October 25th, 2015

Proverbs 10 is a black and white passage that challenges our world of gray.

Proverbs 10:1-32

October 25, 2015

Doughnut guilt

For the last decade or so, when I’ve been intentionally conscious of losing weight and trying to eat healthier, I’ve been treating doughnuts like they were poison.  The new pathway I tried to wire into my brain was something along the line of “If you eat doughnuts you’ll be fat.”  To me, doughnuts are like meth. Then last week happened.

A friend whose name will remain unspoken texted me right after the Panthers beat Seattle in Seattle last Sunday evening:  “The best thing about a Panthers victory is that means Krispy Kreme doughnuts are half price tomorrow!”  I texted back, “GTBMS!”[1]

It was too late.  Krispy Kreme is too far on the other end of town, but doughnuts were on my mind.  So when I learned on Tuesday that another friend who had a birthday this week likes Apple Fritters and Buttermilk Doughnuts, my will weakened.  On Wednesday I purchased Apple Fritters at Lowes Foods and a whole box of varied Dunkin Doughnuts for my group of pastor friends reading Curt Thompson’s Soul of Shame.

That morning I ate TWO doughnuts in the space of an hour!  I am quite sure that’s a first in ten years.  I wallowed in guilt all day, convinced that those two doughnuts would add five pounds on the scale Thursday morning.

Good news friends!  The next morning I was actually DOWN a fraction of a pound!  All this time I’ve been avoiding doughnuts, but eating them caused me to LOSE weight!  I’m so excited.  Doughnuts are healthy now.  Two a day is my new goal! Not really.  But it’s a great lead-in to this morning’s Scripture.  I’ll return to the doughnuts shortly.

Black and white in a world of gray

Proverbs 10 is a black and white passage of the Bible that challenges our world of gray.  Sometimes we forget how conditional we have become in our attitudes toward what is true and false and what is right and wrong.  Truth and morality have become personal matters because no one should judge another person.  Sometimes when I preach it may sound like I live and think in a world where everything is gray.

It hasn’t always been this way in the Church.  The choir’s anthem today asked a black and white question:  “Where will I be when the trumpet sounds?”  It added a plea:  “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass.”  There’s no soft theology in that anthem that assumes everyone gets into heaven, or that there will be another chance to repent.

Today is Reformation Sunday, when we recall the lives and teachings of men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, who certainly did not proclaim a world of gray.  They studied Scripture and laid out their principles for truth and morality, judging not only unbelievers, but the Catholics and even each other for not getting it right.

I was raised in a very black and white world.  Perhaps a significant part of why it might sound like I preach in tones of gray is that I really do believe there is a consistent New Testament message that I’m not anyone else’s judge.  In fact, Romans 2 says that judging others is just as grievous a sin as whatever their sin is.  Just because I don’t judge others doesn’t mean in my world I think I’m free to make what I believe and how I live a matter of personal preference or conditional on my circumstances.

To put that in New Testament terms, I have a passion for holiness.  I believe all my sins are covered by the blood of Christ and that he sees me as perfect, but I also believe I will still be accountable for my life and my words.[2]  I really want Jesus my Lord to be pleased with me and not hear from me a string of excuses about how what mattered most to him.  So I try to live a very black and white life – not because I think it makes me more acceptable to God (the Protestant Reformers straightened that out for me) but out of gratitude for the grace I’ve been given in Christ.

In Proverbs 10 Solomon[3] presents two destinations and two paths.  He doesn’t really have any gray.  You’re either headed for life or death.  How do you know which one?  You’re either righteous or wicked.  Let’s look at the text.

Two destinations: life and death

Let’s start with the two destinations – life or death.  In every Bible study I led this week, at least one person wanted to spiritualize “life” and “death” – as in the afterlife.  I’m not sure that is what Solomon was saying.  Verse 27 seems literal to me:

The fear of the LORD adds length to life,

but the years of the wicked will be cut short.

