I have been in a doctoral program for the last two years, and this past spring I finished my coursework and passed comprehensive exams. That means I now need to write the dissertation.
A book. I’m writing a book. And it feels like a mountain.
The first step was to write a proposal for my dissertation, and submit it to my dissertation committee. I had the first committee meeting a few weeks ago, and I needed to have the proposal in their hands a week before the meeting so they could review it. Then at the committee meeting we would discuss it.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
At that committee meeting I would hear the truth about my proposal, at least if the committee was doing its job. Each of the three members of my committee have all earned their doctorates, and some of them have been on committees like this many times before. That’s why I picked them to be on my committee. So while I knew the truth was coming, I didn’t like the thought of that. What if they hated my proposal? What if they determine I’m not academically up to it? Perhaps you know the self-doubts I’m talking about.
So I started procrastinating. I started doing anything and everything but writing that proposal. At the same time, I wanted to get the proposal done, because I hated the pressure of this burden weighing on me. It was a weird battle within me, where the “wanting to get it done” side was in a war against the “not wanting to face the truth side.” And the “not wanting to face the truth” side of me was winning. In fact, I started having more personal devotional time, not because I was hungering and thirsting after God, but because I was afraid of facing the truth about the proposal, about myself.
How many of you love to be confronted with the truth? It is not fun. The truth hurts, as the saying goes. Because the truth hurts, we can avoid it. In fact, we can become very creative and ingenious about avoiding the truth.
The Teacher knows what we humans are like, and our tendency to avoid hearing the truth about ourselves is what he refers to in the third “better than” in Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, a poem filled with practical wisdom in what we have been calling the seven “better thans.”
In this third couplet of the poem, the Teacher says that, “Listening to painful things is better than listening to foolish laughter.” You can read how he puts it in Ecclesiastes 7:5-6. The Teacher knows that humans love to bask in the warm glow of false encouragement, such as people telling us we’re amazing and great. But if this is what we hear about ourselves all the time, the Teacher calls it, “the song of fools” or the “laughter of fools.” That might sound harsh, but the reality is that there are times when each one of us needs to hear critique, feedback, and a corrective evaluation. The clear wisdom of the teacher, therefore, is that we need to be people who are humble and invite others to speak the truth to us. We need people in our lives who can confront us.
This is the difference between shepherds and prophets. Shepherds are people who come alongside and put their arm around our shoulder to encourage us. They tend to be gracious, warm and caring. And we need them in our lives. But we also need prophets.
Prophets are the people who stand in front of us and evaluate us, telling us the truth, even if it is just their interpretation of the truth about who we are. Prophets tend to be bold, confrontational. Because of that we can caricature them as if they’re just angry or opinionated, so we don’t have to listen to them. We can say, “I’ll only listen to them if they talk more respectfully to me.” Surely, the most effective prophets are the ones who speak the truth in a tone and manner that people can most easily receive. But even if they don’t speak graciously, it doesn’t let us off the hook. We still need to have a teachable posture, to receive their words, to evaluate how their view might be true, and how we might need to change.
This is what the Teacher means when he says we need to “heed the rebuke of the wise.” Do you have people in your life who speak plainly to you? Who is the prophet in your life, willing to tell you the truth about yourself? It could be a spouse, a friend, or a family member. But it might also need to be a professional, someone like a therapist, doctor, or coach that you hire to tell you the blunt, but honest, picture of who you really are.
In a sense I’ve hired my dissertation committee to tell me the truth. I didn’t get my proposal to them a week ahead our first meeting, but I did get it to them about three days in advance. Guess what? They told me the truth, and they did so with a gracious, honest mixture of both the shepherd and the prophet. I came away from the meeting encouraged, and with some assignments I had to work on to improve the proposal.
So how about you? Who is being a prophet to you? Who is your shepherd?