“I pity the fool.” (Mr. T)
“Why, thou sayst well. I do now remember a saying: ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act V, Scene 1, page 2)
Who wants to be a fool? I’m pretty sure that if I asked this question in a public setting, I would see no hands raised. Although we all have the capacity to act in foolish ways, no one wants to be a fool.
But if we examine how the Bible defines fools, we find they look a lot like the people we often admire. Let’s learn about this definition and how we can make sure it never applies to us.
So what are the characteristics of a fool?
- Fools do everything for their own benefit.
One of the most significant places we find the fool is in the book of Ecclesiastes, where the author is a person of significant accomplishment. He’s at the stage of life where he, in essence, has accomplished his goals. He’s got what he needs. What he faces for perhaps the first time is that instead of going toward another goal, trying to take the next hill, he thinks, “Well, what have I actually done? Have I made anything approaching a lasting contribution?”
And he realizes that, in fact, he has not. “What will probably happen is that all of my money and accomplishments will go to my good-for-nothing children, and they’ll squander the whole thing, which means all of my accomplishments are a waste.”
What a terrible thing to face. No wonder that in that sense of bitterness and profound emptiness, he says, “Vanity.” In other words, “Who is this for? It was really for me, and what a mistake I have made. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” (cf. Eccl. 1-2).
And the fool also appears in the parable that Jesus tells in the Gospels as a man who has incredible financial accomplishment. This man is an extraordinarily successful farmer who has put up lots of silos to hold his crops. And he says, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all of my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:18b-19).
Both these men have lived life for themselves. They have what they need and more.
Or do they? Because in both cases, the word that Jesus would use to describe them is the one he uses here, through the voice of God, who says to this man in the parable, “You fool!” (Luke 12:20b)
- Fools have control issues.
Fools also spend a lot of time trying to get a greater level of control to do what they want: “If only so-and-so would do such-and-such, then my life would be a lot better.” “If only she would realize that what she’s doing is wrong and listen to my advice, then I wouldn’t worry so much.”
But trying to control others does little but produce a kind of interior tension, so that as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “All their days are full of pain, their work is a vexation, even at night their minds do not rest” (Eccl. 2:23a).
That’s a person with control issues. That’s a person who’s unhappy. That’s a person who continues to worry, because they somehow believe that the answer lies in the ability to exert more control. And because they can’t exert more control, either over their circumstances or over another person, it’s like a knot inside.
And that’s the person who’s skirting dangerously close to what the Bible describes as the fool. Because this inner knot says, “It’s all up to me. And if I don’t do something, it’s only going to get worse. And because I can’t do anything more, even though I wrack my brain, all of this fear, anger, and frustration builds up inside.”
Not only does this make a great prescription for an ulcer, but it points to an extraordinarily self-centered existence. The frustration that builds up leads to hypercriticism of others, a lack of truth-telling (in an effort to keep up appearances), and a tendency to jump in and attempt to fix it whenever we see something going badly.
But all of these symptoms point to a heart that is afraid, angry, and doing its very best to stay in control of the circumstances, because not to do so would only result in feeling out of control, which would be chaos. And a fool can’t allow that to happen.
- Fools operate without acknowledging God.
Now, “fool” in the Bible is a very strong term. It’s not used much. It shows up in the famous verse in Proverbs, “Fools say in their hearts, there is no God” (Ps. 14:1). In other words, a fool, in the biblical perspective, is someone who operates either without knowing that he is accountable to God, or someone who believes there is, in fact, no God at all. In other words, “I’m the master of my fate, and I can do whatever I want.”
That’s what the Bible describes as a fool.
But that’s also the kind of person our culture admires. Someone who is full of accomplishments, knows a lot about a lot of subjects, is financially well-off and happy to do whatever he or she pleases. Doesn’t that sound like our friend in either Ecclesiastes or Luke 12? And yet that’s the very character that the Bible calls a fool.
I don’t want to be a fool. And I’m sure you don’t, either. In the next post, we’ll look at a new and better way.
Have you ever been a fool? How does the biblical definition contrast with the world’s? Share this blog and your comments on Twitter and include my username, @revgregbrewer.
Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.