The Rewards of Wisdom (Thomas Schreiner)
Proverbs promises amazing rewards to those who are wise. Some Christians have said that we should never be motivated by rewards, that we are more spiritual if we obey God without any thought of a reward. Such a view, though it sounds spiritual, doesn’t fit with what the Bible says. God promises to reward us if we trust and obey him, showing that seeking a reward is pleasing to him.
Many of you know the famous C. S. Lewis quote on rewards. “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward … promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Seeking a reward is only wrong if the reward doesn’t fit with what you long for. If you marry a woman for her money, you are a mercenary because you don’t really love the woman but her money. But if you want the reward of marriage because you love a woman, then the reward fits with love. No one would say that you are a mercenary because you want to marry a woman you love.
But don’t some want the rewards God promises without loving and desiring God? I think the answer to that question is yes. Some do want the rewards even though they are bored with God. If you offer people joy, peace, and life, they naturally desire those things. In fact, that is how some churches do evangelism. They offer psychological comfort and peace to those who come to Jesus. Often such invitations are separated from proclaiming the gospel. Too often people fail to mention that we must repent of our sins, be disciples of Jesus, and trust him for salvation. Conrad Mbewe, who has been called Africa’s Spurgeon, wrote that too many African churches preach a false gospel, a health and wealth gospel. Too many evangelists preach a health and wealth gospel in the United States of America as well.
Another false gospel we often find brings this message: come to Jesus and your problems will be solved. People are invited to come to Jesus for healing, peace, and psychological comfort. In both cases, whether the message is come to Jesus and get rich, or come to Jesus for psychological wholeness, we have a false gospel. We can call it the health, wealth, and happiness gospel. As we can see, there is a way of seeking rewards that is alien to the gospel and to the message of the New Testament. Someone can have a desire for rewards while they don’t want to follow Jesus and to count the cost of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly warned us about cheap grace.
Rewards Aren’t Enough
So, should we throw out any idea of rewards since people misunderstand and abuse this teaching? Let us make two observations here. First, we can’t throw out rewards, for God promises stunning rewards to his people in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Promises of reward are everywhere in the Bible, but we also learn from the Old Testament and Israel’s continual disobedience that rewards aren’t enough. In other words, rewards alone don’t motivate us to obey. The history of Israel teaches us that if we don’t truly love God, we won’t end up believing in the rewards he promises. And so we will disobey him and not get the rewards.
Let’s think of an illustration. If I say that you will be strong and healthy your entire life if you do 30 pushups a day, then the reward is health. But if you absolutely hate and despise doing pushups, then you won’t keep doing them even though you are promised a great reward. You will start to mistrust the promised reward since you hate pushups. That’s the way it was with Israel. They didn’t keep God’s commands and receive what he promised, because they didn’t love God and disliked doing what he commanded.
So, that’s the first point: rewards themselves do not keep us faithful if we do not love God But that brings us to the second point. Even though rewards themselves aren’t sufficient to keep us faithful, it is still true that God promises us amazing rewards if we follow him. Our God doesn’t respond to the abuse of rewards by withdrawing rewards from us. In his great love he promises amazing blessings to those who know him. Knowing God and loving God and glorifying God are why we live. But at the same time God promises that if we love him he will give us astonishing blessings. And though rewards alone don’t keep us faithful, they are one of the means God uses to motivate us.
Part of what it means to trust God is to believe in his great promises. Rewards are tied into our love of God, for we realize from the rewards God promises that he wants to make us happy. Let’s return to the idea of marriage again. You don’t marry someone unless you think they will bring you happiness. No one marries and thinks: this person will make my life miserable. In the same way, we wouldn’t love God if we thought he would finally ruin our lives and make us miserable. For we can’t love God if he doesn’t love us first.
Before we look at some of the rewards promised in Proverbs let me briefly state two more things. First, most of the rewards promised in Proverbs are earthly rewards. God gives earthly blessings to those who follow his will and ways. Later we will see how these earthly rewards relate to heavenly blessing, but the blessings in Proverbs focus on our earthly joy. Second, we must remember that Proverbs are general principles and not unqualified promises. So, don’t interpret these promises of rewards in Proverbs as if there are no exceptions. Sometimes the godly suffer and experience disasters. Proverbs teaches that generally speaking, those who follow the Lord are blessed. In what follows we will look at three rewards promised for believers: believers are promised life, joy, and peace. Let’s look at these in order.
