The Cross and Criticism (Proverbs)

We're in the middle of this series on relationships, and today we come to a very delicate question. It's a little awkward. Let me explain the dilemma to you by telling you a true story as told by a pastor in Florida:

As I sat with my family at a local breakfast establishment, I noticed a finely dressed man at an adjacent table. His Armani suit and stiffly pressed shirt coordinated perfectly with a "power" tie. His wing-tipped shoes sparkled from a recent shine. Every hair was in place, including his perfectly groomed mustache.

The man sat alone, eating a bagel, as he prepared for a meeting. As he reviewed the papers before him, he appeared nervous, glancing frequently at his Rolex watch. It was obvious he had an important meeting ahead.

The man stood up, and I watched as he straightened his tie and prepared to leave. Immediately, I noticed a blob of cream cheese attached to his finely groomed mustache. He was about to go into the world, dressed in his finest, with cream cheese on his face. I thought of the business meeting he was about to attend. Who would tell him? Should I? What if no one did?

Let me stop there for a minute. What would you do? Would you go running off after the stranger and tell him about the cream cheese? Or would you find it too awkward, and hope that somebody else would get to him first? What if you were the man? Would you want someone to tell you? Or would you rather discover it yourself when it was too late? What do you do when you need to say or hear something that's both hard and that has to be said?

Listen to how the story played out in Florida:

I pushed my chair back and stood to warn him, but the tables were too close and the noise of the crowd too loud. He was at the door and on his way before I could stop him. Hopefully, the man looked in the mirror when he got into his car and saved himself from embarrassment.

Commenting on this story, pastor and author C.J. Mahaney writes:

The harsh reality is that we all have cream cheese on our faces; in fact, whether you're aware of it or not, there's cream cheese on your face right now. Others clearly see it. And you need their help to identify its presence.

If we are going to be in relationship, we need to face the issue of cream cheese moments and how we handle criticism. This morning I'd like us to look at God's Word to discover how we can do this.

I want to keep this sermon as simple as possible and simply look at three realities related to criticism. First: we need criticism. Second: we're afraid to receive it. Finally: how the cross gives us exactly what we need to receive criticism.

First: we need criticism.

This morning we read a number of proverbs that talk about this. The proverbs were given so that we would learn how to live skillfully. They're written so that we would know how to live well in this world that God has created. And one of the major themes running through the book of Proverbs is that we need to be open to receiving advice; that we need to be receptive to correction.

The way of fools seems right to them.
but the wise listen to advice.
(Proverbs 12:15)

Where there is strife, there is pride,
but wisdom is found in those who take advice.
(Proverbs 13:10)

A rebuke impresses a discerning person
more than a hundred lashes a fool.
(Proverbs 17:10)

According to these passages, being teachable and willing to receive correction is the mark of a mature person. The ability to take advice, correction, and rebuke is not only considered a mark of the wise, but it is also thought to determine the path of the wise. In fact, Scripture tells us that both the wise and the foolish reap consequences according to their ability to take criticism:

Whoever scorns instruction will pay for it,

but whoever respects a command is rewarded.
(Proverbs 13:13)

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,

but those who heed correction gain understanding.
(Proverbs 15:32)

I think my favorite proverb in all of Scripture is the one found in chapter 27, verses 5-6:

Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

In this passage we see that there is such a thing as "friendly wounds" and, in a sense, there is such a thing as wounding kisses. If you have a trustworthy friend, and they bruise you, it's because that wound is inflicted for the good purpose of correcting you. The bruises represent "painful and plain words that must be spoken in true friendship in order to heal the beloved and/or to restore a broken relationship" (Bruce Waltke). Those bruises are redemptive. They love you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Love and correction go hand in hand.

But on the other hand, an enemy may sweet-talk you and say nothing but good to you, but fail to tell you that you have a blob of cream cheese on your face. They don't love you enough to tell you the truth.

The Scripture is clear: we need criticism! Every single one of us needs loving correction and rebuke. It's a mark of true friendship.

I love how Paul David Tripp puts it:

We must remember that sin is deceitful. Sin blinds - and guess who gets blinded first? Me! I have no trouble seeing the sins of my family, but I can be astonished when mine are pointed out!...My self-perception is as accurate as a carnival mirror. (Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands)

This is a universal need. If you don't have people in your life who are telling you the truth, and if you aren't humble enough to receive it, then you are missing out on something that is critical for your wellbeing. Not only that, but if you are not doing the same for your friends, then you aren't really a true friend. Correction is absolutely necessary for wise living, and it's the mark of true friendship.

So encourage others to speak truth into your life. Invite them. Say, "I need your caring eyes on my soul. I need your help. Where do you see cream cheese?" Spurgeon said:

Get a friend to tell you your faults, or better still, welcome an enemy who will watch you keenly and sting you savagely. What a blessing such an irritating critic will be to a wise man...

We need criticism. But then we need to see:

We're afraid to receive it.

You'll notice that the proverbs all assume a reality: we are hesitant to receive advice. We all suffer from a fatal condition called pride.

There are all kinds of proverbs that get to the heart of this, like this one:

Whoever heeds life-giving correction

will be at home among the wise.
Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,

but those who heed correction gain understanding.
Wisdom's instruction is to fear the LORD,
and humility comes before honor.
(Proverbs 15:31-33)

This passage says that if we welcome life-giving correction, we will be at home among the wise. If that's the case, why in the world wouldn't we all be looking for correction? This passage tells us why: because we haven't cultivated humility. The problem is that we are often unwilling to admit mistakes. We're prone to reject criticism. The problem, when you get right down to it, is pride. And pride is deadly. As Proverbs 26:12 says:

Do you see people who are wise in their own eyes?

There is more hope for fools than for them.

The best definition of humility that I've read is this one by C.J. Mahaney: "Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God's holiness and our sinfulness." To be humble we really need to understand God in his holiness, and us in our sinfulness. The opposite of this is pride, in which we have an exalted sense of ourselves, and we're interested in our own self-satisfaction, self-justification, self-protection, and self-exaltation.

We've already seen that we all need criticism. The problem is that good criticism dethrones us and puts us in our rightful place. Every part of you will fight against this. When you get right down to it, we're talking about the idol of self. Do you recognize the idol of self here--the deep-rooted desire to place ourselves, our reputation, and our honor above all else? Do you see the controlling desire for self-justification--to be proven right (or righteous) in the eyes of others? Unfortunately, our idols have consequences. If we persist in idolatry, it'll lead to our ruin.

This is where even unfair criticism can be tremendously helpful. Criticism - even unfair criticism - will reveal whether we're on the throne, or whether God is. We resist criticism because criticism threatens to dethrone us. Critics are our friends, because they reveal if we've been thinking too highly of ourselves or not.

Ultimately, it's the cross that gives us everything that we need to receive criticism.

We read Romans 8 this morning:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then can condemn? No one. Christ Jesus who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

What Paul is telling us is that the gospel gives us everything we need to accept criticism. What Paul is saying is this.

First: because of the cross, we can affirm God's judgment of us. There is no escaping the truth, as God's Word says: "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:9-18). As a result of my sin, the Cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than any person ever could. In other words, no one else's criticism of me could match the thoroughness of God's criticism of me. Knowing this, we can respond to all other criticism by saying, "That's just a fraction of it!" We are more sinful than we ever believed. Spurgeon once said, "Our best performances are so stained with sin, that it is hard to know whether they are good works or bad works."

In other words, we can fully agree with any criticism made of us because Scripture has already condemned us for failing to keep the entire law, and for breaking the whole law. In light of these massive charges against us, any accusations launched at us by humans are mere understatements about who we are and what we've done!

But then we can look at the cross and affirm God's justification of all who trust in Jesus. We can look at the cross and understand that on the basis of Christ's sacrificial death, God justifies ungodly people. We can understand that Christ has paid the penalty of our sin and that God has reckoned Christ's righteousness as our own.

And then, as Paul says, we can have confidence. If you truly take this to heart, the whole world can stand against you, denounce you, or criticize you, and you can reply, "If God has justified me, who can condemn me? If God declares me righteous, accepts me, and will never forsake me, then why should I feel insecure and fear criticism? Christ bore my sins, and I received his righteousness. Christ takes my condemnation, and I receive God's great approval--'JUSTIFIED!'"

And you can begin to live out the implications of these great truths in your life. We can face any criticism with confidence, knowing that no criticism of me could be greater than the cross's criticism of me - a criticism with which I've already agreed. We can know that we're accepted and that we have nothing to prove. "You don't have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there" (C. John Miller). We won't have to fear man's criticism, because we've already agreed with God's criticism. And we won't have to seek man's approval, because we already have something much better - God's approval.

The salvation of Jesus humbles us profoundly - we are so lost that he had to die for us. But it exalts and assures us mightily -- we are so valued that he was glad to die for us. Only the gospel can humble us and exalt us at the same time.

I invite you to apply this in your life. Ask God to give you this solid bedrock confidence that you are sinful and yet accepted by him. Walk daily in light of the cross and get your security there. And then open your life to speak truth and allow others to speak truth to you, so that you will be able to say with the psalmist David in Psalm 141:5: "Let a righteous man strike me--that is a kindness; let him rebuke me--that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it..."

some parts adapted from a sermon by Alfred J. Poirier

A Picture of Wisdom (Proverbs 31:10-31)

For the past few months we've been going through the book of Proverbs together. Proverbs is about wisdom, and wisdom means living skillfully in the world that God has made. Wisdom isn't about IQ or education; it's about becoming good at life. If you want to live well, then Proverbs is a book that promises to help you. We've been looking at what Proverbs has to say about many different areas of our lives.

Today we're coming to a passage that's often preached on Mother's Day. You may have mixed feelings as you read this passage.

On one hand, it's hard not to be inspired as you read the description of the woman in this passage. I'll never forget hearing my grandfather read this passage in tribute to his wife, my grandmother. It was especially meaningful because he wasn't the type to exaggerate in his praise.

But on the other hand, it's hard not to be intimidated by this passage. Just take a look at the woman we read about. She's a tireless worker. She manages a household and business, helps the poor, and is prepared for disaster. She's thrifty but not cheap. She is charming, successful, energetic, competent, and godly. Her husband and even her children praise her. She's quite the person.

She's so accomplished that when you read Proverbs 31:10, "A wife of noble character who can find?" you almost want to answer, "No one, because she doesn't exist!" Who really is as good as she appears to be?

The answer is, actually, no one. One commentator writes, "This lady's standard is not implied to be within the reach of all, for it presupposes unusual gifts and material resources" (Derek Kidner). Another writes, "The description is ideal and should not be used as a standard by which to measure and critique women" (Tremper Longman III). So if anybody ever tries to clobber you with this passage, then don't let them.

In fact, I think it's here at the end of Proverbs for a couple of reasons. One is for the reasons we normally use it. Women are important, and this chapter is an inspiring example of what a godly woman can be like.

But I think there's another layer here, and it's this layer I want to look at today. Proverbs 31 isn't only for women, and it's not only for Mother's Day. At the end of the book of Proverbs, what we have here is a picture of what wisdom looks like in real life. It's like the author of this passage has taken everything that we've looked at in Proverbs 1 to 31:9 and said, "If you want to see what all of this looks like, let me give you a picture." So this isn't just for women; it's for all of us. This is a picture of wisdom in real life. It's a model for all of God's people for all of time. Bruce Waltke writes, "Wise daughters aspire to be like her, wise men seek to marry her, and all wise people aim to incarnate the wisdom that she embodies, each in his own sphere of activity."

You see, one of the problems you have as you read the book of Proverbs is picturing what this looks like when you put it all together. You've probably had the experience of somebody describing what something looks like. Someone was trying to explain to me what a bathroom cabinet looked like. Then they showed me a picture, and I could really see it.

That's what's happening in Proverbs 31. We've read the descriptions. We've tried to picture what this looks like. But in this passage we actually get a picture that we can hold up, and this picture tells us three things about the way wisdom's going to look in our lives. It's going to look rare; it's going to touch everything; and it's going to be about God.

1. Wisdom is going to look rare

The first thing we see as we look at the picture of wisdom in this passage is that wisdom is rare, and if you are wise you are going to be not only rare but valuable.

Verse 10 says: "A wife of noble character who can find?" The implied answer is, "Very few people." The reason why is because a person of noble character is hard to find. Because of this, such people are valuable. Verse 10 continues, "She is worth more than rubies." A person of wisdom is as rare and as valuable as wisdom itself.

After all, Proverbs said this earlier about wisdom:

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
(Proverbs 3:15)

...wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
(Proverbs 8:11)

This is very important to realize. If you take seriously the teaching of Proverbs and apply it to your life, you will become a very rare kind of person. There won't be many people like you around. All throughout Proverbs, we've seen that there are three paths that people end up taking in life. One is the path of the simple. Simple sounds like an insult, but it's really about those who are still young. It's too soon to tell which way they will go. But then Proverbs describes the two paths that all of us eventually will take. One is the path of wisdom, and the other is the path of foolishness.

Proverbs tells us that we're going to have a lot of people inviting us to take the path of foolishness. It's the path that goes along with the crowd. It's the path that flirts and even gives into sexual temptation and anger. It's the path that doesn't listen to others, that goes with the flow. It's the path that rejects the fear of the Lord, and it's a path that ultimately leads to death. Proverbs tells us that this is the path's our default path, and without deliberate evasive action you're going to end up on this path.

The other path you can take is the path of wisdom. Ironically in Proverbs, wisdom is available for anyone who wants it. It's not just for the privileged or the well-positioned. If you want it, you can have it. Fools and simpletons are invited to feast at the table of wisdom. All throughout Proverbs, wisdom actually calls out and invites us to embrace her. But as we come to the end of Proverbs, we realize as we see this picture that wisdom is exceptionally rare.

The lesson is that if you want to be wise, then wisdom is freely offered to you. It can be yours. But you need to realize that the path to wisdom is not the path commonly taken. You will be going against the flow to become a wise person, and people will wonder why you're headed in a different direction than everyone else.

But the result is that you will also be seen as a valuable person. Verses 11 and 12, and then verses 28 and 29:

Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.

Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
"Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all."

Have you ever met someone, and the more you get to know them the less you like them? If you are wise, you will be the opposite. Here the person that knows her the best praises her the most. If you pursue wisdom, you'll be rare, and the people who know you best will stand up and praise you.

That's the first thing we notice as we look at this picture of wisdom. What we see in this picture is available to everyone, but few people embrace it. If you pursue wisdom, you're going to go against the flow, but you'll become a person whose noble character is rare and recognized as valuable by those who know you best.

There's something else we notice as we look at this picture of wisdom:

2. Wisdom touches everything

If you think of a really religious person, you may think of a pastor or a missionary or someone who is really good at religious things. But what you probably don't think of is someone who is accomplished in business, or renowned for their accomplishments in some area. You think of someone who's good at religious stuff, but not necessarily at the non-religious part of life. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, and those who are good at God aren't good at the other stuff, and those who are good at the other stuff aren't good with God.

But that's not what we see as we look at this picture of wisdom. We see a person who is accomplished in many different areas. She manages staff and invests money and property in verses 15 and 16. She's a shrewd seller and buyer, as we read in verses 13 and 14, and then 18 and 24. Verse 15 says she's a tireless worker. But she doesn't just horde everything for herself. Verse 20 says she helps the poor. She also provides for her family so that they are prepared for the ups and downs of life. She's an extremely competent business person, and is also appreciated by her family.

As we think about this, we realize that the wisdom we read about in Proverbs is not just about becoming more spiritual. It's not just about Sundays. It is definitely about God, but it also touches all of life. We look at this picture of wisdom and see it's about living skillfully in all of life in the world that God has made.

A person who becomes wise becomes the best kind of artist, engineer, teacher, and entrepreneur. They are the best students, doctors, neighbors, and citizens. Wisdom is about all of life. Abraham Kuyper put it best when he said, "No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"

The wisdom we discover in the book of Proverbs is wisdom is based on God and being rightly related to him. But it's not a wisdom that will only make you a more spiritual person. It is a wisdom that will touch every part of your life. It's a wisdom that will touch everything - your family, your work, your studies. It's a wisdom that touches all of life.

So wisdom is rare and valuable, and it touches all of life. We notice one more thing about wisdom as we look at this picture:

3. Wisdom is ultimately about God

We just said that wisdom isn't only about God. Wisdom is about living skillfully in every area of life. It touches everything. But don't make the mistake of thinking that wisdom has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with God. As we come to the end of this picture of wisdom we see the ultimate source of her wisdom. Verse 30 says:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
(Proverbs 31:30)

The first part of this verse reminds us that many of the things that cause us to praise people are actually deceptive and fleeting. They're skin-deep and temporary. Charm can conceal a nasty personality. You can meet a beautiful person and really be attracted to them, only to realize later that their character leaves you deeply disappointed.

But wisdom is different. At the end of verse 30 we see that this person of wisdom has a quality that is not deceptive or fleeting. She has a quality rooted in what's of ultimate importance. She has what is unseen and eternal. She fears the Lord.

Most of this book seems to be at the horizontal level: what it takes to live skillfully in the world we have around us. But at the end of Proverbs we're taken right back to the beginning. We're reminded that living skillfully at the horizontal level begins with being rightly related vertically with God. Proverbs 1:7 told us, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." The fear of the Lord, as we've said before, means being rightly related to God: knowing that he's God, and we're not, and living life in reverential fear of him. And living skillfully begins and ends with this.

This is even more important for those of us who know about Jesus. If you want to talk about a real life picture of wisdom, we have an even better one than the Proverbs 31 example, as outstanding as she is. We have one who is wiser than Solomon in all of his wisdom. He is the ultimate embodiment of wisdom. The apostle Paul wrote that in him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3).

You see, Solomon could tell us about wisdom. He could describe it in great detail, and tell us how to attain it. But ultimately he failed to live up to the wisdom he wrote about in his life. But then Jesus came. He not only taught wisdom, but he perfectly embodied it. Solomon called for obedience, but Jesus came to take upon himself our disobedience to atone for our sins. He gives us his Spirit to empower us to obey.

As we close the book of Proverbs, we're given this picture of what applied wisdom could look like.

  • It's rare. Even though wisdom is available to everyone, you're going to be in the minority if you embrace wisdom. And it's rarity will cause those who know you best to praise you.
  • It will touch all of your life. Wisdom will allow you to live skillfully in every area of your life: your family, your work, everything.
  • It's ultimately about God. Wisdom begins with being in right relationship with him.

The question we face at the end of Proverbs is what our response will be. In a sense you face the verdict of which path you'll take. There's a path that's widely travelled that you'll take by default, but that will ultimately lead to death. But then there's this other path that is rare, that will change you so that the people who know you best appreciate you the most. It will touch every part of your life. And it will be based on what matters most and can never be taken away: being brought into right relationship with God through his Son. Which path will you take?

Thank you, Father, for what we've read in Proverbs. I pray that we won't just shelve the book now that we've finished this series. I pray that we will return to its lessons often and embrace the wisdom that's freely offered to us within its pages.

But thank you that ultimate wisdom came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. He freely offers us what we really need to live skillfully in the world you have created. My main prayer today is that every person here would embrace not only wisdom as a concept, but that they would embrace wisdom personified: Jesus Christ. And as we do so, would you change every part of our lives through the power of the Spirit. We pray in Christ's name. Amen.

Repairing Relationships (Proverbs)

We're in our second last series on the book of Proverbs today. We've seen that Proverbs is a book about wisdom, and that wisdom is about living skillfully within the world that God has made. This is important, because we need to know not only what is moral or right. We also need to know what is wise. This is exactly what Proverbs offers us: insight into not only what is right, but what is actually going to lead to skillful living and wise decision-making in our lives.

Today we're in the last topic we're going to cover from Proverbs, and it's the subject of broken relationships. Most of you here know the pain of a relationship that's fallen apart: a friendship, a marriage, or even a working relationship. If you've experienced this, then you know the deep feelings that surface that can linger for years, and that can actually take you by surprise, feelings of betrayal, hurt, and anger. We can live with the consequences of broken relationships for years, even our entire lives.

