The writer of Proverbs (29:19) says, "Where there is no vision the people perish." Another translation (TNIV) renders the verse this way: "Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed are those who heed wisdom's instruction." The NASB says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The NIV ends this text with "blessed is he who keeps the law." And the NRSV says, "Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint." Israel received revelation through the prophets. The idea here seems to be that vision, or revelation, came from the Law, the Prophets and the Testimony, or the whole of Scripture.
Most of my life I have heard pastors, church leaders and businessmen quote this verse and apply it to "human vision." They tell us that the number one function of a leader is to cast a clear vision for the people to follow. It is argued that vision is like the hub of a wheel from which everything else grows or develops. While I do not debate this simple principle I am not so sure that this is what this proverb is really about. Yet to suggest that it is not about this idea flies directly in the face of so much common use that it seems almost heretical to many evangelical ears.
Here is how one excellent Christian thinker applies the common sense reading of this popular text:
- Define the vision specifically. Leaders despise the fog.
- Express your vision so that people understand it and thus galvanized by it.
- Get organizational and personal acceptance of your vision as a leader.
- Repeat the vision, and your purpose, over and over so people cannot forget it.
Please do not misunderstand me. I agree with every word this Christian entrepreneur writes. I follow this advice in my own work. I am just not sure that this is what this proverb is actually saying. In fact, there is a sense in which the writer is saying something that includes this but it does so in a more profoundly Christ-centered way.
Pat Williams, who has written a great deal about leadership and vision says, in his book The Paradox of Power, that vision is the ability to see farther than the eye can see and the ability to see what isn't there yet. Only by seeing what is not there, says Williams, can you bring something into existence that is new, creative and exciting. He adds that vision clarifies, enthuses, involves and focused leaders and people. Once again I agree.
But the proverb is saying something much more sublime and powerful than these modern interpretations seem to understand. The NLT captures this sense when it translates Proverbs 29:18: "When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful." The point is this—the wise accept divine guidance from the whole of Scripture. One version that I love to read, called The Christian Community Bible, adds: "Where prophets are lacking, the people get out of hand."
Now you might see why I wrote that this proverb really says much more than is included in the idea of "vision" that modern thinker's see. The truth goes much, much deeper than that popular interpretation. How?
- Defining vision for an organization or a mission is a good thing but this does not restrain sin or promote encounter with God
through divine revelation. Many leaders have a powerful vision for their work but are not wise. A great number of them, from what I've seen over my six-plus decades of life, do not accept guidance easily. The church is filled with visionaries who do not live well and whose vision seems to be more in line with their temperament and personality than revelation. These leaders are often so sure of "their" vision that they listen to no one else, not even God at times. The world is filled with visionaries who mislead and distort God's truth.
- Defining vision is important but this must grow out of a life than is intently focused on hearing God speak through revelation. I will not get into the debatable aspects of how God reveals himself, knowing that my audience is all over the map on this point. I do believe that God does "speak" to us in many varied ways. Nothing he reveals ever conflicts with Scripture. Again, all serious Christians agree. But revelation comes to us with power when we "see" and "hear" God. All Christians can and should agree on this point. The vision the writer of the proverb speaks about lines up a lot more with this richly prophetic idea of "hearing" God speak to your soul and you just know it is God!
- When the prophets are lacking the people do get out of hand. Again, there are numerous ways the word prophet can (and should) be understood by earnest Christians. It surely refers to what the Christian tradition has called "the anointed preaching of Scripture." I think it also refers to more than this but this is where there is room for disagreement and continued listening. Anyone who spends any time with Christian leaders from Africa, Chine or parts of Latin America understands what I am talking about.
Having said this I urge you to be open to all God has to say to you, even through means that you might not immediately feel comfortable with. I am convinced God grants vision to us in varied ways and that we are wise to listen and test all of these ways. Even if you do limit this vision to truths taught directly through preaching and teaching the Holy Scripture alone you must still learn to discern what the text really means and whether or not you have understood what God said through it. You might even ask, indeed I believe you should ask: What is God now saying through this text/context? This is hard work no matter how you cut it. Multitudes of teachers and Christians mess this up, especially if their knowledge of the Scripture is limited. Perhaps this is why so few of us pursue this kind of vision. By this approach we settle for various leaders and visions that eventually lead so many to "get out of hand." Both Scripture and Christian Tradition have a role here but if you know neither well you will fall into a ditch on one side of the road or the other.