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The DEEP

Does Proverbs Promise too Much?

Craving your pie in the sky, by and by

Proverbs 3:1-2 

1 My son, do not forget my law,
But let your heart keep my commands;

For length of days and long life
And peace they will add to you.–Proverbs 3:1-2

Proverbs 10:2-3

Treasures of wickedness profit nothing,
But righteousness delivers from death. 

The Lord will not allow the righteous soul to famish,
But He casts away the desire of the wicked.

 

When my oldest son was born, he looked like a perfectly healthy baby boy. Two eyes, a button nose and a little rosy mouth that would smile even in the earliest days. In the first month as doting grandparents came and went, church showers were held and our little growing family explored this exciting new (and sleepless) life, we began to notice something wrong.

They began as small red spots on his skin. First faint and few but then growing in number and redness. By three months old our son was covered in angry looking red spots. They resembled moles or a rash. When the usual cremes and treatments did not help, his mom and dad began to panic. 

His pediatrician could not identify the ailment and prescribed treatments that included a visit to a dermatologist who took painful samples of our baby’s skin. When biopsies and treatments turned up with nothing we changed doctors and finally found a pediatrician who identified this mysterious frightening disease: mastocytosis.

Mastocytisis is an extremely rare immune disorder where mast cells in the skin are produced at an abnormal rate, causing symptoms such as bone pain, internal problems–and alarming red spots all over the body. Pediatric mastocytosis can lead to a life of discomfort and pain. Adult-onset mastocytosis can be tragic and even deadly.

There is no cure. 

Brokenhearted and fearful, we took our little boy home and came to grips with our family’s new reality. Our son would grow up dealing with what amounted to a continual-and sometimes deadly–allergic reaction all over and inside of his body. He would need medicines and could never be far from an epipen or emergency room. 

We carefully monitored his diet for inflammatory foods and artificial colors. We endured nosy and rude people in grocery store checkout lines loudly asking if our baby had chicken pox. We kept close tabs on him at play, for fear of a sting from a bee or fire ant. Once, as a toddler, he was stung in the yard and we had a terrifying ordeal of him going into shock, mommy administering an epipen, and then an ambulance ride to the emergency room. 

As this new normal set in, my wife and I often fought disappointment and despair. What kind of life will our little boy have, living like this? It was easy to blame ourselves. My wife had worked hard to eat right, avoid alcohol, to exercise and be extremely healthy while pregnant–but was afraid she had still gotten something wrong. I feared poor genes or some other cause from within myself. 

It was easy to look around for blame when our innocent little boy was sick. 

It was easy to question God. Why? Why have you allowed this? I am a good christian. I am a sinner but I try to serve you. I take my family to church, I teach Sunday school, I serve as a volunteer to help homeless families. Why me? Why my little boy? I have Jesus, and so good things are supposed to happen to me…right?

Have you ever experienced feelings like this when your life goes off the rails? A personal tragedy, financial problems, or simply realizing that you may not have accomplished all you thought you would do in life can cause a sort of spiritual disappointment. 

As you study the book of proverbs it can be easy to feel this way when you begin to compare the instructions and blessings that seem to be promised in many of the passages. This is particularly noticeable in chapter 3, where verses offer not only wisdom but earthly blessings such as wealth and long life:

1 My son, do not forget my law,
But let your heart keep my commands;

For length of days and long life
And peace they will add to you.–Proverbs 3:1-2

Or: 

Treasures of wickedness profit nothing,
But righteousness delivers from death. 

The Lord will not allow the righteous soul to famish,
But He casts away the desire of the wicked.–Proverbs 10:2-3

Verses like this can prompt you to ask: does Proverbs promise too much? This is a question that biblical scholars have faced in their work to translate and understand Proverbs and other ancient wisdom literature. 

You know that your life can often be a mess and that tragedy and heartbreak can strike the families of even the most faithful believers. You have surely known such pain and sadness in your own life at times. Does God “over-promise but under-deliver,” as the old sales adage goes?

Of course not, but it is very easy to fall into this trap, even if you are a mature believer. Jessica Hong, a former community group director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, wrestled with these same thoughts when her mother died after a long battle with cancer:

As I thought about why I kept asking why, I uncovered a basic presupposition that lay deep within my heart beneath the accumulated theological knowledge. The “why” question presupposes either:

A one-to-one (1:1) relationship:
You did something bad = that’s why suffering is happening to you now.

Or

Sum total of bad life = suffering(s) relationship:
You have committed several/or a lot of sins, that is why you are suffering now or why you have had multiple tragedies.

