Wisdom — Week 4

For a fourth week, we’re going to spend our Time Alone with God in the Book of Proverbs, which is part pf the poetry and wisdom literature of the Old Testament.

 

Monday, August 27

Read: Proverbs 27:6

Consider: Part of the power of Solomon’s proverbs is the genius of saying so much with so few words. That’s the gift of poetry. We can remember one line or one phrase that will speak volumes to us for years to come. And just when we need it, the Holy Spirit brings those phrases to our minds, because they have been hidden in our hearts (Psalm 119:11).

Four words have served me many times throughout the years — “wounds from a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).

The writer isn’t talking about thoughtless wounds we inflict simply because we’re human. He’s not addressing those times when I must apologize to a friend saying, “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out like it should have.” No, these are precious and faithful words—words that “can be trusted.” These come from people who love you enough to tell you what you don’t want to hear, and what they really don’t want to tell you. But because they love you so much, they risk revealing the hard truths.

Sometimes we’re on the receiving end and sometimes we’re called to initiate the difficult conversations. But it’s important to remember that the emphasis is on friendship and intimacy. Wisdom doesn’t say that the wounds of a critic can be trusted. It doesn’t proclaim that the naysayer will build you up with honesty. Our words only heal when they come from a heart of love and not from an ego that simply tries to straighten out people with whom we disagree.

Someone very close to me received a very long letter, written “in love” telling her how wrong she is. The crazy thing is that it came from a Christian who had never had a conversation with her—someone who really didn’t know her at all.

A couple of days later I read a quote from David Khalaf that put into words what I was feeling…

“Your authority to speak into someone’s life is directly proportional to your investment in the relationship.”

Pray: “Lord, I want to be humble enough to hear, learn from and grow as a result of ‘wounds from a friend’—those hard words. I also want to be humble enough to speak the difficult truth, but only when you are calling me to do so. Help me to always remember that the call to love supersedes all other responsibilities. You made that clear to us in your word.”

 

Tuesday, August 28

Read: Proverbs 27:17

Consider: I always admire life-long friendships. When someone introduces a friend to me with words like, “We go way back” or “We’ve been friends for thirty years”, I know I’m peeking in on a great gift from God. I love it when we have the time to talk about that friendship—the way they met, the hilarious stories of the crazy things that happened to them, the hard times they went through together. These form a tapestry of the shared life that God has for us.

Now, usually in these encounters you don’t hear about the times when the friendship hit the rocks. You don’t learn about the times these two people almost parted ways. But you know those experiences are part of the tapestry. You know that this friendship would not have survived if these two people had been unwilling to forgive and to be forgiven.

Yesterday we talked about the hard words that we must sometimes share with people we love—what the proverbs writer called “wounds from a friend” (27:6). People who are unwilling to engage in that level of friendship become what I call “serial friends.” They go from friendship to friendship. They have a history of good friendships that they abandoned when things got a little too close—when the relationship demanded truth. Sometimes we walk away and sometimes people walk away from us.

In Proverbs we read that “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17). Iron is strong, but it’s not soft. Life together is full of triumph and tragedy, laughter and tears, virtue and stupidity, sin and forgiveness. But God can use all of those things to “sharpen” us. They can be tools to form us more fully into his image.

Pray: “Lord, I thank you for the people in my life who have formed me. Not all of them have been friends. I’ve had my critics and those who did not engage me with love. But there have also been those ‘iron friends’—those precious people who have made me stronger while I have made them stronger. Thank you for those gifts. Please continue to make me a gift to others.”

 

Wednesday, August 29

Read: Philemon 4-7

Consider: We’ve been talking this week about the relationships that mean the most to us. These include people who love us enough to speak truth into our lives—whose words, which sometimes feel like “wounds,” heal us (Proverbs 27:6). Our words and actions heal them as well. These reciprocal relationships are described in scripture as iron sharpening iron (27:17).

