Summer ends and Fall begins. Family vacation gives way to school routine. As this transition unfolded this year, I found myself thinking about how the last year has gone.
Most of the feelings aren’t good ones.
This year overflowed with circumstances out of my control. Financial plans have gone awry. Relationships have strained; some even fell apart. Things I had hoped to do with my family weren’t able to happen. Parts of my life that used to feel solid, trust-worthy, have become unpredictable.
I’ve not ever had a year that was so consistently painful, where the only way through was one foot-dragging step at a time.
In situations like this, my prayers are embarrassingly whiney.
On good days, I pray for God to guide me, to lift my attitude, to help me walk faithfully on this path I’ve been given. But there are many many more bad days, and on those days my prayers (when I pray) are a litany of circumstances I want God to change and people I want God to fix. Life is uncomfortable, dang it! I want God to make me comfortable again!
I was in this mood while trying to write. Not a very creative or reflective space. Attempting to start the ball rolling downhill, I browsed through my folder of “starts.” This is where I keep brief notes, half-started posts, book ideas, and other seeds that I collect along the way that have the potential to grow into great writing.
One such start mentioned the four promises of following God. That sounded intriguing. I’m in a place where I could use some promises. So, I read the attached passage, Proverbs 3:5-12.
Here I found four promises, alright. Three really good ones and one that I don’t like at all. It also turned into a great way to give meaning to my last year. If you’ve had a hard time lately, you may find it helpful too.
Chapter 3 of Proverbs starts with a high claim. “Don’t forget what I’m about to tell you,” the writer says. “Keep this in mind, and it will bring you well-being.” OK? That sounds good. So, what’s the counsel?
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths. Don’t consider yourself to be wise; fear the Lord and turn from evil. This will be healing for your body and strengthening for your bones. Honor the Lord with your possessions and with the first produce of your entire harvest; then your barns will be completely filled and your vats will overflow with new wine. Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son, and do not loathe His discipline; for the Lord disciplines the one He loves, just as a Father, the son he delights in.” – Proverbs 3:5-12.
This passage promises four things.
First, there’s guidance. “He will guide you on the right paths.” That sounds so good. My own paths have been getting pretty prickly lately.
But this promise isn’t a blank check. It’s contingent on something. God guides me on the right path when I trust with all my heart. When I think about God “in all my ways.” Thinking about God in my parenting, my marriage, my work. Thinking about God when making financial decisions and signing contracts. Thinking about God while doing chores around the house. Then, God guides me.
Now, I don’t think this means that I’m reflecting on random religious ideas and memorized Bible verses all day. I think it means that I’m thinking about my life and reflecting on how God’s character informs this moment, this decision, this aspect of my life.
- In this particular choice, how does God’s character of love guide me?
- How might Jesus’ one command inform my choice?
- Does the Great Commandment to love God with all I am and have and love my neighbor as myself, give me wisdom for the moment I’m in?
When I can trust God in this way, then I find God guiding me.
The second promise is healing. “For your body and strengthening for your bones.” That sounds good, too.
My heart’s been repeatedly broken these past few years. As I’ve opened the hood of my life in therapy, I’ve come to recognize old wounds that have been causing me (and others) pain. I could use some healing.
But this promise isn’t a blank check either. It says that if I can do two things, I’ll find healing.
First, I’m told not to consider myself wise. That’s hard. I like being wise! I’ve worked hard to earn that label! But here I’m being told to let go of my arrogance, to keep in mind that my ways aren’t always the best, even my experience isn’t flawless. If I start to feel too confident in my wisdom, I find myself thinking less and less of God’s wisdom.
Second, the passage says to turn from evil. How much of the pain in my life and others comes from me turning toward evil or staying comfortable with it?
I’m not out killing people or embezzling from my church. I’m not frequenting strip clubs. I’m not actively oppressing folks.
But I do find myself turning toward selfishness all the time. I find myself comfortable with my own privilege and comfort. I find myself willing to compromise in small ways so that others can be happy or impressed with me.
So, when I trust God’s guidance enough to let it shape my choices–including the hard choice to turn away from selfishness and self-protection–that’s when I’ll find healing.
