Most people know of Ben Carson from his 2016 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. The neurosurgeon-turned-politician speaks often about his Christian faith, and he encourages believers to get involved in civic affairs.
As U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Carson now helps shape federal policy on a wide range of issues facing American cities. We invited him to set politics aside and talk about Scripture with Bruce Riley Ashford, author of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Lexham Press, 2015).
Ashford: When did you come to know the Lord and first begin to appreciate the Bible?
Carson: As a youngster, I was very impressed listening to the mission stories in church and Sabbath school. They frequently featured missionary doctors who seemed to be very devotional—deeply committed individuals who, at great personal sacrifice, would travel all over the world. And I just said, when I was 8 years old, “That’s the most noble thing a person can do. I want to be a missionary doctor.”
That was my dream for several years. I eventually switched to become a different type of physician, but it was always in the medical field; it was always with the sense of healing. I think a lot of that came from my church experiences and from the many Bible stories that impressed me so much.
Ashford: And how old were you when you started to read the Bible?
Carson: Well, I had a very explosive temper, and when I was 14, I actually tried to stab another youngster. He had on a large metal belt buckle and the knife blade struck with such force it broke. And I was horrified—I was trying to kill somebody. I locked myself in the bathroom and I just started contemplating my life. I had been a horrible student, but I had turned things around. I was an A student at that point, but I realized that I would never become a doctor with a temper like that.
I fell on my knees and I said, “Lord, you’ve got to help me. If you don’t change this temper of mine, I’m doomed.” I had tried all kinds of ways of controlling it and nothing seemed to work. … But I picked up the Bible and opened it to the book of Proverbs, and there were all these verses about anger. Like Proverbs 19:19: “A man of great wrath will pay the penalty, for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again.” And encouraging verses like Proverbs 16:32: “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”
Verse after verse, they all seemed like they were written about me. There were all these verses about fools, and they seemed to be written about me, too. And I came to a realization during the three hours I was in that bathroom that to lash out at people, to call people names, to punch somebody was not a sign of strength. Rather, it was a sign of weakness. When you’re overcome with anger, you can easily be manipulated by people and by situations. And that was the very last day I had that problem.
From that day forward until this day, I start and end every day reading from the book of Proverbs, and I think there’s an enormous amount of wisdom there. And I also think the good Lord has a sense of humor, because he must have known I was going to develop this affinity for the book of Proverbs, which was written by Solomon, because my middle name is Solomon. And when Solomon became the king of Israel, one thing first brought him great acclaim. Do you remember what it was? Two women came to him claiming to be the mother of the same baby. And what did he advocate? He said, “Divide the baby.” And of course, I also became very well-known when I separated conjoined babies. So I think the Lord has a sense of humor.
Ashford: Do you have any wisdom from Proverbs or from the Scriptures that have guided you as
Carson: Well, of course, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” And as our kids were growing up we had two nights a week where we would all sit down as a family and everybody would have two Bible verses they would read and then give their interpretation, which was then available for open discussion by everybody else. And I think that helped to lay a very solid foundation for each of the kids, which has continued to guide them as adults.
Ashford: How do you move from the Bible shaping you and your private life and inner spirituality to it influencing your approach to social, cultural, political issues?
Carson: The Bible helps to create your core value system. And your core value system affects the way you approach policy, the way you approach governance altogether. I always come from the perspective of doing what’s right as opposed to what’s politically expedient.
When it comes to voicing opinions about controversial issues, you can take the politically correct stance. But the way I kind of look at it—and I think looking at Proverbs, looking at the wisdom God gives you—is to say, “Do you really want to get caught up in that argument? Or do you really want to focus on what the big problems are?”