lost their “good name” because they went after “great riches” instead?

~ Think of someone whose public reputation has suddenly changed from good to bad. Where did they go wrong?

~ Do you know someone in a service or sales position (car dealer, auto mechanic, dry cleaner, etc.) who you’d recommend to a friend without hesitation? What qualities do they have that make you vouch for their reputation?

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 popularly considered to depict Wisdom, personified in Proverbs as a woman who calls out, “Leave your simple ways and you will live, walk in the way of insight!” (See comment section below for further information about the sculpture.)

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.