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The Crux

Wisdom Begets Wisdom, Or Does It?

What Proverbs 13:20 tells us about ourselves

Jim Rohn is famous for one catch phrase that millions of people have internalized: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Never mind the stark impossibility of calculating precisely what that average is, it is a catchy phrase, isn't it? Think of the five people you spend most of your time with. If you're married, one of those is likely your spouse. If you have a job, one or two may be your boss or a co-worker. If you involve yourself in community activities, perhaps one of those people is a community organizer or charity fundraiser. Heck, one or two may be your children, or your best friend. But what does it mean to be the average of those five people?

It's difficult to say, but I think it's pretty close to what Proverbs 13:20 is saying. Here's the text:

He who walks with the wise will become wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.

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Do the Wise Really Hang Out Together?

Note what the proverb isn't saying. It's not saying that the wise will hang out with the wise. That may be true, but that isn't the message. In other words, while wisdom may help us make better choices, and hanging out with other wise folks is certainly a good choice, that isn't really what this verse is saying. Rather, the message seems to be ... hang ten with wise men and their wisdom will rub off.

Hmmmm ... I've been an observer of the human species all my life and I have rarely seen that happen. So, is the proverbial author wrong?

Not entirely.

Before I elucidate on that topic, let's count the ways one can obtain wisdom.

  1. Pray for it - King Solomon prayed to God for wisdom and was granted that wisdom. The New Testament encourages us to pray, believing that we'll receive that which we ask for. That isn't to say we can ask for a Rolls Royce and expect a stranger to drive it into our garage tomorrow. This is not a health and wealth gospel. Our Lord has asked us to pray within God's will, to seek the things that God wants for us, and to ask God for those things. The Lord certainly wants us to be wise, and if we sincerely desire it and ask for it, then he will give it.

  2. Failure - While prayer is certainly one way to achieve wisdom, it's not the only way. We can also obtain wisdom by failing. Failure teaches us something. First, it teaches us that we can't always get what we want. Another thing failure teaches us is patience, and perseverance. But the interesting thing about failure is it can't happen unless we try things. Therefore, we must try new things.

  3. Talk to other people - Talking to other people helps us see things from their perspective. Other people have knowledge and experience we don't have. By tapping into that, we can draw from a well of wisdom that we do not have access to by sticking to our own silo.

  4. Make observations - As a people watcher, I've been profoundly impacted by watching and listening to others on occasion. By being an observer, you can note what others do and say that help them succeed and fail. It's essentially learning from others without having to pay for a masterclass. Being observant is one of the wisest things anyone can do.

  5. Seek out the wisdom of others - Here is where Proverbs 13:20 shines. If we are observant, we will make note of others who are wise and seek out their wisdom. In other words, we can ask them questions about how they see the world and why they make decisions the way they do. In many cases, simply being around these people increases our own chances at obtaining wisdom, and I have seen it work.

A group of researchers studied obesity and discovered that people who have a friend who is obese are 57 percent more likely to become obese themselves. If a sibling is obese, the chances are 40 percent. If it is a spouse who is obese, the chances are 37 percent. What this study teaches us is that we tend to become more like those we spend our time with. Similar results were found with smokers.

If we apply this principle to sin, decision-making, and wisdom, we'll find that our chances of behaving a certain way increase if we spend a lot of time around others who behave the same way. In other words, bad company corrupts good character.

That's why it's important to seek out wisdom from people who have it, and to shun the advice of fools. After all, companions of fools end up destroying themselves.

Allen Taylor is the author of I Am Not the King.

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