Author and poet Maya Angelou famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” While this may seem harsh on the outset, so long as we allow people the opportunity to grow, change, and improve, the truth underlying this quotation has biblical roots. In fact, our problems in relationships, on the job, and in society often stem from ignoring evidence people present about themselves instead of evaluating people accordingly. Professional athletes, Hollywood stars, politicians, and corporate executives have grown accustomed to hiring expensive human relations firms to craft apologies for their despicable behavior—all with the expectation that the general public will believe the words drafted by others rather than the behavior they themselves demonstrated. In this they are playing on a misguided sense of graciousness in which they count on the forgiveness of others while their basic character remains unaffected. However, in Proverbs 26 divine wisdom advises us to treat people in accordance with exactly who they have proven to be.
- We should expect a fool to behave and react like a fool. They do not pay attention to advice, they have no sense of shame, and they only seem to learn the hard way (Prov. 26:1-3). Such a person should never receive a position of responsibility, for he has proven undeserving of such a trust (Prov. 26:6). Wise words mean nothing to a fool—even if he can quote them (Prov. 26:7-10). No matter how much others might warn him, he is more likely to repeat a mistake than to correct it (Prov. 26:11). Know this from the beginning so your response to their foolishness actually addresses their foolishness (Prov. 26:4-5).
- We should expect a proud man to say arrogant things and behave in conceited fashion (Prov. 26:12). While we should never mistake confidence for arrogance, when someone cannot admit a clear error, refuses to acknowledge having done obvious wrong, or continually attempts to bluff his way through a situation despite showing abundant ignorance, that person deserves censure—not forgiveness. Moreover, anyone who acts as if he is superior has forgotten the origin of the gifts he possesses. “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
- We should expect lazy people to make excuses in order to avoid work (Prov. 26:13). The lazy have plenty of time to eat and sleep but no time to work (Prov. 26:14-15). Yet, despite having done nothing of consequence in their lives, they always seem ready to advise productive people on how to work (Prov. 26:16). An employer who hires a lazy man does not make him a worker, he has just made him a lazy man with a paycheck.
- We should expect troublemakers to cause problems. Some enjoy stirring the pot just to watch others fight (Prov. 26:17). Some attack with barbs and insults from a heart of malice only to attempt to conceal their intent by laughing (Prov. 26:18-19). Some revel in gossip and controversy (Prov. 26:20-23). Some lie and deceive, using friendship as a weapon and trust as a means to manipulation (Prov. 26:24-26). It will come back to haunt them eventually but at a cost to all around them (Prov. 26:27-28).
While the proverbs cited expose and condemn the sinful behavior of the fool, the arrogant, the lazy, and the troublemaker, the context provides these warnings for the benefit of everyone else. When you see someone behaving in these ways, treat them accordingly. If someone refuses to take good advice and seems intent to learn only the hard way, do not soften the effect of such a self-inflicted blow or else he will never learn. If someone has shown himself to be arrogant and self-centered, do not put him in a position of responsibility or leadership, it will only make the problem worse for everyone. When someone has proven untrustworthy to do assigned work, then it is best to stop giving him those assignments. And if people cause problems everywhere they go, it would seem odd to welcome them into your midst. The church has its share of people like this, just like everywhere else—members, elders, and preachers alike. So let us be wise and learn the lessons from the Proverbs so we can respond and react appropriately.