We were talking about her first paycheck. I looked across the restaurant table at the young woman on the brink of adulthood and asked her if she had a job paying $1,000 per pay period, how much would she see in her actual check?
She looked at me warily as the idea began to blossom that somehow it would be less.
I took 10 sugar packets and spread them across the table. “Let’s say each of these sugar packets represents about $100,” I said.
Picking up three of the packets, I answered my own question. “Count on seeing about 70 percent — or seven sugar packets. These three packets are the federal, state and Social Security taxes that will be withheld from your paycheck. You may see some of that back when you file your taxes, but for now you would actually live on $700 each pay period.”
Jada looked at the seven packets, blinked and looked back at me with a practiced neutral expression. I could tell this was news to her. I picked up two more packets.
“These two packets are essential. It may not require two whole packets, but for the sake of this example, go with it. This first packet is what you give back to God. Everything you have is from God, and He asks you for an offering that shows your trust, devotion and willingness to invest in what is important to Him. That’s what you give back to His church to finance the work of ministry. That’s your investment in eternal riches that will outlast everything here on earth,” I said. “It should be a non-negotiable.”
“The second packet will protect you from poverty. It is what you put in the bank each time you are paid. This packet is your key to success — broadly speaking. For now you are living paycheck to paycheck. But if you don’t put away anything for emergencies, one day your car will die, and it will be the beginning of the end. Because you don’t have any money saved, you won’t be able to fix your car. And without a reliable car, you start showing up late to work or not at all. Eventually you are fired. Without a job, you can’t pay your rent. So one day you are evicted, and you face homelessness. Everything is in a downward spiral that you can’t control — all because you didn’t have a cushion for emergencies. But with the cushion, you fix your car, you keep your job, you get a promotion, you make more money, you save for a house, and one day you become a homeowner,” I concluded. “That means you actually have to plan to live on half of your paycheck.”
Jada looked down at the five remaining sugar packets. “That’s not much money for rent, clothes or food — much less my cell phone,” she said flatly.
“Nope,” I said. “But it can be done. People do it all the time. And I’m here to cheer you on to make wise long-term choices because your future will hit you faster than you think it will.”
I left our dinner that night pleased with my impromptu visual demonstration of a budget. I thought I’d really been able to make a point. But the next time I tried to call Jada (not her real name), her cell phone was disconnected. Another unpaid bill. Those sugar packets can really disappear quickly.
Jada is a ward of the state, having grown up in the foster care system. She never really had parents. I never had a child. We’re an unusual pairing, my “mentee” and I, but I’m trying to impart to her what I’ve received from my own parents and the mature believers who have discipled me. She’s always had government assistance, but that bureaucratic cocoon will soon disappear, and she’ll be on her own. At 18, she stands on the brink of her adult life, unaware that whatever she does today will direct the course of her tomorrows.
Her peers tell her to party it up now, to enjoy wild times while she’s young. Few of these “counselors” have sterling credentials to back up their advice — jobs are few, jail records abound in this crowd. Without putting down her friends, I try to get Jada to see the outcomes of their decisions and perspectives so that she can evaluate those end results against her own dreams. I remind her that, contrary to what her friends say, these are the years that you can’t squander. As we talk about her big dreams, I try to break them down to show her what kind of hard work and smart decisions it will take to get there.
It’s a timeless conversation. Parents and parental substitutes like me have been delivering this tribute to delayed gratification for millennia. This conversation is even enshrined in Scripture in the book of Proverbs.
If you could make a film about Proverbs, it would make for a colorful film set. Boisterous, brazen harlots would roam the streets, looking for foolish young men. Sluggards would doze at tables, their hands still buried in a dish, or roll over on their beds, like doors on their hinges. Husbands would be living on the roofs of their homes while their contentious wives shout at them from below. Pigs would be running about with gold rings in their noses.
Proverbs contains a lot of memorable images. And that’s a good thing because this wisdom book uses pithy sayings to highlight the need for godly discernment and instruction. The whole book is about considering what comes later from your deeds now.
In fact, it highlights two kinds of “later” — what you’ll reap in a few years in this life and what awaits when all of this burns up. Proverbs tugs at our natural short-sightedness to say, “Consider the outcome of the choices you make right now.” It provides the wisdom we need to marshal our desires for a preferred outcome.
Therefore it’s no wonder that Proverbs starts with the words of a parent: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8). One of the most common admonitions of parenting is, “Watch what you’re doing!” Look both ways before you cross the street. Hold onto the railing as you go downstairs. Don’t touch — it’s hot! Don’t run with scissors. Proverbs has a lot to say about the instruction of a father and a mother. It’s not just common sense, though. Proverbs positions the humble recipient to learn the skill of godly living, to learn what heavenly wisdom looks like.
As pastor and author Mark Dever writes, part of knowing what wisdom looks like is recognizing wisdom’s opposite.
Probably foremost among the cast of contrasting characters [in the book of Proverbs] is the fool. When many people read the word ‘fool,’ they think it refers to someone who is not very intelligent. But that is not what Proverbs is talking about. No, there are things other than lack of intelligence that typify the fool.
