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Proverbs 11: Fortune, and Her Wheel

Good morning, church. Please go with me to Proverbs, chapter 11, as we continue our series through this book of wisdom. Wisdom, which is not something you can look up online—wisdom is not information, and it’s not always what’s trending. It’s ancient, everlasting, and God gives it generously to all who will seek it.

I want to pick up this morning where I left off last week, so if you weren’t here last week, maybe try to catch the sermon on our website or on Spotify; it will help this one make more sense. Last week I talked about how, in wisdom, righteous desires are always fulfilled, and wickedness is never fulfilled. Sin, wickedness throughout Proverbs is viewed as something which constantly devours and is never satisfied.

That point last week caused a lot of questions in small group, I think because this isn’t something widely taught or believed in our culture; it’s a very old idea. Throughout this series, I’ve been using the proverbs as a dock from which to launch out into the wisdom of the ages of the Church universal and learn from many of our brothers and sisters in Christ of old. I wanted to return to this idea of righteous desires always being fulfilled and go deep, especially since our passage returns to it.

In fact, the whole sermon this morning is about a single proverb in chapter eleven, though there’s a lot of wisdom calling to us in this chapter. But Proverbs 11:23, “The desire of the righteous ends only in good, the expectation of the wicked in wrath.” This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

I love my wife for many reasons. One of the many reasons is her candor with me. Whenever you’re a pastor people start walking on tip toes around you, apologizing for curse words, always trying to say the right and the religious thing, never admitting doubt. I hate it. It’s the worst part of pastoring, and my wife, because she loves me, doesn’t do any of that.

We were reading this passage together a few weeks ago, and when we got to this verse, and a few others like it, she goes, “That’s dumb.” And I said, “Annie, it’s the Bible,” And she goes, “I know, but that’s dumb. I know a lot of righteous people dealing with a lot of hurt and pain, and a lot of evil people with everything they want.” And as usual, she’s right. About the last part, not the part about the Bible being dumb.

My life experience makes quoting the psalms a little easier than quoting this proverb. Like Psalm 93, “How long, O Lord, how long will the wicked prosper?” If you’re focused on the world, it looks like wicked people are able to take whatever they want, and no good deed goes unpunished. If you’re focused on the world. So don’t focus on the world. Fix your eyes on God and see the world in wisdom. Because in wisdom, “the desire of the righteous ends only in good.” God works all things to the good, and I’m not talking about the next life, I’m talking about this life, too. In this life, the desire of the righteous ends in good.

The idea behind these verses is best explained by what all through the classical and middle ages was widely known and taught as the wheel of fortune, but which has fallen out of common Christian teaching. Just to be clear: not this wheel of fortune. That’s a gameshow which I find delightful. But I’m talking about this one. Not talking about a gameshow. Am talking about the centuries-old idea of fortune.

Like I said, in our day and time, we no longer really believe in fortune. I know we use the words all the time, but we no longer really believe in the concept, much less do we associate it with Christianity. As a society, we’ve shifted to become very deterministic and magical, which are really two sides of the same coin. Both determinism and what the Bible calls magic believe that your life is controlled; the only difference between determinism and magic is who is controlling the things happening around you, you or God. Determinism believes everything which happens to you is because of the will of God, or if you don’t believe in God, the will or the inevitability of the universe. Magic, on the other hand, believes everything happening to you is the result of your own actions in the world, believes that you’re able to control the spiritual and physical realities around you.

Both determinism and what the Bible calls magic are now very prevalent in the church, just as they are in the culture. They look different in the church v. the culture, but it’s the same idea of the events of our lives being controlled.

In the church, magic looks like and the prosperity gospel—we talked a lot on Wednesday about the prosperity gospel, this idea that if you give your money or your time to God, if you do righteous things, God will bless you in return with health and wealth and good fortune. Do you see in that how you are trying to have control over God and over what happens to you in life? Would you rather be rich than poor? Send money into the ministry. Would you rather be healthy than sick? Believe more, pray more, and eventually you will be in control of the illness. Pray with enough faith, and you can command the Holy Spirit. That’s not Christianity. That’s what the Bible calls magic. In Christianity, God is completely out of control; like a Lion, Lewis famously writes. Not tame, but wild and good.

