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Proverbs 1

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Proverbs, and we’re in chapter 1 this morning. If you don’t have a bible and want to use one of ours, you can just raise your hand and someone will bring one to you.

This is the fourth sermon in a miniseries on humility through the season of lent. We’ve been talking about how much of humility is just understanding yourself rightly. I was arguing last week that understanding yourself rightly really is not an inward discipline, because it makes you realize you are not the most important thing you need to understand. In seeing ourselves rightly, we learn to focus on God and his creation.

You aren’t the hero of the story, even of your own story. Humility is learning your role as the one being rescued and invited into the work of the Lord. Last week we talked specifically about the role of silence and self-abasement in the pursuit of humility in our lives; silence as a default, silence as a lifestyle. The noise of our lives is a kind of poverty. Noise robs us of the richness of the moment we’re in by stealing our attention away from the people and tasks in front of us.

And self-abasement leads us to humility, not by asking us to hate ourselves or anyone else, but by asking us to consider how dark our lives and souls would be without his grace. Self-abasement in Christianity doesn’t lead to hatred of anything besides your sin—and your sin isn’t part of you. Your mistakes and the evil things done to you are not who you are. So far from hatred, rightly understanding self-abasement in Christianity leads us to gratitude. I’m grateful for what God has done in my life, all the foolish things he’s kept me from, all the good things he’s drawn me towards. The conviction of the Lord both wounds and heals.

This week, we’re looking at prudence and discretion, two more rungs on Benedict’s ladder of humility, and to learn these virtues we’re going even further back than the sixth century. As Lewis writes, “Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present.” Go with me, Proverbs, chapter 1, starting in v.1. [Proverbs 1:1-7]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Prudence—prudence and discretion. Prudence, means good judgement, but it’s more than that. So much more. It’s come up before, you may remember. Prudence in our modern world has become an insult. Jake, you prude! Most people associate the idea of prudence with scared, sheltered people talking about all of the things you shouldn’t do. Don’t sleep around or cheat; don’t tell crude jokes. But really prudence is more about knowing what would be wise to do, how to get where you really want to be in life five, ten, thirty years from now.

This is an important concept, and one that, if you haven’t thought a lot about it, I would encourage you to start thinking about it. Prudence was once considered the queen of all virtue, an idea that started with Aristotle but had an enormous impact on Christian thinking and history through Thomas Aquinas. It became popular to imagine this virtue of prudence as a woman, and eventually, prudence began popping up everywhere. She’s depicted in church after church all over the world, she’s carved into the royal palace in Amsterdam, the city center of Antwerp. For a while there, prudence got around.

If you look, in the photos, she’s almost always depicted with two things in her hands: a snake and a mirror. The snake, in ancient times, depicted cunning—smarts. You may remember Jesus’s encouragement to his disciples to be cunning as serpents, or the ancient symbol of medicine still used in hospitals of the rod of asclepius with a serpent wrapped around it. The mirror represents insight and memory, looking carefully at oneself and behind, into past experiences.

If you put those two ideas together, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what prudence would have meant back in the sixth century when Benedict was recommending it. Prudence is having good judgement because you’ve taken the time for circumspection, time to really understand yourself and the nature of whatever situation you’re in. Here’s an example: courage, bravery, is also a virtue in life. You have to be brave, take risks, go in knowing something is going to be dangerous or difficult, but going in anyway. Telling someone I love you for the first time. Defending people you love in a fight. Applying for a new job, having a child. Most things in life worth doing are risky or hard. I hope you will be brave in life.

But bravery without prudence is disaster. Imagine someone who’s trying to be brave in battle, so he jumps up from a fortified position, runs into enemy territory and leaves his platoon behind. Or worse yet, imagine a squad leader who throws his whole squad at the enemy front line. Was it brave to charge ahead into certain peril? Yes. Was it wise? No. Prudence is the difference between bravery and foolhardiness. A brave and prudent soldier would hold the line, wait for orders outlining the strategic plan of attack, and only risk what he had to. Prudence is queen of the virtues because it refines the other virtues. Prudence refines bravery, because prudence knows the difference between a calculated risk and an insane gamble. With prudence, because you see yourself and your abilities rightly, you know what you can and can’t do.

