Character Deficiency Syndrome

Garry D. Nation

Introducing and Defining Character Deficiency Syndrome

Drugs, gangs, violence, racism, poverty, divorce, illegitimacy--the ills of our society are too many to name. So much disorder in the lives of individuals, families, and society as a whole where does it come from? How do we diagnose these problems? We must identify a cause before we can pinpoint a solution.

Humanists give two basic responses. Many humanists use the "disease" model. Peoples' problems are illnesses that can be cured by the right medicine or therapy. The behaviorist model has also gained popularity in recent years. It says that human problems are essentially "dysfunctions." The very word "dysfunction" seems to suggest almost a mechanical difficulty, which can be fixed by an expert technician in human behavior. These models have some practical usefulness, but they both share two fundamental problems. For one thing, whether we speak of diseases or dysfunctions, we are trying to analyze personal problems by impersonal models. As a result, if we say that someone behaves as he does because he is "sick," or because he comes from a dysfunctional family, we have dehumanized the very person we are trying to help. In the second place, both of these diagnoses tend to play down human responsibility. If I am sick or have come from a dysfunctional environment, how can I be held accountable for my actions?

The Bible, on the other hand, takes a realistic, moral approach to human problems. It asserts that the true crisis we face is not because of economics, or health, or politics, or education. The ultimate responsibility for social order is personal and individual. Disorder in society is a symptom of a crisis of character.

The wisdom literature of the Bible (which includes Job, Ecclesiastes, some of the Psalms, and especially the book of Proverbs) gives us a sharp description and diagnosis of this crisis of character. It calls it "folly."

Our English word "fool" translates several Hebrew words used widely in the Old Testament for individuals who are lacking in moral character. A fool is not someone who is silly or unintelligent, but one who is unwise. He has never learned that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge."

As I said, there are a number of Hebrew words for fool, but they do not all mean exactly the same thing. They have very different shades of meaning. In fact, they indicate at least four progressive stages or degrees of descent into the moral and spiritual depravity which I call Character Deficiency Syndrome.

The first degree is the Simple or Naive Fool, who is unthinking, gullible. He lacks the most basic understanding of moral cause and effect.

The second degree is the Self-Confident Fool. He is known by his stubbornness, and by his big mouth.

The third degree is the Committed Fool, who has decisively rejected wisdom, and instead pledged his allegiance to destructive ideas and behaviors.

The fourth degree or terminal stage of Character Deficiency Syndrome is reached by the Scornful Fool, a mocker who is openly contemptuous of spiritual truth and moral righteousness.

Now we want to look more closely at the latent stage of Character Deficiency Syndrome, the Naive Fool.

Character Deficiency Syndrome, 1st Degree: The Naive Fool

The word "fool" might be misleading, because we associate it with lack of intelligence; but in the Bible, neither wisdom nor folly is a matter of intellect. Both are a matter of morality. The fool fails to see the relationship between faith, morality, and a happy life. His blindness leads him to ignore spiritual and moral reality, and ultimately to defy it. The key is that both wisdom and folly are a choice. Proverbs describes different kinds of fool. I use the umbrella term, "Character Deficiency Syndrome" to describe all of them. Together they constitute a syndrome because they present a clear, diagnosable pattern of behaviors, all connected in a downward spiral.

The first degree of Character Deficiency Syndrome is described as the Simple One, or the Naive Fool. This is folly in its latent stage.

The Hebrew word pethi (pe-THEE) comes from a root meaning to be open, spacious, and wide. It's tempting to call this fellow an "airhead"; but that would be missing the point. Actually we're dealing with someone who is immature, who lacks the judgment and discernment that should come with experience. He is easily enticed, gullible. Three proverbs in particular give us a concise diagnosis of the problem of the Naive Fool. First is Proverbs 14:15, "The simple one believes every word, but the prudent person looks well to his going." In other words, he trusts people without weighing either the wisdom of their words or the goodness of their motives. This makes him easy prey for those who would take advantage of him or lead him astray into virtually any kind of vice. Second, Proverbs 22:3, and 27:12, "A prudent person foresees the evil, and hides himself; but the simple pass on and are punished." He simply does not calculate the consequences of his actions. It's not that he is confident; he just doesn't think ahead. Neither does he realize that there are moral causes and effects.