What does Proverbs tell us about how to handle broken relationships? Three things. First, the seriousness of broken relationships. Second, how to respond to broken relationships. Third, where to get what we need to deal with broken relationships.

First, Proverbs tells us how serious broken relationships really are.

One of the biggest mistakes we could ever make is to underestimate the seriousness of this issue. So Proverbs is very blunt about what a serious matter it is when relationships are broken. This doesn't just apply to deep friendships; it also applies to even casual relationships.

For instance:

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.
(Proverbs 17:14)

A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city;
disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.
(Proverbs 18:19)

Stone is heavy and sand a burden,
but a fool's provocation is heavier than both.
Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming,
but who can stand before jealousy?
(Proverbs 27:3-4)

An angry person stirs up dissension,
and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.
(Proverbs 29:22)

If you've ever opened a can of soda pop that's been shaken, you know what it's like to be surprised by all this fizz that's suddenly spraying you and spilling all over. That's what broken relationships are like. Proverbs compares them to a dam that's breached. Once that breach starts, it's hard to control and bring to an end. It easily gushes out of control. It's like coming up against a fortified city. At one time the gates might have been open to you, but you may find it hard to break past the barriers that and reestablish a relationship. It's like a cruel and furious storm. And in the middle of all of this - the lack of control, the raised defenses, the stormy emotions - it's hard not to end up committing many sins. And these are only a sample of the Proverbs that talk about the seriousness of this issue. Conflict can damage relationships and our reputation, exhaust us, imprison us in attitudes of resentment and bitterness, and spill over and damage every part of our lives.

The application of these verses is clear. Look again at the first Proverb I quoted, found in Proverbs 17:14:

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.

Now don't mistake what Proverbs is saying here. It's not saying to always smooth over issues and never deal with them. Last week we looked at one of the qualities of true friendship, which is candor and even confrontation of our friends for their own good. Proverbs is not saying to just bury your head in the sand and to never confront another person or deal with issues. But it is saying that we need to carefully weigh whether or not it's worth entering into conflict, because conflict is a serious issue, and there is always damage. There are always casualties.

Proverbs 15:18 says:

The hot-tempered stir up dissension,
but those who are patient calm a quarrel.

Proverbs 19:11 says:

A person's wisdom yields patience;
it is to one's glory to overlook an offense.

Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, suggests asking, "Is this really worth fighting over?" Given the cost of conflict, isn't it better to overlook minor offenses? The best way to deal with broken relationships, according to Proverbs, is to do everything we can to avoid damaging relationships, because broken relationships really are a serious matter.

Now I know that despite all of this, there are times in which a broken relationship is unavoidable. Maybe you've tried everything you can, but it's too late. Maybe the other person has damaged the relationship despite your best efforts. Or maybe it's already too late.

What does Proverbs say about handling broken relationships?

A lot, actually. Let's cover a few.

The place we absolutely have to begin is with humility. In other words, in conflict I tend to become self-righteous and proud, and look down on the other person. As Miroslav Volf said, we tend to "exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners." The place to begin, then is, as Volf says, is to remove "the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity" and to move myself "from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness."

Proverbs 11:12 says:

Those who have no sense deride their neighbors,
but those who have understanding hold their tongues.

The word deride there means to belittle or to show contempt for someone else, to look down on them. It reflects an attitude of pride and judgmentalism, which is exactly the attitude we tend to have in conflict. Pride has no place in conflict, especially when we see ourselves as we really are.

Proverbs 14:3 says:

A fool's mouth lashes out with pride,
but the lips of the wise protect them.

Proverbs 20:9 says:

Who can say, "I have kept my heart pure;
I am clean and without sin"?

The implied answer is, "Not me." The wise person recognizes how far from perfection they are, and that they have no business acting self-righteously. When we see ourselves as we really are, we have no business looking down in pride at another person. The place to begin in a broken relationship is not with the other person, but with ourselves, in dismantling our own pride.

Secondly, Proverbs tells us to absorb the offense. This will take a little bit of explaining. Proverbs 10:12 says:

Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs.

Proverbs 17:9 says:

Whoever would foster love covers over an offense,
but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.

In these verses there's a contrast. On one hand, we can be hateful, and we can repeat what happened to ourselves and others. This is our normal way of responding when someone wrongs us. We get agitated, we stir things up, and we keep reminding ourselves and everyone else about what happened. The only alternative, according to these verses, is to cover over the wrong.

What does cover mean? It's the opposite of stirring things up. Instead of exaggerating the faults, it means looking for ways to make them disappear. Bruce Waltke, who wrote an excellent commentary on Proverbs, says:

Instead of placing the transgressor on stage and withdrawing the veil to expose his faults and so exact revenge, love endures his wrongs to reconcile him and save him from death and to preserve the peace. Love withdraws the burning wood of gossip...

Now, if you do this, you realize that you're no longer expecting the other person to pay for what they've done. In a sense, you're paying for it. You're absorbing the hurt and the pain of the wrong actions they did. You're not rehashing it, you're not inflicting revenge. Instead, you're absorbing the pain. In a sense you're bearing the cost of the wrong that they've done.

Then Proverbs gives us the well-known advice to overcome evil with good. Proverbs 25:21-22 says:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.

One man tells the story of having lunch in McDonald's with his daughter and mother-in-law. They were enjoying a pleasant conversation when a man, with his wife and children, plopped down at a nearby table. The man was someone who in the past had hurt him. They faked pleasantries and exchanged hellos, but he could feel his blood begin to boil at the thought of what this other man had done to him.

They gobbled down our food and on the way out of the restaurant overheard his "enemy" and his wife arguing because neither had any money to purchase the food they had ordered. Their three kids were screaming for their Happy Meals. The couple was embarrassed. His first thought was, "Praise God, there is justice in this world. He deserves every bit of embarrassment he's feeling, and I'm so glad I got to see this."

Suddenly God spoke to him through the text he had read that morning in Romans, which was based on the proverb we just read.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary:

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-20)

Listen to what this man says of that moment:

God was saying to me: Here's your chance to be set free of your pain and overcome your hurt. I knew I had a choice either to obey or bask in my bitterness. Somewhat reluctantly I reached into my wallet, pulled out $20, and gave it to this man who had been my enemy. "Have lunch on me."

Is there a place for rebuke? Yes, as we've seen in other Proverbs. But when a relationship is broken, the way of wisdom is to respond with humility, with a willingness to absorb the pain of the offense, and then a willingness to bless the other person.

You may say that you don't feel like doing this. What I love about Proverbs is that we don't have to feel like it in order to take these steps. When wronged we'll never feel like doing these things. But it's got nothing to do with feelings. When we follow the wisdom of Proverbs, we'll find that eventually the feelings do follow. In one of his writings, C.S. Lewis says "last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered - or felt as if I did - that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years."

This is what we need to do, but it leaves us with a question.

The question is where we can find the power to do all of this.

Becky Pippert tells the story of tells the story of auditing a course at Harvard on counseling. In one of the case studies the therapist used a technique called psychodynamic psychology. In this particular case the therapist helped uncover a hidden hostility he had toward his mother.

The professor moved on, but Pippert wasn't satisfied. She mustered the courage the raise her hand and asked, "Let's say the patient returned a few weeks later and said, 'I'd like to get beyond my anger. I'd like to be able to love her and forgive her. How do I do that?' How does psychodynamic psychotherapy help a person with a request like this?"

There was silence. Then the professor answered, "I think the therapist would say, 'Lots of luck!'" You see, psychodynamic psychotherapy can surface the problem, but it can't tell us how to love our enemy. Pippert writes, "After we see the need to change, how do we find the power to do it?" (Hope Has Its Reasons)

The answer is that we follow a God who has forgiven us in this exact way. He humbled himself, even though had no reason to be humbled. Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, "humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:8). He absorbed our sins, every sin that we have committed, past, present, and future. Isaiah 53:6 says, "The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." And he overcame our evil with ultimate good. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) He's also given us his Spirit to change our hearts, to change our hearts like nothing else will.

Jesus taught us that when we understand how much we have been forgiven, we will be ready to move towards forgiving others. If we aren't in the process of forgiving others, then it's an indication that we haven't grasped the expanse of God's forgiveness of us.

Broken relationships are serious. They're deadly. But we can move toward forgiveness as we humble ourselves, absorb the pain of what others have done, and as we repay evil with good. The best, the only way, to do this is to experience God's forgiveness ourselves.

Let's pray.

Father, I pray for those of us who are experiencing the pain of broken relationships today. I pray that you would humble us so that we don't look down on the person who wronged us. Enable us to absorb the pain rather than inflict it upon them. I pray that we would take the opportunity to overcome evil with good.

You know that nobody here can do this on their own strength. So I pray that you would bring us to the foot of the cross. Help us see Jesus, and the weight of our sin that he bore. May we turn to him and marvel that God himself bore our sins. And may our hearts therefore change so that we are freed to forgive others. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

Friendship (Proverbs)

As we get to the end of our series in the book of Proverbs, we've left one of the biggest themes for last: our relationships with other people. Jon McMurray spoke on anger a few weeks ago, and today we're going to continue that relational theme and talk about friendship.

One of the reasons I want to talk about friendship is because we are so conflicted about it. In his classic book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis pointed out that if you want to talk about erotic love, you'll have a ready audience. Books and movies come out all the time about love. If you read the newspaper, you'll get gossip about which celebrity's in love with which other celebrity. But Lewis said, "Very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all." Nobody picks up a tabloid to read who's friends with whom. The modern world, Lewis says, ignores it. We admit that every person needs a few friends, but overall "it is something quite marginal; not a main course in life's banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one's time."

So I want to look at what Proverbs has to say about friendship today, specifically looking at three things. First, the types of friendship. Second, the marks of true friendship. Finally, where we can find true friendship.

First, what are the types of friendship?

If you'll look carefully throughout Proverbs, you'll discover that there's a word that appears repeatedly. It's neighbor. For instance:

Seldom set foot in your neighbor's house— too much of you, and you will be hated. (Proverbs 25:17)

Like a maniac shooting
flaming arrows of death
is one who deceives a neighbor
and says, "I was only joking!"
(Proverbs 26:18-19)

If anyone loudly blesses a neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse. (Proverbs 27:14)

Actually, if you wanted to you could read or search through the whole book and pull out all the times that Proverbs mentions neighbors.

Then there are a number of other proverbs that mention friends. For instance:

The righteous choose their friends carefully,
but the way of the wicked leads them astray.
(Proverbs 12:26)

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
(Proverbs 18:24)

What's interesting is that the Hebrew actually uses the same word for neighbor and friend, and it comes from a verb that means to associate with.

But if you read carefully, you'll notice that there's a difference in the contexts. In one case you have people who are physically close to you, but with whom there is little attachment. That's why Proverbs says things like don't speak too loudly to your neighbor in the morning; don't go to their house too often; think very carefully before you take your neighbor to court. (Today you could say, think carefully before you call the building inspector on your neighbor or call the police when they're having a loud party.)

Proverbs actually has a lot to say about this. It's incredibly important how we relate to people who aren't especially close to us emotionally, but are part of our lives just because their lives happen to intersect with ours. I was thinking of this recently as I've been reading about the life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a famous pastor who lived in the last century. One day he went somewhere to speak. As he was going in, he said to one of the staff, "I remember you." They had only seen each other ten times, and this person was not somebody important, but Lloyd-Jones remembered him. It meant so much to that individual that he came in to hear all the sessions that Lloyd-Jones gave at that conference. How we treat those who are close physically, but not emotionally, is a very important issue.

Proverbs is very useful, by the way, in identifying some of the social faux pas that get in the way of relationships. I won't list all of them here, but if you want to improve your people skills, it wouldn't hurt to go through Proverbs and pick out everything that it says about social irritants to avoid so that we can have good relationships with others.

So there are neighbors, people who are physically close, but not emotionally. But then if you look carefully there is a whole other level of relationship that is normally translated friendship. Proverbs says that these are people that we choose, people who love at all times, and who tell us the truth about ourselves out of love. We need these.

The place to begin in Proverbs, then, is to be able to tell the difference between a neighbor and a friend, and to make sure that we actually do have friends. To quote C.S. Lewis again, there are people we hang out with, cooperate with, and have fun with just because we're gregarious. It's what we enjoy, he says, in barrooms, common rooms, messes, and golf clubs. It's what he calls companionship. The problem, he says, is:

Many people when they speak of their "friends" mean only their companions. But it is not Friendship in the sense that I give to the word. By this I do not at all intend to disparage the merely Clubabble relation. We do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold.

So we need to ask, then, what is real friendship?

In other words, what separates companionship from true friendship? What are the marks of real friendship?

As you look at Proverbs, you see that it offers two qualities of true friendship that are incredibly rare. One of them is constancy, and the other one is candor.

First, constancy. Proverbs says that when it comes to true friendship, that the other person is committed to sticking it out with you and will not abandon you when things get tough.

Proverbs 17:17 says:

A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity.

And then there's Proverbs 18:24 says:

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

A friend, Proverbs says, never lets you down. You've all heard the term "fair weather friend." According to Proverbs, they're not true friends. A true friend recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of the other and desires to be faithful at all times, even when it costs.

You see this type of friendship in The Lord of the Rings. Actually, friendship is one of its major themes. In Fellowship of the Ring, Sam says to Frodo, "I made a promise, Mr Frodo. A promise. 'Don't you leave him Samwise Gamgee.' And I don't mean to. I don't mean to." That's what Proverbs is talking about.

If you have run-of-the mill friends who abandon you when things get tough, Proverbs says, you'll come to ruin. Some are buddies but won't stick with you when you get into trouble. In contrast, there is they type of friend who is utterly committed to you, more committed to you than even your own family. That is the type of friend that you need. You can't have many, but even one or two will do. Constancy, a stick-with-you no matter what commitment, is a mark of true friendship.

The second mark of friendship according to Proverbs is candor. True friends are constant, but your friendship with them is also marked with candor.

For instance, Proverbs 27:6 says:

Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

A few verses down in Proverbs 27:9:

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart,
and the pleasantness of a friend
springs from their heartfelt advice.

Proverbs 28:23 says:

Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor
rather than one who has a flattering tongue.

This is strange when you first read it. According to Proverbs, there is such a thing as friendly wounds, and there is also such a thing as wounding kisses. Sometimes when people kiss you and flatter you, it's not because they actually like you. Sometimes it's a sign that they don't love you. But when you know that somebody truly loves you, when they speak plainly to you, you can be confident that those words are for your good, even if they are hard to hear at the time. It's more than a mutual admiration society. They don't always admire you; they love you enough to tell you what you need to hear, even if you don't want to hear it.

We've all reached that point in our relationships in which we ask, "I wonder if I should tell them the truth?" This happens with small things, like the piece of food stuck in someone else's teeth. Have you ever sat there debating whether or not you should tell someone? But it also applies to bigger issues. A true friend is so committed to you that they will open up - offer you "heartfelt advice" as Proverbs 27:9 says. They will also tell you the things that you may find hard to hear. They love you enough to tell you the truth, even if it hurts.

The result is what Proverbs says in chapter 27:17:

As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.

What this says is that when we find true friendship, it improves us. It makes us better than we would have been without that friendship. Sharpening isn't always a pleasant process. It involves some scraping and, in the case of relationships, some confrontation. But the end result is that both friends are better than they would have been before.

This is what sets true friendship apart from companionship. Companions have fun, but they don't really help each other. True friendship, however, is characterized by constancy and candor, and it actually makes us better people than we were before.

Well, that leaves us one last question that we need to answer.

Where in the world can we find this type of friendship?

I think you'll agree that the type of friendship we're describing is rare. As I reflected on myself, I realized that I've got tons of companions, but I've had very few of this type of friend. Yet looking at this, I realize how much we need even one friendship that is characterized by these qualities.

One of the answers to how to get this type of friend is surely to look for opportunities to be this type of friend. It may be that as you show this type of friendship to others, that you will discover one or two people who will become this type of friend for you.

But C.S. Lewis points us to something else we can do if we would like to have true friendships. After giving an example of true friendship from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Lewis writes:

For a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, 'Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,' can truly say to every group of Christian friends, 'You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.' The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others...At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.

The very qualities of friendship - constancy and candor - are the qualities that you find applied to the church in the New Testament. When Jesus brings us together to the table, we are called in a very real sense to be true friends to each other: to admonish one another, to encourage one another, to confess our sins to one another. God has chosen the guests, and we have the privilege of building genuine friendship with the other guests he has invited.

Jesus said:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you...This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:13-17)

If you have friends, you know how much they're worth. But you also know that they will from time to time let you down. But when you see Jesus, you realize that he sees you inside out. He knows you, and he isn't afraid to tell you the truth about yourself. Yet he is completely committed to you. He's so committed that when we were at our worst, he lay down his life for us. When you see Jesus, you have seen ultimate friendship. And then we are invited to love each other with the same candor, constancy, and love.

Let's pray.

Father, thank you that you exist as a relational being enjoying perfect fellowship within the Trinity from all eternity. Thank you for making us relational beings after your image. Thank you for Jesus, who not only is completely candid with us, but who also gave up his life for us. As we see him may we see that there is no greater love than when he offered up his life for us on the cross.

You have invited us to your feast, and you have chosen the guests. May we learn to love each other, to be constant and candid in our relationships. May we learn real friendship from the one who called us friends. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Poverty (Proverbs)

275 years ago, Jonathan Edwards, one of the most brilliant theologians in American history, preached a sermon called "The Duty of Charity to the Poor, Explained and Enforced." The theme of the sermon was this: "Tis the most absolute and indispensable duty of a people of God to give bountifully and willingly for the supply of the wants of the needy." It's a powerful sermon, and well worth reading even today.

One of the things I really appreciate about this sermon is that he builds a solid case for why Christians should give to the poor. He says: "Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms, and in a more peremptory urgent manner, than the command of giving to the poor?" And also:

It is not merely a commendable thing for a man to be kind and bountiful to the poor, but our bounden duty, as much a duty as it is to pray, or to attend public worship, or anything else whatever. And the neglect of it brings great guilt upon any person.

But then he anticipates the objections, and he lists them and dismantles them all:

  • If I give, it won't be with the right spirit, so I won't give
  • Being generous will make me self-righteous, so I won't give
  • I've tried being generous before, but I didn't get any blessing from it
  • Some may be poor, but they're not poor enough to deserve my help
  • Some poor people are nasty, and so they don't deserve my help
  • I've barely got enough for myself
  • I can't be sure that this person really needs aid
  • They never asked me
  • It's their fault that they're poor
  • If others were more generous, I wouldn't have to be so generous
  • Leave it to the government

Do you know what this tells me? Things haven't changed. Out of the eleven objections listed, I think I've used at least six, maybe more. There are few issues that create more "Yeah, but..." statements, more objections, than when it comes to our duty to the poor.

Am I alone, or do some of you have objections? We were at Tom's Dairy Freeze this past week, and someone behind us obviously had some financial and other issues. Later on Charlene said, "I wonder if we should have bought him an ice cream cone?" My first thought was, "Maybe," closely followed by all kinds of reasons why we shouldn't have. I find it easy to look for the loopholes, for all the reasons why helping isn't always a good idea.

Yet Proverbs doesn't let us off, which is surprising because it was written by a well-off person likely for other well-off people, and usually well-off people are pretty good at coming up with reasons not to care about the poor.

Proverbs tells us three things when it comes to the poor. One: our duty. Two: the reason. Three: what we learn about God as a result of what he says about the poor.

So first, let's look at what Proverbs says about our duty to the poor.

You're expecting that Proverbs says a lot about giving to the poor, and it does. For example:

The generous will themselves be blessed,
for they share their food with the poor.
(Proverbs 22:9)

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,
but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.
(Proverbs 28:27)

If you go all through the book of Proverbs, you'll find more verses like this that tell kings to judge the poor fairly, for all of us to share food with the poor, and to give to those who have needs.

