Do the Proverbs Promise Too Much?
Passage: Proverbs 3:1–3:12
If you are new to OGC, we are walking through some chosen passages in Proverbs this summer and today we are in Proverbs 3:1-12. This is a passage that deals with some very bold promises of God for his people. Some very famous promises that Christians throughout the millennia have held onto for hope in some of the most trying times of life. They promise straight paths in verse 6, good health in verse 8, and prosperity in verse 10. This can feel uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Many of our lived experiences have been hard enough that we can’t help but wonder if these promises really are true. And if they are true, what are we doing wrong if we don’t seem to be experiencing those promises? Many of us are also aware of theological streams that bank on a form of Christianity where health, wealth, and prosperity are the chief end of man.
When my wife Angela was 29, she was diagnosed with colon cancer the size of a soft ball. When she was in the middle of her chemo, I had coffee with a young man who I really do believe was well meaning, but he told me that Angela had cancer because we didn’t have enough faith and he went to this very passage to support this claim. It was hard for me to even pay attention because my chief desire at that moment was to fly across that table and hit him. I really don’t know many people with more faith and faithfulness than my wife. She has followed God across the world, sacrificed greatly for him, and there are few mornings she isn’t the first one up reading her Bible. When our kids were younger they named our sun room ‘Mama’s Bible Study’ because that was what they saw going on in that room.
So, how are we to interpret this passage in light of our situation? Is it true that her lack of health was a sign of our lack of faith and that is why Angela was sick? Or, if we go to the opposite extreme, do we reduce these promises in Proverbs to mere probabilities. If you do these things, usually life will go better for you in these three areas? I think it’s somewhere in between. I have taken the title of this sermon from Bruce Waltke and called it Do The Proverbs Promise Too Much? So, I want to walk through this passage and see 1) What are the promises God has in this passage and 2) how we process life experiences that seem to contradict these promises.
What are the promises of God?
God has three promises in this passage that follow three things that we are to do. Some people call these the ‘if then’ passages. If you do this, then God will do this. The first one we see in verses five and six. A very well known promise. Trust in the Lord. 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Remember, Proverbs was written as an instructional tool for fathers to train young royal sons who were likely to rule in some way. This instruction, then, benefits and applies to all of us as well. The son has committed himself to the instruction of the father in chapter two and now the father is telling the son to trust the Lord to uphold him as he follows them. The father isn’t telling the son to trust in Karma. What comes around goes around. He isn’t telling the son to trust in good vibes and good thoughts. And he is clearly telling him NOT to trust in his own understanding of how things work.
Our default mode is always going to be to lean on our own understanding. Actually, leaning on our own understanding is what got us into the mess we are in in the first place. John Piper says, “It was as if God was saying, “If you eat of that one [tree] you will be saying to me, “I’m smarter than you. I am more authoritative than you. I am wiser than you are. I think I can care for myself better than you care for me. You are not a very good Father. And so, I am going to reject you.” So, don’t eat from the tree, because you will be rejecting me and all my good gifts and all my wisdom and all my care. Instead, keep on submitting to my will. Keep on affirming my wisdom. Keep on being thankful for my generosity. Keep on trusting me as a Father and keep on eating from these [other] trees as a way of enjoying me.””
It’s not that we have no understanding, it’s that we have limited understanding. We don’t know all the possible outcomes and we don’t have enough wisdom and righteousness to make the perfect decision even one time. We need God for that. But, Instead of relying on the God who created this universe, who created an ethical system for us to thrive in, and who promises to deliver us from all that threatens to harm us, we still lean on our own understanding.
God is saying through these verses, “Trust in me!” The reason we can hold to these promises is because God is the one backing them up. Trust in God, acknowledge him...that means knowing him personally...and he will make your ways straight. He will watch over you. Trust him not only in the big decisions in your life, but maybe even more importantly, in the thousands of little decisions you make each week. Trust in him and he will make your path straight. That means that things will go well for you. One commentator said, “God writes straight paths with crooked lines.” The lines of our lives will be crooked, but God here says he will make a straight path for us.
That’s the first promise. The second comes in verses seven and eight. 7 Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. 8 It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Fear the Lord and it will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. First, we have to understand what it mean to fear the Lord. It isn’t a cowering fear like a child to an abusive parent or an employee to an overbearing boss. It’s not bowing to God because he has this stick or this taser that he will use the moment you get out of line. Unfortunately, this is the picture of God much of the church has painted. But, on the other end of the spectrum, we can’t create some flowery picture of a powerless God either. Or a God who is just ok with whatever we do. Paul says we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Nehemiah says, “11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” - Neh. 1:11
What kind of a fear could we possibly delight in? Kids, imagine there is this man in your neighborhood and all the kids were scared of him. His shoulders are higher than most men’s heads. He has muscles that look like a marble statue. He has big scary tattoos down both arms and on his chest. And every kid on the block has either heard or read the stories about how he was a war hero in the most elite part of the military and in the most dangerous parts of the world. This guy could kill anyone in an instant.
