A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on prosperity in the book of Proverbs.
I dedicate today’s message to my first Bible Study leader in youth group many years ago. Just before I started my Higher School Certificate exams in 1983, she gave me this message to inspire me and to give me confidence. It comes from Philippians chapter 4 verse 13.
I can do all things through him who gives me strength.
The “him” in this verse is Christ. And if Christ gives me strength, nothing is impossible. I can do anything. Except breathe under water or climb up onto the roof or play with spiders. But apart from that, anything.
Anyway, it got me thinking. This year’s crop of Year 11 and 12 students will be doing their HSC trials in August. They’re only weeks away from their final exams. So what scripture verse could I think of to give them a good pep talk? I kind of like Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 3:
Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.
Nothing helps to motivate better than putting our current minor temporary problems into perspective. But it does sound a bit gloomy to be truly inspirational. Maybe I should go home and try a bit harder.
But it raises even more important questions. Like: what good is God? If you believe in God and trust in him with all your heart how many extra marks will he give you towards your ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) score? If you want to do Agricultural Science at Sydney University, like I did, you only need an ATAR score of 76. But if you want to do a Bachelor of Arts you need 84. Just so you can work for McDonalds for the rest of your life. Now, don’t get upset. I’ve also got a Bachelor of Arts, so I’m allowed to say that. If you want to do Political Science you need 90. I didn’t say Politics. To get into politics you only need an Atar of 5. In fact, if you get an ATAR over 50, you’re probably overqualified. But if you want to do psychology, well, you will need an appointment with your therapist, because you are going to need 97. And who’s going to get a score like 97? You would need a brain the size of a basketball to get 97 and you would keep getting your head caught in doorways.
But what if you believed in God with all your heart, how many extra marks would that be worth? One mark? Five marks? Twenty marks? Could God get you into not just a Psychology course but, hold your breath, even an Arts, Law double degree? Ninety nine point seven. The question is worth asking and not just for our year 12 students. What does it take to achieve your dreams? Who are the people that God rewards with success? What is the secret to prosperity?
Wisdom’s simple answer from the book of Proverbs is that hard work works. Not the power of positive thinking. Not a special prayer. Not an inspirational Bible verse taken out of context and applied inappropriately to our first world problems. But good honest toil. Hard work works. Proverbs chapter 10 says,
Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.
Chapter 12 verse 11 says,
He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment.
Verse 24 of the same chapter says,
Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labour.
In 1996 American education reformer Charles Sykes wrote a list of things that students won’t learn from school. On the internet these eleven rules are usually falsely attributed to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, but Bill Gates only wishes he had said them. Rule One is: Life is not fair. Get used to it. Rule Two: The world doesn’t care about your self esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself. Rule Three: You will NOT make $40,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice president until you earn it. Rule Four: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. Skipping a few rule seven is: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you are. Skipping another one, rule nine is: Life is not divided into terms. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time. And skipping another one, the last one, rule eleven is: Be nice to nerds. Because chances are one day you will end up working for one.
It’s a good reminder that people talk these days of having a dream and of following your dream. But there is not a lot of talk about the fact that dreams don’t feed you or keep your warm at night, and that achieving your dreams takes hundreds, thousands of hours of learning the necessary skills and gaining the required experience. Above all it takes removing every single obstacle that stands in your way and half of those obstacles will be something else you would rather be doing. You may dream of flying. And someday you might. But in between it takes hard work.
Realising your dreams might be challenging. It might be rewarding. But it will be hard. It might be hard work like digging holes for fence posts or like managing a difficult child in the class room, or like balancing the shift rosters for the next two weeks and keeping everyone happy, which will never work. Or it might be hard work like sitting in front of a computer screen with your head in your hands, searching the dictionary inside your brain for the perfect adjective. Because you feel “frustrated”. No, that’s not good enough. No, you “feel like hitting your head against a brick wall”. No, too cliché. You “feel like you’ve already sharpened this pencil three times but it keeps breaking”. And maybe you have to admit that there is no perfect adjective and you’ve just got to get on with the message.
So I’ll just copy and paste what Proverbs chapter 14 says,
All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.
Some people talk about what they’re going to do. Other people just do it.
I have to admit, though, that the book of Proverbs doesn’t say much about the rewards of hard work. But it does have quite a bit to say about the consequences of laziness. The New International Version of the Bible in the church pews calls the lazy person a sluggard. A sluggard is someone who drags the chains. Someone who can’t be bothered doing anything. Chapter 10 says,
Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him.
