Have you ever played one of those “guess how many jelly beans is in the container” games? Well, we’re going to play one this morning, and the winner will win a $10 Starbucks gift card. So I need four volunteers to come up here for just a second. This won’t be embarrassing at all, I promise. Okay, so I’m going to ask each one of you this question and you’ll each provide an answer. It’ll be a number. And the one closest to the real answer is the winner. Here’s the question: How many different ways can Starbucks serve a cup of coffee? How many different ingredient, size, and flavor combinations are possible when ordering from Starbucks? The number of different ways that Starbucks can serve a cup of coffee: 19,000.[i]
Burger King may have trademarked “Have it your way, right away,” but Starbucks has taken that to a whole new level. And we really do want things our way, don’t we? We each have a concept of what will make us happy. “I’ll be happy if …” Sadly, psychologists tell us that our brains tend to miss-predict what will actually bring us happiness. We assume that if we achieve certain things in our life, we will find happiness.
“I’ll be happy if I get admitted into the right school.”
“I’ll be happy if I find the right partner.”
“I’ll be happy if I make vice president.”
“I’ll be happy if I have my dream house.”
As Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor observes, this “if-then” perspective cannot be supported by science, because each time our brain experiences a “success,” it moves the goalposts of what success looks like. If you got good grades, you have to get better grades. If you have a good job, you now have to get a better job. If you hit your sales target, now you have to raise your sales target. If you buy a home, now you want to have a larger home. Setting and achieving goals is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, achieving goals doesn’t bring happiness, and it doesn’t bring contentment. Achieving goals actually causes us to set higher goals. And achieving higher goals causes us to set even higher ones. So the answer is to not set goals, right? No. That constant push to reach higher and higher is actually something that has been placed in our hearts by God. It’s the way we as human beings are wired. The problem isn’t that we want to reach higher, achieve more. That drive comes from the creation mandate to “fill the earth and subdue it.” “Subdue” doesn’t mean “rape and destroy and do whatever you want with it,” by the way. It means to tend and care for. But the problem isn’t that we have a constant drive to reach higher.
The problem is what we’re reaching higher for. What we try to obtain or achieve to satisfy that drive. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 3:10-12, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said, “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live.” There is a longing for eternity in our hearts that absolutely nothing temporal – no status, no achievement, no person, no possession, and no amount can fill. So what do we try to do? We try to fill that longing with status, with achievement, with pleasure, with people, with possessions, with money. And we wonder why we suffer from “I’ll be happy if” syndrome. And we long for contentment, all the while trying to satisfy the longing God has placed in our hearts for eternity, for relationship with him, with everything but that. So how do we recognize and honor the truth that God has placed a desire for something more than ourselves in our hearts and at the same time enjoy peace and contentment?
This morning we’re wrapping up our summer sermon series from the book of Proverbs, a book that gives us instruction in wise living, good living, a style of life that reflects our position as children of God, followers of Christ. Proverbs paints for us a picture of what real life, the wise life, life in Christ looks like. And it has a lot to say about our nature of human beings. Now, most of Proverbs are brief little poetic sayings that impart a little nugget of wisdom in as brief a form as possible. There’s only one prayer recorded in Proverbs, and we’re going to look at it today. So turn with me to Proverbs 30:7-9.
In prayer, a petition is something you ask God to do for you or for someone else. And this person has just two petitions: keep me away from lying, and keep me from both excessive wealth and extreme poverty. Help me to be a person of integrity, and solidly middle class. It sounds like that’s what he’s praying for, doesn’t it? I want to be honest, and neither rich nor poor. In other words, give me contentment. Now, this prayer isn’t “anti-wealth” and it isn’t “anti-poverty.” It simply recognizes that each has it’s own unique set of challenges and temptations that could cause him to live his life in a way that “profanes the name of God.” In other words, he could wind up living in such a way that he does not bring honor and glory to God, and THAT is what he is really trying to avoid. That is his ultimate concern. That is what he is really praying for: “God, I want my life to bring YOU glory. So keep me from anything that might get in the way of that.”
