Proverbs 30:1-6: The Sin of Self-Assurance
Good morning, church. Please go with me this morning to the book of Proverbs. I’m going to be reading from chapter 30 to close out this series this morning, the first six verses there.
I’ve been, each week, reviewing what we learned. It’s a hold-over from my teaching years. I don’t want to impress you with my preaching, I want you to learn. When you teach, you don’t just teach it once, you teach it and then you review it, and then you assess it, meaning you give a test, and you review whatever people are still missing. Adam, relax, there’s no exam for this Proverbs series, but I do have some things I want to make sure you’ve heard in this series before we close it out, and I want to take this last chance just to tell you what I’ve taken from this series, and some things I hope you’ve walked away with.
First, I hope you’re walking away from this series with a better understanding of foolishness and sin. I don’t know if you remember this image—Solomon used an ancient Canaanite god, Mot, as his picture of sin and foolishness. A god who is ever devouring and yet somehow never satisfied. What are those things in your life which always want more of you, more of your time, more of your focus—and yet never satisfy you? Answering that question, and taking it seriously, is a good way of inviting the Holy Spirit’s conviction in your life.
Alcohol, other substances can be this way. I remember one time, when we were living in Boston, leaving my house at about midnight and walking a mile in the snow to get to an open convenience store to buy a pack of cigarettes because I was out. The whole time I was walking, thinking to myself, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I was always devouring and never satisfied, and smoking was also devouring me. My life, my money, my time, and then finally my dignity. God, give us the wisdom eventually to say, enough is enough, “the time that’s past suffices for doing such things.”
But not just substances—work can be this way, sex, legalism. People’s opinions of you, unhealthy relationships, anything that devours you until there’s almost nothing left and then, unsatisfied, asks for more. That’s one image we find in Proverbs of sin.
And then there’s his image of sin as a seductress—sometimes foolishness and sin don’t drag you out into the snow, they seduce you into a quiet place, where she tells you no one will know. But God knows, and Solomon warns, if sin is like a seductress, then her throat is like a road to Sheol, a road to death. You know exactly where those roads lead, and you’d be wise not to walk down them.
So one, I hope you’ve walked away with a better understanding of sin and foolishness, and two, I hope you’ve walked away with a greater love for wisdom, greater ability to recognize where you might be able to find it. You’re not going to find much wisdom in what’s trending online. At best, what’s trending is mere knowledge, not wisdom, and at worst what’s trending is nonsense and opinion.
But even the smartest people can be deceived by a kind of trend I’ve been calling immediatism. David Foster Wallace used a simpler phrase—he called it “the water we swim in,” and told a parable. Two fish swim past another fish who calls out to them, “Hey boys, how’s the water?” The first two think for a minute before they ask, “what’s water?” Our culture, our time is the water we swim in. It’s all around us to the point that we see through it, and imbibe it without ever considering the nature of it, or how it shapes us, or how it affects our lives.
C.S. Lewis writes, “Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
This whole series I’ve been using the Proverbs as a launch to cast out into the past, the great tradition of the church, and retrieve ideas and practices which I think will benefit us if we can conceive of them and hold them, like pockets of air in the water—they drift away if you’re not intentional. But if you can hold onto the great history of the church and access those ancient truths, they can be life-giving.
I want you to remember from this series that wisdom and knowledge are different. You can have wisdom even without much knowledge, and wisdom is primarily to be found in the past. Not the recent past, but our histories, our stories. Knowledge—we’re learning new things all the time, and I’m as excited by that as anyone, but I just also know we aren’t going to discover anew the real heart of life; or the purpose of man; or the love of God and neighbor. These are not truths yet to be found on some distant horizon, they are truths we need to remember from creation, things we’ve lost.
I’m not just reading and teaching from this ancient book because I feel bound to teach what I find, or because it’s the Bible and therefore what good pastors preach: I’m teaching from it because what we find in the scriptures is wisdom to spiritually shape us today, and we know less than we think we do of the teachings of this book. We’ve forgotten; the Bible is so old at this point that it’s news. We’ve allowed our perceptions to be so misshapen by “the water we swim in” that we have a hard time even seeing the truth when it’s laid out in front of us. We need these truths today.