Everyone who sees this man feels vulnerable or even scared...except you. Do you know why? Because this man is your dad. He may very well be the most dangerous man alive, but not to you. He is here to protect you and he will do anything required to make sure you are safe. I think that’s a picture of how God wants us to fear him. To delight in that fear.
And if we live a life in that kind of fear of God, he will heal our flesh and refresh our bones. I’m going to get to the exceptions to this in a minute, but I don’t want us to minimize what God can do in the area of physical healing. If we delight in a God who is powerfully protecting us, then we can’t write off his ability to really intervene in our physical health. I know a pastor named Matt Chandler who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given 1-3 years to live. They operated, but they couldn’t get it all out. That was in 2009 and today he is cancer free. The surgeon himself can attribute it to nothing other than a miraculous healing. I have a close friend whose two year old son was diagnosed with Leukemia. After the diagnosis, this Leukemia was confirmed by one of the best cancer hospitals in the US. Then a group of people who felt compelled to pray for this boy prayed over him and at the next hospital appointment, the Leukemia was gone. That was over 20 years ago.
Of course these two people will still one day die. Our bodies will wear out and fail us and our souls will be ripped from them in the most unnatural process. But, God promises us that we will be raised in the same way Jesus was. We will be given resurrected bodies that will never fail us. I don’t know all that these bodies will do, but we know Jesus walked through walls, he appeared and disappeared. I’m holding fast to the idea that we will fly.
This is the ultimate physical healing, but it is only for those who are healed spiritually through an appropriate fear of God and submission to him through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only through Jesus is God on your side. Only through Jesus can you delight in the fear of God. Don’t be wise in your own eyes trying to figure out how you are going to save yourself, submit to the only being who can: God.
Then, thirdly, and lastly, the promise in verses nine and ten. 9 Honor the LORD with your wealth and with qthe firstfruits of all your produce; 10 then your rbarns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. Honor the Lord with your wealth and you will be blessed with plenty. This raises the bar. What this proverb is calling us to do is worship. Worship God through the way we spend our money. Give him our first fruits.
This term first fruits wasn’t a term I was familiar with growing up because I grew up in Orlando. But it is basically what it says. The first fruits that come from a crop. These fruits are important fruits because they are an indicator of what is usually to come. Sometimes, though, what comes later isn’t as good as the first fruit so people in Solomon’s day would hold back and give at the end of the harvest. God is saying to them that they need to honor him with what comes first and trust him with what comes later.
So, how do we apply this in a non-agrarian society? The best way I know to answer this question is to ask you if your giving affects your quality of life. Does your giving prevent you from having a nicer car or a nicer vacation? If it does, you’re giving sacrificially. I knew a man back in Oxford who made millions each year, but he resolved to not live on more than10% of his income a year and gave away 90%. This is a man who worships God with his money and I do think this proverb is saying that God will grant that person more prosperity because he can be trusted to use the extra wealth to for the good of other people and the glory of God.
This isn’t seed money. Seed money is what you hear out of the prosperity evangelists. They teach that you should sow money into their ministries (aka into their mansions and private jets) and God will then in turn bless you by giving you more money. Listen, anyone throwing money at false preachers so they can live opulent lives isn’t giving their first fruits to God, they are playing the spiritual lottery and God does not promise to bless that. Does the way you spend your money display your worship of God? If so, be encouraged. He’s telling you he will trust you with more.
Those are the three promises, but we aren’t called to just know them and recite them, we are to pursue them. This is how the passage starts off. Verses three and four: 3 Let not csteadfast love and dfaithfulness forsake you; ebind them (that is the teachings) around your neck; fwrite them on the tablet of your heart. 4 So you will gfind favor and hgood success1 in the sight of God and man. Immerse yourselves in these promises. Dare I say, claim them. Believe them. Think about them at every turn...in every decision that you make. Trust him, fear him, and honor him.
At its core, these promises are calling us to humility. Trust that he knows better than you. Fear the fact that he is more powerful than you will ever be. Honor him by giving of your resources, trusting that he can take care of you better than you can take care of yourself. Later, in verse 34, we read Toward the cscorners he dis scornful, but to the humble he gives favor. - Pr. 3:34
But, what happens when our paths don’t seem to be going straight? When our health is failing at a young age? When we don’t have enough money to pay the bills? We can’t understand God’s promises without asking these hard questions. Do we just say, “Oh well. This is the price for living in a fallen world?” No. That’s what one of Job’s friends said and both Job and God denied that.
How we process life experiences that seem to contradict these promises.
The first option is that the Lord is disciplining you in your sin. This is exactly what the last two verses say. 11 sMy son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as ta father the son in whom he delights. On the surface, discipline isn’t a fun thing. No one wants to be disciplined unless we see it as an act of love. I can’t tell you of a single time my kids have ever thanked me for disciplining them, but I do believe one day they will. Why? Because they will see it as an act of love.
