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 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.