So this is the message of Proverbs: to give to the poor. Right? Not even close. That would be letting us off easy. The message of Proverbs actually goes a lot deeper. It's possible to give to the poor, but to do so grudgingly and with a really bad attitude. But Proverbs doesn't allow for this. This comes out in many of the proverbs that have to deal with the poor, but none of them more clearly than Proverbs 29:7:

The righteous care about justice for the poor,

but the wicked have no such concern.

Do you see the word care there? It's one of the most intimate, emotional, and relational terms in the Hebrew language. It means knowing, caring for, having sympathetic knowledge, and considering favorably. It's the same term that was used in Genesis 4 where it says that "Adam knew his wife," which was a euphemism for marital relations with his wife. In other words, you can't just give to the poor. Proverbs says you actually have to care about them. It has to be an attitude, something that you care about, something that touches you deeply.

Let me give you an example. The United Way puts out a report called Poverty by Postal Code. According to the United Way, the income gap is widening, and neighborhood poverty is intensifying in Toronto. Out of every three families you pass on the street, one of those families is living in poverty. One in three! Some are now calling Toronto the poverty capital of Canada. One of the areas that has experienced the greatest increase in poverty is Etobicoke.

Do you see what I just did? I bombarded you with statistics and information about poverty in our area, but I didn't touch your heart. But I've seen people at Richview go beyond statistics and actually develop significant relationships with impoverished people, and it's totally different from statistics. Statistics don't keep you up at night; people do.

It's relatively easy to give money to the poor. You can give a dollar here or there. You can even give lots of money away and volunteer your time. But that's not enough. Proverbs says that it actually has to touch your heart. The righteous person actually cares about the poor and their legal rights. Proverbs says that our duty isn't just to give to the poor; it's actually to care.

Michael Creek is a 50-year-old man who suffers from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After chemotherapy and surgery, he went into remission but developed "debilitating side effects" that left him unable to support himself. Creek recently appeared before a forum in Ottawa and spoke of getting to his apartment.

I must pass drug dealers and their victims often high on drugs. The elevator often has syringes, human waste and garbage covering the floor. Bedbugs and cockroaches have invaded my apartment traveling through holes left for plumbing and heating.

Poverty steals from your soul, leaving you with little or no hope. It robs you of all that can be good in life. It leaves you isolated, lonely and hungry and that is just the start of it. Every day is a struggle.

"The righteous care about justice for the poor," says Proverbs, "but the wicked have no such concern."

Well, we need to ask a question.

Why are we commanded to care for the poor?

You could begin with fairly selfish reasons, and there is some truth to these reasons. For instance:

Those who are kind to the poor lend to the LORD,
and he will reward them for what they have done.
(Proverbs 19:17)

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,
but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.
(Proverbs 28:27)

At this level, we're helping the poor because of what we get out of it. We feel good, and God promises to bless us.

But Proverbs actually goes much deeper than that. It gives us two very deep and theological reasons why it's absolutely critical for us to care about the poor. One of them has to do with people, and the other has to do with God.

First, people. Proverbs 22:2 says:

Rich and poor have this in common:
The LORD is the Maker of them all.

A few weeks ago I dropped somebody off at a house, except that it wasn't really a house. It was more like a mansion. I walked in and looked around. When I drove off I felt like I had seen how the other half lives. We came home and looked up the prices of houses in that area, and those houses are worth at least six times what our house is worth. We had discussions about how people can afford to live in places like that. We did not belong.

I've also been with people on the other end. I was in a home recently that if they had asked me to sit down, I would have had a hard time doing so. If they offered me food, I would have been concerned for my health. It was disgusting. I couldn't wait to get out.

When I look at people I see them as rich, middle class like me, or poor. But Proverbs tells us that when he looks at us, he sees us not according to class. He sees the rich and poor in just the same way: "The LORD is Maker of them all." There is absolutely no distinction. The poorest person you will ever meet is made and loved by God, and bears his image, as much as you do.

If there's anything that we've learned, it's that wealth is distributed inequitably in this world. There are children born into families in which they will experience every obstacle going. Nobody would say it's their fault that they were born in the wrong part of the world or to the wrong parents or in a bad neighborhood, but they don't stand a chance. But others are born with everything going for them, every advantage: private schools, tutoring.

When those who have had every advantage look at Scripture, and realize that the poor aren't at all different from them, that the LORD is maker of them and loves them every bit as much, and that to God they are worth every bit as much, then it will be impossible for that person not to care if she sees them the way that God sees them. If we don't care, that's evidence that we're not seeing people through God's eyes.

In fact, Proverbs goes even further. Proverbs 14:31 says that God so identifies with the poor that when you show contempt for them, you are showing contempt for God; and when you are kind to the poor, you are honoring God.

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Proverbs 15:25 says that God acts on behalf of the widow:

The LORD tears down the house of the proud,
but he sets the widow's boundary stones in place.

And Proverbs 23:10-11 puts it even more strongly:

Do not move an ancient boundary stone
or encroach on the fields of the fatherless,
for their Defender is strong;
he will take up their case against you.

When you pick a fight with those who are poor, or fatherless, or widows, Proverbs says, then you're picking a fight with God. I'm not sure that it's a good idea to pick a fight with God. Proverbs 21:13 says:

Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor
will also cry out and not be answered.

I don't know how this could be put more strongly. Why should we care for the poor? One: because God made them, and they bear God's image just like you. Two: because God identifies with them and takes their side. God is actually on the side of the poor, and to not care for them is to not care about him. To pick a fight with the poor is to pick a fight with God.

Jesus said the same thing. When we stand before him one day, the way that we cared for the poor will be evidence that we care for him. He so identifies with the poor that he says, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). But to those who did not care for the poor, that will be evidence that we never knew him. "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" (Matthew 25:45).

It's likely that right now you are feeling pretty guilty. When we hear that we're not just supposed to give to the poor, but we're really supposed to care in our hearts, to see them just as we see ourselves, and to realize that God identifies so strongly with them that to neglect them is to neglect him - this can all be overwhelming. That's why I don't want to leave you at this point.

We need to finish by looking at God.

What is the vision of God we see in Proverbs? It's the vision of a God who defends those who are defenseless, who provides for those without resources, who identifies with the poor and the needy. In other words, we meet a God of grace who provides what we can't provide for ourselves.

This is true when our need is physical. If you are here today and lack food or money, you need to understand that God is your Defender, and that he identifies with people just like you.

But for those of us today who realize that we are poor in spirit, that we don't love the way that he loves, that we need a transformation of the heart so that we can care the way we're reading about: we too are poor, and we need what only God can provide. He alone can solve the poverty within our hearts.

I began by talking about Jonathan Edwards and his sermon. Jonathan Edwards said:

Consider how much God hath done for us, how greatly he hath loved us, what he hath given us, when we were so unworthy, and when he could have no addition to his happiness by us. Consider that silver, and gold, and earthly crowns, were in his esteem but mean things to give us, and he hath therefore given us his own Son. Christ loved and pitied us, when we were poor, and he laid out himself to help, and even did shed his own blood for us without grudging. He did not think much to deny himself, and to be at great cost for us vile wretches, in order to make us rich, and to clothe us with kingly robes, when we were naked; to feast us at his own table with dainties infinitely costly, when we were starving; to advance us from the dunghill, and set us among princes, and make us to inherit the throne of his glory, and so to give us the enjoyment of the greatest wealth and plenty to all eternity. Agreeably to 2 Cor. 8:9, "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich."

Considering all these things, what a poor business will it be, that those who hope to share these benefits, yet cannot give something for the relief of a poor neighbor without grudging! That it should grieve them to part with a small matter, to help a fellow servant in calamity, when Christ did not grudge to shed his own blood for them!

The path to truly caring for the poor is found in seeing how much Christ cared for us so we could be made rich.

Father, we repent. We repent of not really wanting to care, of making all kinds of excuses, of seeing people at statistics without really knowing.

But today we see how much you care. We also see very clearly that you are calling us to care. May we see our own poverty, and what Christ did for us, so that we are changed to love the way that you love. In Jesus' name, Amen.

God's Plans and Our Plans (Proverbs)

One of the most important issues in any of our lives is that of making choices. We make them every day - big ones like who to marry, what career to choose, what city to live in. But equally as significant are the everyday decisions that we make, the consequences of which add up to be just as significant as the momentous decisions.

The choices we make are going to determine our destiny. I've heard someone say that most decisions can be made by any reasonably competent person of average intelligence. But there are a small number of decisions that are life-changing. Even the small decisions end up really making a difference because we make them on such a regular basis.

So the question really is how to make good decisions, and there are two schools of thought. One is the hands-off approach. Do you remember the Greek myth of Oedipus? Before he was born, it was prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother. When he grew up he was aware of this prophecy, and he tried everything to avoid his fate, yet he ended up killing the prophesy despite all of his efforts. In this view or reality, you can make all the decisions in the world, but you can't escape your fate. Your destiny is predetermined, and no matter what you do you can't avoid your fate.

The very opposite view is probably what most of us hold. It can be summed up in the famous words of the great theologian, Doc from Back to the Future. Doc said, "Your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one." In this view, everything is up for grabs, and you can determine your own future by the choices that you make.

Then we have a unique view that doesn't really fit into either category, and you might have been exposed to this view within the church. The view is that God has a perfect will for your life: the person you're supposed to marry, the job you're supposed to take, and so on. It's like the bull's eye. It's your job to discern what that will is through a series of steps, like praying, putting out tests for God to confirm what he wants, and sensing when you have peace. The pressure's on with this view, because if you marry the wrong person you not only miss your own bull's eye, but you have taken the bull's eye away from the person who was supposed to marry your spouse, so you've messed up things for at least three people, probably more.

So it's in this context that we come to Proverbs and ask, how in the world are we supposed to make wise decisions? Proverbs is very helpful in answering this. It's amazingly nuanced and practical when it comes to this subject.

So let's look at what Proverbs teaches us on this subject. First: our role when it comes to decisions. Second, God's role. Third, how to put our role and God's role together.

First, let's look at our role in making decisions.

Proverbs teaches us that you have a role in making decisions. For example, listen to these proverbs:

The plans of the diligent lead to profit
as surely as haste leads to poverty.
(Proverbs 21:5)

Surely you need guidance to wage war,
and victory is won through many advisers.
(Proverbs 24:6)

And if you make good decisions, you'll get to enjoy the benefits. Proverbs 31 speaks of the noble woman who embodies the wisdom described in Proverbs, and it says:

She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
(Proverbs 31:25)

One of the clearest verses that describes the both the importance of planning, and one of the most important ingredients in planning, is found in Proverbs 20:18:

Plans are established by seeking advice;
so if you wage war, obtain guidance.

You'd have to be crazy to go to war if you didn't have a plan. Imagine having all the troops lined up about to engage in battle when somebody asks, "OK boss, what's the plan?" "I don't know yet. We'll wing it." Armies have plans and strategies before they go to war, and they're based on lots of advice from lots of smart people. That's why there are books like The Art of War. Smart sports teams have plans before they approach a draft, like the Leafs did this past week. I hope! And you'd be crazy if you didn't have a plan. It involves thinking about goals, getting advice, thinking about the steps necessary to accomplish that goal, devising alternatives, dealing with roadblocks, and using your imagination to picture the end result.

We need to begin with the human side and say: you need to plan. Some people think it's unspiritual to plan, but Proverbs says that's bunk. Some people say that we need to go through all kinds of spiritual exercises to determine God's will. Proverbs says: no, plan. Use your brain. Get good advice. Make good decisions. So you should be planning for your future. That's the human side of planning.

Proverbs doesn't stop there, though.

Second, we need to look at God's role when it comes to the decisions that we make.

Proverbs teaches us that we have a role to play in our decisions, but so does God. Proverbs 16:1-2 says:

To human beings belong the plans of the heart,
but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue.
People may think all their ways are pure,
but motives are weighed by the LORD.

What this means is that we can plan, but God may have something different in mind than what we plan. Verse 1 gives us an example. Have you ever planned what you were going to say to somebody, even planned carefully, but when you went to speak, something completely different came out? That's what verse 1 says. You can plan all you want, but if God wants you to say something different, then you're going to say something different. You can plan all that you want, but if God wants something else to happen, then something else is going to happen.

Then verse 2 says that God sees something completely different than we do. When I make a decision, I think that I'm being objective and rational, and I'm often pretty convinced that I've made the correct decision when I'm done. That's what the first part of verse 2 says: "People may think all their ways are pure." The reality is, though, that I am not impartial and rational when I make decisions. God sees my heart and my motives, and he understands that I'm often not making the best decisions because I have all kinds of mixed motives, and so do you.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that our problem isn't so much small-s sins, like sinful actions, as much as capital-S Sin. We have sinful hearts. John Bunyan said it well: there's enough sin in his best prayer to damn the whole world. That is, even when we are at our best, we are still full of mixed motives and selfish desires and all kinds of things that corrupt us. We can't make wise decisions like we're supposed to because our hearts are corrupt, and we lack wisdom.

Then look at Proverbs 16:9:

In their hearts human beings plan their course,
but the LORD establishes their steps.

Proverbs 19:21 says:

Many are the plans in a human heart,
but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.

Do you see the tension? We have a role to play when it comes to decisions, but so does God. You see this especially when it comes to bad things that happen. What happens when the decisions that are made are bad ones? Proverbs 16:4 tells us:

The LORD works out everything to its proper end—
even the wicked for a day of disaster.

Here's what this means. The first part of the verse says that God is in control of everything. But the second part of the verse says that when wicked people make bad choices of their own free will, God is able to use even their free choices for good. God doesn't author evil, but he's able to use even the evil choices that people make of themselves for his own purposes. We can choose, but God ultimately gets his will done even through even the bad choices that we make. A good example is the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was able to say after years of being unjustly treated by others, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20).

There's a tension here that we really aren't going to be able to put together. Are we free to make our own choices? Yes. Do our choices really matter? Yes. But does God sovereignly determine the way things are going to turn out? Yes. The technical term for this is antinomy. It's an apparent contradiction. And if you think about it, it's really the best of both worlds.

If your decisions didn't matter, then you may as well stay in bed all day because what's the use? But if your decisions determine everything, then the pressure is on. You have to make good decisions or else. But if your decisions matter and at the same time God determines the future, then you have an important role, but you can relax knowing that God is in charge. Understanding our role and God's role brings significance to our decisions, but it also brings confidence because we know that God is at work even through our mistakes and the bad things that happen.

This also means that if you want to know what God's will is for your life, you're standing in it. God's will is not something that you discover; it's something that he does. He has you right where he wants you. So your decisions matter, but God ultimately uses those decisions so that it's his purpose that prevails. He uses even the bad things to accomplish his purposes.

But what we really need is to pull this all together.

And there's no better verse to pull this altogether than Proverbs 16:3:

Commit to the LORD whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans.

This is one of those verses that you think you know what it means, but we probably don't. We need to slow down and read it again. This is what it doesn't say. It doesn't say to make plans and then pray that God will bless them and establish them. That's not at all what it says.

It says, "Commit to the LORD whatever you do." The word commit there literally means roll. It means rolling everything you do on to the LORD, giving everything to him and keeping nothing back. This means complete dependence on God. What this means is that you stop relying on yourself, and that you roll control of your life over to God so that everything you do and who you are is completely committed to him.

This is much more than praying that God will bless what we choose. The original sin involved rolling our lives away from God and declaring independence from him. As a result, our natural condition is one of sin, of wanting our own way. But Christ has come to make a way possible back to God. Through Christ God has made it possible for us to roll our lives back on to the Lord, so that our entire lives are once again lived in submission to him.

When this happens, verse 3 says that God will establish your plans. The result of giving our entire lives over to God is that he will establish what he wants to do through us. This takes all the pressure off. Our decisions matter, but we don't bear the weight of them. We roll everything on to God, and he does with us as he pleases. And then we don't have to worry about the results. If it was all up to us, then we have pressure and all kinds of fear. But because God is sovereign, we can rest even though we know our limitations. When we commit our entire lives to God, and realize that he's sovereign, we can plan and then relax, knowing that our achievements are ultimately up to God. We can then live in prayer and peace.

So your decisions matter. But what matters most of all is that you are committed to God. When you get this balance, that your decisions matter, but God is sovereign, and that what matters even more than your decisions is that you are yielded to him - then you can work and relax, knowing that God is sovereign, and that he can work through the choices that you make.

Jack Miller was a pastor on the verge of burnout. In 1970, while pastoring a small church in Pennsylvania and teaching practical theology at a seminary, he became so discouraged that he resigned from both his church and the seminary. He had failed. People weren't changing like he knew they should.

He spent a few weeks crying. Gradually he came to realize what was wrong. He realized he had been motivated by his own personal glory and the approval of those he was serving. "He said that when he repented of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval," his daughter writes, "his joy in ministry returned, and he took back his resignations from the church and seminary."

Miller came to a turning point. "He had been relying on the wrong person to do ministry - himself." He began to give up all dependence on himself, and began to learn the basics of doing Christian ministry in Christ's strength. The result was greater freedom and power.

Miller discovered that his actions mattered, but it's not all up to him. He learned to give up all dependence on himself, to acknowledge how poor in spirit he was, and then rely exclusively on Jesus and the gift of His Spirit in constant prayer.

Miller once wrote to a young missionary and said:

Remember the only real leader you have is Jesus Christ. Unless you are daily taught of him you will not be able to make the right decisions.

Miller discovered the joy of rolling his entire life on to the Lord, and relying on God's strength and not his own. And his life ministry was never the same.

My prayer for you is that you will make wise decisions. But my greater prayer is that you will understand that God is sovereign, and that it's only as we roll our entire lives over to him that the pressure is off, and we discover the freedom and joy that come from relying on him.

Father, I pray that you would give us wisdom as we make decisions. Thank you for the important role we play in making decisions, but thank you that you work even through our weaknesses and mistakes.

Thank you also for the invitation to trust you, to roll our lives over to you. The original sin was Adam and Eve claiming sovereignty over their own lives rather than submitting to you. Jesus Christ came to undo the results of that sin, to make it possible to once again submit to you.

Through the power of the Spirit, please convict us today in the areas in which we are trying to control our own lives, acting as little gods. Stop us from relying on the wrong person - ourselves. And bring us back to submission to you through the work of Christ and the power of your Spirit, so that every person here would realize that the only leader they have is Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.

Work (Proverbs)

When I was in high school, I looked at all the career opportunities that I could pursue. I thought about going into business, becoming a journalist, and also about teaching. But in the end I couldn't avoid the sense that I should become a pastor. There were all kinds of good and bad things that factored into that decision, but let me tell you the bad.

The bad is that I made a separation between everyday work and spiritual work. Do you get what I mean? It's like I made two lists. One one list I put ordinary secular work: business, commerce, construction, law, writing, teaching. On the second list I put things like pastoring, being a missionary, teaching in seminary - that's about it. I thought that you can do ordinary, everyday work, or you can do spiritual work that really matters.

I don't know where I came up with this view, but I know I'm not alone. If you follow this to its logical conclusion then all of you work to make a living and to support those of us who are doing important work. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Today I want to look at what the book of Proverbs says about work. I hope that it will change the way that you think about career and vocation. I want to ask three questions:

  • What does it say about work?
  • Why does it say what it does?
  • Finally, how does this impact what you do?

First, what does the Proverbs say about work?

All you have to do to answer this question is to read through the book of Proverbs, or else search for the words sluggard or diligent. It's not very subtle. It skewers those who don't work hard, and it praises those who work hard. For instance, look at how it slams those who don't work:

How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
(Proverbs 6:9)

Probably the bluntest passage is this one from Proverbs 26:

A sluggard says, "There's a lion in the road,
a fierce lion roaming the streets!"
As a door turns on its hinges,
so a sluggard turns on the bed.
Sluggards bury their hands in the dish
and are too lazy to bring them back to their mouths.
(Proverbs 26:13-15)

It's not a very pretty picture. The sluggard uses absurd excuses to get out or work. He's not lazy; he just doesn't want to go outside in case there's a lion. Yesterday it was too hot to work; today it's too cold. Instead he lays in bed. Again, he probably has an excuse: "I'm not my best in the morning." There's a bit of humor in verse 14: he lies in bed turning, but his motion is like a door. There may be lots of movement, but it never goes anywhere because he's hinged to the bed. Even when the sluggard is hungry, he is so lazy that he can't manage to lift his hand to his mouth. The writer has no sympathy at all for those who are lazy.