Truths about joviality and fortune, the holiness of vocation, wealth and poverty, forgiveness and reconciliation, parenting and family, and about what is meant to be in your heart, at your core: the spirit of God, your family, your community, justice, and love. These are the things with which I’m hoping you’re walking away from this series. I hope this has helped you to focus your life and orient it toward the Lord in new ways. “The voice of wisdom calls out in the streets.” And I hope we have ears to hear her this morning.
I’m going to close this series on this note, one last lesson of wisdom from our ancient past, something I’m going to call, to steal a phrase from my father-in-law, the sin of self-assurance. Let’s read it, Proverbs 30, v1-6. Pray with me, briefly.
Before I came to pastor this church, I worked for many years as a discipleship pastor, and I learned an important lesson early on: the only person you can’t teach is the person who thinks he already knows. I’ve had people in small groups who knew next to nothing about the Bible, others who were deconstructing and doubting the things they had been taught, others who were wrecked by sin issues and desperate for forgiveness—I’ve come to a place of recognizing all of those places as closer to the way of Christ than a place of self-assurance or self-righteousness.
There’s a reason Jesus lovingly guides the sinners, the repentant, the ignorant, the angry—and then rails against the self-righteous. The sinners knew they were sinners. The Pharisees, people like me, professional religious folk, had managed to convince themselves that they were righteous, and needed to be convinced of their brokenness. They had theological structures and practices standing in the way of their new life in Christ just as surely as a dilapidated building on a property stands in the way of the best use of it.
As in architecture, so in people’s hearts, it’s far easier and more pleasant to start from unbroken ground than to have to tear down a structure that can’t bear the weight of what you know the owner of the property wants to build. Which is my way of saying, self-assurance is further away from righteousness in Christ than doubt or ignorance. When a person is self-assured, or to use the Bible’s language, self-righteous, you first have to drive home the idea of sinfulness before you can introduce the idea of grace.
I want you to recognize, in our passage, we find basically the opposite of what’s been said throughout the rest of the book of Proverbs. All through what we’ve gone over for the past fifteen weeks or so, we find the teacher pleading with us, the readers, to listen to him, because he’s going to impart some wisdom that we need to know. “My son, listen, and do not forsake your father’s teaching.”
Then here in our passage, we have a complete reversal. The author states, “I have not the understanding of a man.” “I’m stupid.” “I haven’t learned wisdom.” Here at the very end, Proverbs does an about face, and the author begins to declare his utter ignorance. Then he launches into this section, if you’re familiar, that’s reminiscent to the book of Job where he begins asking questions meant to silence any opponent, put to shame anyone who believes themselves wise by asking after unfathomable mysteries of the universe. The only proper response is to sit in awed silence.
There’s a couple ways we could take this. We could look at the headings and see, this section is attributed to a different author, so maybe this author has a lower view of himself than the author of the rest of the book. Maybe Solomon is wise, but this Agur, whoever he is, is an idiot, as he says. But the tradition argues against this interpretation. Including this oracle, or this passage, in the Jewish book of wisdom means that for centuries and generations the people of God have considered this to be a wise and proper end to exploration of the mysteries of God and his wisdom from before creation.
Another option for interpreting this passage would be to say, it is wise to confess your own ignorance, and this, I believe, is ultimately where we need to land. Socrates, the great philosopher, is known for constantly stressing how little he actually knew, and how wisdom is often understanding what it is you don’t know. At the end of the entire book of wisdom, pages and pages of advice given, we end in a place where we are encouraged, along with the author, to admit we aren’t actually that wise.
In my life, when I was a child, I knew very little, and people expected little of me. Children are always wise in that way. By the time I was eighteen I knew that I knew everything in heaven and earth, and I needed no councilors. By the time I turned twenty-five I began to doubt myself and ask a few more questions of my parents and others I knew I could trust, and now in my early thirties I’m certain I know very little, and I’m glad I’ve finally come to that realization. I’m hoping by the age of forty to know almost nothing at all.
