Read the proverbs and you can’t help but be struck by how many focus on the power of the tongue. Hardly a chapter flies by without some comparison of the lips of the righteous and the words of the wicked.
In this era of constant connectivity, where it’s never been easier to spout off our opinions and to take part in all manner of debate, this proverb stands out to me: “A discerning mind seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness” (Prov. 15:14, CSB).
Input, Not Just Output
At first glance, this proverb isn’t about what we say. It’s about input—what we take in—at least as much as it is about output, what we express. What do we feed on? What is our intake?
“The mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart,” Jesus tells us (Matt. 12:34, CSB). Which leads to the question, not what are we saying, but what are we seeking? If you want to get control of your tongue, look at what’s filling your heart. What we take in matters if we want to follow biblical instruction and grow in wisdom.
Reading vs. Scrolling
Perhaps a 21st-century paraphrase of this proverb would go like this: A discerning mind reads books, but the mouth of fools feeds on Twitter. Or maybe not. After all, there are glimmers of wisdom on social media, and there are reams of printed paper devoted to foolishness. Reading books won’t keep you from being a fool. It all depends on what books you’re reading.
Yet still, I wonder if—in a time when rapidity is rewarded, when the hot take is, well, hot, and the temptations toward outrage are baked into the algorithms of comments sections and Twitter streams—prioritizing books over Facebook is a better starting point for the seeking of wisdom. Surely we’re more likely to discover knowledge, insight, and understanding through the quiet and careful reading of a book than through the impressions created by endless scrolling.
Talking vs. Posting
Another starting point in our quest for wisdom would be to prioritize people over avatars. To interact face-to-face in conversation with other human beings.
The discerning mind is more likely to find knowledge through personal conversation, through sifting the strengths and weaknesses of someone else’s position. Unless you can think of several good reasons why someone holds an opposing viewpoint and unless you can articulate those reasons clearly, you’ve not really engaged with another perspective. “When we do not know, or when we do not know enough,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” When debates turn into nothing more than emotional outbursts, solid arguments devolve into shallow quarrels.
Dupes or Devils
I’ve read comments recently about Christian leaders who have taken various stances on issues of common concern in the past couple of years. Often the sentiments are slanted to make it seem like there are only two possible responses: either these Christians are dupes or devils. Dupes, because they’ve fallen for such a stupid position. Or devils, because they know their position is wrong and are colluding with evil forces to trick their followers.
Of course, I come to the end of these takedowns and think: There’s another option. Maybe this person is neither a dupe nor a devil, but you just happen to disagree. Perhaps he’s made a mistake. Maybe he’s been unwise. It’s possible he’s lacked prudence. Or maybe he’s right and you’re wrong.
Unfortunately, we tend to assume that anyone on the other side of an issue is either stupid or evil. And it’s much harder to love your neighbor if you think he’s dumb or devilish.
Weighing Opinions vs. Waving Off
What we should seek instead is to discern what is right and true and good in positions we don’t hold, looking to see what aims we might share even if we disagree on the way to get there. We should try to articulate as fairly as possible our opponent’s position, however weak we may conclude it to be.
This effort requires us to learn to listen, to consider, and to weigh opinions. At some point, you’ll reconsider something you once believed. It’s possible you believed the right thing for the wrong reason, or that you believed the wrong thing for the right reason. And the only way you’ll know is by weighing opposing perspectives, not waving them off in a flurry of online invective.
I decided several years ago to forgo Twitter debates because (1) I never saw persuasion taking place and (2) my followers and my interlocutors’ followers reveled in our debates, as if we were gladiators in a coliseum performing for a crowd. No thanks. I’m interested in real conversations about real issues of pressing concern, and Twitter trivializes those debates.
Seeking knowledge—the development of a discerning mind—is hard work. It’s easier to blast others in a comments section, or watch with glee as others screech, than to do the patient work of considering an argument, usually found in a book that demands more of your time than the quick glance at your phone in the grocery checkout line.
“There is a kind of work which any man can do, but from which many men shrink, generally because it is very hard work, sometimes because they fear it will lead them whither they do not wish to go. It is called thinking.” That’s Chesterton. He was right then, and he’s right now.
So, what we are feeding our mouths and minds: folly or wisdom? If you want to find websites and social media accounts that tell you what you want to hear every day, presenting everyone in simplistic categories of “good guys” or “bad guys,” you’ll feed on foolishness. The discerning seek knowledge. And most of the time, they don’t find it on Twitter.
If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.