Contrast this to what the writer says about the diligent:

Diligent hands will rule,
but laziness ends in forced labor.
(Proverbs 12:24)

The plans of the diligent lead to profit
as surely as haste leads to poverty.
(Proverbs 21:5)

Those who work their land will have abundant food,
but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty.
(Proverbs 28:19)

Over and over again, Proverbs gives us the message. Work hard. Avoid laziness. The book is completely intolerant of lazy people. Lazy people, according to Proverbs, are the epitome of folly. It parodies them, it pokes fun at them. It has absolutely no sympathy for them.

We could stop right there, but we'd miss out on really understanding the message of Proverbs if we did. If we stopped here, we would think that Proverbs is a little like a nagging parent who is always saying, "Get to work! Don't you have homework that you should be doing?" We could even be driven to workaholism.

We need to go a little deeper and to ask a second question, and the question is this:

Why does Proverbs say what it does about work?

In other words, what is the reason that Proverbs says what it does about work?

To answer this, I want to give you a bit of background about how other cultures saw work at that time. In the other cultures, the gods had to fight to create the world and to bring order out of chaos. When they realized how much work it is to maintain the world, they tried to think of a way to get out of all this work, so they created us. In this view, we're stuck with all the work while the gods sleep. Work is something that we have to do because the gods are too lazy to do it. We'd get out of it if we could as well.

This isn't the view we get in the Bible at all. When you open the Bible you meet a God who loves to work, a God who has no trouble at all bringing order out of chaos and arranging the world just as he wants it. What's more, he even gets his hands dirty. He does manual labor, forming man from the dust of the ground. There's a dignity that God gives to work right from the beginning. He's not trying to get out of work; he does work that expresses who he is and what he wants this world to be.

All throughout the Bible, imagery is used that describes God as a worker. Genesis portrays him as a gardener and a farmer. Proverbs 8 describes his work of creation in terms of architecture and building. Psalm 139 compares him to a weaver, knitting us together in our mother's womb. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and a craftworker.

And when God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, he came as a builder. In Mark 6 we learn that Jesus is a carpenter, a word that could mean carpenter or just builder. Jesus himself was a manual laborer. And when Jesus spoke of his work, he used images from other professions: doctor, shepherd. He even compared God to a homemaker (Luke 15). And he said of his Father, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working."

This is a very different picture of work from all of the other gods of the Ancient Near East. God is a God who works, and who endows all work - manual work, professional work, and so on - with dignity. And we haven't even got to the good part yet.

When God created us, listen to what the Bible says:

Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:26-29)

The next thing we see, Adam is tilling and keeping the garden, naming the animals - which, by the way, has cultural dimensions. So right away, you have humanity doing important work, work that's very similar to God's.

But let's back up a second. Twice in Genesis 1, God emphatically says that he made us in his image. What does this mean? As someone has said, you could fill bookshelves with the three thousand years of conversation sparked by this one verse. What's especially interesting is that God has said that we are not to make anything in his image, but this is a restriction God hasn't put on himself.

What does it mean to bear God's image. It means to be like him. And looking at Genesis 1 and 2, in what ways are we to be like God?

  • We meet a God who is a God of limitless and extraordinary creativity
  • We meet a God who takes an environment that is disordered and inhospitable, and who transforms it into an environment that flourishes with life and creativity
  • We meet a God who has authority over this world

Then God turns to us and says, "I am giving you authority to fill the earth and subdue it." Being fruitful means building families, churches, schools, cities, governments, and laws. Subduing the earth means harnessing the natural world: planting crops, building bridges, designing computers, composing music.

He's given us the job of being, as one person says, "creative cultivators" (Andy Crouch) - to make something of this world. We're talking marriage and family, but we're also talking art, language, commerce, and government. When we do these things, we're bearing God's image and carrying out the cultural mandate God has given us.

Someone else has said that you are here on earth for four reasons: to love God, to serve others, to responsibly cultivate the earth, and to savor the work of your hands. You are here not only to love God and to serve others, but to help bring shalom to this earth, and to savor the work that you do. It's only in our work that we get to do all four of these at the same time.

One theologian says:

To unfold...possibilities - for example, to speak languages, build tools and dies, enter contracts, organize dance troupes - is to act in character for human beings designed by God. That is, to act in this way is to exhibit some of God's own creativity and dominion in a characteristically human way. (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God's Word)

Work is not something that entered the world because of sin. We have been made so that baking bread, playing soccer, writing music, creating products, banking, practicing law, is holy work before God. It expresses his creativity, contributes to the flourishing of this world.

That's why Proverbs takes work so seriously. It's not just because the writer doesn't like lazy people. It's because when we're sluggards, we're not taking seriously what it means to be made in the image of God. When we are diligent in our work, we help to shape culture and bring glory to God.

You can see how wrong I was to think that some professions are holy, and some are secular. Every vocation can bring God glory.

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

One man put it this way, hundreds of years ago:

The homeliest service that we do in an honest calling, though it be but to plow, or dig, if done in obedience, and conscience of God's Commandment, is crowned with ample reward; whereas the best works for their kind (preaching, praying, offering Evangelical sacrifices) if without respect of God's injunction and glory, are loaded with curses. (Joseph Hall)

In other words, the work of a banker or a mother or a teacher or an entrepreneur can be loaded with more blessing than the work of a preacher. Because this is so, Proverbs is right to challenge us to take our work seriously.

We need to apply this by asking one more question:

What does this mean for me?

To answer this, I have a couple of proverbs and then a verse from the New Testament.

Proverbs 13:4 says:

A sluggard's appetite is never filled,
but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.

What does this mean? It says that sluggards and those who are diligent both have desires, but the sluggard's desire isn't fulfilled while the diligent person's desires are. At first glance you could interpret this to mean food or money or all the things that money can buy, but I think it goes deeper. There's a sense of satisfaction that comes when we work, even if the work isn't what we would naturally choose to do. Your work is not only for the purpose of paying bills; your work actually brings satisfaction. At each phase of God's creative work in making this world, he pronounced it as good. There's something in us as well that longs to take a step back from our work and say that it too is good. Work can be intensely satisfying.

Proverbs 22:29 says:

Do you see those who are skilled in their work?
They will serve before kings;
they will not serve before officials of low rank.

So we have desire or satisfaction that comes from work, but here we also have skill. There are certain things that you may enjoy doing, but you will never be skilled at doing them. But when you have desire and skill come together, it is a powerful combination. Frederick Buechner said, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

I realize that this can all sound hopelessly idealistic. You may understand everything I've said, but really struggle with how it could ever be true in your life and in your job. It's going to be true here, but the reality is that although we bear the image of God, we've sinned, and neither we nor this world are what God intended them to be.

But God through Christ is renewing and restoring all things. The good news (gospel) for us this morning is that Jesus came into this world to take on our sins, and to begin the process of restoration so that one day things will be as they should.

You've heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. He and C.S. Lewis decided to write fiction they way they thought it should be written. Lewis kept producing book after book. Meanwhile, Tolkien labored over one book and never felt satisfied.

One night Tolkien had a dream about a man named Niggle. Niggle is an artist who paints a picture of a great tree, but is never satisfied. Before he can finish the painting he dies. On the train to heaven he sees the tree that he had been trying to paint. The Tree he sees is the true realization of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete form of his painting.

One day, through Jesus Christ, the tree you've always wanted to paint, the sermon I've always wanted to preach, the work we've always wanted to do - we'll discover it in heaven. Your work now matters to God, but it's only a shadow of the work we'll be able to do, and the satisfaction that we'll get from that work, when God one day restores all things through what Christ accomplished at the cross.

Let's pray.

Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist working in Minneapolis, was once a devout Buddhist. Now, thanks to the music of J. S. Bach, she is a Christian. "Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity," she told Metro Lutheran, a Twin Cities monthly. "When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God." Masashi Masuda, a Jesuit priest, came to faith in almost the same way: "Listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations first aroused my interest in Christianity." Our jobs can be used to proclaim God's glory and even to draw people to Christ.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."

Father, today we give our vocations to you. Thank you that you are a God who is still at work. Thank you for your Son, who not only worked as a carpenter, but worked to accomplish our salvation. And thank you that you call us to serve you with our whole lives, including the work that you've called us to.

We offer our work to you today as an act of worship. May you be glorified through our holy vocations. And we look forward to that day when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we'll do the work we've always longed to do. In the name of Christ our Savior we pray. Amen.

Words (Proverbs)

Words Matter

Let me see if you can finish a sentence that I begin. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but..."

You're right, you got it. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." I don't know who ever thought of this saying, but they lied. It's not true at all. Sticks and stones will hurt your bones, but words can actually break your heart. Words matter.

Let me ask you: What's the meanest thing that anyone ever said to you? You may have heard of the person who pretended to be a 16-year-old boy on MySpace. She became "friends" with Megan Meier, age 13. After starting out nicely, the person, pretending to be a teenage boy, started sending Megan messages like, "I don't know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I've heard that you are not very nice to your friends." More messages like this came. Tragically, Megan became so upset by these messages that she took her own life. Sticks and stones can break bones, but words can break a heart. Words can kill.

The Bible compares our tongues to a fire, that can set "the whole course of one's life on fire" (James 3:6). Our words are like the cigarette that a 46-year-old woman in South Dakota threw into a forest. That cigarette started a fire that burned for two weeks, that burned eighty thousand acres of forest. Rumors, half-truths, grumbling, sarcastic remarks, hurtful things said in the heat of anger—all of these smoldering matches have the potential for burning down acres of office morale, family peace, and church unity.

Let me ask you, on the other hand: What is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you? There was a man that I really respect who came to my wedding. He said something about me that day that I overheard - he didn't even mean for me to hear it - that is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me, and I've never forgotten it. Words can break a heart, but words can also heal a heart.

We've been studying what the book of Proverbs says about how to live. Listen to what Proverbs says about our words:

The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
(Proverbs 12:18)

The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit.
(Proverbs 18:21)

We need to remember two words: Words matter. Your words are like a fire. Your words, the Bible says, are like a sword that can cut right into people. It can kill. But your words can also bring healing and life. How you speak is going to bring you and everyone around you life, or death.

A pastor was welcoming some members into the church. This is what he told them:

And now, I charge you that if you ever hear another member speak an unkind word of criticism or slander against anyone—myself, an usher, a choir member, or anyone else—that you stop that person in mid-sentence and say, 'Excuse me—who hurt you? Who ignored you? Who slighted you? Was it [the pastor]? Let's go to his office right now. He'll apologize to you, and then we'll pray together so God can restore peace to this body. But we won't let you talk critically about people who aren't present to defend themselves.'

I'm serious about this. I want you to help resolve this kind of thing immediately. And know this: If you are ever the one doing the loose talking, we'll confront you.

That pastor says, "To this day, every time we receive new members, I say much the same thing. That's because I know what most easily destroys churches. It's not crack cocaine, government oppression, or even lack of funds. Rather it's gossip and slander that grieves the Holy Spirit."

We need to take our words as seriously as we do swords, guns, and fires. When someone uses them recklessly, we need to deal with it right away. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words kill. Words matter more than we could ever think.

[song]

Learning How to Speak

So words matter. Words can kill, but they can also give life. How then should we speak?

It's actually quite easy. Proverbs tells us how we should speak: Speak less, speak honestly, and speak fittingly. Simple - yet as we're going to see, impossible without God's help.

Speak less - The average person speaks sixteen thousand words a day. There's lots of room to get into trouble with this many words. One former U.S. president (Calvin Coolidge) said, "I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm." Proverbs says something similar:

Sin is not ended by multiplying words,
but the prudent hold their tongues.
(Proverbs 10:19)

And then one of my favorite proverbs:

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent,
and discerning if they hold their tongues.
(Proverbs 17:28)

One of the best ways that we could improve in how we use words is to speak less. Words are so powerful that we need to guard how many words we actually use.

Speak honestly - When we do speak, though, it's important to speak honestly. Proverbs 12:19 says:

Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.

Proverbs 24:26 says:

An honest answer
is like a kiss on the lips.

Telling the truth is right, beneficial. Telling the truth is a kind act. One of my friends says that many times we're too unloving to be truthful. Telling the truth is an act of love, even if what we're going to say is hard. What we say has to be for the other person's good, but our words must be honest even when it's hard.

Speak fittingly - This is the hardest. It takes real wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. Proverbs 15:23 says:

A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
and how good is a timely word!

Proverbs 25:11 says:

A word aptly spoken
is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (NIV)

There's a beauty, artistry, and skill in knowing how to speak. In fact, we can't do it without God's help. Proverbs 16:1 says:

To human beings belong the plans of the heart,
but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue.

What I want to do right now is to ask a few people to pray for all of us in this area. If there's one area that I want to focus on today, it's in our families. If there's anywhere where it's tough to speak well, it's there. I've asked a few people of different ages to pray that God will help us speak well. Let's take a few minutes to pray.

What Words Reveal

Most of all what words reveal is the condition of our hearts. Words reveal that ultimately we need a new heart. Jesus said, "But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these defile you" (Matthew 15:18). What we say reveals what's in our heart.

Proverbs 22:11 says the same thing:

One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace
will have the king for a friend.

What we need more than anything else is for our heart to be changed. A pure heart and words of grace go together.

What we say is a reflection of what's inside. You'll remember that the heart in the Bible doesn't mean our emotions. It means it's the essential you. Your heart is what makes you you. God promised in Ezekiel 11:19, "I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh." Paul wrote, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

God himself came to earth. One of his closest friends said of Jesus, "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). He's the only person who ever lived who never misspoke. And he died for us so that he could take upon himself all of our sins, all of our misspoken words. He gives us his righteousness, and also a new heart.

Jesus said, "Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart. For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). We don't need new words; most of all we need clean hands and clean hearts, given to us through the gospel.

Envy (Proverbs)

I'd like to ask you to think for a minute about what you desire the most in your life. It could be anything, really: a better house, success in your career, an accomplishment, popular acclaim, marriage, children, a comfortable retirement. But for everyone here, there is something that you think about, that you're working towards, that gives your life some meaning. As someone has said, "There is woven inside each of us a desire for something more - a craving to be part of something bigger, greater, and more profound than our relatively meaningless day-to-day experience" (Paul David Tripp, A Quest for More).

I'll give you an example. Remember Rocky, the first one way back in 1976? When Adrian, his girlfriend, asked him why he trains so hard, beating up meat in the freezer and running up those stairs in Philadelphia, Rocky answers, "I just want to go 15 rounds cause then I'll know I'm not a bum." There is something in your life that you are striving towards. It gives you identity, and if you attain what you're hoping for, then you know you're not a bum.

So can everyone think of something that you desire most in life? It should be fairly easy to identify. It's what gets you up out of bed in the morning. If it's a house, then it's what keeps you looking at the real estate section of the paper every time it arrives. If it's a career, it's what keeps you working so hard. It's whatever it is that you start thinking about when you lie in bed at night. It makes your daily life more bearable. You know you can make it if you reach your dreams in that area.

Now you may feel like I'm setting you up here, that I'm about to say, "Shame on you for wanting to live for something bigger than yourself." But actually, the desire to long for something transcendent in your life is God-given. You were meant to live for something bigger than yourself.

But there's a danger that goes along with this desire. That danger is envy. Envy is an attitude of discontentment, a consuming desire to have something that somebody else has that we don't. Jonathan Edwards defined envy as "a spirit of dissatisfaction with, and opposition to, the prosperity and happiness of others as compared with our own."

So I'd like to take whatever it is in your life this morning that you really desire, and to do some heart surgery on all of us this morning. Three questions: where do I envy? What's so bad about envy? And what do I do about it?

1. Where do I envy?

The reason I ask where you envy is because envy is one of those hidden sins that is very hard to detect within ourselves. We're not even aware that we're doing it most of the time. But Proverbs gives us two tests to see where it is that we envy.

The first test is what we're wearing ourselves out to get, what we have to have at all costs. Proverbs 23:4 says, "Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness." If there is something that you just have to have, that you are wearing yourself out to get, that you must have at all costs, then it is something that you envy.

In fact, the Hebrew word for envy in the Old Testament is interesting. Proverbs 23:17 says, "Don't let your heart envy sinners." The word envy there literally means to be jealous or zealous for something. It describes a passionate and intense desire for something. It's not always a bad word. You can be passionate and zealous for a good thing. But we're going to see in a minute that the zeal and passion can be misdirected, and this passion and zeal can turn into something negative that we call envy. If you want to figure out if you have envy in your life, you need to ask yourself what it is that you are passionate about, what it is in your life that you intensely desire. Those who know you well could probably help you figure this out, because it's often obvious to other people, even if it isn't to you.

The second test that Proverbs gives us is to ask: what is it that other people have that I would like? So all throughout Proverbs, we read things like: "Do not envy the violent" (Proverbs 3:31). "Do not let your heart envy sinners" (Proverbs 23:17). "Do not envy the wicked, do not desire their company" (Proverbs 24:1). "Do not fret because of evildoers, or be envious of the wicked" (Proverbs 24:19). The idea is that we will be tempted to look at what other people are enjoying, and it will drive us crazy because we're not enjoying the same things. It will especially drive us crazy if we are trying to live a life that is pleasing to God, and they are not, yet they are enjoying benefits that we don't get to enjoy.

The best example of this may be from the film Amadeus. Mozart's contemporary, Antonio Salieri, prayed as a young man, "Let me make music that will glorify you, Father. Help me lift the hearts of people to heaven. Let me serve you through my music."

God didn't answer that prayer. Salieri never became that great musician. But Mozart did. Mozart dazzled the crowds, playing music as if it was second nature to him. His melodies were complex and fun all at the same time, songs that soared till they seemed to bring heaven right down to earth. Yet Mozart was an obvious sinner. He was immature, vulgar, and obscene. He made off with the ladies every chance he could get. Salieri never understood why God chose to give Mozart extraordinary gifts and not him. He envied the wicked, and it drove him crazy.

The psalmist confessed in Psalm 73:

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
(Psalm 73:2-5)

You'll recognize this in your own life by when you hear good news about somebody else. You went to school with someone, and you hear that they just got a big promotion, or moved into this huge house on the Kingsway, or that they're incredibly rich. In most of our hearts we don't react to news like this with unbridled happiness for them. We're a little sad, and we think, "Why couldn't that have been me?"

We recognize envy two ways in our lives: by our intense desires, and by the times that we want what other people have for ourselves.

This leads us to the second question I want to ask this morning:

2. What's so bad about envy?

I hope you've recognized that all of us have envy in our souls. It's incredibly hard to detect in our own lives, but the reality is that it's a temptation to all of us. You may be thinking, "What is the big deal about envy? What's the problem?" Some argue that envy is good, that it is the driving force behind democracy and capitalism. On the other hand, envy is listed as one of the seven deadly sins by the historic church. Proverbs gives us quite a few reasons why envy is wrong. In fact, it's a danger to our souls.

One of the problems with envy is that the object of our envy is too small, too fleeting, to really take the place of affection that it has in our souls. Remember that I said that you were meant to live for something bigger than yourself? You were, but most of what we envy is ridiculously small. In the recent movie Juno, the stepmother of a pregnant teenager yells out in frustration, "When you move out I'm getting two Weimaraners!" The teenager sarcastically replies, "WHOA DREAM BIG!" But that's a lot like us. We were meant to live for something much larger than ourselves, but most of us settle for envying something much too small to really fill our souls.

Proverbs 23:4-5 says:

Do not wear yourself out to get rich;
do not trust your own cleverness.
Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone,
for they will surely sprout wings
and fly off to the sky like an eagle.

