What Is Prudence?

It’s an unhappy reality: we are all fools sometimes. Case in point: When was the last time you fell for a scam? Bought a “bargain” that turned out to be junk? We all have at some point, and when I do, I hate it.

As a protective Father, God calls us to prudence, to think before we act. This may sound simple, but even prudence has its imposters. We may think we are being prudent while we are still playing the fool. How so? In two ways: we can be “prudent” about the wrong things or be “prudent” by the wrong means. To be truly prudent, we need to distinguish biblical prudence from these imposters.

Prudent about the Wrong Things

The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) provides a clear example of being “prudent” about the wrong things by using the example of work. In this parable, three servants are given talents. Two servants invest theirs, and the third buries his, explaining: “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours” (Matt. 25:25). This servant is “prudent” about risk: he tries to avoid it completely. Burying his talent appears prudent, but his strategy backfires: he is rebuked as “a wicked and slothful servant” (Matt. 25:26). His priority of avoiding risk at all costs does not please his master, and neither does our avoiding all risk please our Master in heaven. Jesus teaches His disciples “to count the cost” (Luke 14:28), not to avoid it all together.

Instead of trying to avoid all risk, biblical prudence assesses risk and takes action in accordance with God’s revealed desires. The foolish servant’s key mistake is misjudging his master’s character, seeing Him as harsh when in reality He is generous, rewarding the faithful servants and even inviting them into His joy. If we are to be faithful servants, we need to base our decisions on an accurate understanding of God, both who He is and what He does. When we protect what God values and act in light of an accurate view of His promises and provision, we exercise biblical prudence.

This second imposter tricks us by coupling two truths and turning them into a lie. The first truth is that God is sovereign; the second is that Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Both are important truths worth celebrating and give us reason to worship God. But the enemy has a way of twisting these truths to deceive us, weaving them into a lie—namely, that hard work is at odds with God’s work.

How can hard work be dressed up as dangerous? The accuser may say that your hard work reflects worry, and therefore a lack of trust in God, even disobedience to His command to not be anxious for anything. According to Satan, your work condemns you; you are anxious because you are working for your own pride rather than God’s glory. As you pour yourself over your resume—checking grammar, content, and style—the accuser tells you that God is sovereign and it is He, not your resume, who will decide whether you get the job. This false argument says, “It is ‘prudent’ to stop your hard work, lest you make an idol of your resume and give glory to yourself rather than God.”

If the enemy does not trick you into inactivity by this approach, he may try another, saying that your hard work reflects your narrow vision, seeking only to do what you can do in your own strength rather than what God can do in His. “Surely your networking and interviewing may get you some job, but it might not be the job God wants for you. The ‘prudent’ way to know your job is picked out by God is to stop working so hard to be a strong applicant and instead, wait and see what job God gives you.” This wrongly seeks to take our responsibility and stewardship out of decision making.

Biblical Prudence

A worldly view of both providence and “prudence” foolishly fails to understand that God accomplishes His perfect will through means, including your hard work (WCF 3.1). Philippians 2:13 says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Your work is not inherently in conflict with God’s work. The two can, and by design regularly do, work in concert. Proverbs 10:5 says, “He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.” God is honored when we work hard when we are called. He does not call us to get out of the way so He can do the work for us; He tells us to get in the way so He can do the work through us.

True prudence serves God’s priorities through God’s means. As Jerry Bridges points out, “Prudence uses all legitimate, biblical means at our disposal to avoid harm to ourselves and others and to bring about what we believe to be the right course of events.”1 Biblical prudence includes both prayer and hard work; anything less is an imposter.

This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.

Jerry Bridges, Trusting God, (Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1988), 114.

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