The Promise of Life
First, we are promised life if we follow the Lord. I am using the word life here in a broad sense. Life refers to the blessing and flourishing which is ours when we follow the Lord. Let’s begin with Proverbs 10:27, “The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.” Or consider Proverbs 11:19, “Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die.” Fearing the Lord and steadily pursuing righteousness is the way to life. A life devoted to evil is bad for the body and one’s psyche. We know that one’s psychological frame of mind affects our bodies and our health as well. Are there exceptions? Of course! But generally speaking those who love God and do his will experience blessing.
Along the same lines we are told that righteousness delivers us from trouble in this life. Proverbs 11:6 says, “The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the treacherous are taken captive by their lust.” Think of the desires and lusts that can capture us. We may be addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or sex or anger. This verse says that these desires take us captive. We become enslaved to them and they start to ruin our lives. Not only that but they can lead to an early death as well. Are there any desires that are enslaving you? Are you being captured by something that is taking you away from the Lord? Are you spending your life in a productive and righteous way? Are you letting some sin or habit rule your life and frittering away your life on what is frivolous?
Let’s look at three other Proverbs about how important righteousness is. Proverbs 11:8 says, “The righteous is delivered from trouble, and the wicked walks into it instead.” Proverbs 12:7 says, “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand.” And Proverbs 12:13 declares, “An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble.” I want to highlight here the importance of righteousness. If you are righteous, you will stand, you will finally be rewarded.
Maybe you feel you aren’t very good at anything. Maybe you look at other people and you think they are smarter than you. Or, maybe they seem to have a more productive and important job. You look at what you do every day and it doesn’t seem that significant and worthwhile. Perhaps you look at the ministry of someone else and yours seems small and insignificant. You get discouraged because you wish you were more gifted and you wish you could accomplish more for God. These Proverbs remind us that we are pleasing to God if we live righteous lives. God’s pleasure in us does not stem from how important our job or how important our ministry is. We might feel, “I am not doing that much. I am engaged in trivial tasks day after day.”
First of all, nothing is trivial to God, everything we do matters. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ name brings great blessing. But secondly, God is more interested in our righteousness than he is in our success. Let me put it another way, he is more interested in us becoming more like Jesus. Maybe you are frustrated with your abilities or what you do in your day to day life, but God is calling upon you to trust him and to do his will day after day. And if you do that, then God is pleased with you. God isn’t calling you to be great. He is calling upon you to be godly.
Proverbs 28:13-14 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. 14Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” Isn’t that an encouraging verse? Prospering isn’t based on perfection. We prosper when we are honest, when we admit our sins. Those who harden their hearts against the Lord will face calamity. Those who confess their sins and forsake them we will find mercy. We should notice here the idea of forsaking our sins. Forsaking doesn’t mean perfection either. However this verse does warn us against using confession as a mantra to obtain mercy when we have no desire or intention to fight against the sin that we are committing. True confession of sin involves a fight against sin in our lives, a resolve to see that the sin in our lives is dethroned. True confession of sins doesn’t mean a quick “I’m sorry” and then an immediate return to what we were doing.
To return to our main them, notice the connection between righteousness and life in a few more Proverbs. Proverbs 12:28, “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death.” Proverbs 19:16 says, “Whoever keeps the commandment keeps his life; he who despises his ways will die.” And we find in Proverbs 19:23, “The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” I have already said that when Proverbs speaks of life and flourishing it focuses on life in this world. Furthermore, Proverbs recognizes that there isn’t always a straight line in this life. For instance, Proverbs 24:16 says, “the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.” The righteous live, but they may stumble seven times. There may be many stresses and difficulties and failures along the way. But, ultimately and finally we all die.
When we look at the New Testament however we realize that life isn’t restricted to this world. The earthly life in Proverbs points to the eternal life we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Life in Proverbs functions as a type of eternal life. And Jesus said that everyone who believes in him has eternal life. As John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We read in John 6:40, “For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Proverbs ultimately points beyond this life to the life to come. In that day death and pain and sorrow won’t touch us anymore.
