Wednesday, 11 July 2018

What to look for in a wife (Proverbs 31:10-31)

Maybe you have heard some Christian pick-up lines.  There is the one from the book of Joshua: ‘have you walked around me seven times? Because I have fallen for you.’  The one for the book of Numbers: ‘I was just reading the book of Numbers, but I realised I don’t have yours.’  There is the one from Hebrews 11: ‘Is your name Faith?  Because you are the substance of things hoped for!’  Then there is the one from Proverbs: ‘why study about the woman of noble character when I can just study you?’
Proverbs ends with a poem.  It is what is called an acrostic poem, which means that every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This poem celebrates the woman of noble character.
We have seen that the book of Proverbs was originally a manual of instruction for young men.  It records the teaching of fathers and mothers to their sons.  Having taught their son about the kind of wise life he is to lead, they now tell him about the sort of woman he should seek to marry.
While most of the proverbs of this book are given by Solomon, this chapter is not.  That is probably just as well.  For the wise Solomon was very foolish when it came to wife-choosing.  He had more than one wife, and he choose women who did not love the Lord.  Love for the Lord is the beginning, and non-negotiable, place when a young Christian looks for someone to marry.
The beginning of this chapter tells us that these are the words of King Lemuel.  We don’t know who Lemuel is, but his name means ‘devoted to God’.  Lemuel is passing on the advice his mother gave to him.  Before you think that this chapter is sexist, remember that the king was taught by his mother, and the wise woman she describes speaks with wisdom and teaches with kindness.
Given that the Proverbs is a ‘book for boys’ (the word ‘son’ occurs forty-four times), it is obvious why it focuses on the type of wife a wise young man would look for.  But supposing it was the advice of a father to his daughter, rather than a mother to her son.  What sort of characteristics would we expect to find in ‘the ideal husband’?  Much of the advice would be the same.  Proverbs has told young men not to be arrogant, lazy, dishonest, vain or harsh.  A father should instruct his daughter to look for a husband who hard-working, willing to be involved enough to discipline the children, kind and gracious.  Most importantly, a Christian father would tell his believing daughter to desire a man who fears God and let’s his faith be lived out.
A woman of faith
The first thing a young Christian is to do, in looking for a spouse, is to look for people who love God.  The wife of noble character ‘fears the Lord’ (30).  Race makes no difference (Moses was married to a Cushite and Boaz married a Moabite), but there is to be no unequal yoke between someone who loves the Lord and someone who does not (2 Corinthians 6:14).
A strong woman
The woman described here is hard-working and innovative.  Her identity is not simply found in terms of who she is married to.  The young man is to be willing to trust her to buy and sell.  He is not to be an overly-controlling husband.  Men should not be scared of strong and capable women.  They shouldn’t be intimidated if she has more business sense than he.  They should be encouraging their wife to use and develop their gifts. 
A woman to be praised
The woman’s children rise up and ‘call her blessed’ (28).  ‘A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ (30).  This woman receives honour, although her aim is to bring honour to another.  The Bible commands us to encourage godly women.  How many women feel emotionally starved because they are taken for granted and never encouraged!
A generous woman
This woman is extravagant in her care.  She provides for her household, but she is not blind to the needs of those outside of her household.  She speaks with kindness.  ‘She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy’ (20).  Do you want to know what someone is really like?  Then see how they treat those who can do nothing to pay them back!
A servant
I think that the most notable thing about this woman is that she is willing to be a servant.  She is strong and capable, but her life seems to be lived for the blessing of others.  She wants her children to safe and secure and she wants to bring honour to her husband.  This servant-heart is not simply the preserve of wives.  The Apostle Paul tells husbands to ‘give himself up for his wife’ (Ephesians 5:25).  In truth this should be the attitude that all Christians aim for, as we remember how Jesus gave himself up for us (Philippians 2:8).
Conclusion—We are looking for something super-natural
Sadly, many young men put too much focus on a girl’s outward appearance (in fact many women obsess too much about how they look), and many young women attract the boys simply by playful flirting.  Young people often ask, ‘which is more important, looks or personality?’  Proverbs tells us that ‘charm is deceitful, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ (30).  It is not that looks don’t matter, after all the Song of Solomon celebrates physical attraction, but what matters most is godliness.  What the woman described here is all the wisdom of Proverbs in action!
What do we mean by godliness?  After all the woman in these verses seems so perfect.  Many women read these verses and feel inadequate.  I would hate for husbands to use these verses to and make unfavourable comparisons to their wives.  The key thought of this poem is a willingness to put the needs of others ahead of our wants. 
That is something we should all aspire to.  It will make us better neighbours, employees, church members, parents and friends.  It is something that models the one who came ‘not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).  It is something that we can practice as we live as imperfect husbands who are married to imperfect wives.  It is something supernatural.
You see, self-centredness comes all to naturally to me but selflessness needs a miracle.  In January I won’t need to make the resolution: ‘this year I must break the habit of putting other people before me.  This year I must try harder to make it about me.  I must me first, me second and me third’ (adapted from Douglas O’Donnell).  No next January I will need to pray, as I should pray every day, ‘Lord, help me think of others before myself.’  That is the quality we are to praise in others.  That is wisdom in action!  And it is a fitting way to finish this book!

