Thursday, July 28, 2011

Communication Principles in Proverbs

Before I get into the lesson, a few notes about reading the Proverbs.  You will notice they are in couplets for the most part:  these are two-sentence units.  Some are punctuated with “and” and some with “but.”  However, in Hebrew, the same word is used for both words in English (I think it is “em”) and the translators have to make the call on which is right by the context.  So in the couplets you have a second statement that intensifies or a second statement that contrasts. 

Not all the Proverbs are Solomon’s, and the text is clear about that.  He compiled many proverbs and Songs, as the book of I Chronicles tells us.  They were edited and arranged as well by Jewish scholars after the Babylonian exile.  As we have seen, after that episode in Jewish history, the attraction to paganism was never really a problem again.  Being too insular may have been, but not letting pagan elements into their culture and religious practice. 

It is probably best for us to study them thematically then to try to discover a logic to them; however, it is also important to study them in context both of the verses around them and the whole purpose and genre of the book.  Don’t take them as iron-clad promises that no trouble will befall you, but principles for living that will lead to a God-honoring life.  Studying what the proverbs say about communication is very helpful.

We saw last week that we must “guard, keep, fortress, protect” our heart with all diligence (make it a priority, Pr 4:23) because out of it issues all of life.  We protect by what comes in (keep your eyes forward, don’t get distracted, avoid foolishness) and by what we let stay in (bitterness, anger, anxiety, envy, discord, self-deception).  If we don’t guard our hearts, the result will be hurt relationships and community and deceptive living, which could be words and actions.

That is the core of studying communication principles in Proverbs.  In secular communication study, if you were to take a course in how to communicate more effectively with family, spouses, co-workers, etc., you might start with self-esteem or self-concept.  The idea is that you can’t communicate in a healthy way if you don’t have a healthy relationship with yourself.

Do I buy that?  Some.  We could do an interesting exercise now.  I won’t do it because it takes some time and may be too personal, but do this in your own study:

List at least twenty words to complete the sentence:  I am _____. (not your name, though)
You will either put in nouns or pronouns.  I am a X, or I am happy, talented, etc.

Then go through and put a plus or minus about how you feel or evaluate each one of those.  The list of words is your self-concept or identity; the pluses and minuses indicate your self-esteem.  There should be more positives than negatives, of course.

If your self-concept is low, you will be unhappy or discontent and probably that will show in your dealings with others.  You might be anxious, insecure, or closed to others and their ideas.  The big question, though, is where does self-concept come from.  It must come from our trust in Christ’s finished work, love, grace, acceptance, humility, gratitude, and reality, not appearance, accomplishments, status, awards, or relationships with others.

As the documentary “Waiting for Superman” has popularized, our young people have the lowest scores in math among 27 countries, but they have the highest confidence in their math ability.  That is not reality based! 

Women battle self-esteem because of the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we let in, so Proverbs 4:23 and its context is very much worth meditation.  A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.  A shelter He among the tides of mortal ills prevailing. 
The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run into it, and they are saved. 

The Bible opposite of healthy self-esteem is pride.  Pride is thinking about yourself a lot.  Humility is not thinking about yourself a lot  because you’ve got other subjects to think about!  But humility is not thinking you are nothing, you are garbage.  Last week the pastor pointed out the three loves, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  I would take that as “according to the amount of love you have for yourself, honestly--” (and many people would disclaim love for self but I don’t see them missing a meal or wearing rags) “to that same level love your neighbor.”  So loving self is not bad.  It’s normal. 

Principle 1:  Speech is what ties a community together.  This was a time in history (as was most of history) when there is almost no mediated communication.  Other than writing, and most people couldn’t read, all communication was face-to-face.  There was no independent verification.  If one’s words are not truthful, if a person bears false witness, society falters; if more than one does, society falls.  Therefore,

Principle 2:  Truthfulness is the most important characteristic of speech.  I have a friend who said once, “I only have three spiritual problems, and one of them is exaggeration.”  This is quite funny when you think about it.    All of us knowingly alter reality when we talk about it.  Better to say nothing than to do so, which leads to

Principle 3:  “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your moth and remove all doubt.”  That quote is a paraphrase of several proverbs.  Basically, the fool runs off at the mouth.  With 24/7 TV on literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of channels and stations, we know that is true.  Yet a person who is slow to speak we tend to think is just plain slow.  We would be wise not to jump to that conclusion.  However, we conclude that to some extent because of the next principle,

Principle 4:  Speech is powerful.  Notice that the adulterous woman in Pr. 7 is using words.  She looks good, but it’s what she says that seals the deal (or would if the naïve man succumbs).  “My husband is out of town; sex all night (fill of love when love has nothing to do with it). I’ve been to church and kept up my religious duties, so no one will suspect me of cheating.” 