But maybe you’re not a soldier and instead you’re a student trying to figure out dating and relationships. You understand that chastity is a virtue, you don’t want to just sleep around, but you also want to love well. You don’t want to be alone. You want to be genuine in your feelings for people, honest. You’re trying to figure out what’s wise in relationships, and what thriving looks like in romantic relationships. Most often in conversations about this I’ll get questions about how far is too far. How much can we make out before it’s unchaste? I’m just kidding, I’m the only person in this century who has ever said the word chastity.

But people will ask, how far is too far? How far can we go before we cross wise lines? I get this question from married couples, too. And the church is laughably inconsistent with its response to those questions. I would respond, wisdom and humility are asking a different question. If your question is how far is too far, you need to ask again. New question: for those who are married, what is the best way to love and honor your spouse? For those who are single but dating, what is the best way to love and honor this person in front of you so that five years from now, whether you’re still together or not, you can both be glad of the time you spent together?

The most prudent people almost seem to be able to tell the future. They can’t know the future, but their understanding of the past and present is so circumspect that they are able to reliably predict outcomes. AJ, my eight-year-old, is at an age where he’s starting to doubt the things Annie and I tell him. Annie has this hilarious line. If AJ doubts a warning she’s given that something he’s saying is wrong or something he’s doing is going to end badly, and he does it anyway. She’ll just cross her arms and watch him do it, then when he inevitably hurts himself or breaks his toy or whatever consequence she warned him about, she’ll lean over him or get his eyes and say, “It’s almost like I know things.”

That’s prudence. It’s almost like she knows the future. Of course she doesn’t, but sometimes you can know the past well enough and know yourself well enough that you can gain a pretty good idea of what’s coming. I know several bankers who have been very successful, and every last one of them reads multiple newspapers. They scour them for every detail of every company. They want to know who the cultural creatives are and what the systems and structures are for every business—they’re scouring the past, because they’re trying to understand where they’re invested now and gauge what might happen in the future, which stock will go up, and which one will go down.

Prudence is like that, but for your life. Scouring through your past—therapy can be helpful with this—asking, what is the cumulative impact of choices I’ve made? Before major making major choices or settling into routines, asking yourself how these things will affect your future. How will each individual choice affect me, others, my family, my church? Like the bankers with their investments, ask yourself where should you be investing your time and energy? If I do this now, will it help me in the future? You can’t know the future, of course, but so many times the consequences of our actions are plain to see—if you’re looking. I know they saw hindsight is 20/20, but sometimes regular sight works just fine if you’ve got the right lens. Prudence helps you avoid regret and understand yourself in your context.

Hopefully you can understand why Benedict taught that prudence was a step toward humility. Prudence—that kind of insight, understanding yourself in your context in the world, seeing a full picture of the consequences of your actions—is a huge part of seeing yourself rightly, and in seeing yourself rightly, seeing how small you are next to God and his work in the world.

In our passage, wisdom is split into three component parts: prudence, discretion, and knowledge. You have to have all three to be wise. I know some very knowledgable people who have done some incredibly foolish things because they lacked prudence and discretion. One friend of mine in college, for example, was smart and great with computers, but with that knowledge, he chose to hack into Sarah Palin’s email address when she was a vice-presidential candidate—some of y’all may remember this—then he posted all of her emails online. Then he bragged about it on social media. It was national news—I used to hang with that guy. That’s super-knowledgable, but not prudent. That guy went to a federal penitentiary. Knowledge, prudence, and discretion, all of them together, are needed to be wise according to our passage.

Discretion is another rung on Benedict’s ladder to humility, too. Discretion has a lot to do with your tongue, learning to listen more and say less. And before anyone starts singing Hamilton at me, discretion is not the coward’s silence of never letting anyone know your true thoughts. This isn’t talk less, smile more—this is talk less, listen more. Discretion is not self-serving political waffling. Discretion, to quote the apostle James, is taming the tongue.