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

How to make good decisions (Proverbs)

There are some things that the Bible won’t tell you.  The Bible won’t tell you what house to buy, what person to marry or what job to train for.  There is no verse that tells you exactly how to spend your money.  There is no verse that tells you how to use your leisure time.  There is no verse that shows you when to bring up that sensitive issue with a work colleague.  There are parameters in which to make your decisions—like not marrying someone who doesn’t share your love for Jesus, but nothing about the relative merit of that equally cute blond or brunette, whether to buy the bungalow or semi-detached, or to become a jeweller or a jailor.

This morning we are going to see what the Proverbs teach us about decision-making.
The wise person looks for advice
The book of Proverbs takes the form of a father teaching his son.  ‘Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mothers’ teaching’ (1:8).  Children are to listen to the advice of their parents.  One of the pieces of wisdom I remember my father giving me was to seek to learn something from every person you meet.  Parents, you have a responsibility to model and teach wise decision-making to your children. 
The need to be teachable runs right throughout the book of Proverbs.  Not only do our parents teach us, we learn from the correction of our friends.  ‘Faithful are the wound of a friend’ (27:6).  While the ‘way of fools seems right to them, … the wise listen to advice …’ (12:15).  ‘For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisors’ (11;14).    
The wise person does not make hasty decisions
‘The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty’ (21:5).  ‘Put your outdoor work in order, and get your fields ready; after that, build your house’ (24:7).  In other words, check that you got the budget sorted before you put your plans into action.  Instead of haste there should be forward planning. 
The wise person learns from experience
One of the things that we learn through experience is not to make the same mistake twice.  ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly’ (26:11).  However, I have known people to become cynical through painful experience, that is not wisdom.
The wise person does not worry about decision-making

