In our current cultural climate, it is increasingly difficult to know how to live as holy exiles in the world. Spiritual formation is a trending topic as segments of the church recognize a lack of spiritual depth and struggle towards a future with better discipleship. The Book of Proverbs can help us to mature in holiness by instilling the wisdom necessary to live out the fruit of the Spirit and develop it through daily practice.
Noisy Gongs and Spiritual Fruit
Recent events have magnified the need for mature holiness in the church. Christian attitudes over racial strife and the coronavirus crisis have too often smacked of arrogance and untempered anger. In what some have called an “age of outrage,” it’s easy to mistake noise for holiness: the louder a person cries, the more “prophetic” his voice sounds, and the more faithful he appears to the cause of holiness. But there’s much more to holiness than shouting it loud and long. Even when there are legitimate reasons to be alarmed, the church’s character, reputation, and integrity should not be compromised. The church must stand firm for truth without resorting to fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric that is antithetical to the spirit of holiness.
It is good to be zealous for the right thing, but zeal is not always a mark of holiness. A person may speak when he should be silent, speak with a bad attitude, or take a stand for the wrong thing. There are lines that must be drawn in the sand, but there is no virtue in drawing a line if it is drawn at the wrong place. The Pharisees were always drawing lines and making noise, but Christ did not commend them for their conservatism or dogmatism; he rebuked them for neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
The church must stand firm for truth without resorting to fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric that is antithetical to the spirit of holiness.
A more reliable measure of holiness than zeal or emotional fervor is what Scripture calls the fruit of the Spirit. As we progress in holiness, our spiritual fruit ripens, matures, and abounds. In these raucous times, holiness-minded Christians ought to focus on exuding the beauty of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23). In a world of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 is a truly prophetic witness: love that is patient, kind, and rejoices in the truth—never at wrongdoing.
The fruit of the Spirit stands in contrast to the vices we lament in our wicked and perverse generation: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21). The Spirit leads us out of these fleshly works “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). This is a life of love, joy, and peace.
The question at hand is how to develop this fruit when our social-media-driven culture lends itself to knee-jerk reactions instead of thoughtful self-control; to self-centered lust instead of self-giving love; to cynicism instead of joy; to anxiety instead of peace; to frustration instead of patience; to sarcasm instead of kindness; to virtue signaling instead of sincere goodness; and to viral fame instead of lifelong faithfulness.
This is where the Book of Proverbs can be especially helpful. To go deeper in holiness, we must go higher in wisdom, as Charles Price Jones understood:
Deeper, deeper in the love of Jesus
Daily let me go;
Higher, higher in the school of wisdom,
More of grace to know.
O deeper yet, I pray,
And higher ev’ry day,
And wiser, blessed Lord,
In Thy precious, holy Word.
The pursuit of holiness is inseparable from the pursuit of wisdom, especially in an age of outrage.
Lady Wisdom and Her Spirit
Throughout Proverbs, Solomon personifies wisdom as a woman. Personification is a literary device that attributes human characteristics to that which is nonhuman—especially to abstract principles like wisdom. Lady Wisdom cries in the streets,
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof,
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you. (Prov. 1:22–23)
Solomon’s personification of wisdom finds its typological fulfillment in “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24, cf. Lk. 11:49; Mt. 23:34). In Jesus, personification escalates to incarnation. Christ is wisdom in a person: wisdom enfleshed. As the Wisdom of God, he promises to pour out his Spirit on the simple, which is why the cross-references for Proverbs 1:23 point to Joel 2:28, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” and its fulfillment at Pentecost in Acts 2:17 (cf. Acts 6:3, 10).
Solomon personifies wisdom as a woman. In Jesus, personification escalates to incarnation. Christ is wisdom in a person: wisdom enfleshed.
Lady Wisdom speaks again in Proverbs 8: “When he established the heavens, I was there” (Prov. 8:27). Not only did God weave wisdom into the fabric of creation, but Christ the wisdom of God was present as co-creator (Jn. 1:3). In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, “beside him, like a master workman” (Prov. 8:30). As Lady Wisdom was “brought forth” (Prov. 8:25) before the creation of the world, Christ the wisdom of God was eternally begotten by the Father (Jn. 5:26). Wisdom was “daily his delight” (Prov. 8:30), as the Father eternally delights in his Son (Mk. 1:11).
When we are born from above, God unites us to Christ through his Spirit: “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30). When the Spirit of wisdom indwells us, we become members of Christ; Christ the wisdom of God becomes wisdom to us.
The path from simplicity to wisdom, however, is not automatic. We must walk in the Spirit of wisdom (Gal. 5:16)—actively cooperate with him by obeying his plan for our formation in Christlikeness: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28).
Studying, meditating on, and wrestling with the proverbs is one way that wisdom is formed in us; thereby, we grow in the holiness that is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Consider a few proverbs in connection to the fruit of the Spirit.