The writer says that something like wealth can become an all-consuming purpose in life, but it can lead to frustration, because they can disappear so quickly. The same goes for pretty much anything that we long for. If you long for youthful looks, then you're longing after something that's fleeting. It's a losing battle. If you long for popularity and acclaim, then it's only a matter of time before someone else is more popular than you are. A lot of what we envy is just another version of wanting two Weimaraners. It's not really a big enough desire. We're settling for something too small for our souls. Paul Tripp writes:

We were never meant to be self-focused little kings ruling miniscule little kingdoms with a population of one. Sure, it's right for you to care about your health, your job, your house, your investments, your family, and your friends. It would be irresponsible for you to act as if none of these things mattered. Yet it is a functional human tragedy to live only for these things. It is a fundamental denial of your humanity to narrow the size of your life to the size of your own existence, because you were created to be an "above and more" being. You were made to be transcendent. (A Quest for More)

The other problem with envy is that it is destructive. It destroys and consumes all who indulge it. Proverbs 14:30 says:

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.

Jealousy destroys one's inner peace. It eats away at a person. It can actually have a physical effect. Envy has a destructive energy that decimates everyone who falls in its path. Envy is actually what turned paradise into, well, what we have today. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, and envied the one thing they couldn't have, which is what got us into the mess we have today.

The story is told of a monk who lived in a wilderness cave. He was known far and wide for holiness, so much so that his reputation reached even to hell itself. So the devil took three of his most effective demons with him to tempt the monk out of his godliness. They found the monk sitting at the mouth of his cave, a serene look of contentment on his face. The first demon planted in his mind the temptation of great power, with visions of glorious kingdoms. But the monk's face remained serene. The second tempter planted in the monk's mind the temptation of great wealth, with visions of gold and silver and prosperity. But still the monk's face remained serene and contented. The third demon planted in his mind the temptation of sensuous pleasure, with visions of beautiful women. But the monk's face remained quiet and godly. Annoyed, the devil barked, "Step aside, and I will show you what has never failed." He strolled up beside the monk, leaned over, and whispered into his ear, "Have you heard the news? Your classmate Makarios has just been promoted to bishop of Alexandria." The face of the monk scowled.

You can have conquered all kinds of temptations, but if you give into the subtle sin of envy it will consume your soul. Envy, Proverbs says, rots the bones. There are other reasons we could look at in Scripture. For instance, envy destroys community. It's impossible to love and envy at the same time. But for now, let's stick with these two. Envy tries to get meaning out of something that is too small for our souls, and it ultimately destroys our souls.

One last question:

3. So what do I do about it?

What do we do about envy? Proverbs has two answers: worship, and eternity.

Proverbs 23:17 says:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.

That term "fear of the LORD" is often misunderstood. It doesn't mean cowering or terror. It means worshipful awe, so much so that our awe of the LORD becomes the primary motivator of all that we think, desire, say, and do. It means that we get our primary meaning and identity from God and nothing else.

This verse gives us two kinds of passionate longing. It says, "Don't passionately desire what sinners have. Instead, passionately desire the fear of the LORD." In other words, exchange what you desire most in your life. It's only when you desire God more than you desire anything else that you are free. This is the essence of worship: attributing worth to God. Exchange your worship of lesser things for the fear of God, which is reverence and worship for who God is.

C.S. Lewis wrote:

To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.

When we worship God, we will no longer get our identity from anything or anyone else. Someone (Sam Storms) put it this way:

The prideful person is obsessed with comparisons, always measuring himself/herself against others. The proud person finds his identity in relation to someone he thinks of as a lesser (which encompasses just about everyone). The humble person finds his identity in relation to someone he knows is greater: Jesus!

The other way to conquer envy is eternity. Proverbs 24:19-20 says:

Do not fret because of evildoers
or be envious of the wicked,
for the evildoer has no future hope,
and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.

Contrast this with those who fear the LORD, according to Provers 23:17-18:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.

The psalmist combined the two ideas of worship and eternity when he talked about his struggle with envy in Psalm 73. What changed? "...till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny" (Psalm 73:17). Worshiping God allowed him to desire God above the prosperity of the wicked. It also helped him to take the long view, and understand that he had a future and a hope that the wicked don't have. And then he concluded:

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
(Psalm 73:25-28)

Do you recognize envy in your life? The temptation is there in all of us. We will be tempted to long after things that really aren't big enough for our souls, and in the end it will destroy us. Envy rots the bones. The antidote is worship and eternity: to get our meaning and identity from God, not from lesser things; and to treasure him above all.

Let's pray.

You're meant to be dissatisfied. You're mean to long for more. You weren't meant to fill your cravings with things that can't fill your soul. We're far too easily satisfied.

Ungodliness is not just a set of sins. Someone's defined ungodliness as "finding fulfillment outside of God, which leads me to commit endless sins of the heart." We're supposed to long, but our longing is meant to be fulfilled in God, and in what he's bringing about in eternity.

I invite you to come this morning and repent of envy. The amazing thing about God is that while we were out envying after other things, God did not sit idly by as an unapproachable King. Instead the King went to a cross so that he could welcome us as we are and change our idolatrous hearts into hearts that long for him. Jesus gave up his hold on life so that we could be free from the things that have a hold on us. I invite you to come to Jesus who died for you, and to worship him this morning.

Wisdom and Money (Proverbs)

I really don't know what I was thinking when I planned this series. Last week we talked about sex, and this week we're talking about money. I seem to be heading into all kinds of trouble. You don't get much more personal than talking about sex and money, but both are recurring themes in the book of Proverbs. That's why we're talking about them. We can't live wisely unless we learn to live wisely when it comes to our sexuality, and also with our money.

We had mice in our house a few years ago. I set out all kinds of traps. One day I went to a trap and discovered a mouse there. I took the trap over the garbage and released the trap, expecting the dead mouse to drop into the garbage pail. Instead it ran away. That dumb mouse was smart enough to play dead until it could escape. That mouse may have been smart enough to escape the first time, but I'm pretty sure I captured it again, and that time it didn't get away.

Here's what we need to know: There are some traps that we tend to fall into. These traps have been around for thousands of years. The writer of the book of Proverbs has identified some of these areas, and offers advice to us on what we need to do to avoid setting off the traps and therefore ruining our lives.

One of the areas in which there are a lot of traps is the area of money. So today I want to look at what the book of Proverbs says about money. There's no way that we can look at everything the book of Proverbs says about money. I would encourage you to do what I end up doing with each of the topics we're looking at: to read through the entire book and to select the proverbs that have to do with a particular topic.

Even though we can't cover everything that Proverbs says about money, I think we can come up with a fairly useful summary of its message. When it comes to money, according to Proverbs, there are four things we need to know. Here's the first one:

1. Money is good

This may fall into the blindingly obvious category, but it's important to state. The reason is that some people have a mistaken view of money. They think that money is evil, that it's a bad thing. There are many people who think that the Bible says that money is the root of all evil, when in fact it doesn't say that at all. It says the love of money is the root of evil. Others glorify poverty. I remember sitting in a cemetery of all places eating lunch years ago with a person who said, "My life is just fine in every area except for one. I just wish there was no such thing as money." He had a very negative view of money. Some people think that it's wrong to save and to take prudent financial measures, like they pit spirituality against financial wisdom.

But Proverbs doesn't endorse this view, nor does it say that it's wrong to make lots of money.

For instance, Proverbs 6 tells us that we need to learn from ants and work hard, storing provisions in summer and gathering food at harvest. It says that poverty and scarcity come to those who are lazy.

Proverbs 8 tells us that God often blesses those who are wise with wealth:

With me are riches and honor,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
(Proverbs 8:18)

It says we should gather money by working hard and saving:

Dishonest money dwindles away,
but whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow.
(Proverbs 13:11)

And just one more example. Proverbs 22:4 says:

Humility is the fear of the LORD;
its wages are riches and honor and life.

I won't belabor this point, but it's an important one. There are some people who glorify poverty and look at anyone with money as being suspect. They think that there must be wrong with someone who has a nice house or who earns lots of money. They create this artificial dichotomy that says that spirituality is good and that money is bad. But there is nothing inherently wrong with money, nor is there anything inherently good about poverty. Money is actually a blessing from God. If you think that money itself is bad, you need to correct that thought, because you certainly don't get that idea from the Bible, or at least from Proverbs.

But here's the second thing that Proverbs tells us:

2. Money brings dangers

Don't make a mistake here. It's not that money is bad, but money does present some dangers. In other words, there are traps. This is probably the biggest theme to do with money in the book of Proverbs, so let's just look at a few of the dangers or traps we face when it comes to money.

One danger we face is the temptation to make money through unethical means. Proverbs 11:1 says:

The LORD detests dishonest scales,
but accurate weights find favor with him.

This proverb is repeated, which indicates its importance. It's basically an argument for honest business practices. When the weight of an item that's being sold is calculated dishonestly, it's detestable to the Lord. The Hebrew actually calls it an abomination, which is very strong language. It's the type of word that's usually used for sexual sin like cheating on your spouse. When you sell your house but you're not completely honest with the buyer about the condition of the house, or when you are in business and withhold information in order to make a sale, then those are corrupt business practices, and that is an abomination to the Lord.

Another danger is a little more subtle than that. Later on in the same chapter we read:

People curse those who hoard grain,
but they pray God's blessing on those who are willing to sell.
(Proverbs 11:26)

As I say, this is a bit more subtle. The picture is of someone making a business decision. If a commodity is scarce, then that scarcity can cause prices to go up, which could lead to a greater profit. A business person may be tempted to hold on to that commodity in order to make a greater profit, but then the community suffers because they need that commodity. Proverbs says that we can't focus only on the bottom line. The decisions that we make in business and as we make money are twofold: first, what makes good business sense? and two: what will benefit the community? If we don't ask how our financial decisions will help the community at large, and not just make money for me, then we're not handling our money wisely. We're falling into a trap.

Probably the biggest danger when it comes to money, though, is the one that's mentioned in verses like these:

Those who trust in their riches will fall,
but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.
(Proverbs 11:28)

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city;
they imagine it a wall too high to scale.
(Proverbs 18:11)

Give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD?'
(Proverbs 30:8-9)

You know the problem with money? It's not actually a problem with money; it's more of a problem with us. When we have money, we tend to put our trust in it rather than in God. Those who are rich often end up being the most spiritually impoverished, because money can become an idol in life. It's what they depend on rather than on God.

C.S. Lewis said:

One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realize your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that are at every moment totally dependent on God.

Jesus himself said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:24-25). I've heard all kind of people say that the eye of a needle was a gate in Jerusalem, so Jesus is saying that a camel will have a hard time getting through this gate, but it's not impossible. The problem is that the gate in Jerusalem known as "The Needle's Eye" was built during the middle ages and was not in existence in Jesus' day. Jesus is actually saying that it's as likely that a rich person to enter the kingdom as it is for you to be able to thread a needle with a camel. It's impossible, unless God intervenes.

So there's a danger, and we need to recognize that this is a danger for every person here. I know that very few of us feel rich here this morning. For us, rich is about $50,000 more a year than what we're making. But if earn the average full-time income in the city of Toronto - the average, not the highest - then you are in the top 4% of richest people in the world. You don't feel rich, but indeed we are. We need to understand that money isn't bad, but that it has dangers. Jesus talked about these dangers, and warned us that the main alternative to following him is not following atheism or some other religion. It's following money.

So one: money isn't bad. Two: money brings danger. Three is almost the same:

3. Money has limits

Even if we avoid all the dangers that come with money, even if we are completely wise in how we handle money, we need to recognize that although money is good, money has its limits. Even if you avoid all the dangers of money, and instead earn it ethically, use it for the common good, and trust God - even then, money can only do so much.

There are a lot of verses that touch on this, but probably the best one for us to consider this morning is found in Proverbs 11:4:

Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death.

What's he talking about here? The writer has nothing against wealth. But there comes a day when money won't do a bit of good. "The day of wrath" could refer to a tragedy that hits us, or it could refer to the day of judgment when we stand before God. In either case, you can have all the money in the world, and it won't do you any good.

In fact, even in this life, money can bring you headaches that others don't have. Proverbs 13:8 says:

The rich may be able to ransom their lives,
but the poor cannot respond to threatening rebukes.

In other words, the problem with having money is that you can be robbed and extorted. You can lose your money in the stock market. You can make a bad investment and lose everything. But the poor don't have that problem. They've got less to lose, which means that they've got less to worry about in the end.

Let's review where we've come so far. Money is good. If you have money, you're blessed. But money comes with dangers and limits. You may be asking why money is so good if it comes with so many dangers and limits? It's because you haven't seen what Proverbs says about the best thing you can do with your money.

4. Proverbs gives us the key to wise use of our money: generosity

Proverbs 11:24-25 says:

One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
A generous person will prosper;
whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

This is a theme all throughout the book of Proverbs. Verse 24 literally says, "There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more."

This is completely counter-intuitive. Common sense would lead us to believe that holding on to our possessions is a more certain way to wealth. It's a paradox. Here we're told that the best way to wisely handle our money, and to get even more, is to scatter it - a word that carries the meaning of throwing it "wildly, loosely, and freely about." It doesn't carry the idea of care and caution. In other words, the best way to handle your money is to be wildly and radically generous with it. Don't save it and accumulate it for your own purposes. Don't waste your life by playing it safe and living the middle class dream. Use what God has given you and be wildly generous with it.

The only way this makes sense is if you think agriculturally. The farmer who clings so tightly to the seed because he wants to keep it ends up with a bunch of useless seed. But the farmer who sows his seed in the field ends up with not only more seed, but a harvest as well.

This isn't just a theme in this passage. You can find it all throughout the book of Proverbs. It occurs over and over. For instance:

Those who are kind to the poor lend to the LORD,
and he will reward them for what they have done.
(Proverbs 19:17)

The generous will themselves be blessed,
for they share their food with the poor.
(Proverbs 22:9)

This is also a theme in the New Testament. Jesus himself said, "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38). Paul wrote to Timothy and said:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

The reason we're talking about this today isn't because the church needs money. The reason is because although money is good in itself, it comes with dangers and limits. And the main Biblical way to neutralize money's dangers and limits and, ultimately, to save our souls, is to give it away. Ironically, the more we give it away, the more God will entrust to us.

You say, "How much do I give away?" C.S. Lewis said, "I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare." If your generosity is not affecting your lifestyle, your vacations, your purchasing habits, you are not giving enough.

We're going to take an offering in a minute. The primary reason that we give isn't because the church needs money. The primary reason we give is because although money is good, it comes with dangers and limits, and the only way to neutralize these dangers and limits is to be wildly generous and as much as we possibly can.

And our model for this, by the way, is the ultimate one who scattered: Jesus Christ. He didn't just give a little. He gave everything. He was literally scattered and broken for us. And because of that we are part of a harvest that will continue through eternity. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Father, thank you for money. For whatever reason you have placed us in a prosperous country. Although many of us think we don't have much, the reality is, Father, that you have blessed us.

I pray that you would awaken us to the dangers and limits of money. Preserve us from the dangers of a middle-class, self-absorbed lifestyle. Teach us how to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Save us from the deceitfulness of riches. For those who are generous and willing to share lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

Sex by Design (Proverbs 5)

I hope you don't feel too uncomfortable talking about sex in church. It's actually one of those topics that's talked about everywhere these days but in church, which is probably where we need to be talking about it most.

There are a couple of reasons why I'd like us to talk about it. The first reason is because it's in the Bible. This may surprise a lot of people, but the Bible isn't squeamish at all in talking about sex. This makes sense when you remember that sex was God's idea. He's the one who made it up.

As we study Proverbs, it would be impossible for us to skip over this topic. Large parts of chapters 5, 6, and 7 talk about sex. You really can't talk about how to live wisely without talking about an area that's as much a part of life as this one is, and Proverbs doesn't shy away from addressing the issue.

This leads me to the second reason I'd like to talk about it: because it is such a part of life, and one we don't always handle very well. Every year some graduates of a preaching program get together with Haddon Robinson, who's a well-known teacher on preaching. Last year someone asked him what we need to be talking about in our churches that we aren't. He said, "Pornography, which is a symptom of something else." It's available all the time in your homes, in fact anywhere that you have an Internet connection or even a cell phone.

One recent study said that 7 out of 10 men between the ages of 18-34 visit a pornographic site in a typical month. Half of the men who attended a Promise Keepers rally in 1996 admitted that they had been involved with pornography within a week of attending the event. That was 12 years ago, but I doubt the number has gone down. Pornography affects even those we think won't be affected. A third of the female readers of Today's Christian Women admitted intentionally accessing Internet porn. Half of all evangelical pastors admit to viewing pornography in the past year. Divorce lawyers are saying that it's a significant factor in their divorce cases.

Statistics are fine, but let's make it more tangible. This is an issue for a number of us here. I was actually working on this sermon when I got an email about one of my pastor friends. He and his wife were friends with another couple in the church. Somehow he got involved in a relationship with this other woman. He's resigned from the church. His wife has left him and has gone home to her parents. I saw him last year and he had everything going for him. Today he's a completely broken man who has lost almost everything.

That's why we need to discuss it: because the Bible talks about it, and because sex is part of our life, and for many of us it's a struggle. And, as we're going to see, the consequences are huge for us depending on how we handle this area.

So Proverbs 5 says something we're used to hearing:

My son,a pay attention to my wisdom,
turn your ear to my wordsof insight,
that you may maintain discretion
and your lips may preserve knowledge.
(Proverbs 5:1-2)

Again, the father, the instructor, is calling out to us to hear what he has to say. This too is an area of either wisdom or foolishness. We can live skillfully in this area, or we can go our own way and do as we please. Proverbs invites us to listen, because it has something to say about how to live well in this area.

Then we're introduced to the subject of this chapter:

For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil;
but in the end she is bitter as gall,
sharp as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
her steps lead straight to the grave.
She gives no thought to the way of life;
her paths wander aimlessly, but she does not know it.
(Proverbs 5:3-6)

Now, don't forget that this is a father or a tutor addressing a young man. The warning here is against an adulterous woman, but if the writer had been talking to a young female, he could have written about the adulterous man. There's no assigning blame to a particular gender here. Both need to be very careful to hear what the writer has to say in the area of sexual temptation. In fact, what he's going to say applies not only to all sexual temptation, all sexual activity that's not with one's husband or wife.

And he says something that we need to acknowledge up front: that sexual temptation looks very good up front. He says "the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey." Honey then was the sweetest thing known. Sexual temptation is sweet and smooth. It looks very good, and it promises a lot up front. It's fun to flirt. It's enjoyable to check somebody out, to read certain kinds of novels, to watch stuff, to look at pictures. It's fun to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage.

But there's a cost. Verse 4 says, "In the end she is bitter as gall." There's sweetness at first, but it turns out to be bitter. It starts out like honey and ends up tasting like you want to spit it out of your mouth. It's as "sharp as a double-edged sword." It cuts. It hurts. And then you get the picture that's common in the book of Proverbs: that of two paths. The path of giving into sexual temptation is not one that leads to good life. It's one that leads to death. That which looks so promising up front ends up leaving you bitter and disillusioned.

There's a lie that culture tells us. The lie goes like this: illicit sex is fun and fulfilling. The thing that makes this lie so dangerous is that it's almost true. It is indeed fun and fulfilling at first. It promises a lot. It's inviting and exciting. But here's the truth behind the lie: illicit sex promises way more than it actually delivers.

In fact, verses 9 to 14 give us the consequences of illicit sex. You could lose everything: power, years, wealth, and the fruit of hard-earned labor. This picture is all too real to me because it describes my friend that I mentioned who's lost everything that these verses mention. Even if you escape with your life, verse 14 says that you may not escape with your reputation. There are people, many people, who have lost everything - their jobs, money, their family, their reputation - as a result of the elicit sex that looked so alluring up front. You could put it like this: When you take what is not yours, you can end up losing what is yours. Take what's not yours, end up losing what is. There's a lot at stake here.

That's why this is so important. But here's the bad news: It's not enough to know this. There are lots of people who know what's at stake but who still take the risk despite knowing all the warnings. It's like the cigarette packages. Have you seen the cigarette packages these days? They tell you everything that could go wrong, and they show you disgusting pictures on those packages, but people still go ahead and smoke. Why? Because they can't help it. They want to smoke even though they know what it's doing to them. The same applies to many of us today. We know this, but sexual temptation is still going to look pretty alluring to us. We won't be able to help ourselves, even knowing what going down this path could do to us.