Much to my surprise, I realized that this line of thinking is the just flip side of the prosperity gospel that orthodox Christians regard as unbiblical.

Do you ever take this line of reasoning with God? That somehow your life is a balance of reward and punishment by your heavenly Father? The “prosperity gospel” that Hong describes is one of the most uniquely western characteristics of Christianity: the name-it-and-claim-it approach to your relationship with God–and a truly insidious example of bad theology.

The prosperity gospel may be best defined in the words of the flamboyant televangelist, Reverend Ike: “Don’t wait for your pie in the sky, by and by, say ‘I want my pie right now—and I want it with ice cream on top!’” This gospel of wealth seems easy to identify and mark when it is packaged with rhinestones and a 1-800 number on a TV screen, but it creeps into everyday life–and out into the wider world where it does great damage.

An incredibly well-produced little clip by John Piper illustrates the power of the prosperity gospel over our hearts and the destructiveness it has on new believers–especially those most vulnerable. Watch it HERE.

This is not the gospel. This is not what Jesus presents, nor is it why He came to earth to die and rise again. “What is essentially wrong with the Prosperity Gospel,” says Sinclair Ferguson, is that, “Jesus taught us to expect suffering. The Christian life is carrying a cross, not carrying prosperity.”

So what do we do with the extravagant promises of Proverbs in light of this? Dr. Bruce Waltke reminds you that when you read Proverbs you are not reading promises from God, but something much deeper. This is instruction from the Father to His child–God’s wisdom lovingly taught to you. 

Waltke breaks down chapter three into the “admonitions” and “argumentations” as the father instructs his son:


Admonition                                               Argumentation
Vs 1-2: Keep my commands                   =    Life and peace 
Vs 3-4: Don’t let go of unfailing love        =    Favor with God and people
Vs 5-6: Trust the Lord                            =    Straight path in life
Vs 7-8: Don’t be wise in your own eyes    =    Psychological and physical health
Vs 9-10: Honor the Lord                         =    Earthly prosperity
Vs 11-12: Don’t reject God’s discipline      =   Your Heavenly Father’s love

 Why does Solomon seem to exaggerate so? He is not promising what God cannot do, nor are these passages some sort of magic formula to unlock pennies from heaven and to send all your troubles away. 

The key lies in reading these in light of understanding how to read the book of Proverbs. One solution, Waltke says, is that these “promises” are indeed partially realized in your experience in life. This means that there can be tangible rewards for exercising wisdom in this life. Take, for instance, wisdom from Proverbs 22:

1 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
Loving favor rather than silver and gold.–Proverbs 22:1

Simply put, if you seek to maintain good relationships in this life, to live honorably and truthfully among your fellow men, you will likely receive a “reward” of a good reputation. This can have monetary benefits as well–but it is not a recipe for guaranteed success.

Another key is to simply remember that Solomon is teaching the “A,B,C’s” to the youth of Israel. Proverbs is a children’s textbook, and Solomon:

…kept before them the end of the matter, how it all turns out, not the temporary exceptions when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.–Waltke

Often in this life, bad people are rewarded while the innocent suffer. For even as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:

45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.–Matthew 5:45


But as His child, God teaches you that these gifts are part of the ultimate end of seeking His wisdom and living a life of holiness.

Which brings you to Waltke’s final key: the future beyond the temporarily failed promises outlasts clinical death. No matter what happens in this life, be it tragedy or joy, there is an ultimate goal of the final victory and your hope of eternity in glory. 

In this image you see the One, God’s beloved Son, who “for the joy that was set before Him” went willingly to the cross. Jesus is the embodiment of this future hope that extends beyond all human blessing–or personal tragedy. He is eternity, stranded in time, and the conqueror of death:

31 But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” –Matthew 22:31-32

With this hope you read Proverbs and not get lost in the desire for the earthly blessings it describes, or the pain of loss that fills life in this fallen world. In Christ, all of the blessings of Proverbs are found, for He is the the Wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:18-31). 

I am pleased to say that my son is now fifteen and a healthy, happy young man. Over time, as his body strengthened and grew, his red spots faded and the symptoms of mastocytosis lessened. He will always live with precautions but we have been blessed by these improvements. His mom and I are convinced that a lot of prayers were poured out and that God truly blessed him–but not because of any special obedience and reward on our part. God was simply working out His plan through Providence. 

It is this plan that you and I must hold to as we seek to pursue wisdom in this life. There may not be a formula for reward and punishment–but there is an eternal promise of life everlasting fulfilled by Christ crucified and His sustaining Spirit.  

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The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

 

 

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