Growth and Biblical Wisdom

Everybody has a self-theory, some hypothesis or doctrine about what/who they are. Some of these theories are simple sentences like, “I’m an athlete.” Others are more fundamental, like, “I’m worthless.” According to Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden, our self-theories lead directly to our self-esteem maintenance/repair strategies after we fail at a task or to reach a goal. (Dweck, 130-131). They have distilled the various self-theories into two helpful categories.

The Self Theories:

  1. Entity theory:
    Entity theory is the theory that all of your personal traits are fixed in place.
  2. Incremental Theory:
    The incremental theory of the self is the theory that no matter who you are, your qualities and abilities can be improved upon.

Two strategies of self-esteem repair:

  1. Fixed/Static View
    It is often found that those who hold to the entity theory, because of the assumption that change is impossible, also have a static view of self-esteem repair. These people repair their self-esteem by avoidance of activities that are difficult. Adherents to this self-theory also utilize comparison of their performance to examples who performed even more poorly than themselves to bolster their sense of worth/skill.
  2. Growth View
    Those who hold to the incremental self-theory, because of the assumption that change is possible, adopt a growth perspective on self-esteem repair. These individuals use strategies like examination of deficits and practicing unattained skills.  They are also more likely to utilize comparison of personal performance to those who performed even better to understand why they succeeded.

Can you guess which self-theory and which strategies tend to be associated with success? If you guessed, “the incremental theory and the growth view,” you guessed correctly.

In the book of Proverbs, the self-theory assumed by the author is the incremental theory. The author assumes that people can change:

Pro 8:1-5 ESV  Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?  (2)  On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  (3)  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:  (4)  “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.  (5)  O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense.

And as one would expect from somebody who holds the incremental view, the author of Proverbs recommends responding to personal failures and challenges with a growth strategy:

  1. Pro 9:8b-9a Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.
  2. Pro 15:5  A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
  3. Pro 15:12  A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.
  4. Pro 15:32  Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

The whole book basically indicates that one of the main differences between the wise and the unwise is that the wise are willing to face correction and improve. They admit their flaws and errors. They do so whether the flaws pertain to morality, character, knowledge, skill, or anything else.

Conclusion

Learning to change our perspective on failures and internal shame is very difficult. We often feel painfully ashamed of failures, mistakes, and sins. This shame can paralyze us into being unable to admit fault. It can even force us into hiding our flaws and dwelling only on our positive traits and thus can prevent change. It is all the better to admit personal failures of morals, knowledge, and skill. Fessing up to oneself, to God, and to other people is a liberating experience. In so doing, shame can become the sort of sorrow that leads to repentance and personal transformation. One good article on the subject can be found here: Why I Like When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself.

Works Cited:

Andrew J Elliot and Carol S Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).

Appendix:

Though the author of Proverbs assumes that you and I can change, he is a realist. You and I have all known people that we worry about because they keep making bad decisions. The fear is that eventually it might be too late to change. Proverbs does notice that some people will want to change their habits at the last minute before a calamity. They procrastinate. They hope to perhaps utilizing a montage strategy. “Oh, I messed around all year and have to make a 100 on the final and only have 8 hours to study…wisdom come save me with clips of fun, hard work, and sweet music!” Kind of like in Rocky, Revenge of the Nerds, the Muppets Movie, and Mulan:

Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is personified as a cosmically powerful female prophet who represents the highest aspirations of human motherhood, the ultimate wife, and the most wise sister a young man could have. Young men typically love women, this is probably why the literary device is used. The book is written for young men, but it clearly applies to women as well. Anyway, here is what Lady Wisdom says after being ignored until the last minute before a disaster:

Pro 1:24-27  Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,  (25)  because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  (26)  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you,  (27)  when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

If you refuse to change your character long enough, you won’t be able to suddenly make the necessary repairs in order to succeed. I tried this in Hebrew as an undergrad. You cannot study at the last minute for Hebrew and succeed.

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