According to the book of Proverbs, you can tell someone is a fool by what he thinks about discipline. Does a person welcome correction, or does he avoid it? The fool has a hardy disregard for discipline. And this disregard for discipline only points to his disregard for wisdom. In some ways, you could say that the overriding characteristic of the fool is that he has no self-control (Proverbs 17:24).
Biblically speaking, my young friend lives among fools. Some of her friends are downright shrewd and have impressive street sense, but their disregard for discipline and self-control is the mark of a fool. And you know what? She’s not alone. We all live among fools. Our current culture exudes foolishness in what it prizes and pursues. And it becomes our default setting if we are not proactively pursuing godly wisdom. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm,” Proverbs warns us (Proverbs 13:27).
For example, consider our fascination with thug culture. From The Godfather to gangstas, we are riveted by thug culture. It’s a celebration of a skewered form of masculinity, but it’s so prevalent that even some young women aspire to it.
Yet we don’t get very far into the first chapter of Proverbs before we are warned against this kind of violence. While sinners may say, “let us ambush the innocent without reason” (1:11, ESV), Scripture tells us that “they lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; it takes away the life of its possessors” (vv. 16-17, NAS). That’s street reality for those who die every weekend in the gang violence of our cities.
Or consider our culture’s acceptance of sexual immorality. In a discussion with Jada and one of her younger friends, I told them that the single men in my church honor women by reserving sex for marriage. Both of them looked at me like I had just landed from another planet. Literally. “That’s freaky,” Jada’s 15-year-old friend said, in shock. “What’s wrong with them?”
Their world is full of players manipulating women for their own selfish ends. That’s normal. It’s what men do. Marital fidelity is what’s strange because marriage itself is unknown. Older men routinely prey on younger girls, and few are held accountable for the damage left in their wake. Girls think this is a normal way of relating so they pursue it, too.
Only a few months after this conversation, Jada’s young friend became pregnant. The father of her baby is unknown — it could be one of many men, all of whom are reported to be adults. It’s highly doubtful that anyone will press charges for the crime of statutory rape, unfortunately.
I think Jada is hearing me out on some of these things. I try to show her that you should evaluate such men by their actions, not their words. Don’t listen to their big promises, I say, look at what they actually do. It is in the second chapter of Proverbs: “Wisdom will save you from the seductive temptations of the one who flatters with words but breaks all promises” (vv. 16-17). God calls men to work hard for their families, not to live off the income or possessions of a collection of temporary girlfriends while spawning children they can’t provide for or consistently parent.
Our culture accepts broken promises without much outcry. In return, we offer “safer sex” education in the vain attempt to ward off the physical consequences of sexually transmitted diseases. But we don’t consider why the Creator of sex gave us this drive or what He demands from us in return for this gift.
Proverbs warns us all of the end result of sexual immorality: “For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave” (5:3-5). Other translations say Sheol, which means the place of death. For the wicked, Sheol is a place of no return, of darknessand torment.
“Safer sex” lectures never address the reality that is beyond sexually transmitted infections — how sexual immorality offends a holy God.
While I want Jada to have fun along the way, I want her to have her best life later. I want her to experience the rewards of self-discipline, self-control and delayed gratification. I want her to be wise about the choices she is making now and how they will direct the course of her life. I want her to wear the graceful wreath of wisdom and the ornaments of instruction and teaching (1:9). That’s my reward as her mentor.
It’s what I want for myself, as well. No mentor lives her own counsel perfectly. Scripture is our guide, but the school of hard knocks can really bring it home sometimes. I hope my life experience can provide a current illustration for these timeless instructions. I’m not talking down to Jada — at least I try not to do so. I see myself walking beside her, discussing the long-term implications of daily decisions and encouraging perseverance.
Jada has had a rough start in life, but I don’t want her to overcome this background merely to achieve middle-class material comfort and success. That’s selling her short. I actually have bigger dreams for her.
I truly want her to have her best life later, as in all eternity. Wisdom is no wisdom if retiring wealthy is the finish line. Scripture calls us to understand our actions, to evaluate our lives in light of a holy God and His perfect standard of righteousness. In between practical life advice, I want to introduce her to this holy requirement and to the One who offers us the only way to attain it. As her mentor, the very best I can impart to her is the fear of the Lord that drives her straight into the arms of Jesus and His Gospel of grace. It is the most precious counsel I have, and I don’t want to be accused of hoarding it.
As for myself, I have a godly heritage. I stand among a “great cloud of witnesses,” both by blood and by church family, who finished the race with perseverance to pass the Gospel baton to me. I have received much, therefore much is asked of me (Luke 12:48). Jada is not my child, but she is someone from the succeeding generation whom God has caused to cross my path. Psalms tells me what I am to do in this case: “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (145:4). We all have a responsibility in every season of life to pass on the Gospel and its treasures of wisdom.
Scripture makes it clear that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), but the rewards of godly wisdom are innumerable — a promise that the best is yet to come.
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed.
Copyright 2009 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.