So Proverbs gives us two strategies that will help us if we use them.

Strategy one is a defensive strategy.

It's what we have to do to protect ourselves. Verses 7 and 8 say:

Now then, my sons, listento me;
do not turn aside from what I say.
Keep to a path far from her,
do not go near the door of her house...

Now listen: do you know what is sexually tempting for you? If you struggle with sexual temptation, then you do. Our normal strategy is to get as close as we can to the temptation without giving in. We like to experience the thrill of the temptation and think that we can get away with it.

Do you see what verse 8 says? Don't even go near what tempts you. Change your path so that you don't even get near to the temptation. Don't go anywhere near the temptation. Stay far, far away. You need to take intentional, deliberate evasive action so that you avoid as much sexual temptation as is humanly possible. It's costly, but that's what you need to do if you want to avoid the consequences that come from failing in this area. If you want to avoid being led into ruin, we need to keep as far away as possible from whatever it is that tempts us sexually.

I know that you may be thinking, "Come on, don't get carried away. Let's not get fanatical here." But if you're thinking that, you really haven't grasped what happens when you continue to go down a path that takes you right beside temptation. We tend to want verse 8 to say, "Keep a path near to temptation as long as you don't give in. Go near the door of temptation's house - that's okay. Just don't go in the door." But if we keep talking that path and going past that door, it's only a matter of time before we're not just walking by the door. Eventually we'll end up inside.

Developers in Florida sometimes build planned communities right on top of marshlands that were previously occupied by alligators. Then families with small children move in. That's good business for people like Kevin Garvey, who is a trapper licensed to remove nuisance alligators. He gets thousands of complaints of nuisance alligators a year, and in half a year he trapped 130. If you build your house on marshes, don't be surprised when an alligator shows up in your backyard. If you settle for a lifestyle that involves trouble, don't act surprised when you fall into sin.

So let me ask you: what tempts you in this area? It could be a friendship with somebody, and you know the emotional bonds are getting way too close, and that relationship is in danger of becoming an emotional or even a physical affair. It could be novels that you're reading that you find arouse passions in you. It could be somebody that you see regularly that you have thoughts about. You think that you can handle these temptations, so you're regularly taking a path right past the door.

For a lot of people temptation comes from media. If you go to a magazine stand you can't help but see images that are going to tempt us. The same goes for movies. Then there's the Internet. Some Christian counselors think that Christians are even more at risk for pornographic addiction because of the feelings of shame. In private, with little accountability, we can easily slip into viewing porn. There's an endless supply.

You need to identify whatever it is that is tempting you. Every person here should be able to identify the area or areas of temptation. There is no shame in admitting the temptation, by the way. It is not sinful to be tempted.

And then we have to take the additional step of taking evasive action, and it could mean something as radical as changing your job, breaking a friendship, canceling your Internet connection if need be. It could be as small as changing your newspaper, getting your wife to get rid of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition when it arrives, moving the computer to a common area of the house, or installing an Internet filter on your computer. For those of you who are dating it could mean not being alone together except in a public place. You know what tempts you; you need to take defensive and specific action. "Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house."

The first strategy is a defensive or reactive one.

The second strategy is more proactive.

The best defense against falling sexually is a vital relationship with your proper sexual partner, your spouse. Verses 15 to 20 are highly erotic. These verses tell us to find satisfaction and joy within our marriages. Verse 18 even says, "May your fountain be blessed." Sex is not something that's dirty. Sexual delight is a God-given gift. It's something that God blesses. Eroticism is actually celebrated in Scripture and blessed by God when it's enjoyed within the marriage relationship.

Notice in this passage that sex within marriage isn't only for procreation. It's for joy.

I realize that not everyone here is married, but for those who are: your sexual life is meant to be fulfilling and enjoyable for both of you. It's an area of our lives in which we can learn to love selflessly, serving the other. One of the best defenses against falling sexually is to maintain a vital sexual relationship with our spouse.

The writer saves the most powerful argument for last. He's talked about the human dangers. He's described what happens when we fall. He's given us too strategies for handling sexual temptation. But he finishes with this, in verses 21-23:

For your ways are in full view of the LORD,
and he examines all your paths.
The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them;
the cords of their sins hold them fast.
For lack of discipline they will die,
led astray by their own great folly.

God is watching. That means that the consequences are not just human and a matter of chance. God, who sees all things, lets sin punish itself.

I'd be guilty of pastoral malpractice if I stopped here. One of Satan's tricks in this area is to fill us with so much shame that we feel completely isolated, defeated, and embarrassed. Here's what Satan knows: sin thrives in the dark. It thrives when we are experiencing shame and secrecy. The solution is to bring our struggles out of the darkness and into the light, where we can experience God's incredible grace in this area.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul lists a number of sins, including sexual ones. He says that these are serious sins, and that those who engage in them - there's a whole list, not just sexual - will not inherit the kingdom of God. But then he says, "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). Through what Christ has done for us, and through the power of the Spirit, those of us who have fallen sexually can be washed, can be sanctified, can be justified, and can begin again.

Ted Roberts wrote a book called Pure Desire: How One Man's Triumph Over His Greatest Struggle Can Help Others Break Free. It's an excellent book. One day he spoke at a church in the middle of the Bible belt. The pastor told him to speak on some generic topic. Roberts said, "I would love to do that, but I will end up talking about real life – about the bondage, addiction and trauma that so many people are struggling with today. And I will challenge them to open up these areas of their lives to God so He can heal them and set them free."

The expression on the pastor's face changed a bit and he commented, "Well, I don't think we have a lot of folks dealing with the depth of issues that you're talking about. This isn't just the Bible belt part of the country. We call it the buckle of the Bible Belt."

But the pastor gave Roberts the green light, so he didn't pull any punches. At the end of the service, he gave an altar call for people struggling with sexual issues. No one moved at first. Then the dam broke, and they lined up three to four deep at the altar.

I'm not going to ask you to come forward. I am going to ask you though to take decisive action today, and to receive grace and help from God. Let's pray.

Is there anyone who is struggling with sexual issues today? Anyone who's fallen?

Jesus said to a woman caught in adultery, "I don't condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."

I invite you to come to the grace of God. He knows your struggle, and he is more than willing to pour out his grace upon you, to wash you, to sanctify you, to justify you. Come to God and receive his grace and forgiveness. And then go and leave your life of sin.

Father, may every person here today receive the grace that abounds in Jesus Christ. Forgive us our debts. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Help us to find forgiveness and restoration in you, and to take practical steps to avoid the path that leads to sin.

Strengthen every marriage. Give us the courage to not only receive your grace, but to break out of the shame and to take very deliberate steps to avoid falling again.

We pray all of this in the powerful name of our Savior, who bore our sins at the cross. In his name we pray, Amen.

Family (Proverbs)

A father passed by his son's bedroom and was astonished to see the bed nicely made up and everything neat and tidy. Then he saw an envelope propped up on the pillow. It was addressed, "Dad." With the worst premonition, he opened the envelope and read the letter with trembling hands:

Dear Dad,

It is with great regret and sorrow that I'm writing you. I had to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with you and Mom. I've been finding real passion with Joan, and she is so nice. I knew you would not approve of her because of all her piercings, tattoos, tight motorcycle clothes, and the fact that she is so much older than I am. It's not just her passion, Dad. She really gets me.

Joan says that we are going to be very happy. She owns a trailer in the woods and has a stack of firewood—just enough for the whole winter. We share a dream of having many children.

Please don't worry, Dad. I'm 15 and I know how to take care of myself. I'm sure we'll be back to visit someday so you can get to know your grandchildren.

Your son, Chad

P.S. Dad, none of the above is true. I'm over at Tommy's house. I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than the report card that's in my desk drawer. I love you! Call when it is safe for me to come home.

If you want to know why fathers get gray hair, that's why. Parenting - in fact, family life in general - can take it out of you, and it requires large mounts of wisdom and perspective.

We've been looking at the book of Proverbs, and I think you'd agree that if we need wisdom in any area, we certainly need it when it comes to our family life. Families are like the graduate school of spirituality. We can fake it at church. We can largely fake it at our workplaces and even with our friends. But marriage and parenting leave us no room to hide. Our true characters are revealed with those who are closest to us. It's in our families that we encounter some of our greatest joys, but it's also in our families that we are stretched like we're stretched nowhere else.

I speak from personal experience. My family has been an incredible gift from God. It brings me great joy, and when I'm away from my family I miss them terribly. Yet my family has also been one of the most challenging areas of my life. In my family I have been confronted with my selfishness and my sin. It's where I've learned that I am not the center of the universe, and that I have faults that I didn't even know existed. It's also where I've been stretched in ways that I can't even begin to describe, and I'm still being stretched. It's rewarding yet it's incredibly challenging, and I'm just getting started.

I also speak from counseling experience. In over 17 years of pastoring I've encountered many families who have been equally stretched or more, sometimes to the breaking point.

So I'd like to look at what Proverbs says about families this morning. This affects all of us, even if we aren't currently living within a family. Even if you're not in a family, you can use this to help your children and grandchildren and friends as they deal with some of what we're going to talk about.

Proverbs tells us about the challenges of family life, and then it points us to the best ways to meet these challenges.

First, let's look at the challenges of family.

What I really love about Proverbs is that it is very realistic in how it portrays family life. For instance, listen to the realism as it describes what marriage can be like when it's not going so well:

Better to live on a corner of the roof
than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. (21:9)

A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping
of a leaky roof in a rainstorm;
restraining her is like restraining the wind
or grasping oil with the hand. (27:15-16)

And those are only two verses. Some of you husbands are feeling pretty smug as you read those, so let me say that they are equally applicable the other way. Proverbs was written with a male audience in mind, but it goes both ways with equal force. Women can legitimately read this and say, "Better to live in a corner of the roof and face the forces of nature without protection than to share a house with a quarrelsome husband. A quarrelsome husband wears you down like constant dripping, and is as unsteady as the wind and as slippery as oil." In other words, when marriage isn't going well, it's really hard. Most every married couple here could testify to this. Being a sinner, and being married to a sinner, can push us to our limits and beyond. In fact, look how damaging a bad marriage can be:

A wife of noble character is her husband's crown,
but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones. (12:4)

Notice the balance here. A good marriage enhances life; a bad marriage deeply affects one's life in the most profound way.

And then there's children. Proverbs is also very realistic about children. In fact, one proverb combines the challenges of marriage and children:

A foolish child is a father's ruin,
and a quarrelsome wife is like
the constant dripping of a leaky roof.(19:13)

It acknowledges that children can go wrong and become a source of sorrow, not joy, for parents:

Foolish children bring grief to their father
and bitterness to the mother who bore them. (17:25)

There are those who curse their fathers
and do not bless their mothers... (30:11)

It even says that there are children who rob from their parents. You need to hear the realism of Proverbs. Family life will not necessarily be easy. Both marriage and parenting can be very difficult, more than we could imagine. The reason is because of sin. The reality is you are in a family, you are a are sinner - the apostle Paul would say the worst of sinners - waking up with other sinners. That's going to be hard.

That means a couple of things. If you're single or you haven't yet had children, I don't want you to have an unrealistic view. It will be hard. You have to know that up front. And if you're going through struggles in your family life, then take comfort. When we recognize the core problem is sin, and not just sin in others, but sin in my life - then we're on the right track. Because Proverbs also gives us some resources to deal with the challenges of family life.

The first resource is wisdom.

To successfully manage the challenges of the family, we need wisdom. I'd like to break it down to a few different life situations.

Single - If you're single and want to get married, then the choice of a spouse is incredibly important. You play a role, but to be honest, picking a good spouse is beyond all of us. Nobody really knows who they're marrying. Lewis Smedes said that his wife had been married to five different men, and all of them had been him. If you're single, Proverbs teaches you that a good spouse can only come from God:

Houses and wealth are inherited from parents,
but a prudent wife is from the Lord.(19:14)

A wife of noble characterawho can find?
She is worth far more than rubies. (31:10)

Since Proverbs was primarily written to single men, its emphasizes the importance of choosing a spouse with the greatest of care, because the stakes are high. There are few decisions that you will make that are more important. Never just run into marriage. Use all the wisdom and discernment you can muster before you get married. But even then, a good spouse is a gift from the Lord. This drives us to prayer. A good spouse is a gift from the Lord. If you have one, by the way, you should praise God for the incredible gift he's given you.

Married - What about those of you who are married? Proverbs 5 tells us:

May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer—
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be intoxicated with her love. (5:18-19)

What you need to remember as you read this is that people did not generally marry for love when this was written. People married for security, status, and children. You didn't marry for love; that came much later. Women were looked down upon and had little recourse when their husbands looked elsewhere for sexual pleasure.

But Proverbs tells us something completely different. It tells us to guard our marriages; to find pleasure and even become intoxicated by your spouse; that your spouse is not just a legal partner, a housemate, the parent of your children. He or she is part of a relationship that can be easily lost, and that must be nourished and protected so that it is a source of joy and pleasure for both of you.

You may say, "Fine and good, but you don't know my spouse." You're right, I don't. This doesn't mean it will be easy. It certainly doesn't mean that there won't be confrontation. In fact, it's unloving not to confront someone, because loving someone means helping them and helping them sometimes means that we confront them. There are some situations that are so hard that you will need to get help, and there are other situations in which we must place boundaries.

But for most of us the command we have is to protect and nourish our marriages so that they become sources of mutual joy. This won't happen automatically. It will take very deliberate effort. If you're married you need to figure out how to romance your spouse, and the crazier life gets and the more children you have, the more important this is. We can ask, "If you knew I wouldn't get angry, what could you tell me about how to be a better husband? A better wife?" Those of you who are married: protect and cultivate your marriage. Wisdom for singles is to choose your spouse carefully, and wisdom for those of us who are married is to do everything you can to protect and cultivate your relationship.

Parents - Our culture tends to see the problem as outside of us and that the solution for what's wrong is inside of us. When we apply this to children, we tend to think that our kids are fine, and our job is to bring out what's inside of them and to improve their self-esteem so that they can fully express who they are. A lot of us think that our role is to let our children express what's inside of them.

That would be a great view if we weren't sinners. Proverbs is honest with us: people left to their own natural tendencies are bad and will only get worse. It's like your garden. If you let it grow wild, you'll end up with a weed patch. What we need to do actually requires more skill: to pull out the weeds but to let what's good to grow. Countless proverbs say things like:

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
but the rod of discipline will drive it far away. (22:15)

A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom,
but children left to themselves disgrace their mother. (29:15)

Discipline your children, and they will give you peace;
they will bring you the delights you desire. (29:17)

There would be two mistakes we could make as we read this. One is to become too harsh and dominant with our children, so that we fail to nurture them and we pull out not only weeds but what's good. This view is wrong because these verses do not provide license for abuse. The discipline here is not out of anger or hate or a desire to harm. It's out of concern for the well-being of the child.

The other mistake we could make is to be to be so lenient and permissive that we don't discipline at all, and pretty soon everything is weeds. Both would be tragic. Being overly permissive or overly harsh with our kids is equally wrong.

Some of us are much too hard on our children. We've never taken the time to stop yelling, to sit down and carefully listen and ask, "How are you doing? What's on your mind?" Some of us are far too lenient and we've never loved our children enough to say, "This has to stop. For your own good you cannot do this." Proverbs gives us the wisdom to realize that our children are sinners, and that they need wisdom and discipline from their parents if they are going to grow to be wise.

This is what it means to be a wise single person, a wise spouse, a wise parent. Family life is hard because of sin. It requires wisdom. Wisdom for a single person means choosing a marriage partner carefully. Wisdom for a married person means protecting and nurturing the marriage. Wisdom for a parent means lovingly correcting our children to help them improve.

The results are found in Proverbs 17:6:

Children's childrenare a crown to the aged,
and parents are the pride of their children. (17:6)

When this goes right, then entire families bring glory to each other. Grandchildren become joys to grandparents. Children take pride and joy in their parents. In other words, families can become sources of blessing to each other in a way that impacts multiple generations.

So let's review. Family life is challenging because of sin. Wisdom helps us meet the challenges of family life. It will lead single people to be discerning, married people to be protective and nourishing within marriage, and parents to lovingly correct their children.

All of this is good, but it's not really enough. There's one more resource that we need, and we see hints of it in the book of Proverbs when it talks about families.

To meet the challenges of family life, we not only need wisdom, we need the gospel.

Listen to these proverbs:

Those who fear the Lord have a secure fortress,
and for their children it will be a refuge.(14:26)

The righteous lead blameless lives;
blessed are their children after them.(20:7)

There comes a time when we must realize that the biggest problem isn't the other sinners in my family. The biggest problem in my family is me. You see, the problem with my family is, frankly, me. I need to change more than they do. The same is probably true for you. It's not to say that the other people in your family aren't sinners. They're definitely sinners too. But your main problem is that you're a sinner, and you need changing.

That's why I'm glad Proverbs takes us here. Remember that fear of the Lord means learning our place - who God is and who we aren't? Proverbs teaches us that for our families to be really blessed, we need to understand who God is, who we are, and then run to God as our security. We need a heart change so that we become truly righteous within our inner core. When we do this, our children will be blessed, and they will have refuge as well.

The best way for us to meet the challenges of family life is to recognize the extent of your sinful nature. Rather than defeating you, it will cause you to run to Jesus - not just once but repeatedly. Jesus took our place and bore our sins on the cross, and he provides us with forgiveness and help in our daily struggle with sin.

The more we see our sin and the vastness of God's mercy, the more we'll own up to the ways that we negatively impact our families. The more we'll run to the cross with gratitude for what he's done for us. And the more we run to the cross, the more humble and loving we'll become towards the other sinners that God has placed within our family. We'll love them with some of the same love that God extended to us.

Father, I pray for every single person here. Guard them. Help them to make the right decisions. If it would be your will, guide them into marriage with a spouse who will be a gift from you and a blessing in their lives.

Give your wisdom to the married couples here. Help them to protect and nourish their relationships. I pray that some of them would have honest conversations about how they can do this as a result of what we've read in Proverbs today.

Give us wisdom as we parent our children. Help us to love them and correct them. May we neither be too harsh nor too lenient. Help us to lovingly correct them as you do to us.

Most of all, help us to see the greatness of our own sin, along with the greatness of your grace. And may it cause grandparents, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and children to run to the cross, and there find all that we need in Christ to live within our families. In Christ's name, Amen.

What Wisdom's Worth (Proverbs 3:13-35)

We're currently studying the book of Proverbs, a book that's written to teach us wisdom, which is the skill of living well.

If you've been following along so far, you may have noticed that the book of Proverbs takes a long time before it gets to what we normally think of as proverbs. The first 9 chapters of Proverbs are kind of an introduction, and only in chapter 10 do we get to some of the short, pithy statements that we expect to read. We need to ask why the book spends so much time by way of introduction. I think the answer is that the author of Proverbs knows something about us that makes the first part of Proverbs necessary. He knows that although we want wisdom, we really won't understand what wisdom's worth. And because we don't know what wisdom's worth, we won't pursue it like we need to.

When I was a high school student working a part time job, I went to work one day and got a check I wasn't expecting. It was my holiday pay, equivalent to 4% of what I had earned in the past year, in lieu of me taking a vacation. I think the check was for about $150 or something like that. I was making about $2.65 an hour, so this was a huge windfall for me. It was like I had won the lottery.

So I did what any high school student would do: I cashed the check and spent it that same day. I can only remember one thing I bought with it, even though that item and the money are ancient history. It drove my mother crazy, because I squandered something that I probably should have valued a lot more.

Imagine that when I got that check, a financial adviser had somehow shown up at that very minute, before I could go to the bank and cash the check and spend it all. Suppose that the financial adviser had told me that if I took that money and invested it, that it would be worth five times as much right now. And what if she told me that if I put it away and forgot about it until I retired, that relatively puny amount would be worth thousands of dollars, about 30 times more than it was worth when I started?

