READ : Proverbs 30:7-9
Two things I ask of thee; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Proverbs 30:7-9, RSV
Here is a man who has two requests to make of God, two mercies he desires above all others. What would they be for you? If you could ask God for two gifts, if you could have two prayers answered for your life, what would they be? What do you want to see happening for you while you live? What you long to see fulfilled in you before you die?
A PLEA FOR CHARACTER
I’m deeply impressed by what this writer in the ancient book of Proverbs requested. First, he wanted to be an honest man. His first plea was, “Remove far from me falsehood and lying.” That gets my attention because the man’s primary concern here is about character. He’s not asking for long life or prosperity or victory over his enemies or vindication in the eyes of others. No, instead it’s, “Lord, take from me all deception. Free me from phoniness, from hypocrisy. Grant me the priceless gift of integrity.” I find myself asking, “Is that what I want? Not so much talent as truth? Not so much happiness as wholeness? Not to be rich, but to be real?”
“But,” someone asks, “if he’s concerned about character, aren’t there more central things, more important things, he could ask for? After all, lying is not the worst of evils, is it?” Perhaps not, but deceitfulness seems to be at the heart of almost every other kind of evil. Think of adultery, for example. I wonder if any man ever takes up with another woman without first deceiving, in some way, his wife. Maybe that’s why we call extra-marital running around by the name of “cheating.” At the root of it is a lie. The adulterer is not true to his promise, or the adulteress to hers. Not true either to the partner. Each offers the pretense of being a faithful spouse, but not the reality.
At an ever deeper level, lying is a particularly grievous affront to God. It’s one of the evils, say the Scriptures, which God especially hates. Deception is a bold, calculated insult to the Almighty. Can we imagine that the One who fashioned us doesn’t know? Can we fool ourselves into thinking that He doesn’t see through our deception? When we lie, we are practically denying His existence, His lordship, His character as a God of truth. Think of brazenly telling a lie to a whole group of people who know perfectly well that what we say is false. That’s nothing compared to the insolence we show toward God by our deliberate deceptions.
Have you ever thought of this? We can never come to God at all until we begin at least to be honest. Confession means “agreeing with” someone, speaking the same as they do. We confess our sins to God when we say about them what God says, when we call them what He calls them, when we admit honestly what we’ve done and what we are. As long as we try to conceal our sin, as long as we pretend and dissemble, we stay in the darkness. God is dazzling light, revealing light, healing light. We begin to be made whole when in response to His grace, trusting in Christ Crucified for us, we come out of the shadows and into the sunshine. We give up our empty excuses. We abandon our attempts at concealment. That’s the only way we can know forgiveness: when we risk forsaking the lie and moving toward the truth. And from that point on, all growth in grace, all enrichment in character, involves a deepening integrity. More and more we stop trying to pretend that we’re something we’re not. We discovering in God’s grace the courage to be true.
Now this man whose prayers we overhear doesn’t want any part of duplicity and pretense. But he also knows that he can’t get free from its clutches completely by his own effort. So he appeals to God.
That’s what all of us need to do. We need to recognize how skillful we are at lying – first of all to ourselves. We’re experts, all of us, at self-deception. We’re often scarcely aware that we’re doing it. Only God can liberate us from the lie. That’s what this man’s prayer recognizes. He’s saying, “Lord, remove from me all dividedness, all double-mindedness. Unite my heart to fear Your name. Make me honest, genuine, whatever the cost.” And I ask you, is there anything bigger, or better, to pray for than that?
NEITHER POVERTY NOR RICHES
Next, he asks that he may have in his lifetime neither poverty nor riches. That’s an interesting petition, isn’t it? Part of it is what we might expect, and part of it takes us by surprise. The ordinary part comes first. “Lord, don’t let me be poor.” We can understand that plea quite well. Who wants to go through poverty? None of us aspires to be poor, to be without the necessaries of life, to be dependent on the largesse of others, to be unable to give gifts, to be shunned and scorned, as poor people often are. However much religious people and idealistic movements may do so, the Bible itself never glorifies poverty. God never encourages people to seek it. When the rich young ruler was charged to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, that wasn’t necessarily an invitation to do without. Jesus said at the same time, “Come, follow me.” In other words, “Throw in your lot with me and my people. You’ll be provided for. You’ll be taken care of. You’ll have enough. And more than that, you’ll have treasure in heaven.” Jesus pronounces no blessing on poverty per se. People who have very little in life, but trust wholly in the Lord know God’s favor richly, but the blessing does not fall because of their poverty.