Finally, Proverbs 14:18, "The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge." Back in the 4th century A.D., St. Augustine observed that the wages of sin is...more sin! The path of the Naive Fool will lead him into more serious and destructive forms of folly, into deeper stages of Character Deficiency Syndrome. It will, that is, unless something interrupts his progress; unless he decides to wise up and accept the disciplines of sound moral training.

The Naive Fool's lack of judgment, together with his reluctance to curb his passions, make him especially vulnerable to the snare of sexual immorality. Proverbs 7 and 9 contain lengthy descriptions of the temptation and seduction of the simple one. He is particularly susceptible to flattery, and will not know until it is too late that his very life is in jeopardy. The picture is a scary one all the more in an age of deadly sexually transmitted diseases.

Character Deficiency Syndrome, 2nd Degree: The Self-Confident Fool

To be a fool is not to be silly or ignorant. Folly is a self- destructive lifestyle. We call it Character Deficiency Syndrome because (1) the problem of folly is about moral weakness, and (2) because it consists of degenerative stages, in a definite sequence, with identifiable symptoms.

Previously we discussed the first stage, the Simple or Naive Fool. If his tendency to follow his passions goes unchecked, he will descend to become the Self- Confident Fool. The Bible has more to say about this character-deficient soul than any other. The Hebrew term kesil (ke-SEEL) suggests someone who is full of himself. Like the simple one, he is inclined to make the wrong moral choices, but even more so. The Naive Fool might stumble into a disastrous setup. The Self-Confident Fool will swagger in, convinced that he is the master of the situation.

Proverbs describes the Self-Confident Fool as a soul with no moral understanding. He "has no delight in understanding." Remember, we are talking, not about intellect, but about doing right and not wrong.

He reveals himself by three outstanding characteristics. First, he is extraordinarily stubborn. He hates to be told what's right, he hates to be corrected, and he will hate you if you try to correct him. He would rather be punished than admit being wrong. "It is an abomination to fools to depart from evil."

Second, he is mouthy. "A fool's voice is known by multitude of words." "A fool utters all his mind." "The mouth of fools pours out foolishness."

His verbosity gets him into trouble. "A fool's lips enter into contention, and his mouth calls for strokes." Even more serious, "A fool's mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul."

Third, he thinks it's fun to cause trouble. "It is like sport to a fool to cause mischief." It's difficult to deal with the Self- Confident Fool. He brings grief to everyone he associates with: parents, friends, authorities, employers. Even God "has no pleasure in fools." It is impossible to reason with him. Proverbs 26, verses 4 and 5, back to back proverbs, seem to contradict each other. "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. / Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit." The contradiction isn't in the Scripture, it's in the fool! One is compelled to reply to his aggravating foolishness, yet it's pointless to do so. You never get anywhere talking to him. The fate of the Self-Confident Fool is not a happy one: a pursuit of vain riches, or poverty for slothfulness; punishment for misdeeds; shame; and the likelihood of falling deeper into Character Deficiency Syndrome.

Yet he's not completely hopeless. In Proverbs 8:5, Wisdom pleads with the Self-Confident Fool to "be of an understanding heart." In Proverbs 26, a scathing series of couplets decimates the self- confident fool. Yet verse 12 arrives with this surprising barb: "Do you see a man who is wise in his own conceit? There is more hope of a (self-confident) fool than of him."

Next we'll see who that one is.

Character Deficiency Syndrome, 3rd Degree: The Committed Fool

The Roman statesman Cicero observed that the function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil. We are calling the shortage of this kind of wisdom Character Deficiency Syndrome, the downward spiral of the Fool. When one makes a commitment to immoral principles, he has entered into the third degree of Folly. Character Deficiency Syndrome is an umbrella term for the degrees of folly described in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. The Naive Fool doesn't realize that sin has consequences. The Self-Confident Fool doesn't believe that sin has consequences. The Committed Fool doesn't care that sin has consequences.

The Hebrew 'evil (eh-VEEL) describes the full-fledged fool, the person who is morally perverse and insolent. He or she has decisively rejected wisdom, and has made a decisive commitment to rebellious ideas and destructive behaviors that the Bible calls 'ivveleth (ihv-vel-LETH), folly or foolishness. The contrast is set forth in the key verse of Proverbs, 1:7. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but (committed) fools despise wisdom and instruction."