Well, to be honest, I probably would have still spent the money anyway. I didn't recognize the value of thousands of dollars later. I recognized the value of $150 now, and I wanted to spend it.

Unless we understand the value of wisdom, we won't get serious about pursuing it. So in today's passage, the writer tells us three things:

  • what wisdom's worth
  • what wisdom's worth to us, and
  • what wisdom can do

And when we see what wisdom is worth, and what it can do, then we'll be prepared to pursue it with our lives.

So first, let's look at what wisdom is worth.

Verses 13 to 15 say:

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.

Imagine for a minute that you inherited a necklace from your grandmother. It's not really your style, so you throw it in a drawer somewhere. One day you decide to take it in to a jeweler to see if it's worth anything. As he looks through the eyepiece, you see his eyes begin to bulge. And then he goes into the back room and gets an even bigger eyepiece. Then he goes on the Internet and looks some things up. Eventually he comes back and evangelizes you. He tells you that this necklace is priceless, that it's a long lost treasure that's worth far more than everything he's sold in that entire store in 25 years. What would you do? That necklace, that wasn't really your style, would suddenly become very valuable to you. You wouldn't leave it in the drawer anymore. You'd sell it or put it away somewhere safe, but it would become far more valuable to you than it had ever been before.

That's exactly what happens in this passage. Because we're likely to undervalue wisdom, we're told how much wisdom is worth. One of the main reasons we don't pursue wisdom is because we undervalue it.

So we're told that wisdom is more profitable, a better investment, than silver or gold, and more valuable than rubies. Gold, silver, and rubies are extremely precious and expensive. They're difficult to extract from the earth and rare. But the profit and value of wisdom surpasses them all.

But wisdom's also valuable because of what it offers. Verses 16 to 18 say:

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.

Notice that wisdom is personified as a female. She's got long life in her right hand, and riches and honor in her left. Wisdom's valuable because she offers so much.

Then verse 18 says that wisdom is a tree of life. The tree of life is what we lost access to in the Garden of Eden when Adam sinned against God. It represents healing and eternal life, which can be received again if we humble ourselves and take hold of wisdom.

So wisdom is profitable, valuable, and life-giving. In case you're still not buying the beauty and value of wisdom, there's more in verses 19-20:

By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew.

Wisdom is the principle by which God created this world, and it's the principle by which he sustains it. Divine wisdom guided our Creator, and it continues to guide the operation of this world. Wisdom is of such value that the world wouldn't exist or operate without it.

We're very prone to undervalue the importance of wisdom. The Royal Canadian Mint recently conducted a survey on the penny. They asked what you would do if you dropped a penny down the back of your sofa while watching TV. Would you stick your hand in to get it back? Two-thirds of Canadians said no. It's just a penny; it's not worth the effort. It's not valuable enough; it probably wasn't worth having in the first place.

The writer of Proverbs spends nine chapters waving his arms saying: wisdom is no penny. Don't underestimate its value.

But he doesn't just stop with its intrinsic value. In verses 21 to 26 he switches to addressing the reader. He doesn't just describe what wisdom's worth, he describes what wisdom is worth to you.

So second, let's look at what wisdom is worth to us.

Practically speaking, what can wisdom do for our lives?

Verses 21 to 26 say:

My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.
Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked,
for the LORD will be at your side
and will keep your foot from being snared.

We're cynical and used to being oversold. But the writer promises a lot to us if we pursue wisdom. If we have wisdom, he says, we will be secure. We will be able to go through life and even go to bed at night knowing that we are secure. When tragedies come and other people panic, we won't need to be afraid.

How can he promise so much? It seems impossible. But verse 26 tells us: it's because when we have wisdom, the LORD will be at our side. Nothing will take place that he doesn't allow. No matter what happens, we will have God's presence or protection.

So wisdom is valuable, but not just intrinsically. It's also valuable for our lives. Like the necklace that's priceless, it's not just the beauty or value of the necklace that's significant. It's how that value can change our lives.

This passage doesn't end there. The author or compiler leaves us with one more section. Scholars have struggled to piece together why it's included here, because it at first looks unrelated. It seems to be a practical application of the command to pursue wisdom. In any case, it highlights the value of wisdom because it shows what wisdom can do.

So third, let's look at what wisdom can do.

The American poet Carl Sandburg said, "Love your neighbor as yourself; but don't take down the fence." Love has its limits. At the beginning of 2008 three men decided to walk the 9,000 miles between Britain and India without a dime in their pocket. Their goal was to rely only on the kindness of strangers as they traveled. Whenever they entered a town, they would offer a few minor services and accept food and lodging as payment. At the end of January 2008, they packed a few items, stepped into their hiking shoes, and hit the road.

The confident trio got as far as Calais, France, before they gave up. No one in the group spoke French, and the language barrier proved too difficult to overcome. The townspeople were suspicious of what they believed to be a bunch of freeloaders, so they turned a cold shoulder to them. Saddened over their failed mission, they returned home. You can only expect so much from strangers.

But verses 27 to 35 show us what real community could look like when we get wisdom. If you weren't convinced by the value of wisdom, or what wisdom can do for you, maybe you'll see the value of wisdom when you see what it can do to a community. Verse 27 commands the student who wants wisdom to never withhold good from one's neighbor if you're able to help. Verse 29 says never to do anything evil toward your neighbor. Looking at the broader community, verse 30 says to never make false accusations, and verse 31 warns against being jealous of those who get ahead by getting what they want unjustly. Put this all together and you realize that wise people make good neighbors. They are the kind of person that you want living next door. Wise people aren't only wise for their own sakes, but they bring blessing and good to the entire community. If you don't value wisdom for its own sake or for what it can do for you, value it for the type of people that it produces.

We're going to get into some practical areas in the upcoming sermons from Proverbs. But for now I need to ask you: do you see the value in wisdom? Until you see what wisdom's worth, you won't pursue it.

I know we all see the value of wisdom in our minds, but the real question is one for your heart. Do you treasure wisdom? That's what it's going to take if you are going to be wise. When we see what wisdom's worth, that's when we'll really begin to pursue it.

When Solomon, the compiler of this book, became king of Israel, we read that "the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, 'Ask for whatever you want me to give you.'" Solomon replied, "Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong" (1 Kings 3:5,9). God granted his request. Out of everything that Solomon could have asked for, he valued and received wisdom.

And now we're being invited to pursue wisdom ourselves by Solomon. And the first step is to see what wisdom's worth and begin to treasure it in our hearts. When we recognize it's value, we'll really begin to pursue it.

Somebody might ask, "Do you really mean to say there's nothing more valuable than wisdom?" Actually there is. Remember that in Proverbs that pursuing God means pursuing wisdom, and pursuing wisdom means pursuing God? Proverbs 2 said that if we pursue wisdom, we'll gain the fear of the LORD, and Proverbs 1 tells us that the fear of the LORD is where wisdom begins. But there's something, or more accurately, someone even better than the wisdom Solomon knew about:

  • The Queen of Sheba testified to Solomon's wisdom, but Jesus said that she would rise at the judgment and condemn people for not listening to his own superior wisdom.
  • Solomon talked about finding the tree of life, but Jesus offers eternal life.
  • Solomon called on his students to write his teachings on their hearts, but Jesus gave us the Spirit to write God's Word on our hearts.
  • Solomon was a good king, but Jesus is the ultimate King.
  • Solomon ultimately failed to obey his own wisdom, but Christ is the perfect embodiment of wisdom.
  • Solomon lost his kingdom, but Jesus' kingdom is eternal.
  • Solomon called on his students to feed their enemies, but Jesus died for his enemies.

Jesus is the wisdom of God. Colossians 2 tells us that in him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."

When we not only see what wisdom is worth, but we see that wisdom is ultimately about the one who gave his life for us, we'll see that it indeed is worth pursuing. Because this type of wisdom is incredibly valuable, both intrinsically and practically. It makes us good neighbors, and it brings us to the only One who can truly offer us life.

Let's pray.

Father, our great temptation is to undervalue wisdom. I pray that today we would have learned the incredible value of wisdom. And how much more so now that we know the One who embodied wisdom, who did what Solomon couldn't do, and actually met the standards of wisdom perfectly.

Thank you that Jesus, who is the wisdom of God, offered his life for those of us who fall short. And thank you for the wisdom that is found in him. May we see his value, and may we pursue him with all of our lives. In his name we pray. Amen.

Wisdom, Rewards, and Failure (Proverbs 3:1-12)

If you go to Chapters this afternoon, and wander to the self-help section, you're going to find some books that are going to teach you how to live a good life. Here's a sample:

  • One book shows how "transcending our ego-based state of consciousness is not only essential to personal happiness, but also the key to ending conflict and suffering throughout the world." It tells us "how to awaken to a new state of consciousness and follow the path to a truly fulfilling existence."
  • Another book offers "a five-day jump start that uses the principles in the book in a very specific, directed way to get you a fresh start on the path to optimal wellness."
  • Just one other example. Another book gives a step-by-step process that will help us navigate the terrain of our best lives so we can set a new life course

These are all very popular books, and there are more. And if they're not enough, you can get magazines as well that teach you about friendship, how to look hot, how to improve every area of your life that you can think of.

There's a huge demand for wisdom, isn't there? This morning we're going to continue to look at a book of the Bible that offers wisdom so that we know how to live. Wisdom in this book means skill in living, competence in dealing with the realities of life.

And what we're going to see in this passage this morning is completely different than anything we'll find at Chapters. Proverbs 3 gives us three things we need to understand: the path to wisdom, the rewards of wisdom, and then - surprisingly, about failure.

First, let's look at the path to wisdom.

Proverbs 3 tells us how to become wise, how to obtain skill in living. It's different from what you find anywhere else.

In his book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes about what sets ancient wisdom apart from some of the wisdom we encounter today:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the 'wisdom' of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

If you look at a lot of books and advice today, they're about techniques for you to get what you want. It's about changing the world to match what your soul wants. Proverbs is completely different. It's not about changing the world out there as much as it is about changing us so that our souls match reality.

So this morning's passage gives us some practices or habits that we need to incorporate into our lives so that, over time, we will become wise.

The first practice Scriptural. Verse 1 says, "My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart." The writer talks about his teaching and his commands, which probably refers to the completed book of Proverbs. But it's bigger than that. The word teaching in the original is torah, which is the same word for God's Law, the first five books of the Bible. The writer of Proverbs is urging us to take God's Word, to remember it, and actually to go further than that: to keep them in our heart. The heart in the Bible is means the essential you - your mind, emotions, and will. The writer tells us to take the Scriptures and embed them in our lives, almost like the Scriptures become the operating system of our lives.

If you've travelled up the 400 or Highway 69, you've seen these huge rocks on either side of the highway. They're huge. You realize that they've come along with dynamite and blasted a path through the rocks for the road. If you wanted to blast away that rock, you may try exploding the dynamite outside the rock, but it really wouldn't do much. It may sheer some rock off the surface, but you'd never be able to blast your way through that rock. But if you drilled a hole into the center of that rock, and dropped the dynamite deep inside the rock, when that dynamite exploded the rock would move.

That's exactly what Proverbs tells you to do with God's Word. The Bible will never change you if it's outside of you. But if you put the Bible deep inside your life, at the center of your personality, when God's Word goes off it will move you. Wisdom involves placing God's Word into your heart and absorbing it into your life.

The second practice is about God. Verse 3 says, "Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart." The two words there - love and faithfulness - would have been instantly known by the student at the time Proverbs was written. They are words that are used to refer to God and his covenant relationship with his people. For instance, Exodus 34:6 says, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness." The word love there is one of my favorite words in the whole Bible - hesed, which means industrial strength love, love that is unconditional and doesn't give up.

Now is this verse referring to us developing the qualities of love and faithfulness, or is it about internalizing God's love and faithfulness? The answer is yes. It's both of these. The writer is telling us to do more than learn a set of principles or follow a set of techniques. You'll never change by learning five steps to wisdom or three steps to improving your life. You need God's industrial strength love and faithfulness. You need a relationship with God. And when you have it, it will begin to change your life, and the same qualities will begin to show up in your life as well.

The third practice is about ourselves. One song says, "Oh you can be what you wanna be, See what you wanna see. Believe in yourself, just believe in yourself. You can go where you wanna go, Do what you wanna do. Believe in yourself, just believe in yourself." We're told that the way to improve is to put more confidence in who we are, to believe in ourselves. But Proverbs gives us a different practice to wisdom. Verses 5 to 7 say:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD and shun evil.

You know what this is telling us? Verse 5 gives us a picture of leaning on something that's unreliable for support. Have you ever grabbed a rail for support, only to find that if you put any wait on it, it would collapse and you'd go tumbling? That's the picture that the writer gives us. When we rely on ourselves and our ability to figure things out, we're putting weight on something that is incapable of bearing that weight, and we'll come crashing down. Later on, Proverbs says that we're worse than fools when we do this. Proverbs 26:12 says, "Do you see people who are wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for fools than for them."

Verse 7 tells us what we have to do in order to be wise. There's a paradox here. It says that we're never wiser than when we recognize our own foolishness, and we're never more foolish than when we think we're wise. You want to know who the wisest people are in this world? It's the ones who don't believe in themselves, who recognize their weaknesses and limitations, are deeply, continuously, and joyfully repentant, and who are depending on God for wisdom.

The fourth and final practice is about money. If you want to make people feel nervous, talk about money. I think the writer here gets practical in this area because he knows that our wallets are awfully close to our hearts. He says in verse 9, "Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops." The writer tells us to honor God with our wealth by giving our money, not when we're done paying our expenses but right off the top. You won't get this anywhere else. Nobody will tell you that the way to wisdom is to give your money away. It's completely countercultural, and yet it's a theme all throughout Scripture.

This is why we need Proverbs. You won't find a book at Chapters or Indigo that tells you to live this way. The way to live well is not through a set of techniques that makes life into what you want it to be. Instead, it's a set of practices that brings your soul in line with reality.

If you want to be wise, this is the path to wisdom. The way to live well is to embed Scripture into your life, to enter into relationship with God so his qualities become yours, to humbly repent before him, to not trust yourself, and then to give your money away so it doesn't become an idol in your life. You won't find this path to wisdom anywhere else, and it's why all the other paths ultimately disappoint.

But this passage doesn't just give the path to wisdom, it also gives the rewards.

Let's look at these rewards.

What happens if you incorporate these practices into your life and become wise? You'll see a set of rewards that are listed in this passage:

  • a long and prosperous life in verse 2
  • favor with God and other people in verse 4
  • a smooth path through life in verse 6
  • health and healing in verse 8
  • and riches in verse 10

Why should we expect these rewards if we live well? Because God has structured the world so that foolish living usually results in bad things happening. Making bad decisions usually leads to bad consequences. And wise living usually leads to good things happening, all things being equal. Those who acquire the skill of living well can usually expect a better life than those who live foolishly.

But it's here that as I read through this chapter that I began to struggle. Does anyone here know foolish people who are living very well, and people who seem to be wise who have had nothing but problems in their life? You even look in Scripture, and you realize that while wisdom usually leads to a better life than foolishness, there are all kinds of exceptions.

You only have to look at some of the other wisdom literature to realize this. Job suffers horribly, and not because he deserved it. Psalm 73 is the story of someone who almost lost his faith when he saw the wicked doing so well while the righteous suffer. Solomon himself says in Ecclesiastes, "There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless" (Ecclesiastes 8:14). When we look at the wisdom literature as a whole, we recognize that while it's generally true that living wisely means living well, there are many cases of people who live well who don't prosper the way that we would expect.

This tells us that while there are rewards for living wisely, life is complex. But even this passage acknowledges that life will not all be blue skies and happy faces.

If you read verses 1 to 10, it looks as if it's going to all good. You think that we're going to live lives of wisdom, and then God will reward us. But then we get to verses 11 and 12, and it's something we don't expect at all:

My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.

And it's here that we see not only the path to wisdom, and the rewards of wisdom, but something much deeper: what happens when we fail.

Imagine this morning that I had a check for one million dollars made out in your name, dated May 1. And supposed I told you that this check would be your reward for living well for the rest of the month. But supposed I said that I would be following you, watching you very carefully, and the first time I saw you raise your voice, or lose your temper, or go even a little bit over the speed limit, or do anything wrong, I would rip up the check and you would lose the million dollars. How would you feel? You would feel incredible pressure. It would crush you. And you would never be able to do it. Every one here would forfeit the million dollars, because nobody here can measure up to that impossible standard.

Verses 1 to 10 give us what it will take for us to obtain wisdom, and what we'll generally receive if we succeed. But what happens when we don't measure up? If you take verses 1 to 10 alone, it will produce incredible pressure in your life. It will crush you, because you'll never be able to measure up to what wisdom demands of you.

But in verses 11 and 12, we see that God knows this. We see the recognition that it won't be all blue skies in your life. But neither will failure mean that God will abandon you. You will fail, and you will be disciplined and rebuked, and the discipline and rebuke won't be a sign of God's absence from your life. In fact, it will be a sign of his presence and his love.

You see, in verses 11 and 12 you encounter two things that we desperately need from God: his mercy and his justice. We need his mercy because if God didn't show us mercy we would be crushed. But we also need his justice because the last thing we need is an unjust God. There is lots of injustice in the world, and if God wasn't just, we would be completely without hope. So in these verses we have God's mercy: he doesn't write us off when we fail. But we also have his justice: he doesn't ignore our sins and our failures. He deals with them.

George MacDonald, a Scottish author and pastor who lived over a hundred years ago, said, "I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and without mercy to the full there can be no justice." We need not only a path to wisdom, along with its rewards. We need a God who is just, but who doesn't write us off when we fail.

The message of the Bible is not, "Here's a set of principles you need to follow, and if you do these you will live." The message of the Bible is that God has shown us how to live, and we have failed. Every one of us have failed. But God has done something about it.

Proverbs tells us that God's mercy and justice meet when we're disciplined by God, but do you know where you see God's mercy and justice together most powerfully? At the cross. At the cross, the demands of God's justice were fully satisfied, and at the same time God showed mercy and grace to everyone who has sinned.

Justin Buzzard writes:

If you don't make it to the cross, if you read a few verses in Proverbs...without detecting how these sentences connect to the blood-stained beam of wood...you'll make your Bible reading and your relationship with God about your performance rather than about Jesus' performance. You'll gravitate away from the gospel and towards religion. Anxiety and fear will take the place of confidence, joy, and rest. Legalism will replace freedom. If your eyes don't catch a glimpse of the cross as you turn the pages of Scripture, you're likely to spend much of your day staring at yourself, wallowing in endless introspection, rather than staring at your Savior, delighting in his costly love.

Let's come to the table and delight not in our own performance, but in the blood-stained cross of our Savior. Let's look to him and delight in his costly love.

Pursuing Wisdom (Proverbs 2)

This past Wednesday night, we had "Coffee with the Elders." We had a great time - not only coffee, but tea and some amazing desserts. I think if people knew that we were serving desserts, we would have had more people out.

The idea of the evening was for the elders to talk about some of what we're working through, and then ask for what others are thinking about some of these same issues. I can't speak for everyone, but I think it was a very good night. And if I didn't mention it already, the desserts were amazing.

One of the questions that came up is how we change. Do you ever have the experience of waking up on Monday and thinking, "Where did last week go?" Life moves at such a frantic pace that it sometimes gives us the illusion of progress. But sometimes we stop and realize that we're not changing the way that we'd like to. We're not getting any better or any wiser.

Last week we began studying the book of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs is written to give us wisdom. Wisdom doesn't mean that we become brilliant people with all kinds of theoretical knowledge. It's much more practical than that. Wisdom means that we become good at living.

So the question is: how exactly do we acquire this wisdom?

According to Proverbs, there are two paths in life. One of them is the default path, the path of foolishness. This is the path of going with the flow. But then is the path of wisdom.

What you have in this chapter, at least in the original language, is one long poetic sentence in the form of an appeal from a father to a son, and it essentially teaches us two things:

  • first, how we can obtain wisdom; and
  • second, what will happen if we do

So let's look at these two questions. What will it take for us to become wise, good at living, and what will happen if we do?

