The Bible’s Book of Proverbs is a resource for learning Wisdom.
Not just any wisdom, but God’s Wisdom is there for us to contemplate and practice if we are willing to apply ourselves.
But the real question is not whether you will live by proverbs, but which proverbs?
Let me illustrate. See how many of these sentences you can complete:
God helps those who …
Rules are made to …
You only go around …
He who dies with the most …
Different strokes for …
No pain …
No guts …
Good work, I think you got them all.
Okay, try these:
The fear of the LORD is the … (Proverbs 9:10)
The LORD disciplines those … (Prov. 3:12)
Whoever trusts in his riches … (Prov. 11:28)
A prudent person ignores … (Prov. 12:16)
He who loves his child … (Prov. 13:24)
The LORD tears down the house … (Prov. 15:25)
Whoever mocks the poor … (Prov. 17:5)
Which set was more familiar?
We don’t get to decide if we will live by proverbs. They are all around us—shaping our desires and decisions. The only question is, which proverbs will we repeat, reflect on and remember? And, how will these proverbs form us? Will they make us think of ourselves as self-sufficient individuals who make up our own rules and whose worth is measured by how many toys we can afford? Or will they teach us to see ourselves as undeserving, but none-the-less loved children of God, created in Christ to show love to undeserving people? Will our proverbs teach us the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God?
Now, the wisdom of the world isn’t all bad. In spite of sin, the world is still God’s world, so there’s usually some good that comes out of the world’s proverbs. As followers of Jesus, here are some proverbs that we could, in certain situations, embrace and apply:
Attitude is everything.
The early bird …
… gets the worm.
Bloom where …
… you’re planted.
When the going gets tough …
… the tough get going.
If you can’t stand the heat …
… get out of the kitchen.
Here are some you might have read in a self-help book:
A positive attitude creates positive results.
In the middle of every difficulty lies an opportunity.
Persistence prevails when all else fails.
They help us remember that even though we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, without our works, we were saved for good works (Ephesians 2:8–10).
Laziness and complaining don’t help anyone.
The good works that serve our neighbors get done through good old fashioned elbow grease.
However, not all of our American proverbs will lead us into God’s wisdom.
See if you can finish these …
Money makes the world …
… go ‘round
Time is …
There’s no such thing as a …
… free lunch.
Everyone has his …
How do these proverbs shape us? Do they lead us to believe that money is the measure of all things? Do they make us measure our worth by how much cash we have? Can God work through us without our money?
See if you know these:
Just Do It.
The sky’s the …
Records are made to be …
Only the strong …
Do unto others before they …
… do unto you.
These are less familiar, but you might have seen them on a t-shirt somewhere:
I don’t come here to play, I come here to win.
Winners do what losers don’t.
If it were just about attitude, everyone would have it.
Know your limits, then break ‘em.
Granted, a little less whining probably wouldn’t hurt any of us. But, by themselves, these “Can do,” “No Fear” proverbs cannot cope with life’s tragedies, addictions and depressions that are bigger than our positive attitude and desire to win. Sometimes I can’t find the answer in “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” but only in, “Not my will be done, but Thy will be done …” and “Deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9–13).
Often a positive attitude does create positive results. Sometimes early to bed and early to rise does make a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Sometimes the early bird gets the worm. But life is unpredictable. Sometimes you’re the early worm who got eaten by the bird.
You’ve probably heard cynical secular proverbs that recognize this aspect of life. As Christians, we can appreciate these because they undercut the money-driven, can-do, winning-is-everything worldly wisdom that cannot cope with life’s mysteries and tragedies.
See if you know these:
It is what it is.
Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and …
… you weep alone.
It never rains but …
… it pours
With friends like these …
… who needs enemies?
That’s the way the cookie …
When I’m right, no one remembers. When I’m wrong …
… no one forgets.
Here are some others that might be less familiar, but are along the same vein:
Anything can happen and probably will.
No amount of planning will ever replace dumb luck.
It’s difficult to soar with eagles when you work with turkeys.
Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.
These cynical proverbs undercut the proverbs of the American Dream, which teach that anybody can be rich and happy if they simply apply themselves. There is much in these proverbs that is compatible with God’s Wisdom, because, for all their cynicism, they get one thing right: we are not in control. So much of life is broken and tragic and just plain wrong. Sometimes there is nothing we can do but sigh and suffer with Moses in his prayer to God recorded in Psalm 90:
“All our days pass away under Your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Who considers the power of Your anger, and Your wrath according to the fear of You? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
However, if we uncritically followed the cynical proverbs, they, like their can-do counterparts, would also lead us astray. They would lead us to lose hope in God’s promise to put the world right again (see Romans 8:18–25).
Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90 might sound cynical. But, read the ending:
“Return, O LORD, How long? Satisfy us in the morning with Your unfailing love … Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us … May Your deeds be shown to Your servants … Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work our hands; yes, establish the work of our hands.”
With all the other proverbs that are pushed on you, spend some time with God’s Proverbs today. You will see that true wisdom is to trust God even when our plans fail. True wisdom is to trust God even when we are overtaken by tragedy. True wisdom is to surrender and say with Jesus, “Not my will, but Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:39).
True Wisdom embodied in Jesus will lead us to give up our can-do optimism, but will never let us give up our hope that on the other side of this tragedy, misery, and cross-bearing there is the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. And so we pray,
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Psalm 90:12, “A Prayer of Moses, The Man of God”
I drew much of the content for this post from lectures by Professor David Schmitt presented at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Also helpful was Alyce McKenzie’s book Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
The images came from a photo of a stained glass window installed at First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Mississippi. Downloaded at http://www.firstprescolumbus.org/