In the culture, magic looks like humanism and karma. You are able to be the change you want to see in the world, and if you’re kind and moral, good things will happen to you in return. I deserve everything I have, I worked hard for it, and so on. And determinism in our culture looks like believing the universe is guiding us, or believing that whatever happens is the inevitable result of everything that came before, explainable by careful study.

Determinism is closer to Biblical truth than magic, because God is, in reality, in control of the universe. And I want to make sure you’re hearing me for what I’m actually saying this morning. I want to be sure you hear me say, God is sovereign in the world and our lives. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Please don’t hear me preaching against sovereignty or predestination; that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying, is that we need to stop believing everything happens for a reason. We need to disbelieve determinism if we are to read our passage rightly this morning, and replace that idea with the idea of fortune.

I’ve heard the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason,” so much from wonderful, faithful Christian people, I honestly thought it was in the Bible when I was younger. It’s not. I certainly grew up thinking it was at least a Christian idea. But no, it’s not, and if you’ve said that phrase to me, you’ve probably heard me respond: sometimes the reason is sin and brokenness in the world. Dear friends, whom I love. You know I wouldn’t speak it unless I believed this to be a truth you need to nourish you. “Everything happens for a reason” is a repeated phrase misshaping us spiritually, and in wisdom we need to get rid of that idea, and recover the idea of fortune.

Humanity has sinned and fallen. That’s not what God wanted. The world we live in is no longer a world in which everything that happens around us is according to the will of God. One day, it will be, but not right now. God doesn’t want people to die, and he doesn’t want people to keep on sinning and wandering lost without him. There’s a reason, if you’ve ever been mourning the loss of a loved one, and someone’s told you, “Everything happens for a reason,” it probably felt almost like a slap to the face, because in that moment, when death is close, you know beyond doubt this is not what God wants, and it’s not right, and there is no reason beyond the fall.

God doesn’t want people to die so the rest of us can learn some cosmic lesson. And God didn’t want sin or death in his world in the first place. No, very clearly in scripture, we, humanity, we strayed from the will of God in our sin and subjected the world to futility. God is the one who is overthrowing death, who is our only hope of redemption and restoration back to a world in which his will is “done on earth as it is in heaven.”

What the Bible teaches is not that God somehow wanted sin and death in the world, but rather he is strong enough, sovereign enough to take even this world we have broken, even these lives we have broken, the mistakes we’ve made, and make something good out of them. You have to realize how deeply this world is not what God intended, in order to appreciate both his grace and his power in deciding to save humanity rather than destroy it. In all things, even those things which have wandered far from his will, God works for the good. Just like you have to realize how deeply your life is not what God intended life eternally to be in order to understand both his grace and power in saving you from death and the outer dark.

Instead of believing everything happens for a reason, we need to rediscover the idea of fortune. I think if we started believing in fortune again, the poor among us would have more dignity, and the wealthy more humility. We would be able to minister with more compassion to the grieving. We would as a church be able utterly to reject the prosperity and the poverty gospels. We would be more generous with each other, as well. Believing in fortune is a wiser course, a better path, more life-giving, and would be healthier for our church than believing everything happens for a reason.

So what is this old idea of fortune, and why is she depicted as holding a wheel? Fortune in the old sense is, in brief, the belief that many things in our fallen world are entirely out of control, chaotic. And fortune in the old sense can be good or bad—thus the wheel, and the people on it. Fortunes are always turning. Sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. Fortune can bring you to the peak of society, to the highest point of your life, or fortune can grind you under its wheel, and all of that is out of your control.

Thinking over it this week, the idea of fortune is very well expressed in the serenity prayer hanging in our stairwell and prayed daily all over the world to help urge people who are addicted to health and wholeness in God. “God, grant us serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.” “The things we cannot change”—that’s fortune in the old sense. We have to realize our lives and our world are out of control.

There’s a lot you can’t change about your life. Where you grew up, and who raised you, whether they were kind of cruel. Whether you grew up rich or poor. The color of your skin, and what that means where you live. Oftentimes, whether you got sick or stayed healthy—there are some things you can do toward health, but sometimes you just get sick and it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s fortune.