The other day in the paper I saw I photo that both embarrassed me and disgusted me.  Apparently the firefighters in Chattanooga, that is the young, good-looking ones, had a fashion show for women.  By that I mean the firefighters dressed up in tuxes and strutted their stuff, and then they wore their gear but had it pulled down so the chests showed and I think a little more.  The photo was of middle-aged women putting dollars in the firefighters’ pants, as if they were strippers.  YUCH.  I even saw one of a little girl doing it, so I guess these women were trying to get her started early.  Anyway, I hope these women were single because I doubt their husbands would have thought this was funny.  Women, I suppose, have now earned the right to act inappropriately even in a town as conservative as Chattanooga.  I wonder how many of them now wish their picture hadn’t appeared in the paper!

The principle that speech is powerful is repeated over and over again in the Proverbs.  When it is fitly spoken, it’s “apples of gold in pictures of silver” beautiful and constructive.  When it is motivated by sin, it is a destroyer. 

When we think about wisdom, we usually think “discretion” and it has a connotation of deterring ourselves from actions we should not do.  This is not what the book of Proverbs says.  Read the 8th chapter:  “By wisdom God created . . . “  Wisdom is a creative force, not a negative force.  Speech driven by wisdom is therefore very creative and edifying, both spiritually and intellectually.  Speech not driven by wisdom is the opposite.

Examples of powerful negative speech:

Sowing discord, which is often motivated by envy.  I used to have a terrible problem with envy.  I learned the stupidity of it for three reasons:  we envy others for what they have, not for what they don’t have, and we never have the whole picture on that.  Second, some people actually work harder, or make certain things in their lives a priority, so they have certain things;  the third reason is just plain lack of gratitude.  For example, I envy women with nicer houses, but my house is nice, just incredibly messy, mainly because it’s not the priority for me it should be.  I would rather be published, and teach, and read, etc.

However, envy is a “rottenness in the bones.”  That is a vivid metaphor, especially for me because a family member has cancer that has gone into her bones (not because of envy, though).  Envy makes us sow discord, which is mentioned over and over in Proverbs.  Discord can’t be allowed in a close-knit community where everyone must depend on each other.    

Flattering lips.  Being fake, in other words. 

Principle 5:  Openness to the counsel of many wise persons characterizes a wise person.  “In a multitude of counselors there is safety” is repeated three times.  This ideal is contrasted with someone who thinks he/she is right all the time.  As the old saying goes, “Frequently mistaken but never wrong.”  Openness equals listening, which again means less talk.   “We have two ears and one mouth …..” as the saying goes.

Principle 6:  A soft answer turns away wrath.  Now, where do we go with that.  Soft:  Kind.  Empathy.  Not loud.  If accused, don’t accuse back.  Believe, for the moment, that the person is telling you the truth as they see it, at least.  Allow the other (wrathful) person to talk; they will vent and realize they have gone too far as they hear their own words.  If you interrupt, they won’t hear themselves and will just want to keep going, feeling that their right to vent has been denied.  When you speak, ask questions.  Mirror what they say, but be very careful to avoid snarkiness (snide sarcasm—I love that word).  It’s likely to the wrathful person is a fool anyway, and one thing that characterizes a wise person is to discern the foolishness in the foolish talk of a fool. 

This just scratches the surface of communication principles in the book of Proverbs.  But it can get you started in a study.  I think the best thing is to categorize them under headings.  The Proverbs are still relevant today. I will end with one that hit me this week:  12:25:  Anxiety leads to depression.  What is anxiety?  Wrong fear.  Of course, some depression is chemical, but even if you are getting meds for it, you need counsel.  If you are down, see if anxiety isn’t to blame, and see what God says about anxiety—cast it all on the LORD.

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