This summer I preached through selected passages in Proverbs and was forced to wrestle with this question: does the book of Proverbs over-promise? Proverbs 3:1–12, for example, promises straight paths (v. 6), good health (v. 8), and prosperity (v. 10). How should we understand these statements in light of our experiences that tell us otherwise?
When my wife was 29, she was diagnosed with cancer. In the middle of her chemotherapy, a young man told me that my wife had cancer because she didn’t have enough faith. Are the prosperity preachers actually on to something? Or should we reduce the Proverbs to mere probabilities?
Not Mere Probabilities
To say the Proverbs are probabilities (rather than promises) is not false. It’s partially true. The sober, the cool-tempered, and the diligent will usually experience health and wealth more than the drunkard, the hot-tempered, and the lazy.
But only seeing the Proverbs as probabilities for wise decision-making minimizes what God wants for his people. He’s calling us closer to him. The conditions to these statements are that we trust in the Lord (3:5), fear the Lord (3:7), and honor the Lord (3:9). If they were merely probabilities for right living, why link them in any way to our relationship with God?
When the Promises Seem to Fail
How, then, do we explain why these promises don’t always seem to come true? The Bible gives two possibilities. The first is that we are under discipline in some way. This is exactly what Proverbs 3:11–12 says: “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”
On the surface, discipline isn’t fun. No one wants to be disciplined unless we see it as an act of love. I can’t tell you of a single time my kids have ever thanked me for disciplining them, but I do believe one day they will. Why? Because they will see it as an act of love. Discipline is a sign that you are loved. It’s a way the Lord calls you back into the obedience that allows you to experience the blessings of these promises. Discipline is a call back to the humility that brings blessing.
“When we complain of our sufferings, we are not asking for more love, but less,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain. God conforms his children to the obligation of the promise so we can experience the blessing of the promise. In fact, if you know you are living in sin and see no corrective discipline by God in your life, that isn’t a sign of his blessing, but his rejection of you.
If you know you are living in sin and see no corrective discipline by God in your life, that isn’t a sign of his blessing, but his rejection of you.
But how do we explain the absence of these blessings when there doesn’t seem to be clear, unrepentant sin in our lives that merits discipline? How do we understand the incredibly hard circumstances of so many faithful believers around the world? How do you grasp the trials the apostles went through? How do we see faithful Christians being taken from us far too young? What is God doing there?
This is the second possibility. God chooses some people to an even higher form of blessing than these promises—a type of blessing that can only come through suffering. It’s the blessing of God’s deeper presence. This is what the prosperity movement gets so wrong: it assumes the “blessed life” is the pain-free life. But what if there’s a deeper, higher blessing? This is a blessing the apostle Paul understood when he said this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17).
Promises as Minimum Standard
So, do the Proverbs promise too much? No. They set the bare minimum for what the Christian can expect. God will keep his end of the bargain in his way and in his time. There will be times when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (Ps. 73:3), but at the end of the day, no one will say God did not hold up his end of the bargain. God is faithful even when we are faithless.
We will partially see these promises in this life—that is, unless God calls us to a higher form of blessing. But, in Jesus, we will see them fully in the next. No one has ever lived the conditions for these promises more perfectly than Jesus Christ, yet God called him to something higher than mere earthly prosperity.
In and through his suffering, Jesus was given the highest calling anyone could ever have: to glorify God by willingly trading his perfect life for our imperfect lives that we might be lavished with the fullness of the blessings he earned. In Jesus, the fullness of these promises is offered to all of us. Now we are called to imitate him in his suffering because every promise imaginable has been secured for us (2 Cor. 1:20). This means we have nothing to lose and only godliness to gain!
God will not let us stray. He will complete the work he began (Phil. 1:6), so we give ourselves to this end. We trust, we fear, and we honor him, knowing our loving Father will make sure—one way or another—we will one day step into the fullness of these blessings.