Sin is ultimately putting self at the center of life, with everything else revolving around the self. Sin is seeking to fill that longing for eternity, for God, with the temporal – people and status and stuff. Philosopher and Christian Peter Kreeft said, “Pride is not first of all thinking too highly of yourself, because it isn’t thinking first of all but willing, just as humility isn’t thinking about yourself in a low way but nothing thinking of yourself at all. It’s thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself. Pride is willful arrogance, arrogating yourself what is really God’s.”[ii] And this prayer, “Keep me from lying and keep me from both wealth and poverty,” in other words, “Keep me far from anything that might cause me to live in a way that causes others to think poorly of you” is a prayer of humility. It is a prayer that recognizes that the self is no longer on the throne, God is. If you really think about it deeply, what is the most important thing to you in life? Is it the legacy of family? Is it leaving your mark on the world? Is it safety and security? What is it for you? I think for many of us, maybe even most, it would be the joy and safety and security of our family, whether we have kids ourselves or not. And loving and caring for and protecting your family isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s commanded in Scripture. Honor your parents. Love and instruct your children. Be a protector. Be a provider. Model the love and grace of God for your family. Family is important. But don’t worship your family. Love then. Cherish them. Don’t worship them. This prayer gets at the heart of life in Christ: “Lord, above everything else, above even riches that would guarantee comfort and security for my family for generations, may your name be glorified in me. May I do absolutely nothing that makes others speak poorly of you. May everything I do cause them to glorify you.” That is the heart of worship of which we sing. That is the heart of life in Christ.
And so this prayer is for two things: integrity and enough. Followers of Christ long for, pursue, and pray for integrity. Honesty. Truth. Jesus said of himself, “I am the way, and the TRUTH, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). He told the woman at the well that true worshippers of God will worship him “in spirit and TRUTH” (Jn. 4:24). God isn’t just a God of truth, God IS truth. Truth is that which lines up with ultimate reality. Truth and reality are one and the same. Falsehood, lying, is anything that doesn’t align with reality, with the way things REALLY are. And because God IS ultimate reality, because God IS truth, his people are a people who long for and pursue truth. Who bring their thoughts and words and actions into alignment with reality, into alignment with truth. We are a people of integrity.
And we exercise that integrity in the way we pursue things in this world. We are a people who understand and embody the word “enough.” “Give me neither poverty nor riches” he prays. Why? Is there anything inherently wrong with either? Of course not! It isn’t at all sinful to be wealthy, and it isn’t at all sinful to be dirt poor. But each extreme has it’s own set of pitfalls. Poverty carries with it the pitfall of stealing in order to survive. And stealing isn’t an act of integrity. It isn’t living in truth. It is taking what isn’t yours and using it as if it were. But as human beings we are physiologically wired for survival, and that includes doing what we must in order to survive and to help our families to survive. I doubt there’s a person in this room who wouldn’t steal to eat if the opportunity presented itself and your kids hadn’t eaten in three days. But becoming thieves wouldn’t bring honor and glory to God, would it? In fact, that is why those who have more than enough are commanded in Scripture to share and help provide for those who don’t. And in THAT way, by loving one another and by not living in falsehood and stealing, we cause others to glorify God. And so he prays that God will keep him from poverty.
But interestingly, he also prays that God would keep him from riches. I say that is interesting because throughout Proverbs, riches are viewed as a typically, though not always, good thing. And wealth is often, though not always, associated with God’s blessing. So why does he pray that God would keep him away from wealth? Because there is a pitfall in wealth too. And when Jesus, who as “the truth” is God’s wisdom personified, said “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24) he recognizes that reality. He ISN’T saying that the wealthy will never get into heaven. He isn’t saying that AT ALL. But he IS saying that just as with the possible pitfall with poverty of needing to steal to survive, there is a potential pitfall with wealth too. And the pitfall is that those who are wealthy could possibly find themselves denying their need for God because they have provided for themselves and their family so well. Look at V. 9. Moses warned the Israelites of the same thing before he died, while they were still in the wilderness, looking forward to their entrance into the Promised Land. “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 8:11-14). Those in poverty are in danger of having to steal in order to survive, thus profaning God’s name. And those who are wealthy are in danger of forgetting all about God because their bellies, and their houses, are always full.
So what does he pray for? Enough. “Feed me with the food that is needful for me.” Sounds like another prayer, one that we know much better, doesn’t it? “Give us this day our … daily bread.” In fact, much of the Lord’s prayer is modeled after this person’s prayer recorded in Proverbs. “Hallowed be your name.” “lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Feed me with the food that is needful for me.” Jesus actually starts with and expands on this prayer when he teaches his disciples how to pray. “May your name be glorified, in my life, in this world. And may I have enough.”