Meaning that lazy people are annoying to the other people who rely on them.
Chapter 15 says,
The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns.
Meaning that half of the obstacles in front of lazy people are of their own making, and maybe the other half is in their own imagination. Everything is too hard. Whereas successful people do what is too hard for others. Successful people do what other people aren’t prepared to do. There are a thousand reasons for not doing something. While successful people know that you only need one good reason to do it.
Chapter 6 pulls no punches.
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
Now I have to admit that I love to sleep. Maybe not as much as I should at 11 o’clock at night. But I make up for it at 7 o’clock in the morning. Chapter 6 isn’t having a go at those who need 8 or 9 hours of sleep. We need to rest or we cannot work. But it is having a go at those who will not stop resting to do what needs to be done.
It’s one thing to work hard. I can even do it when I have to. But the Proverbs also tell us to work smart. Proverbs chapter 24 verse 27 says,
Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house.
It’s not talking about the garden and the lawns that always need to be mowed. It’s talking about the farm. And what makes the money on the farm? What feeds the children? What pays off the loan? The outdoor work. The fields in which the farmer sows his crops, and on which he grazes his flocks. He can work hard all day on building his house. Carrying all the materials. Checking all the angles are square. Measuring twice and cutting once. But building his house doesn’t pay the bills. In fact, half the bills are probably from building the house.
We can’t just work hard and expect to be a success. We need to work smart. It’s no good clocking in and out of work, putting in eight or ten or twelve hour shifts, congratulating ourselves on how hard we work, if none of those hours was spent doing anything productive or worthwhile. Working smart means studying all your subjects, even the ones you don’t like and working extra hard on the one’s you aren’t so good at. Working smart means not writing two perfect essays in your exam. But five good ones. Working smart means setting the right priorities and working to them. Working smart means knowing what makes the money in the business and what will grow the business into the future and focussing on them.
The thing about wisdom, even the wisdom recorded in God’s holy word, is that it is only generally true. These are not promises. These are observations. It is generally true that laziness is destructive and hard work is rewarded. But it is equally true that the results of our labour are up to God. Proverbs chapter 16 verse 1 says,
To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the reply of the tongue.
Verse 9 of the same chapter says,
In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.
And verse 4 says,
The LORD works out everything for his own ends.
These verses remind us that the Lord is king. He is the ruler of the world he has made. He guides its events. He manages the things that happen. And he does so for his own ends. The universe was created according to his plan. It is his purpose that will triumph in the end. He rules all things and all creatures for his ends, not for ours. Not for mine. And not for yours. That is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Not the icing on the cake of wisdom. Not the “figuring it out as we go along” of wisdom. The beginning. The start. The source of wisdom is knowing God and fearing him. Wisdom is knowing the purpose of God and behaving accordingly.
And the purpose of God is the gospel. The purpose of God is to reconcile all things through Christ. To mend what is broken and to heal what is sick. We have rebelled against the Lord in our own time and in our own way. But through Christ God pursues us and calls us to himself that we might be set free to know him and love him and trust him and serve him. And he has done this through the cross of Jesus Christ, which is not just the instrument of our salvation but the pattern and example of our salvation. The cross isn’t just the gate through which we must walk to begin the journey to God. The cross is the journey to God. And you cannot sit where you sit and look forward and see the sign of the cross on the front wall and imagine that God wants you to have a lot of money, when Christ was poor. Or that God wants you to live a long life, when Christ lived 30 years. The Lord Jesus said,
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what an a man give in exchange for his soul?
The truly successful life, the life that prospers for eternity will often look a lot like losing. Its strength is hidden in weakness. And its treasure is hidden in jars of clay. Climbing the greasy pole of life will ultimately only lead to a long slide to the bottom. True prosperity, on the other hand, is only found in the footsteps of Christ. Taking up our cross and following him.
In conclusion: what good is God? He is our creator, the source of life. To know him in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is life. How many marks will the young people get if they believe in him? Well, they will get the mark that their hard work deserves. Nevertheless, the truly successful life begins with prayer. Proverbs chapter 16 verse 3 says,
Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.
Because it is in the conversation of prayer that the Lord’s plans become ours, and not the other way round. And it is his plans that will ultimately succeed.