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!