However, the destination of “death” in this chapter is not just about taking your last breath.  It’s about destroying yourself, ruining your relationships, killing your dreams, realizing your worst fears.  Look through the chapter for what happens if you choose the path of death –

  • You bring “grief to your mother” (1)
  • You go hungry (3)
  • You’re poor (4, 15)
  • You bring disgrace to your father (5)
  • You name will “rot” (6) – in other words, no one will remember you well
  • You’ll come to “ruin” (8, 10, 14)
  • You’ll be exposed as a fraud (9)
  • You’ll live in constant conflict (12)
  • You’ll be punished (13)
  • You will lead others astray (17)
  • You’ll realize your worst fears (24)
  • People will find you irritating, like vinegar in your mouth or smoke in your eyes (26)
  • You’ll lose your home (30)

On the other hand, good things are ahead for those who choose life –

  • You bring “joy to your father” (1)
  • You have enough to eat (3)
  • You gain wealth (4)
  • You’re blessed (6)
  • People bless with your name (7) – you have a good reputation
  • You’ll feel physically safe and secure (9, 15, 25)
  • You have positive impact on others (17, 21)
  • Your work is less of chore and more pleasure (22)
  • You achieve your dreams (24)
  • You enjoy life – “The prospect of the righteous is joy” (28)

Two paths: righteous and wicked

Each destination also has its own path.

It’s the “righteous” who arrive at life.  The word “righteous” (or “righteousness”) occurs fourteen times in this chapter.  But there are details on what it means.

The righteous…

  • …are diligent (4)
  • …gather crops in summer (5). We would say they “make hay while the sun shines” – as in, they take advantage of opportunity in front of them.
  • …accept commands (8) – in other words, they’re teachable
  • …possess integrity (9)
  • …heed discipline (17)
  • …delight in wisdom (23) – in other words, they crave yet more wisdom

By contrast, “wicked” appears 13 times in Proverbs 10.  The wicked…

  • …are lazy (4, 26)
  • …sleep during harvest (5)
  • …talk back instead of doing what they’re told (8)
  • …take crooked paths (9)
  • …wink maliciously (10) – we would say they cross their fingers behind their back; you can’t trust their word
  • …ignore correction (17)
  • …find pleasure in wicked schemes (23)

There’s special emphasis in portions of this chapter about the words that the righteous and wicked speak.

  • The righteous overflow with words of life, while the wicked conceal their violent schemes and spread slander under cover (11, 18).
  • The wicked stir up conflict with hateful words, but the righteous use words for forgiveness and reconciliation (12).
  • The wicked talk whether or not they have any meaningful words, while the righteous restrain their tongue (19).
  • The righteous use their words to build up, but the wicked are always tearing down with distortion (32).

Promises or principles

So what do we make of all this?  Something makes us push back on this. As I look at the description of the two destinations and two paths, I realize it’s not the two destinations.  We would all agree that the destination called “life” is one we all seek – financial stability, longer life, joy, satisfying work.  The destination called “death” includes what we all want to avoid – hunger, disgrace, homelessness.

Nor would we argue with any of the values expressed in the two paths.  I want to be righteous the way Proverbs 10 describes righteous – diligent, disciplined, characterized by integrity, positively impacting others by my words and actions.  I want to avoid the ways of the wicked – laziness, deceit, tearing down with my words.

Where we push back is the linkage, the absolute connection between the two.  We want to talk back to Solomon and say, “Not everyone who is homeless is wicked.  And sometimes bad things happen to good people.” Guess what.  Solomon knows that.

He’s writing proverbs, not promises.  One of my goals as a preacher is to give you a fresh appreciation for the Bible, and to correct some misunderstandings of how people misread and misapply the Bible.  Proverbs are not promises, not even the one about “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6).  It’s not a guarantee that your kids will turn out right if you’re great parents, nor should it heap guilt on you if your children take a wrong turn.

Proverbs are general principles of godly wisdom for life.  Let’s come back to Bob’s doughnuts.  Suppose I give you this proverb –

A diet of doughnuts will shorten your life

But an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Is it true or not?  It’s true if I read it as proverb, not true if I read it as a promise.

With that understanding, read Proverbs 10:27….

The fear of the LORD adds length to life,

But the years of the wicked are cut short.