About thirty-five years ago, I was challenged to form an accountability group. Each week I met with three friends to share life at a deeper level. We challenged each other. We gave each other feedback. We confessed our weaknesses. We even took on a very special project. But, most of all, we simply encouraged each other.

While I have not been in a group like that for a long time, I’ve been honored to be in accountability and mentoring relationships for many years. And I continually discover that the greatest work of “sharpening iron” is the simple joy of encouraging one another.

Now, of course, there are some accountability relationships that must center on the hard truths. If you are struggling with an addiction, you know how vital it is to have someone regularly look you in the eye and demand honesty about how you are dealing with the addiction. The power of recovery groups is the love that demands honesty.

But if that is your only image of accountability, you may be afraid of it. And the issue may not be that you are afraid of answering the tough questions, you simply may not see yourself as one who would regularly build your relationships by always engaging in those kinds of discussions. I get that. I hate confrontation.

So, let me encourage you to begin sharpening those around you by intentionally becoming a source of encouragement to them. I’m not talking about flattery. Flattery is the useless “kiss” that was mentioned in Monday’s passage (Proverbs 27:6). No, I’m talking about real encouragement. The kind that sees qualities in another person that they cannot see in themselves. The kind that supports people when they are going through the dark valleys. The kind that says, by word and action, “God believes in you and so do I.”

A little-known encourager from scripture is a man named, Philemon. To him Paul wrote, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.”

I want to be like Philemon.

Pray: “Lord, you have placed encouragers in my life at just the right times. People have encouraged me by their words and actions, and often, simply by their presence. Help me to be the presence of Christ in someone else’s life today. Show me who needs encouragement right now and reveal to me those who need my intentional encouragement over the long haul. I am honored by the opportunity to be the presence Christ to them.”

 

Thursday, August 30

Read: Proverbs 5:1-14

Consider: All sins are equal. They’re all the same in God’s sight. Right? Wrong!

If you don’t believe me, think about the advice we give to young people. Many years ago, I was a youth pastor, and later I was the father of teenagers. As I look back, I remember the things we kept reinforcing in our children. Parents and youth workers do a lot of talking about drugs, alcohol and sex. And there’s good reason for that. It’s because we have the wisdom, from experience, to know that these are the areas that can lead to life-changing mistakes. We know that our kids—just like us—are going to make thousands of mistakes. We just want to keep them from the ones that will destroy them. So, we warn them about getting into a car with a friend who’s been drinking. We tell them that pre-marital sex can lead to terrible complications. We talk about how drug addiction destroys lives and families. We teach that promiscuous sex can kill them.

One thing you will notice as you read the Book of Proverbs are the stern warnings about sexual immorality—couched in terms of what is wise and what is foolish. Just as the wisdom writer uses the image of a woman—Sophia—as the embodiment of wisdom, he uses the image of another woman—the adulteress—as the image of foolishness. And he uses strong language to tell us that the stakes are high. This kind of foolishness can have long-term effects.

So, I don’t think this portion of the book is only about sex. I think it’s about wisdom for the long-haul. It’s about foolishness that alters life in tragic ways.

Of course, we must always guard our sexuality, regardless of our age. But we also need to look at the other life-changing sins to which we are vulnerable. What about anger? If we let anger seethe below the surface of our lives, we’ll destroy our relationships. We’ll say and do things that take decades to mend. What about intolerance? Will we allow the pride of intolerance to stoke our racism, sexism and homophobia? If so, it could have life-long consequences in our children and in our relationships with them. What about cynicism? We all have doubts. That’s part of the faith journey. But will we allow ourselves to abandon hope in God and in people? That would cause long-term devastation.

We all struggle with sin. The New Testament calls it hamartia—literally, “missing the mark.” We’ll always fall short in some ways, but the Bible also teaches us to avoid the sins that destroy.

This is not about regretting the past or fearing the future. God forgives and empowers. It’s about seeking the wisdom of God.

Pray: Let’s pray that great prayer found in Psalm 139:23-24…

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.”