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight’ (3:5-6).  ‘Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails’ (19:21).  ‘A person’s steps are directed by the Lord.  How then can anyone understand their own way?’ (20:24)
I’m not saying that bad decisions don’t have consequences.  Sometimes we reap the bitter fruit of what we sow.  But despite all our decision-making, it is God who ultimately gets his way.  He may even use a bad decision to teach us, but he never fails to be gracious towards us. 
The wise person doesn’t worry to much about the decisions they have made because they know that God remains in control.  They don’t spend their life with buyer’s remorse, because they know that God directed their actions.  They are much more concerned to make decision for the right reasons than worrying about the actual decision they have made.
The wise person thinks about the heart behind the action
Given that God directs our steps, we need not worry about destroying his plans for our lives.  However, we do want to make decisions in a way that pleases him.  ‘The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity’ (11:3).   ‘Those who plan what is good find love and faithfulness’ (14:22).  The important thing in decision-making is not actually the decision that has been made, but the heart the motivated the decision.  Augustine said, ‘love God and do as you want.’  When you love God, you will do as he wants.
The cross should be the pattern for our decision-making
Proverbs is a book about wisdom.  Decision-making involves wisdom in action.  Christ crucified is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24).  How does thinking about the cross affect the decisions that you make?
Given that it is through the cross that we learn what love is (1 John 3:16).  Therefore, the love of the cross prompts us not simply to make our decisions with self-interest.  We now are to make decisions where we are willing to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Jesus.
Though Jesus was rich, yet for your sake he become poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).  The cross teaches us to make decisions that aim at the blessing of other people.
Jesus said, ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).  We are not simply to make decisions aimed at ensuring our comfort, but those that enhance of service of God and others.
So, when it comes to making decisions, here are some questions to ask:
Am I about to do anything the Bible forbids, or am I refusing to do something the Bible commands?  God will never call you to cheat on your taxes or to lie to anyone!
Have I asked people for advice?  You may not accept everyone’s opinion about the decision, but you will at least weigh it up.  Am I listening to friends who have enough integrity to tell me how I need to change?
Am I acting in haste (as I am prone to do), or have I been careful in my planning?
What have previous decisions taught me about the issue at hand?  Foolish people let painful experiences make them cynical, but wise people don’t keep on repeating the same mistake.
Am I worrying too much about this decision?  After all I can trust God to look after everything in my life as I live a life of trusting him.  I can even trust him to use my bad decisions in the past for my ultimate good.  So he doesn’t honour him if decision-making leaves me paralysed with fear.
Am I more concerned about why I am making this decision than what decision I am making?
Do my decisions reflect the love, willingness to sacrifice, desire to please God and bless others that is revealed through the cross of Christ?
So, what about the brunette or the blond?  Well if you are married there is no decision to make. ‘You are to rejoice in the wife of your youth’ (5:18).  If you are a single Christian, do they both love the Lord (2 Corinthians 6:14)?  What have your experiences of the opposite sex taught you?  It would be a bit cynical to reply, ‘I have never got on well with blonds’, but surely you have learned something about the sort of person you enjoy spending time with!  Is there a risk that you are worrying too much about meeting someone to marry?  Are you concerned that you would be a blessing to her, the way you hope she will be a blessing to you?  Are you prepared to lay down your life for her?  Are you overly concerned with her physical beauty, which is fleeting (31:30)?  If you still can’t decide between them, then just choose as you please.  And take comfort in the words of Tozer: ‘the man or woman who is wholly and joyously surrendered to Christ cannot make a wrong choice.  Any choice will be the right one.’
Now start applying the same thinking the same thinking to the bungalow or semi-detached!

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

How to be wise (Proverbs)