Enough. What is enough? We each, based on how we are used to living, probably have differing definitions of enough. What one person thinks is necessary is a luxury to another. What one person things is way too much is no where near enough to another. So who determines what is really enough? God does. In both Proverbs and in the Lord’s prayer, the request is made to God. “Lord, give to me what you know, in your infinite wisdom, that I need. No less, but no more.”
I don’t know if you realize this, but ticks are actually called “the overeaters of the insect world.” Now, if you are really technical in your biology … they’re of the arachnoid family; they’re not really insects.
But ticks have the disease of “more,” and when they latch on they can’t stop. Before a tick lands on its host it’s not very attractive, but it is very flat. Then a tick drops onto (because they do not have the capacity to jump) from a bush or a thicket onto their host, looking for a warm-blooded creature. Once they engorge themselves with the host’s blood, they balloon up to 7-10 times their normal size. They’re utterly transformed.
The fascinating thing is once a tick has bloated up it automatically drops off the host and then can’t move. All of the energy in its body is directed to digesting what it’s just eaten. For the next few hours it is at the mercy of predators because it has eaten so much that it can’t move. Nancy Ortberg claims there can be a parallel here with our spiritual lives. She says, “I have to admit that when I consider what I learned about ticks, there’s a little bit of a tick in me. I can be sometimes a picture of excess, not knowing when to say ‘enough,’ not knowing when to stop, and always wanting more.”[iii]
Now remember, wealth isn’t an inherently bad thing, PROVIDED that your wealth doesn’t cause you to forget about God, to stop relying on God, because in your mind, you don’t need to. You’re set and comfortable. And of course we have to remember that we typically define the wealthy as those who have more than we do. So to someone who has less than Becky and I do, we are wealthy. And to those who have way more than we do, those who have even more are wealthy. So let me define wealth for you in global terms. Globally, poverty is measured not by income but by consumption. Only in the US do we measure poverty by income level. For the rest of the world, it is measured by the value of resources a person USES in a day, not how much they earn. And according to the World Bank, the poverty line is with those who consume less than $2 per day just existing. That makes the global middle class those who consume $2 – $50 per day, with $2 – $13 per day being those who are not poor but not yet middle class. And those amounts are adjusted for differences in the value of currencies in different places.
So globally, to be poor is to exist on less than $2 per day. Do you realize that there isn’t one person living in this country, legally or illegally, who exists on less than $20 per day, even if they report absolutely no income? In other words, there is no one in this country who is really poor. Oh, we have our poor, by our living standards, but by global standards, 0% of the world’s poor live in this country. So simply by being here, you are at least middle class by the world’s standards. And if you exist on more than $50 per day, you are wealthy. That lowers the bar of wealth for us just a little, doesn’t it. We have our poor. We have our homeless. And we need to care for them. God calls us, commands us, to care for them. But our idea of poverty and global poverty are two different things. If you are a citizen of this country, chances are, you are wealthy by global standards. So what do we do with the excess, that which is beyond our daily needs? We use it to help others.
In a series of articles on the nature of greed, Christian blogger Ted Scofield writes:
When I ask people “What is greed?” typically the first concept articulated involves the notion of abundance. Greed is when you have too much stuff (which only money can buy), or place too much importance on stuff, or spend too much time pursuing or wanting or envying stuff.
A college student told me, “When people are sleeping on the street and you have a Mercedes and four empty bedrooms in your McMansion, then you are greedy.” The late comedian George Carlin might agree: “That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff … That’s all your house is – a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Sometimes you’ve got to move, you’ve got to get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff!”
Sure enough, we Americans are not filling our houses with people. In 1950, the average home size was 983 square feet and 3.37 people lived in it. By 2009, the average home’s square footage has ballooned to 2,700 with only 2.57 occupants. In 59 years, the average American home grew by 175% while the average family size shrunk by 24%.[iv]
Is God glorified in your life? In mine? That is the real question here. READ TEXT.
[i] Bruce Horovitz, “You Want It Your Way,” USAToday (March, 2004)
[ii] Peter Kreeft, “For Heaven’s Sake,” pg. 98.
[iii] Nancy Ortberg, “When Is Enough, Enough,” sermon preached at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (4-15-12)
[iv] Ted Scofield, “Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem, Pt. 3: How Much Is Too Much?” Mockingbird (8-11-15)