The Promise of Joy
The second promise for those who love God is joy. We all desire to experience deep joy in our hearts and lives. We want to be satisfied, fulfilled, and happy, and those desires are good and right. What is amazing is that God promises us such joy if we love him and follow his ways. Such promises make it clear that God is good and that he loves us. He doesn’t hide from us the pathway to joy. He doesn’t leave us to figure it out on our own. He plainly tells us how to find joy. Perhaps you have a parent or spouse who was angry, and you think of God as like them. But God is full of joy, and he invites us to participate in his joy. He wants us to find our joy and satisfaction in him. Proverbs emphasizes this theme with several verses. Proverbs 12:20, “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy.” 12:28 , “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.” 13:9, “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked will be put out.” 15:15, “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” 10:22, “The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.”
I want us to make three short observations from the above verses. First, God promises that ultimately the godly will have joy. The wicked plan and strategize for joy as well, but their plans are finally frustrated and come to nothing. I love the promise of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Those were the last words the famous pastor Peter Marshall said to his wife as he was wheeled away after having a heart attack. Catherine never saw Peter alive again. So, she endured a long and painful time of weeping, but the promise her husband said is still true, “Joy comes in the morning.” When you are full of sadness remind yourself of this truth. It is dark now but morning is coming. Morning is coming.
Second, I love the line that the “cheerful heart has a continual feast.” Those who are cheerful in heart have bad days too, but what makes them distinctive is their joy, their happiness in the Lord. The most important thing as a parent you can give your children is your happiness in the Lord. I am not talking about a fake kind of outward joy. I am not talking about having a certain kind of personality. I have met people that seem very happy on the outside who are actually incredibly unhappy when you get to know them. Paul tells us that he had joy even in sorrow, so joy doesn’t mean that we are happy clappy every moment. But there is a joy and a confidence in us because we belong to, and live under a sovereign God. I also think one of the most important things for pastors is that they are happy in the Lord. Have you ever sat under an unhappy pastor? He can’t ultimately hide his unhappiness. Grumpiness shows up in everyday life. If you are a joyful Christian at work, people will notice the difference. There is something radiant and attractive about joy. As Nehemiah 8:10 says “the joy of The Lord is our strength.”
Finally, Proverbs 10:22 says that God doesn’t add sorrow to our joy. He doesn’t mean by that we never face sorrow. He means that God’s joy finally triumphs over all sorrow, that God gives us a joy that is stronger and deeper than sorrow. That is what Jesus meant when he said. “In the world you will have tribulation, but cheer up for I have overcome the world.” In every trial don’t forget that Jesus has overcome the world, that everything that holds us down will not conquer us. The final word is joy.
The Promise of Peace
The third blessing we are going to look at is peace. The Lord gives peace to those who follow his ways. There is a tranquility and rest that is given to those of us who know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. In our digital age people are always being entertained, always on their phones, iPads, computers, listening to music, watching TV, checking Facebook, etc. But how many are terrified of being alone? How many lack true peace where they can be quiet and at rest when they are alone. We read in Proverbs 3:1-2, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.” We read in Romans 5:1 that those who are justified by faith, those who are right with God because of their faith rather than their works, have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
How wonderful it is to know that we have a right relationship with God, to know that we stand clean before the God of the universe. We can put our heads down on our pillows, knowing that we are reconciled to God. And when we live wisely we find peace. Proverbs 3:17 puts it this way, “Her ways (that’s wisdom) are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” If we give ourselves to God, we experience peace in our everyday lives. It is a peace, as Philippians 4:7 says, that passes all understanding, as God guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
We read in Proverbs 14:30, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” God gives us peace, and if our hearts our tranquil and restful, then we will experience life and joy. Isn’t it fascinating that a tranquil heart is contrasted with envy and jealousy? One of the things that robs us of peace is if we are fiercely competitive with others, if we are torn up with a spirit of rivalry and competition. When we see others who are better than us and it wounds our heart, thank God for their skills and abilities. Ask God to use and glorify them even more than he does.
In conclusion, though we have barely touched the surface, we close where we began. God promises us an eternal weight of glory. He promises us a glory that is so great that the sufferings of the present world will seem light. He doesn’t say our sufferings are light, for they are often very heavy. But he promises that they will seem light in the future. We will look back and say that what we suffered is nothing compared to knowing The Lord. Therefore, we can know that the beauty and glory and splendor before us must be astonishingly great, more than we can comprehend. Praise the Lord.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.