The Committed Fool is at war with wisdom. He shows it in his haughty attitude: "The way of a (committed) fool is right in his own eyes." He shows it in his haughty words: "In the mouth of the (committed) fool is a rod of pride," and "the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness." He shows it by his angry temper: "A fool's wrath is immediately known." By the time a person reaches this stage, it is impossible to reform him. His foolishness has become part of him. Proverbs 27:22 says, "Though you crush a fool in a mortar like grain with a pestle, yet will his foolishness not depart from him." Therefore in order to change his behavior it will be necessary to change his nature.

There is a special case of this severe degree of Character Deficiency Syndrome: The Shameless Fool. The Hebrew word is nabal (nah-BAHL). It describes someone who has not only rejected wisdom, not only made a commitment to destructive ideas and behaviors. He is also ignoble, irreverent, boorish, rude, and even vile and villainous. He is the Committed Fool gone to seed!

This is the Fool of Psalms 14 and 53, who has said in his heart, "There is no God." His practical atheism leads him to doing "abominable works," becoming filthy, and preying on the righteous. There is no more obnoxious person depicted in the Scriptures. He is a nasty, shameless man.

The outlook for the Committed Fool is not optimistic. He is in bondage to his own sins: "His own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be held with the cords of his sins. He shall die without instruction, and in the greatness of his folly he shall go astray." He can look forward to servitude, misfortune, punishment for crimes, and ultimately death. Yet he is likely through all his troubles to refuse to be responsible for his own choices, and even to blame God for his difficulties: "A man's own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the LORD."

His only hope would be the grace of God. He would have to be born again! But then, according to the Christian gospel, that is exactly what we all need, isn't it?

Character Deficiency Syndrome, Terminal Stage: The Scorner

We have been discussing Character Deficiency Syndrome, as described in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. We have proposed that it is the real root of the many problems buffeting our society. Now we consider the final stage of this moral disorder, and then turn to see the whole problem in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have tracked the stages of Character Deficiency Syndrome from its latent stages in the Naive Fool, through its increasing virulence in the Self-Confident Fool, to its degradations in the Committed Fool and the Shameless Fool. There is one tragic stage left: the Terminal Stage. The Bible calls this person the Scorner.

The Hebrew luts (rhymes with "boots") is a scoffer, a contemptuous person, a mocker who scorns spiritual truth and moral righteousness. He is an evangelist for folly. "Proud and haughty scorner is his name, who dealeth in proud wrath." Other fools may be abominations to God, but the Scorner is even an abomination to men! The Bible expends few words describing such a one. It simply warns the wise believer to stay away from him. "Blessed is the man who . . . sitteth not in the seat of the scornful." Don't even try to correct him; even if he should seek wisdom, he doesn't want to find it, and you will only earn shame, a blot on your own name, and the hatred of the scorner you are trying to help. Just "cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out; yea strife and reproach shall cease."

The Scorner does serve one civic purpose: he provides an object lesson. When he is punished, the Naive Fool may be "scared straight." As for the Scorner himself, his only end appears to be judgment first the judgment of men, and finally the judgment of God. The Scorner, in all his spiritual hopelessness, appears to be the Old Testament parallel to the one who commits blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, of which Jesus spoke. Jesus said, "whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come."

Character Deficiency Syndrome and the Gospel

Now what shall we say about Character Deficiency Syndrome in light of the New Testament and the gospel of Jesus Christ? First, we should regard the wisdom literature in which this concept is rooted as essentially a commentary on the Law of God. According to God's law, we have all sinned and we are all guilty to some degree of folly, the end of which is death.

Second, when we talk about four degrees of folly, we are not saying that some sins aren't as worthy of judgment as other sins. We are saying that sin never stands still, and that it will dominate and destroy our lives if something doesn't happen to interrupt its progress. Third, there is only one hope for any sinner, and that is to receive new life from Jesus Christ.

Fourth, that new life cannot be achieved by a personal project of moral reform, as commendable as that may be. It can only come by placing complete faith in the man who by His life, death, and supernatural resurrection from the dead, proved that He was and is the Son of God.

Solomon said that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." Jesus Christ said that this is eternal life: to know the only true God, and his Son Jesus Christ.

Copyright 1996 Garry Nation

About the Author

Garry D. Nation is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University (B.A., religion) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D.). A former pastor and Christian school headmaster, he is a staff member of the Probe Center at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.