I love the book of Proverbs.  There are so many interesting, and even amusing, gems of truth contained in its pages.  The Proverbs are given in the form of instruction from parents to their son.  A son is being told about what the sort of qualities to look for in a wife, how to do deal with difficult people, how to be a blessing to society, how should use money, how to be a good friend, and so on.  Do you want to know these things for yourself?  Do you want to raise spiritually healthy children?  Then this book of for you!
Most of the Proverbs are from Solomon, who, in the Old Testament, was the model of a wise man.  Solomon writes that we may ‘know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth (1:1-4).
How do we become wise?
What is wisdom?  I think that being wise involves living a life that pleases God, and even knowing how to do so when the Bible doesn’t give you are clear command relating to the choice that you are about to make.  So, when we read through the Proverbs we are doing more than looking for instructions for our particular situation, we are also trying to allow God to shape how we reason.  But how do we become wise?
Wisdom begins with faith.  Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).  The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’ (Psalms 14:1).  ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding’ (9:10).  To fear the Lord is not to be sacred of God, but to live in awe and reverence of the gracious God you long to please. 
Notice that wisdom is especially needed by those who are young.  Wisdom is learned through the experiences of life.  That is why the Proverbs value age, and so speak positively about grey hair (16:31 and 20:29).  We can learn from those who have travelled further down the road of life than us.  How tragic it is to live in a culture that always assumes that change is good, that new is best, and that the young know better than their parents and grandparents!
Wisdom comes through experiencing life in the real world, so you don’t become wise by hiding in a bubble.  ‘Wisdom cries out in the street’, rather than revealing itself in an ivory tower (1:20).  Even the mistakes we make are to teach us.  ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly’ (26:1).  Don’t let bad experiences make you cynical but let them give you understanding. 
Not only does wisdom come through the hard knocks of life in the real world, it also comes through being willing to expose yourself to hard words.  ‘Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching’ (1:8).  ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ (27:5).  You will not become very wise if you are so touchy that even those who love you don’t have permission to challenge you.
We learn from the words of Scripture.  ‘Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him’ (30:5).  We could say that we become wise by listening to our parents, our friends, and most of all, to God.  The Holy Spirit shapes our thinking as we meditate on the Word he inspired. 
Wisdom comes through being broken.  Even the perfect person of Jesus learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8).  Don’t be surprised to receive discipline from the Heavenly Father who loves you (3:12).  Parents who love their children will discipline them (13:24).  Spoiled children are generally foolish.
Wisdom is given to those who really want it!  We are to seek wisdom ‘like silver and search for it like hidden gold’ (2:4).  The proverbs teach us that wisdom is a gift from God.  ‘The Lord gives wisdom, from his mouth come knowledge and understanding’ (2:6).  James writes, ‘If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him’ (James 1:5).
Do we want to know how to be wise, to please God as we live in a complicated world?  Do you want wisdom enough to co-operate with God as he shapes us through pain, to respect God enough to listen to his word, to be humble enough to take the advice of other people, and to smart enough to learn from our mistakes?
To be wise is to have the mind of Christ
Solomon was the Old Testament’s greatest example of a person with wisdom, but then Jesus comes and claims that he is one greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:38-42).  Even as a child Jesus was noted for his wisdom (Luke 2:52).  During his public ministry people asked, ‘what is this wisdom that has been given to him?’ (Mark 6:2).  So, to be wise is to have the mind of Christ.  To ask for wisdom is to pray the words of that old hymn, ‘may the mind of Christ my saviour live in me from day to day, but his love and power controlling all I do and say.’  What does it look like to be wise?  It looks like Jesus!  Surely that is enough to make any Christian earnestly seek wisdom!
Wisdom calls out to you (chapter 8)
In Proverbs chapter 8 wisdom is personified.  That person is Jesus Christ himself.  ‘To you, O people, I call out, I raise my voice to all mankind.  You who are simple, gain prudence, you who are foolish, set your hearts on it’ (8:4-5).  Wisdom is not just for mystics and philosophers, it is for anyone who respond to the call of Jesus.  To live without Him is the most foolish thing of all!
Wisdom declares, ‘I hate pride and arrogance, evil behaviour and perverse speech’ (8:13).  So, we are to heed the Proverbs call to repent (1:23) and remember that coming into relationship with God is about humbling ourselves and accepting the promise of forgiveness (28:13).  For God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (3:34).
God wants us to seek wisdom because he delights to bless.  Wisdom says, ‘my fruit is better than gold, what I produce surpasses silver’ (8:18-19).  Wisdom, personified as a woman, ‘calls from the highest point of the city, “Let all who are simple come to my house!”  To those who have no sense she says, “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed.  Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight’ (9:3-6). 
I want to finish by pointing out that the Proverbs give us the impression that wisdom leads to all sorts of blessing, including health and wealth.  To some extent that is true.  Live well, and you are more likely to live long.  Be diligent, and you are more likely to financially prosper.  The Proverbs give us principles that work when the world is orderly.  However, there is plenty of disorder in the world.  That is why we read the Proverbs in the full light of Scripture.  Another book of wisdom, Job, reminds us the world is often very disorderly.  Work hard, but recession can take away all you have gathered.  Live well, but you still might get cancer.  Just read of the life of the Apostle Paul to see how the wise can suffer (2 Corinthians 11:16-33).  So, why live wisely?  We live wisely because there is delight is a life of wisdom (10:23 and 23:26); because we have a heavenly Father who delights in us (3:20); and because this delighting Father delights when we live with wisdom (3:20 and 8:31, 11:20 and 12:22)!       

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Tasty words (Proverbs)

Would you like to speak words that taste good?  Would you like to speak words that have value?  Would you like to speak words that refresh people?  Would you like to speak words that please God?  Would you like to speak words that bring healing?  Would you like to speak words that demonstrate that Christ dwells in you? 