We talked about silence last week, and discretion is similar. The difference between the two would be that silence is more about building quietness and contemplation into your lifestyle, and discretion is more about your words. Discretion is knowing, maybe you have the right thing to say, but this is the wrong time. Or maybe it’s the right thing to say, but this is the wrong person to say it to. Discretion is having the humility to admit to yourself, too, that when you speak, even about things you’re passionate about, you might be wrong.

Discretion is a lost and even derided virtue in our age of silence is violence and, what? I was just saying what I really think, and I’m sorry you’re too fragile to hear me. That kind of talk will only ever divide and destroy our nation, our churches, our friendships, even our families. I want none of it in our church. What I really want is discretion.

Some things can go unsaid. Working around churches for the past fifteen years, I’ve heard a lot of pastors joke about people in their congregations who have the spiritual gift of complaint. We joke about it because sometimes you can either joke or you can cry. If you really think the kids ministry is in a poor state at the church, you know what would be more helpful than complaining about it to the pastor? Volunteer. New slogan: be the change you want to see in the kids ministry. If you really just aren’t getting a whole lot out of small group, why don’t you ask for the leader materials, study them for yourself, and really have good questions to ask at the next meeting?

Complaint should often go unsaid. In this election season, for example, you know what will be more helpful than talking endlessly either in-person or online about the issues facing our communities? Go vote about them. Or take all the time you would have spent posting and talking about issues and get involved—if you want to know practical ways to meet the needs in our community, finding practical ways for people in churches to address system-level issues has literally been my job now for almost a decade, and if you’re passionate about something and want to know what to do about it, come talk to me.

If you want to love and serve Native Americans in our state, I can put you on a home building project with my friend Mark tomorrow in Point-au-Chiennes. Do you care about abortion? Have you met Anna Palmer at Crossroads? She’s received state and national recognition for her work in foster care and adoption and she lives here in our community. Do you care about immigration? Do you know Gonzalo Rodriguez at Iglesia Bautista el Buen Pastor in Kenner? Do you want an actual list of ways to support immigrant children who have been sent here to seek asylum and legally welcome them into Christian community? Because they really need your help. There’s a lot of people talking about it but far fewer people working on it. Anna, Gonzalo, Mark—they are dong a lot more than your Facebook post is doing. If you’re going to talk about it, help spread word about these people working on it to potential participants and donors, but even more than that, get involved. That’s discretion.

The tongue is like the rudder of a ship, wherever it goes you go. The tongue is like a fire, and if you don’t mind it, your talk will burn this church and this community to the ground. Sometimes things need to just go unsaid, other times you need to say them to the right person. If you’re talking about someone else’s mistakes, make sure you’re talking to the person who made the mistakes, and make sure in love you’re trying to help them. If you talk about their mistakes to another person, that’s called gossip, and it will also burn down communities. Speak only what is useful for building up the body.

Lord, save us from all our our words. I said this last week: God spoke and created the universe. He spoke again and called us good. He spoke and covenanted with Abraham to redeem us. He spoke and healed the sick, he said rise and walk, he said open your eyes. He said, if no one is left to condemn you than neither do I. He spoke truth and pleaded in love. May our words be more like his every day, and may our hands and feet speak the way his did.

Discretion is a road to humility, because as soon as you stop talking about it and start doing it, usually you realize just how deep the needs are, how grueling the work really is, and how desperately we need Jesus and his church to bring the gospel and kingdom to bear in these spaces. I always tell people I was a fabulous parent before I actually had any kids. And I had a lot of really great ideas about the preaching in my church before I started preaching. Now that I preach almost every week, I’m mostly grateful for the people who agree to serve in this way. Getting involved instead of just talking about it is humbling, and it leads you away from arrogance into gratitude. Wisdom has three key parts: prudence, discretion, and knowledge.

God, humble us, teach us wisdom today. Pray with me.

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