Your own understanding (Month of Proverbs)

Together again...The leaning tower has grown
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“Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
on your own intelligence rely not.”
(Prov. 3:5)

Often translated “lean not on your own understanding,” this is one of the best known phrases from the book of Proverbs.  It is also one of the most difficult to fully comprehend, and to put into practice.

Sometimes this phrase is used to tell people to give up some cause that they think is important, but which is not recognized by everyone else:  it can be an instrument of pressure to conformity.  Yet the Proverb directs our attention to God, not to the words of other human beings.  The key is recognizing the limitations of our minds and our knowledge: “Be not wise in your own eyes” (Prov. 3:7).

College professors are encouraged to include instruction on critical thinking in all their courses – especially those for more advanced students. We are subtly conveying the message that their own mind is the only one to be trusted. They should add up the evidence and decide for themselves; they should avoid accepting and acting on claims and practices not supported with evidence of their accuracy or effectiveness. While they certainly need these skills for all sorts of tasks in their professional lives, its is lacking even from a purely psychological point of view. In most situations, we do not possess all the facts, not fully understand all the motivations and situations of the other people with whom we are interacting. The critical thinking model, though, implies that as we get more and better knowledge, we will approach ever more closely to making the “right” decision.

That is where the proverb calls us up short.  Information is not wisdom; evidence is not understanding.  No matter how  much we know, it is also interpreted through the lens of our own needs and experiences, and with our own self-seeking interests at heart.   While we certainly need keen mental skills to gather information,  we need a stronger, better, more stable source of wisdom to know what to do about it.   That source, says Solomon is the Lord.

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth, established the heavens by understanding;
By his knowledge the depths break opn, and the clouds drop down dew.”
(Prov. 3:19-20)

In short, the Lord is the one who has the big picture. It is the Lord who knows how we are hardwired, how the world operates, and what attitudes and actions are needed to make a go of it.  This is the message that Job heard in response to his complaint to God; it is one that is repeated throughout scripture.

This basic notion provides the cornerstone for the entire book.  Wisdom is seeking us out, and will enable us to stay on the paths of the  just.  But we only possess this wisdom to the extent that we believe it, accept it as a guide for our lives, and – most important – turn to this source of wisdom especially in times of confusion or difficult decisions.

This wisdom is said to be more valuable than silver and gold.  This odd comparison – one usually cannot exchange one for the other – reveals to us the way in which we measure the fruits of wisdom.  Not by the usual standards of success, but by the true riches:

all her paths are peace
she is a tree of life to those who grasp her
your foot will never stumble
when you rest, your sleep will be sweet
the Lord will be your confidence

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