You can rock your whole world view if you read that as a promise – for you or for someone you love.  Some even give up believing in God when a good person dies too young.  But this is not a promise that everyone who fears the Lord will live a long life.  And the fact that you know some really bad people who lived into their 80s or 90s is irrelevant.

The Bible makes that clear in many places, even in Proverbs.  There’s a whole book of the Bible included in the Wisdom literature (Job) that reminds us we should never assume that just because disaster falls on someone else it’s because he did something wrong.  That’s a biblical lesson, but it’s a lesson for another day.

What’s the trajectory?

Then what is Proverbs 10 saying?   Solomon is raising the question of trajectory.  It asks me for a comprehensive and brutally honest self-assessment.  In which direction is my life headed?  What are the long term consequences of the choices that I’m making?  It’s not only a question of the long term consequences for me, but what is the impact on others?  What sort of example am I setting?

It’s so easy to rationalize anything from careless spending to outbursts of temper to sexual immorality to resentments I will not release to cutting remarks to laziness to little white lies to short term flirtations with my addictions.  Proverbs 10 won’t let me rationalize.

The question for me on Wednesday was not whether it was OK to eat a doughnut or not.  It wasn’t about heaping shame on myself for my lack of self control.  It wasn’t about thinking, “Jesus doesn’t like me today.”  Jesus always likes me!  God sees me completely guilt-free and shame-free in Christ.

The question had to do with what path I’m on.  I know when I give in to the lack of self-control in one area it affects everything.  What does what I’m doing today reveal about the trajectory of my choices?  Are they leading me to deeper holiness or not?

You want to say, “Well, there’s a mix.  I’m doing some things well but not other things.”  Here’s the response of Proverbs 10 – is that honesty or rationalization?  In other words, are you proud of yourself because you’re coming to church and you don’t cheat on your spouse and you don’t go to work…but you’re actually hiding the fact that your spending and debt are out of control or behind closed doors your children are terrified of you or you’re pursuing an emotional or electronic affair?

It’s the difference between saying, “I’m trying to be righteous” and “I’m trying to look righteous” in public.  What’s the trajectory of whatever decisions you’re really making in life right now?  If you stay on your current path will you end up with life or death?

Here’s the good news of Proverbs 10:  there’s always the opportunity to change paths.  Well, it’s not just good news – it can also be a warning.

Last Thursday, Lanny and Joan Huffman invited us to sit with them and some other Corinth folks at the 25th Anniversary dinner for Salvation Army’s Boys and Girls Club.  The guest speaker Damien Horne, who grew up deep in Hickory’s public housing development. He was invited to the Boys and Girls Club where he met Jesus and met grown ups who believed in him, loved on him, gave him the chance to play sports and encouraged him to write poetry.  He had changed his path, altered his trajectory.

After Damien graduated from Hickory High School, he decided to fulfill his dream to become an entertainer.  So off he went to, where else, Hollywood, where he spent the $400 he took with him in the first week, and was homeless for two years.  With the help of Teen Challenge he was able to turn his life around again, and when he had saved up enough money he headed back to North Carolina.

Still dreaming of a music career, Damien tried Nashville, where his talents were discovered.  He has since toured as a singer and speaker, shared his story on the 700 Club, opened for artists from Hank Williams to Taylor Swift, landed a role in the movie Courageous, and much more.[4]  He illustrates so beautifully that those on the path to “wicked” always have the chance by God’s grace to alter their destination.

That’s Proverbs 10.  Every day is a fork in the road, a chance to choose life or death by choosing the righteous or wicked path.  Choose righteousness.  Choose life.  Amen.

[1][1] Get thee behind me, Satan!

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:9-10.

[3] Proverbs 10 begins, “The proverbs of Solomon….”  That does not necessarily mean Solomon personally wrote each one.  He may have borrowed some.  Those who followed him may have added to or edited the collection.  For my purpose today it doesn’t matter.  These are words inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved by the Jewish people.  For brevity, I’ll just refer to Solomon as the author of this chapter.

[4] Read more of Damien’s story on his web site

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