First, what's it going to take for us to become wise?

Here, the book of Proverbs is brutally honest with us. It's going to cost you. Choosing the path of wisdom isn't going to be something that's free, that doesn't require something from you. It's going to cost you something, and you need to be prepared for this.

You've probably seen a cheap deal in the newspaper. When you go to phone and book the flight, or change your telephone carrier, or buy the car, you all of a sudden discover that the price in the newspaper isn't the price at all. There is the airport improvement fee, the transportation tax, the security fee, the immigration fee, the convenience fee, the system access fee, and so on. We've all been there, right? Nobody likes a bait and switch routine, in which you discover that the costs are far more than you bargained for after the fact.

Proverbs isn't like that, though. In the first four verses of chapter 2, we learn that that there's a cost to choosing the path of wisdom. They come in the form of two conditions.

Here's the first condition from verses 1 and 2:

My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding...

The first condition is that we're prepared to receive wisdom. This is the easier of the two conditions, but it's still not easy. It assumes that wisdom is not something that we discover, or that we come to ourselves. We need to humble ourselves and be prepared to receive wisdom from an external source - in this case, from biblical wisdom.

Let me ask you a question. The last time you ripped open a box, and you had the do-hickey in one hand and the manual in the other, which one did you go for? If you're like most of us, you thought, "I'll get to the manual if I get stuck."

I can relate to the story of the teenager who wanted to try out his surfboard. Oblivious to the warning flags, he dashed straight out into the waves. Immediately, an authoritative voice boomed, "You are an inexperienced surfer. Return to shore." Embarrassed, he came ashore but not without asking the lifeguard how he knew he was a novice. "Easy. You've got your wet suit on backwards."

Verses 1 and 2 tell us that if we're going to be wise, we need to slow down and actually become receptive to what God's Word says about how to live. We can't just blunder our way through life trying to figure it out. We must humble ourselves before God, gaining what we need from his commands and his Word.

I'm increasingly discovering how important it is to be receptive to God's Word if we really want to change. It doesn't mean that we ignore other sources, but it means that Scripture has a unique and authoritative role. It means that we read it and consult it, but even more that we meditate on it, storing up the passages that don't seem relevant right now. It means that we come expectantly to hear God's Word preached - not because I'm preaching it, but because it is God's Word.

The second condition is in verses 3 and 4. There are actually two conditions, but they kind of go together. The first condition is somewhat passive: that we prepare ourselves to be receptive. The second condition is a lot more active: It's that we actively pursue wisdom. Read verses 3 and 4:

...indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure...

One Sunday we couldn't find our son after church. It turns out that it was all a misunderstanding, that he was actually safe, but for about an hour we were engaged in a frantic search. There were all the things we see in these verses: calling out, crying aloud, looking and searching for something valuable. There was nothing passive or half-hearted about the search. It consumed everything.

This is the picture we have in this second condition: that we begin an aggressive search for God's wisdom on how to live. It's important but not enough to be receptive. We have to do more than just sit back and receive what God says, although that's important. We have to clamor for it, to aggressively search for it. It is going to take some urgency. The metaphors assume that it will take a great deal of effort and sacrifice, but that's what it will take.

So here we go. What's it going to take for us at Richview to become really skilled at living well, at just being plain good at living? It won't happen by sitting back or going with the flow. It won't happen automatically. It won't even happen by just sitting and listening to sermons or reading the Bible. It's going to cost us. It's going to demand that we become serious about receiving everything the Bible says about how to live, and not only that we do this, but that our lives become a ruthless pursuit of what the Bible says about how to live. This is what it's going to take if we're going to learn the skill of living well.

What happens if we pursue wisdom?

I'm almost exhausted just thinking about this. So we need to ask: if it takes so much effort, why bother?

The rest of the chapter tells us what happens when we pursue wisdom. It's going to take commitment, but if we pursue wisdom, three things are going to happen.

The first is in verses 5-11. Let's just read verses 5 and 6:

then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

If we pursue wisdom, this passage says, then God will grant us wisdom. He'll grant us the fear of the LORD - which as we saw last week is absolutely necessary to living skillfully. There's no such thing as living well unless we understand who God is, and understand who we are before him. If we pursue wisdom, God will grant us the wisdom that we desire.

There's a bit of a paradox here. Do we pursue wisdom, or does God grant it? The answer, according to this passage: yes. Wisdom is both something that we pursue, and something that God grants. Seek wisdom, Proverbs says, and you will find God. Find God, and you will gain wisdom. It's something that we must strive to achieve, but it's also a gift from God. This keeps it from being a self-salvation project. We can't make ourselves wise, but if we pursue it, God gives us wisdom.

This is really important for us to know. I lost my hat a week ago. It's an expensive hat. I looked for it, but after a while it became obvious that no matter how much harder I looked, I wasn't going to find it, and so I gave up. You give up in pursuing something when it's obvious that further effort won't get you anywhere. But it's not like that with wisdom, or with God. Those who seek wisdom, those who seek God, always find. Those who seek pursue wisdom, this passage says, will always succeed in their pursuit, because God gives wisdom to those who seek it.

The second thing that will happen is that we'll avoid a lot of dangers in our lives. Verses 12 to 19 give us to kinds of dangers that we'll avoid. The first is the general mess that comes from following people who are not pursuing wisdom. Verses 12 to 15 say:

Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men,
from men whose words are perverse,
who have left the straight paths
to walk in dark ways,
who delight in doing wrong
and rejoice in the perverseness of evil,
whose paths are crooked
and who are devious in their ways.

When you aren't pursuing wisdom, you end up going with the flow. Going with the flow means that you'll follow where everyone else is going, and you'll end up getting into a lot of trouble. I could give you a lot of examples in my life that I've just followed along, and ended up in a heap of trouble. We could probably have a testimony time this morning of when that's happened to you. We'll save ourselves from foolish, self-destructive behavior when we pursue wisdom.

Another example of what we'll avoid is in verses 16-19: easy sex. We're going to return to this subject later in Proverbs. But already you see in verse 16 that the up-front appeal of easy sex is very seductive. There's so much sex available in the media, and in real life, that looks very nice up front. But you're never told how much it costs up front. The cost of pornography or of sexual immorality is much higher than we bargain for, as we read in verses 18-19. My purpose isn't to make anyone feel guilty, because many of us have struggled with sexual temptation, and many of us have failed at various points in our lives. We'll return and get some help with this in a few weeks. For now it's enough to say that pursuing wisdom will help protect us from the negative consequences of the easy sex that's so available to us today.

So pursuing wisdom is worth it because it if we pursue it, God will give it to us and we'll avoid many dangers. One more benefit in verses 20-22:

Thus you will walk in the ways of the just
and keep to the paths of the righteous.
For the upright will live in the land,
and the blameless will remain in it;
but the wicked will be cut off from the land,
and the unfaithful will be torn from it.

When we pursue wisdom, these verses tell us, we'll find life. This was written in the context of the old covenant with Israel, in which God said he would allow the people to live in the promised land if they remained faithful to him, but he would cut them off from the land if they were faithless. This doesn't apply to us today, but the principle applies: there are two paths in life. One leads to life, and one leads to death. If you want to live, then you need to take the path of wisdom.

We began this morning by asking how we can be changed, how we can avoid just drifting through life, waking up one day and realizing that we've made a mess of our lives and ended up where we don't want to be. We've seen what it's going to take: it's going to take being receptive to God's Word, making the time to absorb it into our lives. We've seen that it will take an active pursuit of God and his wisdom.

But we've also seen that if we go on this pursuit, it will cost us, but we will succeed, we'll be saved from many mistakes, and ultimately we'll live.

A thousand years later Jesus talked of a similar search for wisdom. He said:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-46)

I invite you to embark on this ruthless quest, not just for wisdom but for God himself, knowing that those who seek will find, that those who gain Jesus are preserved from all kinds of dangers, and in the end find life, and life eternal. Pursuing wisdom - pursuing Jesus - is costly, but God gives wisdom and life to those who seek it.

Learning to Live Well (Proverbs 1:1-7)

Every day we face dozens of decisions. Some of them are relatively unimportant, like where should we eat for lunch? Or should I wear by blue pants or my black pants today? Some of them are incredibly important, but it's pretty clear what we should do, like should I pad my expense account? Or should I flirt with this person who isn't my spouse? We may not do the right thing, but at least we know what the right thing is.

But there's a third type of decision that we face every day. These decisions are important, and which choice we make can change our lives. But the answers aren't always very clear. They're questions like:

  • Which university should I go too out of all the ones that have accepted me?
  • Should I take the job in Calgary or stick with the one I have here?
  • How do I handle the guy at work who drives me crazy?
  • How do I handle my own bad temper?

There are tons of decisions that we face just like these in which the answers aren't obvious. There's no "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not" about some of these choices. Yet we need to be able to make these decisions, and many more like them, and the choices that we make with these decisions will ultimately change our lives.

That's why I'm really excited to begin a series from the book of Proverbs today, because Proverbs is written to address this category of decisions which are important, and yet for which there is not always a black and white answer. It's absolutely critical that we gain the skill we need in order to live wisely, and Proverbs is designed to help us gain this skill that we need.

One scholar says that "the church has practically discarded the book of Proverbs" (Waltke). Out of its 930 ancient sayings, many Christians know only three or four, and even these are often misunderstood. It's a book of the Bible that's often ignored, and there are probably a few reasons. The proverbs can seem banal to some, sometimes contradictory, and far from the twenty-first century. Because we live in a culture that's full of hype, I'm going to assume that we're going to be a bit cynical about grandiose promises, especially from a book that was written thousands of years ago in a very different culture from our own. Given all of this, we need to ask why we should make the time to study this book of the Bible.

At the very beginning of the book, Proverbs gives us some reasons why we should make the time to study it - not only study it, but be mastered by it. This morning I'd like to look at these reasons. They're contained in Proverbs 1:1-7. Here's the first reason:

1. Because of who compiled it

Proverbs 1:1 says, "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel."

There are a couple of things to notice here. First, that these are proverbs. A proverb comes from a word that meant "likeness," with the idea of offering comparisons, but it came to refer to a pithy statement or object lesson that helps the reader choose a wise course of action. We're going to see many examples of these proverbs in this book.

It also tells us the author or compiler of these proverbs. For years, some scholars have had a hard time believing that the book of Proverbs was written by Solomon. Some other collections of proverbs in the ancient world were written by some obscure person and then attributed to someone famous so that more people would want to read it. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that Solomon indeed is behind this book. Kings at that time often collected wisdom material that could be used within the royal court to educate royal officials on how to conduct themselves. It certainly seems likely that Solomon, king of Israel, put the bulk of this book together, collecting proverbs from other sources, writing his own, and shaping the material into what has been preserved.

One of the reasons why this is important is because if we learn from Solomon, we're learning from one of the wisest people who has ever lived. It would be like learning hockey from Wayne Gretzky or how to play guitar from The Edge. Solomon is the Wayne Gretzky of wisdom.

I mentioned that other nations and cultures had their own proverbs. For instance, here's a Babylonian proverb on living within your means: "Build like a lord, go about like a slave! Build like a slave, go about like a lord!" Here's an Egyptian one on dining with your boss: "Take what he may give, when it is set before your nose...Do not pierce him with many stares...Laugh after he laughs, and it will be very pleasing to his heart."

These are good proverbs, and they're still useful today. But the Bible describes how Solomon's wisdom was even greater than what you find in these collections. 1 Kings 4:29-34 says:

God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.

One reason why Proverbs is still worth reading is because it was written by somebody who was world-renowned for his wisdom. Solomon's wisdom is greater than the wisdom found in the Assyrian or Egyptian ancient literature. Solomon observed nature - we're going to see that in this book - and applied what he observed to how to live life. People travelled from all over the world to hear his wisdom. It's one reason why we should study it today, because the person who collected these proverbs was uniquely qualified to do so.

The second reason we need to pay attention to this book is:

2. Because of its purpose

So we've looked at the author. Verses 2 to 6 give us both the purpose of this book, and its intended audience, which we'll get to in a minute. Here's the purpose. You'll notice that there are five purpose clauses beginning with "for":

for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young-
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance-
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.

Did you get the five purpose clauses? Verse 1 gives us the title and author of this book, and then these verses give us the purpose. Most scholars think that verse 2 is a summary statement, which is then broken down even further in the other verses. So verse 2 says that the book has been written "for attaining wisdom and discipline, for understanding words of insight."

Wisdom here literally means skill. It's a word that's used elsewhere for the skill of sailors, administrators, and of craftsmen. But here it means skill in living. Wisdom means having the knowledge and skill necessary to life your life in a God-honoring way, making good choices in life. We got talking about this in the office the other week. There are some people who are intelligent, but who aren't wise. They have a high IQ, but they make horrible choices in life. Then there are people who are wise. Their wisdom isn't measured necessarily by book knowledge or the ability to pass tests, but they consistently make good decisions. That's wisdom. One scholar (Von Rad) says that wisdom means becoming competent with regard to the realities of life: how things really happen, how things really are, and what to do about it. Wisdom is simply the art of living well in God's world.

Verse two gives us the flip side of wisdom. My version says "instruction." Yours may say discipline. One translation says "moral instruction." It's what happens when you observe the negative consequences of foolish actions. By observing what happens when people make negative choices, one can be trained and instructed how not to act.

You have a number of other words here: prudence - knowing what's right to do in a situation given the circumstances. The point probably isn't to make a distinction between all of the terms here, and break the proverbs into categories. The point is that this is what you get overall as you read the book. You can see that the type of knowledge that the proverbs hope to impart is:

  • practical - it's not abstract or theoretical; it's about everyday life
  • about knowledge, but also about more than knowledge - in other words, it's about knowing things, but it's also about how to use that knowledge well
  • moral - it assumes that there are right and wrong things to do, and it guides you into making the right decisions
  • it draws you into the mysteries and complexities of life - no easy answers

We all need this. Somebody has said that in many churches, you learn how to do churchy things better. You learn how to pray and study the Bible and that kind of thing. That's fine, but we also need to learn how to deal all of the complexities of life: how to get along with our neighbors, what to do with a difficult boss, how to choose which car to buy. C.S. Lewis wrote:

Before I become a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one's life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before, one hopes in a new spirit, but still the same things...Conversion [does not] obliterate our human life... (The Weight of Glory)

We need a faith that's not just about how to do religious things. We need insight and skill in not just living on Sundays, but every day of the week. Proverbs gives us just that.

So, it's worth tackling the book of Proverbs because of who wrote it, and because of its purpose. Two more quickly:

3. Because of its intended audience

One of the most important steps in writing a book is to define your audience. If you're going to write a book, they say, you need to understand the sort of person who will wander into a store and buy it.

Oftentimes, as I mentioned, proverbs were compiled for the royal court, so that those who were princely or close to power would learn the skills they needed to carry out their roles. You see traces of this in the book of Proverbs. For instance, in Proverbs 23 you get guidance on how to behave when you sit down with a ruler. But Proverbs isn't just for the royal court; it's for all of us. There's wisdom here that relates to living with neighbors, plowing fields - everyday kinds of matters that anyone can relate to. In fact, according to verses 4 to 6, there are two target audiences in mind with this book.

The first is described in verse 4: those who are simple, those who are young. I realize that if I described you as being a simple person, you probably wouldn't take it as a compliment. If we call someone simple, it usually means they're not all that smart. They're maybe a few ants shy of a picnic. But it's not the case here. Simple here means those who are still young enough to be open-minded. They're still being formed. It's too soon to know if they'll take the path of wisdom or the path of folly, so the purpose of this book is to help make up their mind.

If you're young, if you still have a lot of life decisions ahead of you, then this book is for you. I'm really excited that we can look at it together, because this book can help you make wise decisions as you set out in life. It's a lot easier to make the right ones up front than to go back and clean up the mess after.

But I know that not all of us are young. Proverbs gives us a second target audience in verses 5 and 6: those who are wise, those of us who are maybe a bit older and already have some wisdom. If we listen we'll be able to "add to [our] learning". We'll also be able to understand the art of the proverb and maybe learn how to teach others who are younger. This book is not just for neophytes; it's for all of us who want to grow in wisdom. The young and inexperienced need this book, but so do the wise and discerning. You never outgrow your need for wisdom. This book is for everyone.

One other note: although Proverbs often refers to men, as in "my son," it also is very appropriate for both men and women. In fact, when Proverbs gives a picture of what wisdom looks like in the final chapter, it offers the picture of a woman. She embodies the wisdom that's talked about throughout the book. That's not meant to put more pressure on the women. I heard of a man who was single who said, "I'm just looking for a Proverbs 31 woman." Eventually his pastor told him, "Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman you're looking for is looking for a Proverbs 1 to 30 man." The point is that there's plenty in here for all of us, male and female, at all different stages of life. This book is for everyone. In fact, there's only one category of person excluded, and that's the fool mentioned in verse 7.

So far we've covered three reasons why we should study and master the book of Proverbs: because of who wrote it, because of its purpose, and because we are part of its target audience. These are all important and true, but they are not the most important reason. The most important reason is still to come. Here it is:

4. Because of it's God-centered focus

The world is full of self-help tips. To be honest, a lot of it has been tried and found wanting. Every month you can buy magazines that tell you how to lose weight and have a fantastic love life and to de-stress. A lot of us have grown weary of all the pragmatism, because we've tried it before and it promises way more than it delivers.

The book of Proverbs is absolutely unique. Bruce Waltke, an Old Testament scholar, says that there are no parallels in all of the ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature. The thing that sets it apart, that makes it different from the wisdom and advice you get anywhere else, is so central that it's found right in the introduction. It's the theme or focus of this book. It's found in verse 7: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge."

You would think that a book that's about the skill we need for everyday living may not focus too much on God. If that were true, it would just be another self-help book that you could put on your shelf beside all the others. But that's not what Proverbs is. It's not just a set of principles that you can apply; it's also a God that you need to worship. There is no knowledge or wisdom apart from a proper attitude and relationship to the Lord, and if you are going to live wisely and well, then it all begins here. This is a deeply God-centered book.

What does "fear of the Lord" mean? Fear is usually seen as being a negative thing, like we're cowering. What you need to know is that fear is sometimes appropriate. When you are standing close to the edge of a tall building with nothing between you and thin air, then fear is a very good thing. When you are about to touch a hot stove with your bare hands, then fear will prevent you from doing something you'll regret. When you are living life, as indeed you are, as a creature before the God who has created all things, then fear is a very appropriate response. Not fear as in cowering, but fear as in knowing that he is God and you are not; fear as in being subservient to God, acknowledging your dependence upon him, seeing his power and holiness, as well as your own finiteness and unworthiness.

Oswald Chambers said, "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else." Proverbs gives us the skill to live well, and it does so in the context of a God-centered focus, one that we need desperately in our lives.

For all of these reasons, we're going to study Proverbs in the coming weeks. I'm going to invite you to begin by memorizing a verse a week with me. The first one is found in the bulletin this morning. We're going to come back next week and read it. There's also a reading schedule in the bulletin for you to follow. Most of all it's going to involve an attitude of teachability, a willingness to absorb what's written here and use it for our benefit.

As we close this morning, I want to tell you how valuable the book of Proverbs is. In fact, it's only really been improved by one person. Jesus said that the Queen of Sheba came to hear Solomon's wisdom, but then he said, referring to himself, "one greater than Solomon is here" (Luke 11:31). Colossians 2:3 says that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." As great as Solomon and his wisdom were, we know someone who has wisdom even beyond Solomon's. So as we study this book and are mastered by it, and as we come to the one who is ultimately the source of all wisdom, we'll really gain the skill to live well in God's world.

Father, thank you for the wisdom that you gave Solomon. I pray that you would grant us teachable hearts as we learn from this book. Most of all I pray that you would teach us that living well begins with fearing you, recognizing that there is no knowledge or wisdom apart from you. Thank you for showing us wisdom in Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. May we be drawn closer to him as we study this book. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.