Years ago, Dr. Henry Cloud introduced me to the idea that there are three kinds of people in this world: wise, foolish, and evil. I love that observation! It comes straight from the book of Proverbs where the Bible outlines the difference between each of these life paths. The wise person is headed for a bright and exciting future, the fool a life of hardship and frustration, and the evil person a fittingly disastrous and tragic end.
This is very important for those of us who parent, coach, lead teams, supervise, hire, fire, or are in any other type of authority role. We need to be able to quickly recognize the difference between these life patterns, because they massively impact the future of our families, teams, and organizations.
To understand the major difference between a wise person, a fool, and an evil person, we can go straight to the words of the Lord in the book of Acts. It is here we are introduced to a man named Saul, who would later be renamed Paul. As you likely know, the apostle Paul penned more books in the New Testament than any other author, and is considered one of the major Biblical voices in explaining the relationship between God’s rules and His grace.
But Saul spent the early part of his life attacking Christians, not helping them. Before coming to faith in Christ, he was a young lawyer whose main aim, it seemed, was to put an end to the group of people who claimed to follow Jesus. He ripped Christian parents away from their children and put them in jail, insulted and demeaned Christ-followers wherever he encountered them, and was complicit in the stoning of one of the church’s first deacons, Stephen.
And then, after a season of living his life this way, Jesus decided to confront Saul personally. As Saul was on his way to Damascus one day, Jesus showed up. The power of his presence was so intense that Saul and his travel companions fell to the ground. And then Jesus addressed Saul personally, and said this:
Acts 26:14b (ESV)
…‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
Jesus is calling Saul out for not being a safe person. And in this coaching moment, Jesus also tells us something about the difference between being wise, foolish, and evil.
When Jesus said, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” He was referring to something that oxen would do when their owners would try to move them from place to place. Herders would try to gently move the animals in the direction they needed to go, but there would always be some that refused to follow the gentle directions. For this, the herders carried long sticks with sharp points at the end, and with these they would prod the cattle into going where they should. It wasn’t pleasant for the animal, but as long as they changed course and decided to start moving in the right direction, it was only a momentary pain. But there would always be one or two stubborn animals who were so determined to go their own way that they would fight back against the “goads” or sharp sticks, which, as you can imagine, only created substantial pain. Eventually, they would still have to go the same way as the other oxen, but perhaps only after wounding themselves trying to go their own way.
The parallel with life is strong. Wise individuals will respect the voice of authority, and need very little prodding or goading to move in the right direction. This doesn’t mean they are weak, that they are followers and not leaders, or that they can’t make decisions for themselves. It means they understand authority and can follow directions. That’s the mark of a truly strong person.
Foolish individuals think they’d rather go their own way, and must be prodded back onto the right path. They don’t see the value in following directions or submitting to authority, and as a result, they spend a lot of time exploring fruitless options. The scriptures tell us that the hallmark of foolishness is the idea that “there is no God.”
Psalm 14:1a (ESV)
1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”…
This means that a fool is his or her own god, and is mostly concerned with being the master of his or her own fate. But life experience in many cases will temper the heart of a fool. After enough painful pokes with life’s sharp sticks take their toll, eventually the fool may realize that following his or her own way hasn’t worked.
Evil individuals are in a protracted, painful battle to prove that they will allow no one to be in authority over them. Unlike the wise person who doesn’t require prodding to move in the right direction, and the fool who will eventually allow pain to motivate them to move back in the right direction, an evil person fights back against the guidance they receive. But as Jesus was explaining to Paul, when we fight against authority and guidance, we wound ourselves. An evil person can push back against the painful consequences of their choices and decisions, but in doing so, they take the pain of their mistakes and multiply it.
I love Jesus’ question. He asked Saul, “Why are you doing this?” In effect, he was saying, aren’t you ready to stop fighting and just start moving in the right direction? And it must have connected with Saul, because his turn-around story is legendary. It’s amazing what can happen when a person chooses wisdom.
For now, though, I think when you’re in the process of deciding who will be a close friend, a potential spouse, an employee, a life coach, a strong influence on your kids, or any other major relationship role in your life, it’s worthwhile to find out in which one of these groups this new person belongs.
It’s crucial to know: do they understand and submit to authority or do they have to learn lessons the “hard way”? Do they understand that consequences are a sign that behavior needs changing, or do they get mad at their own life outcomes and try to fight back against them? Can they receive constructive feedback with grace, or do they become very upset at the suggestion that they might be doing something counterproductive?
This is quite serious business. The first murder that ever occurred on our planet happened because Cain could not receive simple, constructive feedback from God when he made a wrong choice.
The more we are open to following God, receiving feedback well, and recognizing that God’s vision for our lives far exceeds our own momentary desires, the safer people we become. And those same qualities are the ones we should look for when trying to establish safe relationships.