LOVE AND PEACE
Love for God and neighbor is the essence of Christlike holiness (Mt. 22:36–40). Christian love is closely connected with peace, which goes hand-in-hand with holiness (Heb. 12:14). In particular, Jesus identified love for one’s enemies—about which Proverbs has much to say—as a mark of perfection (Mt. 5:43–48). Proverbs imparts wisdom that enables us to live in love and peace with our neighbors. For example:
- “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Prov. 17:17)
- “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” (Prov. 24:17–18)
- “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.” (Prov. 24:29)
- “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Prov. 25:21)
- “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” (Prov. 17:9)
Proverbs also impart wisdom to steer clear of the works of the flesh which are against holiness. For example, Proverbs encourages us to live in peace and love by avoiding strife:
- “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” (Prov. 10:12)
- “It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” (Prov. 20:3)
- “Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.” (Prov. 22:10)
- “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.” (Prov. 26:20–21)
- “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” (Prov. 15:18)
Holiness and joy are likewise inseparable. Proverbs calls us to pursue happiness in God and in the pleasure of doing his will:
- “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23)
- “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” (Prov. 15:15)
- “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.” (Prov. 10:28)
- “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.” (Prov. 15:13)
Proverbs helps us to safeguard our joy by avoiding the misery and ruin of sins such as sexual immorality (5:1–23; 6:20–35; 7:1–27).
PATIENCE AND KINDNESS
Patience and kindness are other lost virtues which Proverbs calls us to cultivate:
- “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.” (Prov. 12:16)
- “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” (Prov. 25:15)
- “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” (Prov. 19:11)
- “A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself.” (Prov. 11:17)
- “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Prov. 12:18)
- “Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor.” (Prov. 21:21)
GENTLENESS AND SELF-CONTROL
Gentleness and self-control are other prolific themes in Proverbs:
- “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov. 15:1)
- “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” (Prov. 15:4)
- “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” (Prov. 16:24)
- “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Prov. 10:19)
- “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Prov. 17:28, cf. 17:27)
- “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” (Prov. 29:11)
- “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” (Prov. 25:28)
- “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Prov. 29:20)
The cultivation of self-control helps us to steer clear of countless other works of the flesh, such as drunkenness (Prov. 20:1; 23:20; 23:29–35; 31:4–7) and fits of anger. Proverbs helps us to obey James 1:19–20: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”:
- “A man of quick temper acts foolishly.” (Prov. 14:17)
- “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (Prov. 22:24)
- “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” (Prov. 14:29)
- “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Prov. 16:32)
Proverbs teaches us how to live out the fruit of the Spirit and develop it through daily practice.
These are just a few examples of how Proverbs helps us to grow in holiness by instilling the wisdom needed to live out the fruit of the Spirit. Proverbs points us to wisdom on the path to integrity and true righteousness.
Cultivating Your Fruit with Proverbs
Giving serious attention to the Book of Proverbs is one step towards maturity in holiness. Here are a few suggestions for cultivating the fruit of the Spirit through Proverbs.
Read Proverbs at every age, beginning in youth. Proverbs has wisdom that you need for every stage of life. It is especially relevant for young men. My friend Daniel once shared that his father read from Proverbs every morning at the breakfast table; he would tell Daniel and his brother, “I want you boys to grow up to be wise men.” Daniel heard the entire Book of Proverbs read countless times before leaving his childhood home. As it pertains to holiness, Proverbs helped him to avoid moral ruin, develop his character, and build good relationships.
Meditate on the proverbs — don’t rush through them. Proverbs is unlike other books of the Bible. Tim Keller defines a proverb as “a poetic art form that instills wisdom in you as you wrestle with it.” Proverbs is not an instruction guide that merely tells us how to act in various life situations; it forms our character and calls us to integrity so that we are prepared to act in whatever situation comes our way. Like all good poetry, Proverbs does not give up all of its meaning on the first read. A good poem gets better with time. To reap its full benefits, read Proverbs slowly, again and again, over the course of your lifetime. Consider using a guide like God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs.
Read Proverbs in community. While it is difficult to preach or teach through the entire Book of Proverbs (a topical approach, grouping similar proverbs, is usually required), the local church can find creative ways to grow in wisdom together through Proverbs. The book could be studied in a small group by having each person read a few chapters privately, then coming together to share:
- One proverb that stood out to you.
- How it could have helped you avoid unholiness in the past.
- How it can help you to mature in the fruit of the Spirit.
- A prayer for the whole group.
- Proverbs 29:20 stood out to me: “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
- Last week, I commented too quickly on Facebook and got in a heated debate that ended with strife between me and a close friend. I felt embarrassed and foolish about my responses.
- I memorized Proverbs 29:20 and want to heed its warning by exercising better self-control and kindness on social media in the future.
- Heavenly Father, please forgive us for lacking self-control by speaking hastily in our words. Forgive us especially for the times when our hasty words have wounded those we are called to love. I ask for your grace to keep us holy in our speech and attitudes, especially when we feel frustrated or opinionated. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
In an age of outrage, Proverbs is especially profitable for growing in the fruit of the Spirit that separates God’s holy ones from those who walk according to the lusts of the flesh. Availing ourselves to these wise sayings is one step towards progress in mature holiness.