And if there is no joy in poverty by itself, neither is there anything unworthy in wanting to avoid it, in doing what we can to keep others and ourselves away from it. It’s important that we never romanticize what it is to be poor, lest we forget what a heavy, painful burden it is for people who must endure such penury.
But this appeal against poverty is not a run-of-the-mill, self-serving kind of prayer. Get this: the man doesn’t want riches either! He prays to be delivered from them! His life-time plea is, “O God, don’t let me get rich!”
Now that runs directly counter to our ordinary human aspirations, doesn’t it? Teuye, in the play Fiddler on the Roof, speaks for most of us when he says, “If riches be a curse, may the Lord smite me with them!” We all give lip-service to the idea that wealth does not bring happiness, but it seems that no one wants to take another person’s word for that. We’d all like to find it out for ourselves.
Nothing seems to come so naturally to us as the desire for riches, the yen to accumulate. There’s a kind of madness in it; yet we’re inwardly driven that way. When a famous billionaire once was asked, “How much money is enough?” his classic answer was, “Just a little more.”
But what seems so natural to us, we find the Bible strongly forbidding. If there’s anything that God’s Word consistently warns against, it’s the desire to be rich. “Don’t set your heart on riches,” says the psalmist (Psalm 62:10). “Don’t set your hope on uncertain riches,” writes Paul to Timothy. Why? Because “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Because, Paul goes on to explain, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” The love of money, the desire for riches, makes you vulnerable to a thousand other evils. It’s destructive of character. And even more tragically, this desire, this passion, can steal your heart away from God. Listen to Paul again, “It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.”
Who believes that, really? Does anyone who wistfully buys a lottery ticket in hope of a huge jackpot really believe that? Does anyone who makes it his or her lifetime goal to be a millionaire really believe that? If there’s a national illusion, a popular vice to which Americans have fallen prey, it’s surely this one. People don’t see anything wrong with the passion to be vastly wealthy. It would seem insane to most people even to suggest that such a thing is morally questionable. It’s a part of our cultural orthodoxy, an unchallenged maxim, one of our inalienable rights that we should yearn to be fabulously rich. And the big winners in the sweepstakes – they are seen as the happy ones whose dreams have all come true. But here is this man we read about today, flying in the face of all that and saying, “Lord, don’t let me get rich.”
Instead he asks, “Feed me with the food that is needful for me.” That sounds like a request for daily bread. It’s a desire to be content with having one’s basic needs met. The man who asks for this doesn’t specify just what those needful things are. He doesn’t tell God the base income required to get them. He leaves the whole matter in God’s hands, assuming that He knows best what we need and what is best for us to have.
“Wait a minute!” someone objects. “Does that mean that we are to be totally passive in our work, not caring if our business succeeds or not?” No. Definitely not. But it does mean that if money is the main object of our work we have missed its real meaning. Work is a blessing of God, a many-sided gift to us. Our work has a good deal to do with strengthening our self-esteem. Employments of various kinds give people an outlet for their energies, a way of using their gifts, a means of providing for themselves and their families, but much more. Business corporations and enterprises give people also a social environment, a much needed structure for living. They can provide for us meaning, stability, and zest in our lives. Success in our work in terms of growth and financial prosperity is a worthy goal but only if its larger benefits are kept steadily in view. But the work place does become a snare when the desire for wealth begins to dominate everything else. With that commanding vision, with gain the main driving force, we tend to cut corners, to compromise, to trample over people, to squander precious relationships with people close to us, and to forget God.
FOR THE LORD’S SAKE
Now listen to the reasons given for this plea not to become either poor or rich. “Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, `Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.” Remember now, this man’s concern is for character and it’s about the circumstances which may endanger character. He might have prayed for grace to use either one of these conditions, poverty or riches rightly, and might have been self-assured that he could do so. Instead, he seems to have a healthy sense of his own frailty.
What could poverty do to him? He says it might lead him to covetousness, to dishonesty, to theft. And, by breaking the law, by taking from others, he might dishonor God.
What harm could riches do? They could lead him to ignore God the giver, to imagine himself self-sufficient. They could make him question God’s claim on his life and leave him arrogant, rebellious, proudly independent, saying, “Who is the Lord?”
Do you see what’s behind all of this? This believer longs for integrity and he hopes to shun both poverty and riches because he wants to be God’s person. He doesn’t want anything in his life or circumstances to damage his relationship to the Lord. He’s like a man or woman today who has been touched by God’s great love in Christ. He or she wants something more precious than gold or even than the golden mean. Each is asking, “God, let me live my whole life in a way that honors You.”