 

Friday, August 31

Read: Proverbs 28:13

Consider: There are various ways that people deal with the sins and mistakes of their past. Some people simply deny them. Narcissists tend to believe that they’ve done nothing wrong and they’re shocked and feel victimized when people point out their crimes. Others rationalize their sins. They say they committed them in response to something or someone else, so they’re not to blame. Others minimalize their sins — “I’m no worse than anyone else.” And, still others, grovel in their sins. Since they aren’t able or willing to forgive themselves, they spend their lives berating themselves which leads them to believe that they have no worth.

But there is a way to approach our sins that actually liberates us. It’s taught throughout scripture and, as we read today, is verbalized in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament — “the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”

There’s an old saying that you’ve heard your entire life; confession is good for the soul. That’s true, but it’s an understatement. I would say that confession is vital to your soul. It is central to your life.

Let’s broaden our concept of confession. We usually think of it as an event. There are prayers of confession we pray in church. There are times of confession when we go to our spouse and say, “I responded to you out of anger. I’m sorry.”

But confession is more than sporadic events in our lives. Confession is transparency. It is a call to live with the full knowledge that we are “poor in spirit” and need God to continually guide us. It’s the acknowledgment that we don’t have all the answers and that we need God, and each other, in order to live full and fruitful lives. It’s the rejection of false posturing and self-aggrandizement. It is freedom from our own egos.

To use the words of Proverbs, it is humility and wisdom.

In recent years I’ve tried to learn more about Francis of Assisi, who, among his many virtues, was a man of simplicity. Meditating on his words and works, I’ve come to the point where I ask God for something very specific. I’m a long way from living in the manner I’m seeking, but every day I ask God to help me live as though I had nothing to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to lose.

I think that’s a life of confession and liberation.

Pray: “Lord, I’m so grateful that I don’t have to justify the actions of my past. I can’t justify myself, but I can daily receive your grace and forgiveness. Today I confess my sins and my need for you. Thank you for liberation. Teach me to fully accept your grace so that I can know that liberation.”

 

Saturday, September 1

Read: Proverbs 30:7-9

Consider: Some of the effects of poverty are obvious. Others are not. The more you study and encounter poverty, the more you see that the results are long-term and devastating. God desires all his children to have adequate food, clothing, housing, healthcare, safety and, of course, love, purpose and meaning. Sadly, too many of our sisters and brothers live in grinding poverty.

While we may or may not recognize this, seldom do we give any thought to the dangers of affluence. We don’t see it. But the wisdom writer did, for he prayed, “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread” (30:8).

While we know that extreme poverty breaks the heart of God, we should also recognize that the hoarding of material wealth is an affront to him. There are many reasons for this, but the one that the wisdom writer points out is a loss of perspective — “I may have too much and disown you” (30:9). What a powerful play on words about owning and disowning.

Now, here’s where we need to integrate biblical teachings on possessions. Sometimes, the scripture talks about our attitudes toward possessions. That’s the case in the passage we read today. Too many possessions can skew our reality. It can keep us from real joy by placating us with short-term pleasure. It can confuse us as to the source of our security. It can lead us to define ourselves by what we own rather than who we are as image-bearers of God.

Other times, the scripture speaks about possessions in real terms. Giving to the poor and investing in the kingdom of heaven by investing in people. Attitude alone isn’t enough. But, action without perspective becomes legalistic and self-righteous.

Where do we start? Outside or inside? Both. We purge the clutter inside of us by remembering that God is the owner and source of all good things. So, what we really need is him, and we ask him to help us change our desires to reflect that reality. At the same time, we begin to purge the outside. We prayerfully, over time, simplify our lives so that we are more fully able to live in the moment, bask in the goodness of our “daily bread” and give to those who need our help.

Simplicity of heart and life is beautiful. It is liberating. It is wise.

Pray: Let’s pray the prayer of the wisdom writer…

“Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me…
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”
(Proverbs 30:7-8)