And fortune has no bearing on your character, how talented you are or how hard you work—and this is what Annie meant when she called this Proverb dumb. Sometimes good people get sick. Sometimes terrible people are rich, famous, and powerful. Sometimes the best people live poor, quiet lives in obscurity. Your character determines how you respond to fortune, good and bad. Another reason why fortune is depicted as a wheel is because as a wheel turns, the outside of the wheel moves a lot, but the closer you are to the center of the wheel, the less you’re moved by the change of fortune. The church used to teach that godliness is found at the center of the wheel, unmoved, and content whatever your fortunes. Unmoved by the ups and downs of the things you can’t control. Serene in the center of God’s will for your life.

I spent my week thinking about my own fortunes. There are a lot of things in my life right now I can’t change. I can’t change that the entirety of my time spent as a pastor thus far has been in the midst of a pandemic. That’s been a stressful, overwhelming start to ministry. For about a year, I was tasked with decisions that would either close the church or risk people’s lives. I can’t change lockdown orders, or the idealogical polarization tearing apart our relationships and destroying our civility. I also don’t believe any of those things are God’s will. His plans encompass those things, but they are not of him. He’s still on the throne, he’s sovereign, and he’ll work it to good somehow, but we are living in the already not yet of his work.

I can’t change, for example, what’s happened to my children in their histories before they landed in our home, or where the judge will decide to place them tomorrow. And I don’t believe in any way their abuse was the will of God. No lesson is worth that, and no subsequent good can balance it. That was the evil of men. I believe God is able to turn even their evil to good, but in spite of, not because of the abuse. That was out of control, and is now a huge part of my daily life, and not one thing can I do to change it, even though I would give my life to somehow go back and spare them.

And for those of you who have been really sick, you didn’t get sick because of God’s plan. His sovereignty didn’t do that; the fall did, and it sucks. God’s plan is healing your sickness. God in his sovereignty is healing the sick and raising the dead. Your loved ones didn’t die because of God’s plan—that was the fall—but God in his sovereignty is resurrecting them. These things you are mourning, they didn’t happen for a reason, they happened because of our fallen world. Come Lord Jesus with your plan and redeem it.

The time at which belief in fortune was most widespread in our culture is during the time of the black death—a time which bears some striking similarities to our own time. Christians throughout Europe, as more than a third of the population of the continent was dying, healthy one day, dead the next. Naturally, they asked the question, “Why is all of this happening?” And many pastors of the day wisely responded by talking about fortune. They would have told you, this is not the will of God, all of this death. Not some retribution for the sins of the world. Not some demon set loose on the world in the end of days. The world has been subjected to futility. It’s out of control. God still rules and reigns sovereignly, but much of what goes on in the world is because of sin and the fall. They saw the black death as fortune at its worst.

In wisdom, they stopped asking why is all of this happening, and started asking what God’s will is in the midst of brokenness. Whatever our fortunes, how will we respond? The Christians of that day astounded the nations by rushing into towns and cities to care for the sick and the dying. Everyone else was fleeing to the country, desperately trying to escape death, and the Christians of the time were opening up hospitals for the poor in city centers. Every night, leading hospital-wide prayers and worship. Joyful song in the midst of the worst sickness the world has ever known.

The Christians of that day became known as those who had compassion on a sick and dying world, who were willing to brave danger and sickness themselves to practice the love of Christ in word and deed, and Christianity flourished in that time. Because they knew, God’s will was to heal the sick, to uplift the downtrodden, to save the lost, and to care for the hurting. No matter what was going on.

Church, listen. My hope in preaching this is that we would become a people like the apostle James, who are able to rejoice even in suffering. Like the apostle Paul, we would be content in every circumstance. When bad things happen, we wouldn’t blame God. I’m telling you all of this because part of wisdom is understanding what you can control and what you can’t. Knowing that your life will be filled with the glorious gifts of God and with trials, both. The difference between a life of satisfaction and a life of wretchedness has less to do with what comes your way and more to do with how close you are to the center of the wheel, to the center of God’s will and heart.

Because the closer you get to the center of God’s will and heart, the more your desire is for him, and he is able to be your joy in good times and bad. In the chaos of this world and in the midst of all the good gifts he gives. God, himself, “is the fullness and unfailing source of pleasure incorruptible.”

If your desire is for God in this life, you will always be satisfied, and if your desire is for anything else in life, you may be able to get it, but it will never satisfy you. “The desire of the righteous ends only in good, the expectation of the wicked in wrath.” Pray with me.