You have a choice to make in response to this passage this morning, and in response to our study of the wisdom literature. You can conclude that you, like the teacher of the Proverbs, should be heeded and heard, that people’s decisions should hinge upon your thinking, that in most given conflicts you are generally right, and on any given subject, you are likely better informed than most. If you’d like, you can probably go online and find someone who will agree with you, or read a book others haven’t and use your knowledge as a pretender to wisdom. You can close your mind and refuse to change, sit and listen quietly to sermons and arguments and walk away unchanged. You could take that road, but that kind of self-assurance is a road that ends in a kind of death.
Or, you could heed the teaching of our passage this morning, a teaching which admits just how little we know of God and of his wisdom, just how little, in our brief lives, we are able to know of those who have come before us. Truly knowing the breadth of wisdom and the enormity of divinity is like standing on the edge of an ocean or truly understanding the size of the universe—if you come to that place, your only wise conclusion is that you are small and you know very little.
Immediately, you might see, there are two sides to this, and as in the rest of Proverbs, I find myself arguing for a middle path. On the one side, there is what I’ll call the chasm of the open mind. There is a difference between self-righteousness and imputed righteousness, between self-assurance and divine assurance. God is constantly breaking through the veil of mystery to reveal himself truly to us.
I don’t want you to go so far in your understanding of how little you know that you despair of knowing God at all. It’s true, you are not able to take up the oceans as a cloak, as our passage dares, but what if the God who created the oceans intentionally, miraculously made himself small, even human, so that we might know something of him and have a relationship?
I find, in the ancient creeds of our church, a firm anchor of divine assurance: “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.”
Some people leave their minds open, like waste bins, allowing whomever passes them on the street to dump whatever nonsense in. I would encourage you, to quote Chesterton, to open your minds in the same way you open your mouths—in hopes of closing them again on something good, to nourish them. Just because we can’t know God fully—and because when we know him at all, and stand on the shore of his ocean, we have to conclude that we do in fact know very little of his infinity—we can still know him truly. Just because I don’t know every thought in my wife’s mind doesn’t mean I can’t trust her when she tells me she loves me, or that I can’t swell with affection when she’s near me without fear that I can’t trust her or that I’ve mistaken her affections for me. I know her truly, and in my understanding of her, incomplete as it is, I love her.
On the other side is that sin I’ve been arguing against, the sin of self-assurance, where everything you know is held so dearly you can’t abide anyone who disagrees, where you are so sure of yourself you cannot imagine a person coming to know the same God and thinking something contrary to your opinion. You can’t understand how someone would read the same scriptures and come to a contrary conclusion.
I’ve met many people in my life who have two categories for theological and anthropological thought: right and wrong, as though truth in the Christian conception were analytical. Very clearly in Scripture, truth in the Christian conception is personal, bound in the person of Christ, and in response to that truth, and in humility, we need more categories. We need a category of “I haven’t changed my belief, but I understand and approve of how you came to believe something other.” We need a category of, “I believe this, but I may be wrong. You haven’t convinced me yet, but I’m listening.” And in our information age, we all need a category of, “I believe this, but if I’m honest, my belief isn’t based on trustworthy sources, and perhaps I should look into it more.”
My friends, I hope I’m being clear today. The God of heaven and earth has revealed himself from on high so we might know him truly. And also, at the same time, the God of heaven and earth is so large that wisdom should admit, along with the author of our passage, “I am an idiot…I know nothing of wisdom.” Just as every Christian who pursues sanctification becomes more and more sure of the enormity of their own sinfulness, every wise person I’ve ever known has become more and more convinced of how little they actually know of God. It is the person who dives deepest into the ocean who truly realizes its depths, not the one who stands on the shore.
I hope for you, this morning, you can find that middle road of knowing God in truth, and knowing, for certain, that you are just beginning to grasp his truth. Like the woman who grabbed the fringes of the Lord’s robes and in so doing was healed, I pray that we would grab onto the fringes of the wisdom we’ve learned this summer and that God’s truth would heal us and set us free. Amen. Pray with me.