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about how we speak.
Words matter
To start with, the Proverbs teach us that words matter.  You are not wise unless you grasp how important the words you speak are.  Some of you know this power because you still live with the emotional scars of the harsh words of a parent or teacher.  While harsh words wound, gentle words heal.  ‘There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing’ (12:18).  Destructive words are worse than a bee sting, but gentle words bless people.  ‘Anxiety in a person’s heart weighs them down, but a good word makes him glad’ (12:25).
Words can be deadly
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit’ (18:21).  We need to be careful with what we say.  Not only can our words wound other people, they can wreck our own lives.  We all have said things that we regret.  ‘Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity’ (21:23).  It is really important to think before you speak.  ‘Do you see someone who speaks in haste?  There is more hope for a fool than them’ (29:20). 
Words can be precious
While you may remember harsh words that left a scar, you may also have fond memories of words of encouragement.  ‘A word fitly spoken is like an apple of gold in a setting of stone’ (25:11).  ‘Lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel’ (20:15b).  Among the most precious words are the words of the gospel.  Wasn’t it with words that someone shared the good news of the God who loved you enough to send his Son to die for your sin?
We gossip because it tastes good
Gospel words are precious, but gossip is a type of toxic word.  So why do we gossip?  We gossip because it tastes good.  ‘The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts’ (18:8).  Why does it taste so good to speak and listen to gossip?  Words of gossip taste good because they make us feel superior to the person being talked about.  Gossip may be true, but it is told in a way to make those we are talking about look bad.  This plays to our huge desire to justify ourselves.  We are told to avoid the person who gossips (20:19).  If someone says, ‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this’, then tell them not to tell you! 
The gossip doesn’t just speak spiteful words, they use body language to communicate their malice: ‘he who winks with an eye is plotting perversity; he who purses his lips is bent on evil’ (16:30).  ‘A perverse person stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends’ (16:28).  ‘Better the poor whose walk is blameless; than a fool whose lips are perverse’ (19:1). 
Gracious words can taste better than gossip
Gracious words can taste better than gossip.  ‘Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones’ (16:24).  ‘A hot-tempered person stirs up distension; but a patient person calms a quarrel’ (15:18).  ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath (15:1).  ‘The soothing tongue is a tree of life … the lips of the wise spread knowledge’ (15:4 and 7). 
Do you ever see a fool argue?  It’s all shouting and temper!  Does the fool ever change anyone’s mind?  Of course not!  Even if the fool has a point worth making, he simply causes his opponents to become entrenched in their views.  However, speak calmly, reason in love, and you are going to be far more effective in making your point.
God hates dishonest words
God hates a lying tongue (6:16).  But gracious words are pure in his sight (15:26).  As the One who loves truth, God always speaks truth.  ‘Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him’ (30:5).  While he hates dishonest words, God loves the words of sincere prayer.
God loves the words of sincere prayer
Isn’t it wonderful that God can rejoice over your words?  ‘The prayer of the upright pleases him’ (15:8b).  He even delights to hear you present your requests to him!  What a kind, gracious and loving God we have!
How you speak reflects the condition of your heart
In the book of Proverbs there is a connection between the tongue and the heart.  For example, ‘the wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction’ (16:21).  Our words are like a thermometer that tell us something about our spiritual health, so we need to change our verbal appetite.  But how do we change our verbal appetite?
How can we change our verbal appetite?
‘Above all, guard your heart for, for everything you do flows from it’ (4:31).  How do we lose the taste for the morsels of gossip?  We lose the taste for the morsels of gossip by enjoying the taste of the honeycomb of gracious words!
Proverbs tells us to walk in the way of wisdom.  In the same way the apostle Paul tells us to walk in the Spirit, in order that we will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  Speak truth, and God will make your heart honest.  Speak with kindness, and God will make hate-speech repulsive to you.  Speak life, and God will purify your heart.  Behind pure words are pure motives. 
Speak to refresh your listener
So, why do we speak?  There are many reasons.  Sometimes we speak because we believe that we have something worth saying.  Sometimes we speak because we want to get our way.  Sometimes we speak because we want to bless people.  Here is a promise to those who want to bless people through their words: ‘Those who refresh others will be refreshed’ (11:25).
God will refresh you as you seek to refresh those around you.  This frees us up from trying to manipulate people with our words.  We are not looking for them to refresh us because our ultimate refreshment comes from God.  It should be God’s approval, not their approval that we seek.  It pleases us to realise that we are speaking words that bring pleasure to our Heavenly Father. 
‘Those who flatter their neighbours are spreading nets for their feet’ (29:5).  Flattery is a way so speaking kind words with the intention of using people.  But gracious words our designed for the benefit of others.
Gracious words reveal that Christ is in us
Gracious words reveal that Christ is in us.  Jesus is called the Word of God (John 1:1-3).  God speaks through the lips and the life of his Son.  With his words Jesus would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick (Matthew 12:20).  He can not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).  Sometimes we serve others by not speaking but listening.
Jesus calls people to listen to his words (John 12:47).  His words are supremely valuable, and they will never pass away (Matthew 24:33).  His words refresh us by giving us life (John 5:24). Not only does he speak truth, but he is the truth (John 14:6).  His words can change our hearts.
Would you like to speak words that taste good?  Would you like to speak words that have value?  Would you like to speak words that refresh people?  Would you like to speak words that please God?  Would you like to speak words that bring healing?  Would you like to speak words that demonstrate that Christ dwells in you?    Then listen carefully to what Jesus says; please God by speaking to him; show that Christ dwells within you through your gracious words; bless people by sharing the words of Christ; and enjoy being refreshed by God as you use kind and encouraging words to refresh those around you.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Do you want to change? (Proverbs)