The third promise is the best one! Provision. Full barns and vats. Sounds nice, right? I could use some full vats. Again, however, this promise comes with a condition.
“Honor the Lord with your possessions and the first fruits of your entire harvest.” A simplistic reading of this might say, “Well then, if I tithe 10%, God is going to bless me financially so I have no needs.” But this isn’t, I think, the promise. There are two levels in this statement.
The obvious one, the first fruits, is an Old Testament concept similar to the modern tithe that most Christians are familiar with. This is an offering made from your increase (your profit) that goes to support the work of God in the world. In the Old Testament, it went to the temple and the priests. In the New Testament, it went toward the needs of others in the community.
But that’s not the only level of financial involvement. It also says to “honor God with your possessions.” All your possessions! This is not just giving God 10%, leaving you 90% to do with as you like. This is stewardship. That means recognizing that everything you have was entrusted to you by God, for God’s purposes. So while you may give first fruits away, you still have the rest of the harvest and the responsibility to use it in ways that honor God.
Of course, that includes taking care of my family and meeting our basic needs. But it also includes an ongoing awareness that my family is an outpost of God’s kingdom with the responsibility to use what we’ve been given to bless and serve those around us. When everything I have is put to work honoring God, then God promises provision.
Now we get to the fourth promise. This is the hard one. I’d really like just to take God up on the first three, and leave this one behind. God promises us discipline.
I don’t like that word. Mostly it makes me think of punishment. Getting grounded, spanked, sent to the principle’s office, losing privileges, all so I can “learn my lesson.” That’s discipline, right? No. We need to rethink this word.
Punishment is retributive, an effort to pay you back for what you’ve done. It’s the opposite of reward. On the other hand, discipline has to do with teaching. The root word is “disciple,” which is a student in a way of life.
Discipline is what a disciple experiences. It’s the teaching and correction that helps them grow and learn. So, God is promising that along with taking care of us (giving us direction, healing, and provision), that something else will happen. God will use our circumstances to help us grow up.
But it’s all contingent!
The first thing to notice is that all of these promises are contingent. Not contingent in the sense that I have to earn them through my behavior. No. Contingent in the sense that God acts in these ways when I create space in my life through trust. If I don’t trust, I won’t be open to any of these things.
Instead, I’ll trust my own instinct and experience over God’s guidance. I’ll trust my own financial choices over God’s guidance. I’ll trust my own judgment about what is evil in my life and what isn’t. In trusting myself, I’m “leaning on my own understanding,” In my self-confidence, I close down the possibility of receiving the promises God is offering.
God still wants to give these things. But if I’m depending on my own guidance, why would I be open to God’s? If I’m working hard on healing and justifying myself, why would I seek those things from God? My own self-sufficiency keeps me from receiving what God is offering.
Notice what this means? I have the choice to look back at all the pain and constant discomfort of the past year, and see it as an intrusion, an offence, as something to be avoided and forgotten as quickly as possible. I can choose something else though, hard as it may be.
I can choose to look back at this past year and the losses I’ve experienced, and submit them to my teacher, asking to learn. These circumstances become opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth, if I’m willing to face them truthfully.
If I’m willing to see my own dark contribution to the problems…
If I’m willing to stop making my painful circumstances someone else’s fault…
If I’m willing to stand in the tension and listen…
Those things, of course, only happen when I’m trusting.
Can I trust that God can work for good in the middle of my painful circumstances? Can I trust that God can restore things that have been broken, or if not restore, at least turn into something good? Can I accept that my evaluation of the circumstance may be incomplete, and trust that God can see something in my mess that is good and helpful?
The passage ends with a beautiful image for me. “Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son, and do not loathe His discipline; for the Lord disciplines the one He loves, just as a Father, the son he delights in.”
Picture it: A father watching over his child, longing for that child to grow up wise and capable. A father who knows that the discipline of the moment is for a lifetime of character. A father whose heart desire is what’s best for his child.
For me, as the child, this is all a matter of trust. Do I trust that, even through the painful circumstances of this past year, God wants the best for me and is working in these circumstances to help me mature in the image of Christ?
If I trust this to be true, then it can change the way I see my own story.