When I hear them fighting or see them doing something destructive, I often would rather act like I didn’t hear it. Keep working on whatever I was doing or watching my show. But I love them, so I stop doing what I want to do and do the thing I don’t want to do because I love them that much. Discipline is a sign that you are loved. It is a way the Lord calls you back into the obedience that allows you to experience the blessings of these promises. Discipline is a call back to the humility that brings blessing. God wants us to flourish and he will make sure his children get there. C.S. Lewis says, “When we complain of our sufferings, we are not asking for more love, but less.” God conforms his children to the obligation of the promise so we can experience the blessing of the promise. I will go so far as to say that if you know you are living in sin and see no corrective discipline by God in your life, then that isn’t a sign of God’s blessing, but a sign of his rejection of you.
The author of Hebrews says it like this 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? f“My son, gdo not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For hthe Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. iGod is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, jin whichall have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not muchmore be subject to kthe Father of spirits land live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, mthat we may share his holiness. 11 nFor the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields othe peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. - Hebrews 12:5-11
John Piper says we shouldn’t look at God as an emergency room doctor who sews us up after a freak accident, but as the doctor planning our surgery. He is actually behind the pain of Christians. All pain and suffering for the non-believing world is punitive in nature. It is a foreshadowing of the destruction that we all deserve for our rebellion against God. But, for the believer, our suffering is not punitive, it’s purifying.
That is for Christians living in sin who God is calling back. But, what about Christians who really are trusting God, fearing God, and honoring him as best they can? How do we explain their suffering? Simple. God has something even better for them. I think we can see a very public example of this right now in Jane Marczewski. Many of you might know her by her stage name, Nightbirde. Some of you have seen Angela’s article on her. She’s on America’s Got Talent right now and captivating America. She’s 30 and in her third bout with cancer. It started with stage three breast cancer and now it’s in her liver, lungs, and spine. In each of the three diagnoses, she was given single digit odds of survival. If her situation wasn’t already dire and lonely, her husband left her after her second diagnosis. What’s captivating people, though, is that the song she sang in her audition, which then went to number one on itunes, is titled ‘It’s OK.’
I obviously don’t know this woman, but if you read her blog, it sounds like she’s a Christian who believes that the promises of Proverbs don’t apply to her because God has something even better than these promises for her. All things being equal, these are promises for us. But, God sometimes blesses us in even more significant ways.
She writes, “I believe that God can heal in one instant. I also believe that “no good thing does he withhold,” so there was something God was growing in the field that is me, and if God had pulled up all of this hardship too soon, it would have also pulled up all these miracles he did in my spirit.”
When it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. So why do we believe that when we are in pain, it must mean that God is far?
I am still reeling, drenched in sorrow. I am still begging, bargaining, demanding, disappearing. And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you because God is drawing near to me. Again. Again. Again. No matter how many times He is sent away.
Some people have it harder because God is calling them to more. Again, I don’t know Nightbirde, but that’s the category I have her in right now. God has chosen them for a harder, but better path that glorifies God more and blesses them with an even closer sense of his presence. That was the case with all the apostles. All but one were persecuted and killed in their conformity to these promises. John wasn’t killed, but he was boiled alive and miraculously lived. If you read 2 Corinthians 11, you will see the Apostle Paul had it worse than any of us. Yet, in the same letter he says2  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. - Corinthians 4:17-18
God chooses some people to a higher form of blessing. A type of blessing that comes through suffering. This is a different type of discipline. It isn’t discipline for sin, it’s a discipline that is training for a more significant calling: glorifying God through your suffering. And a more significant blessing: God’s deeper presence. That’s what the prosperity movement gets so wrong.
So, coming full circle, do the Proverbs promise too much? No. They set the bare minimum for what the Christian can expect. God will keep his end of the bargain in his own way and in his own time. There will be times when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (we know this from other proverbs), but at the end of the day, no one will say that God did not hold up his end of the bargain. God is faithful even when we are faithless.
This is the reason I don’t like to say that the Proverbs are probabilities, not promises. That’s not untrue, it’s just partially true. The sober, the cool tempered, and the diligent will usually experience health and wealth. True. But, that minimizes what God is doing. He’s calling us closer to him.
No one has ever lived out the conditions for these promises more perfectly than Jesus Christ, yet God called him to something higher. The highest calling anyone could ever have. To glorify God by willingly trading his perfect life for our imperfect lives that we might be lavished with the fullness of the blessings he earned. In Jesus, the fullness of these promises is offered to all of us. And now we are called to imitate him in his suffering because every promise imaginable has been secured for us. That means we have nothing to lose and only godliness to gain!
All things being equal, we will partially see them in this life...that is, unless God calls us to a higher form of blessing. But, in Jesus, we will see them fully in the next. God will not let us stray. He will complete what he began so we give ourselves to this end. We trust, we fear, and we worship knowing that our loving Father will make sure, one way or another, that one day, we will step into the fulness of these blessings.