Do you want to change?  Can you see where you need to change?  Does the idea of change threaten you?  Change is scary!  Change involves admitting that we need to be different.  Change involves confessing that we are flawed and failing.  Proverbs tells us that change involves pain—like the discomfort of letting friends challenge us about what we are doing wrong.  Do you always defend yourself?  Proverbs tells us that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.  If every problem in your life is blamed on someone else, then the gospel is not very real to you.
The Gospel in Proverbs
We would like to pretend that we have it together, but God sees things differently.  ‘Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure, I am clean and without sin?”’ (20:9).  No-one!  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  The blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all sin because we continually fail.  But take heart.  For those who are willing to be honest to God, and accept that their need his grace, there is an amazing promise.  ‘Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy’ (28:13).
You have nothing to fear.  What does it matter if people find out how messed up you are?  You will never spiritually prosper while you are trying to put on a face to impress people.  Your Heavenly Father loves you even though you have a ton of baggage.  You are more messed up than you realise, but God delights in you as you are.  He does not want to change you to make you more loveable.  He couldn’t love you more.  He wants you to be happy and free.  He wants to show his beauty by doing wonderful things with your character.  He wants to change you because he loves you!
Some sins we still struggle with
I want to highlight four character-issues where the Proverbs challenge us.  I would be doubtful if there is anyone in this room that has never battled them.   
People-pleasing.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1:7).  The opposite of the fear of God is fear of man.  'The fear of man lays a snare ...' (29:25).  It is a risky thing to base your identity on the approval of people.  The crowd is fickle.  Some people are impossible to please.  Some see you as a rival and will delight to see you fall.  Even the best of friends won’t love you perfectly.  When people-pleasing is your temptation then rejection is your great nightmare and you will always risk being a coward.
A thirst for power.  A thirst for power reveals itself in many subtle ways.  Are you very opinionated?  Are you a poor listener?  Do you interrupt people’s conversations?  Are you argumentative?  All these things can be the traits of someone who feels that they must get their way.  ‘A ruthless man gains only wealth’ (11:16).  If you are tempted by a thirst for power, then weakness will be your nightmare and you will always risk being angry.  Speaking of anger, Tim Keller points out that anger is a ‘gateway sin’—an uncontrolled temper will lead you into all sorts of trouble.  ‘A hot-tempered man commits many sins’ (29:27b).
The need to be in control.  Do your friends say that you are a ‘control-freak’?  In a Proverbs echoed by Jesus we read, 'Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day will bring' (27:1).  People who are tempted to be controlling have a problem delegating.  When they let others do a job they micro-manage, or correct what the person is doing.  In pride they assume that they always know the best way to do things.  They insist that things must be done their way.  If are tempted by a  need to be in control then your nightmare will be uncertainty, and you will always be tempted to excessive worry.
The comfort-addict.  I want you to be clear that pursuing pleasure is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Psalms tell us to delight ourselves in the Lord.  But the fool of the Proverbs pursues pleasure in a vain way.  He takes good gifts like food and rest and abuses them.  'The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down' (21:20).  The vain pleasure-seeker justifies being a sluggard: 'a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - and poverty will come like a thief and scarcity like an armed man' (6:10).  I love this proverb: 'The sluggard says, "there is a lion outside!  I'll be killed in the public square!"' (22:13).  'I better stay in bed, there is a big bad world out there to be feared!'  The nightmare of the comfort-addict is suffering, and the temptation is to become bored.
How do we change?
‘Above all else guard your heart’ (4:23).  How do we guard our heart?  How do we overcome the temptations and tendencies that have such a grip of us?
The Proverbs tell us to walk a path of wisdom.  A path needs to be walked, and walking implies putting wisdom into action.  The apostle Paul tells us to ‘walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (Galatians 5:16).  This reminds us that on one hand we are incapable of real heart change, we need the transforming work of the Holy Spirit working in us.  On the other hand, we need to respond to the enabling of the Holy Spirit, we need to walk.
How do we walk on the path of wisdom when it comes to people-pleasing?  We have read that ‘the fear of man lays a snare’, but the second part of that Proverb says, ‘but whoever trusts the Lord will be safe’ (29:25).  People may be hard to please, but God is on your side.  People may be fickle, but God’s love is steadfast.  Walk in the Spirit, along the path of wisdom, by caring more about what God thinks of you than what people think.
How do you walk in the path of wisdom when it comes to the thirst for power?  We have read that ‘a ruthless man gains only wealth’ but that Proverb continues to say that, ‘a kind woman gets honour’ (11:16).  Power-hunger and kindness cannot go hand in hand.  Kindness involves a kind of relinquishing of power.  Practice kindness as you let others get their way.  Practice kindness by valuing the opinion of others.  Practice kindness by listening well.     
How do walk in the path of wisdom with regards to a need to be in control?  Start by realising that we are not in control.  Your life will be consumed by worry if you need everything in order.  But while you are not in control, God is.  Proverbs has a high view of the sovereignty of God.  ‘People make their plans, but God directs their actions’ (16:9).  Make it you daily practice to commit your plans to God.  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight’ (3:5-6).
How do you walk in the path of wisdom with regards to your addiction to comfort?  God is not against your pleasure.  But he is against a distorted view of pleasure.  Learn how to live with delayed gratification.  While fools gulp their food down, ‘the wise store up choice food and olive oil’ (21:10). 
Finally, remember that you walk in the power of the Spirit.  We cannot change ourselves, but he will change us as we depend on him.  Act in obedience and see him work.  Tim Keller writes, ‘If you don’t feel love for someone, don’t let that stop you.  Do the actions of love, and after that the feelings follow.’  Stop worrying about what people think of you and pleasing God will become a habit.  Practice being kind and the desire for power will begin to weaken.  Trust God with your worries and you won’t need to be in control so much.  Be disciplined and the fruit of self-control will grow in you.
Do you want to change?  Maybe you are happy as you are!  It is more likely that you are unhappy as you are; but you are too proud to admit you are broken, too defensive to let anyone challenge you, and too foolish to realise that God has your good at heart.  ‘A cheerful heart is great medicine’ (17:22a), but you won’t experience much cheer in people-pleasing, power-plays, holding on to control and being slaves of uncontrolled appetites!

