The novelist Harper Lee is quoted as saying ‘Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.’ I can’t find a reference to where it was said, but Harper Lee wasn’t the first. It’s also traced to the Roman author Publius Syrus, in the first century BC – and the idea, if not the exact wording, comes from centuries earlier in Proverbs.
In different phrases and forms, that’s the idea that runs through these chapters. The wise take advice to heart and learn from it, where the foolish ignore it and repeat their mistakes. It’s in that setting that we get the infamous quote ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ or, in the more careful NRSV translation,
Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them. (13:24)
There’s more than one way to discipline, and the best ones don’t involve a large stick. But we see all too clearly the results of parents who don’t give their children boundaries and expectations as to how they will live. At best they struggle to make the most of their potential. At worst they fall into all kinds of deliquency.
Why do we assume that we don’t need the same kind of discipline and boundaries as adults? Admittedly there may be no parent figure in a position to impose them, but we flourish best when we allow ourselves to recognise and live within the boundaries and expectations which God has set out for us – and that’s where wisdom is our guide.
For the times that our own wisdom isn’t enough, we have the advice of others – but it’s up to us not just to seek but also to take the right advice. It’s no good asking for advice when what we really want is sympathy, collusion or approval. We should be looking for advice from those whose perspective may be creatively different from ours, not just a more eloquently phrased version of what we already know.
And wisdom doesn’t require that we like receiving advice – just that we learn from it.