King Solomon summed up a vital life principle in Proverbs 14:15 — “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” This is a critical contrast between the naive and the judicious. And it is laden with implications.
We tend to laugh at gullibility, to see it as little more than a natural and humorous product of someone’s personality — some people are relentlessly suspicious, while others are all too trusting. Those who are too trusting make for a lot of harmless fun among friends and family.
But the wise men of Israel saw more.
There are a number of characters described throughout Proverbs. Some of the major players are the “righteous,” the “wise,” and the “prudent,” alongside the “wicked,” the “fool,” the “scoffer,” and the “simple.” These are identifying labels that express established lifestyles, and because these characters are portrayed making various decisions in diverse circumstances throughout the book, their full picture quickly emerges.
The “wicked,” the “fool,” and the “scoffer” are set in their ways. Their empty sinful pleasures have run away with their hearts and they have formed godless customs and lawless habits. They are a disgrace to the image of God, a blight on their families, and a destructive force in their communities.
But the “simple” are different — or at least on a different part of spectrum. They are “the mildest sort of fools, for they are malleable, are capable of being shaped and improved by the educational process (1:4; 8:5; 21:11), and still have hope of joining the company of the wise (cf. 1:22; 9:4). Both Wisdom and Folly compete for their allegiance (ch. 9). But until they opt no longer to remain uncommitted to wisdom, they are wayward.”1
The “simple” person tends to waver, to sway back and forth. He is uncertain, and easily influenced. There’s still hope for him because he’s moldable, but all sorts of temptations, seductions, and persuasions have a magnetic pull on his undiscerning, trigger-happy heart.
The “simple” person takes everyone and everything at face value — every promise, every proposition, every perspective, every advertisement, and every relationship. He is unquestioning to a fault, and to his peril. Certainly he may hesitate and contemplate, and he may even lean one way or the other, but either way, everything is up for consideration. He nibbles at every passing attraction and every persuasive presentation, even if he doesn’t bite. He is akin to the church’s “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).
This is a scary place to be. Yet there is something even more frightening than Solomon’s picture of this naive, fickle, vacillating man:
This is us.
Being “simple” looks increasingly cool these days. It’s not just the laughably naive valley girl and the understandably boyish teenager who tend to believe everything. We are now deceived at every turn — and we have embraced our deception.
Every click of the mouse, every flip of the channel, and every pass by the shop window is an opportunity to express our waffling, wavering, wandering naivete, our seemingly insatiable gullibility. We go after shadows and satisfy our thirst with sea water. We, the “simple,” have created our own market. The demand for surfacy, temporal, shallow things demonstrates that the gullible are the major market now, and because we are the major market, we are the main target audience.
We are told to believe so many things. That showering with a particular soap will cause supermodels to flock to you on the streets. That your new truck needs to withstand air-to-ground missiles. That you need a house, in a great neighborhood, with a beautiful lawn. That homosexuality is good, and that same-sex marriage is an intelligible idea. That the economic crisis was caused by everything but simple tenth-commandment greed. That anything called news must be news. That the finite leader of a godless nation can be the Messiah. That a certain color ear bud makes you cool. That What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas. And that God is not important, currently perhaps the most powerful argument from silence being presented to us, an argument which is becoming subtly more and more convincing the longer we listen to it. We are told to believe so many things.
Further, now that postmodernism has settled in as the philosophical home-owner of our culture, it’s become clear that the gullibility that sold the home in the first place never moved out. Postmodernism suspends judgment and demands conviction-avoiding naivete. When everyone’s perspectives, backgrounds, and community narratives stand equal by the simple fact that they each exist, we are philosophically required to believe everything.
In our postmodern age of crafty advertisements, mass-produced triviality, dreamy campaign promises, sexually-charged commercialization, attractive superficiality, magnetizing entertainment industry, and sanctioned sin, we need discernment and we need it badly. We need to be — we must be — the “prudent” who “gives thought to his steps.”
One way to fight for this prudence is to consider where our gullibility and wavering and instability come from. Here are a few factors that come to mind:
- Weak convictions. The simple may have many light opinions, but do not have many weighty convictions. Therefore they are easily tossed around by persuasive people and ideas. Everything in our current cultural milieu militates against convictions. Sure, we have lots of preferences and leanings, but when’s the last time you heard someone say, “He’s really a man of conviction“?
- Inexperience. Those who haven’t experienced much of life don’t have a personal understanding of the seriousness of their decisions and the consequences of their priorities. Likewise, those who have lots of life experiences but haven’t interpreted them wisely are still easily misled. Unfortunately, we’re missing out on a lot of life experience these days by delaying adulthood and frittering away precious years of human development on grand pursuits like video games and endless text messaging. It’s not hard to see why the “simple” are on the rise.
- Lack of common sense. Often gullibility springs from a deficiency in common sense. This isn’t necessarily an issue of natural intelligence, either. It’s an issue of overlooking or undervaluing basic principles of life like cause-and-effect, delayed gratification, investment and return, work and reward, and long-term over short-term.
- Fear of man. Man-pleasing tendencies will make you a fence-rider who can be pushed to either side by the nudge of people’s approval or disapproval. Anything from low-level peer pressure to high level spinelessness can produce a life whose priorities sway with the prevailing winds. They used to call this a lack of courage.
- Trust in feelings. Often the naive work off their feelings instead of giving calm, objective, measured consideration to their decisions. Emotions become the infallible compass instead of the companion along the way who should be enjoyed but not trusted.
- Cultural carelessness. When we cease to contemplate the roots, fruits, and values of our culture, we lose. We become the “simple” who “believes everything,” beginning with our unexamined customs. We are all culturally-conditioned, which postmodernism has overtaught us. This is healthy to recognize. But this doesn’t warrant being culturally careless. In fact, it calls us to be even more vigilant.
- Neglect of Scripture. Neglecting God’s Word is a recipe for naivete, gullibility, and increasingly destructive simple-mindedness. But studying it thoroughly and thoughtfully is the ultimate antidote for the “simple.”
Only a very small minority of people have personalities that we would consider “gullible.” And while I’m not trying to expand the English connotation so that we all call ourselves “gullible,” I do think that the Hebrew sages would have looked at the glossy, star-struck, artificial West and would have called us, among other (worse) things, “simple.” We believe far too many things that aren’t even believable, much less true. May God grant us the humility to acknowledge that we deeply need His wisdom, and the diligence to seek it desperately.
1 Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (NICOT), 111.