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Let the church make you happy (Psalm 133)

I don’t want to hear gossip about my mother.  Why?  I don’t  want to hear any gossip about her because I love her.  I wouldn’t tolerate listening to you say unfair and harsh things about her.  I will defend her.  I wouldn’t want to hear nasty things said about her even if they are true.  I don’t want to hear gossip about my mother because I love her, so what does that say about people I do listen to gossip about?  It says that I don’t truly love them!

Jesus loves the church.  He asked the church-hating Paul, ‘why do you persecute me?’  Just as I wouldn’t enjoy listening to nasty things about my mother, so Jesus doesn’t enjoy listening to ungracious things said against his people.  Jesus doesn’t want to listen to your gossip!  He never starts a conversation with the words, ‘heard any scandal lately?’
So, if we know that Jesus does not want us to be harsh and unloving, then why are we so critical of each other?  Why are we so slow to love each other?  How can we say that we love Jesus if we don’t love the people who make up his body?  Why do we attempt to hurt the body when we don’t get our way?  You can’t love Jesus if you don’t love his people.  To hurt God’s people is to wound Christ!  Psalm one hundred and thirty-three tells us how good it is when we get along.
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!  It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down the beard, running down Aaron’s beard, down the collar of his robes.  It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.  For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
One of the points being made in this psalm is that the unity of God’s people brings opposites together.  This is symbolised by the high area of Hermon in the rural north and the little hill of Zion in the urban south.  For the dew that gathered on Hermon to fall on Zion would be a miracle.  In the same way it takes a miracle to unite together people from differing races and backgrounds.  One of the best things about this church fellowship is the fact that we have such a mixture of ages and nationalities.  We have over twenty language groups in this fellowship.  That is something to be celebrated.  As we live in love we become fragrant and good, like the precious oil of ancient times, like oil running down the High Priest Aaron’s beard.   So let us ‘be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:2-3).
How do we deal with difficult people in this church?
How do you deal with the fact that there will be people in this fellowship that you struggle to like?  The solution is not simply to pack your bags and go to a church where the people are nicer.  It won’t be long before you find difficult people there too.  Besides, if you spend your life running away from those who get on your nerves you are not going to become very mature.
Begin by praying for them.  I remember a lecturer of pastoral care in college pointing out that it is very difficult to hate someone that you are praying regularly for.  David Murray writes, ‘Prayer never changes God.  It sometimes changes the person we are praying for.  It always changes us.’
Have a humble attitude towards them.  My dad used to tell me to try to learn something new from everyone I met.  Such thinking implies that people have things to teach us.  We see such humility in the Apostle Paul’s command to consider other people more important than ourselves.  ‘When you are in a group and people start pulling down another Christian, why not suggest areas of the person’s life and character that show the work of Christ in him or her?’ (David Murray).  Also, remember that the grace that covers their flaws is the same grace that covers yours.  What an amazing God we have who loves people like them.  Of course, what an amazing God I have that loves someone as irritating as me.
Do you ever find that you are most critical of the failings in others that you are most tempted towards?  I am most critical of preachers who promote themselves because I want to promote myself.  Sometimes we are hard on those who struggle with our failings because when I find someone worse than myself, it makes me feel superior.  Maybe I can’t stand someone else’s gossip or pride because it is so much like my own gossip and pride.  When you see your sins in other people thank God that he forgives both them and you.
