A big theme in Proverbs is the fool, so Glenn Pemberton, in his excellent new book, A Life That Is Good, has a chapter called “How to be a Fool.”
What does he say? This is one of the best studies of the fool I’ve ever seen, so please give this post a good read and get the book — it is packed with wisdom.
First, what does “fool” mean to us today?
Our typical image of a fool is that of an inept yet lucky, gullible but sincere, blundering but lovable person. They are slow witted, lack intellectual savvy, and are most likely toward the lower end of the IQ scale. It’s not an image to which any aspire: “Pity the fool,” Mr. T advises, and we do. Even so in our world being a fool is not a tragic flaw, and certainly not an ethical failure or moral catastrophe.
It’s different in the Bible.
We think of the gullible, inept but lovable person; Jesus speaks of a moral category or lacking quality of character. We call a person a fool as a joke or slight insult; but for Jesus, calling a person a fool is a vicious, brutal act of character assassination because his understanding of a fool ultimately derives from Israel’s sages and the book of Proverbs.
Ironically, one has to work at becoming a fool. As one does not wake up wise or decide to be wise, so one does not decide to be a fool. One becomes a fool over time.
One’s character has to be de-formed into becoming a fool.
Stage One: Foolish Actions
An occasional act of folly that we identify and correct is a normal state, even for those walking the path of wisdom.
Stage Two: Stepping onto the Path of Folly
- expressing a quick temper (12:16; 14:17, 29)
- drinking too much (20:1)
- being reckless or acting as if we are indestructible (14:16)
- burning through our salary (21:20)
- trusting in ourselves (12:15; 28:26)
- failing to limit or stop speaking (10:14; 12:23; 15:2; 18:2)
- speaking hastily (29:20) or without listening (18:13)
- chattering away in ignorance (14:7; 15:7,14)
- agitating or inciting others (27:3) speaking dishonestly (19:1)
Acts of folly become habitual when people blast through three protective barriers: they no longer listen to voices they should trust; they intentionally repeat foolish actions; and they have begun to enjoy what they are doing.
“Doing wrong is like sport to a fool” (10:23a).
Stage Three: The Hardening
The heart and attitudes of fools grow harder and harder because they believe they know everything and have no need of counsel. And because they have taken the easy path for so long, a change of direction to trek up the difficult path of wisdom is most unlikely.
Stage Four: Collapse and Rage
Their own actions tear their lives apart, fools rant and rave at everyone who has “failed” them-including God.
What to do? Pemberton continues:
First, the sages urge parents and communities to embrace their responsibility for the character formation of the next generation. Or in the words of an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Proverbs urges the older and wiser reader to see that failure to correct the folly of youths while correction is still possible leads to dire consequences for the entire community.
Second, the sages speak directly to the youths and older readers who may be slipping down the path to becoming a fool. No one decides to become a fool. The process is slow, gradual, subtle, and seductively dangerous. Perhaps this is why the sages portray fools in so many different ways or with such a broad range of images. … all cases, the sages through their proverbs challenge readers to face or be responsible for their own character development. Don’t fool yourself, Proverbs warns. And don’t become a fool.