In his book on happiness, David Murray tells us to springboard from Christians to Christ.  I think this is ingenious.  ‘When you are tempted to start mulling over someone’s imperfection, instead think of the opposite perfection in Jesus.’  So you are troubled by the fact that someone has a harsh or dishonest tongue, praise Jesus for the fact that his words were ‘full of grace and truth.’  If someone is proud and always wants to push themselves forward, remember how Jesus took the nature of a servant to live and die for us.  Someone is always going on about their children; remember how your heavenly Father delights in you as one of his.  Someone lives to get rich; remember how Christ, being rich, became poor for us.  ‘There is no sin found in a Christian that cannot act as a springboard to Christ and His beautiful holiness’ (Murray).     
How should we think about other churches?
Christ cares nothing for our denominational divisions.  He wants all his diverse people to be united.  This is what he prayed for the night before he was crucified.  How do we think about the other churches?  I will focus simply on some of the church’s that we are most familiar with in this city. 
Stop comparing:  Is this the church that God has led you too?  If so, stop comparing it with other churches.  Other churches may have better facilities, better speakers, better children’s ministry or have a better band.  Other churches may even have nicer people.  However, this is the preacher, the people, the facilities and the band in the church God has led you too.  You need good reasons, not just selfish reasons, to break away from one church fellowship to join another.  If he wanted us to have more talented leaders or different people, he would have given them to us.  Encourage people grow in their gifts, but don’t demand that they become someone they are not.
Stop competing:  Abundant Life has a brand new building and Elevate continues to grow.  We should be glad about these things.  These are our sister churches.  It is wonderful to co-operate with the New Testament Church and Mallow Street in Axis.  We are all a part of the family of God.  There is something spiritually sick when we want our church to be better than other churches.  There is something wrong with us when we are jealous of things in other churches.  We don’t want to encourage people to go from church to church, but if someone were to leave us and join another evangelical church that really is no big deal.  We are seek to see the God in other churches, just as we are to seek to see God in other Christians, and we are to delight when they prosper and grieve when struggle.
You might want church to be perfect.  But maybe the perfect church wouldn’t help you grow.  You see you won’t become more patient if there is no-one close to you who tests your patience.  You won’t become more tolerant if everything is always done the way you want it. 
The happy Christian is happy with their church.  But how do we become happier with your church? 
It is largely about how you think.  Do you simply see the faults in other people, or do you see the graces that God has given them?  When you see that other Christians are imperfect, do we celebrate the gracious God who loves imperfect people like us?  When the church lacks gifts in certain areas, are you content that if God wanted people with those gifts he would have given them to us?
God has called us into a wonderful, diverse community that he has supernaturally bonded.  We love these people because God first loved us.  Gossip, complaint, argumentativeness and back-biting not only reveal a lack of love for God’s people, it suggests that we are not allowing God’s love transform our hearts.  Remember what these people mean to God.  They are the apple of his eye, the friends of Christ, his brothers and sisters and even part of his body. 
So focus on the God of infinite patience who delights over a flawed person like you.  Mediate on the God who went to such lengths to bring you into the true fellowship of the church.  Ask his Spirt to produce within you the fruit of love, patience and self-control.  Please God as you get pleasure from his people!