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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 30
“Good Arithmetic”
November 16, 2014 - Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

         In grad school, several of us had a Bible verse tacked up in our research carrels. Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” We handled that weariness in different ways. Some of my philosophy friends took breaks in “chariot races” held on the deserted upper floors of the library tower. They would find two library carts and seat one student on top of each. Then two others would push the carts in a breakneck race around the book stacks, risking life and limb.

         For half a year now, we’ve been hearing Proverbs ask us to diligently seek wisdom. Now in this chapter a new voice, with a non-Hebrew name, admits that the search for wisdom can wear you out. It may feel like you are just going in a circle. We’ve heard constant repetition in Proverbs, even of whole verses throughout this book. It’s like we never really got anywhere new, just raced around and around, chasing our tails.

         Agur says it twice in verse 1, “I am weary, O God, I am weary O God.” Then in verses 2 and 3 he talks about how stupid he feels, despite all his learning. “I have not learned wisdom,” he admits, and then, specifically, “nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.”

         Anyone who has seriously attempted to understand God and His Word and what it means for us, will sometimes feel like Agur does here. That is, unless you are taken in, as I heard from a friend at Courtsports last Wednesday, by some easy way out which imagines you can just simplify all the complex glory of God into a quick formula like “God just loves everyone and that’s it.” It’s true that God loves everyone, but that’s not just “it.”

         No, any truly thoughtful consideration of our Christian faith and our human life has to reveal how little we really comprehend about it all. Verse 4 echoes God’s own words to Job at the end of that book, asking four times the question “Who?” Who goes where God is? Who can do what God does? The answer is “No one.” No one can really grasp the whole of who God is and what He does or what happens to you and me in this life.

         As Socrates realized a few hundred years after Proverbs was written, knowing that you don’t know, that you don’t understand, is itself a part of wisdom. It’s why growing a little older really can make you wiser. It’s not that you have more or better answers to all the questions and problems we face. It’s that you’ve had opportunity to arrive where Agur did, at the point where you are forced to admit, “I just don’t get it. I don’t understand.”

         We may arrive at that kind of humble wisdom by growing weary from lots of study or by struggling with a personal problem we can’t solve or by staring disappointment or even death in the face when illness strikes us or someone we love. We end up having to say, “I am weary, O God, I am weary, O God,” and “I just don’t understand.”

         Part of why it is so hard for us to learn the humble wisdom of knowing we are not all that wise is that the spirit of our age keeps trying to tell us it’s not so. For all the problems of our world, we can’t quite get over the wishful thinking that really good science is going to fix things for us. After all, if human ingenuity and science can land a two-hundred pound robot probe on a comet flying through space 317 million miles away at 84,000 miles per hour, then why can’t we solve almost any problem we face?

         We have a sort of faith that if we can think about it in terms of numbers, then we can solve it. And we often think we can put numbers to anything. When I talked in Sunday School about the “Slow Church” movement I said that it is in part a reaction to a cultural phenomenon called the “McDonaldization” of culture. We think everything, from businesses to families to churches, can operate like a McDonald’s restaurant. Which means that it will all be predictable, efficient, calculable, and controllable.

         It’s that third part of McDonaldization, calculability, which concerns us here, the idea that we can look at everything in terms of numbers. You can calculate the exact thickness your french fries should be and how many seconds you should cook them to produce maximum customer appreciation and the greatest profit.

         Most of us know instinctively that much of what makes us human cannot be calculated, but we still get sucked into that way of thinking when a physician starts telling us the probability of successful surgery or when a psychologist speaks about the probability of a good marriage or when an educator wants to base your child’s future on standardized tests. But we know that while good arithmetic, good math, may balance the checkbook or land a payload on a comet, it doesn’t usually help with our deepest questions.

         Why then does Proverbs 30 frame most of its message in terms of simple arithmetic, simple enumeration of sets of four? Is Agur the ancient forebear of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, believing that the way to success is to calculate everything to perfection? No, Agur, like Jesus in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, wants to show us that while arithmetic is not a golden road to a good life, it can point us in the right direction.

         My friend Jay pointed out verses 7 through 9 to me a long time ago. “Look,” he said, “here’s the way to live.” Ask God to give me “neither poverty nor riches,” but only what I need. It’s what the philosopher Aristotle identified as a “golden mean,” that sweet mathematical spot between extremes. Aristotle was thinking of character and the virtues. Courage is in the middle between cowardice and recklessness. Generosity is in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness.

         Life is better if we learn to moderate our emotions and our actions toward that blessed midpoint of just what is needed. When we trust in God, that’s what we ask of Him, enough so that we’re not tempted to get what we need the wrong way, and not so much that we think we can do without God. Honestly, I think that’s why God lets our church and so many churches run behind our budgets for awhile year after year. So that we won’t forget we depend on His provision and not on our arithmetic and budget planning.

         The mathematics of the mean point us to God and so do other kinds of calculation. Verses 11 to 31 are six groups of four, four kinds of evil people, four appetites that are never satisfied, four wonders beyond understanding, four upsets in human society, four small creatures that do well, and four animals that walk proudly. The point of these is to count off attitudes we want to have and attitudes we should avoid.

         That first group starting in verse 11 warns us against dishonoring father and mother, against hypocrisy that ignores our own sins, against pride, and against those who speak words that exploit the poor and needy. It’s no accident the next group then is about insatiable appetites, like the two daughters of the leech which keep calling out “Give, give.” Sheol, the place of the dead, is never filled up. The empty womb, the heart of someone who wants but can’t have children, is always aching. The dry earth keeps soaking up water, and as we’ve seen all too well in recent summers, fire keeps burning whatever it can find to burn. They’re all pictures of the human spirit not living in God’s golden mean, always wanting more than we need, always hurting when we don’t have what we need.

         Verse 17 slips in here to warn us again not to dishonor parents, and then verses 18 and 19 show us the sort of wisdom Agur began with, the wonder to acknowledge what we don’t understand like the flight of a bird or the life of a reptile or the winds which blow a ship on the ocean, and especially the course of human love. Let us be humbled by God’s wonderful creation, most of all by our own strange and complex behavior.

         Then verse 20 is inserted in to show us a woman who does not understand love, who thinks sex is just like eating. You clean yourself up when you’re done and that’s all there is to it. But we know that’s a mistake, that our human interactions with each other mean more than that. That’s why verses 21 to 23 show us four topsy-turvy social situations, a man promoted beyond his ability, a man with no self-control handed too much to eat, a woman who wants nothing but a husband and gets her wish, and a woman being promoted over someone who deserves it more. They’ve all stepped out of that golden mean, seeking more, or less, than the good God has for them.

         Verses 24 to 28 switches back to positive examples in the form of little animals making good in spite of their size. Ants tells us you don’t have to be strong to have enough to eat. The badger teaches us we don’t need power in order to be secure. The locusts show that even without supervision we can cooperate with each other. And the lizard reminds us that God has a place in His kingdom for the smallest and most insignificant person.

         The last group of four in verses 29 to 31 uses animals and humans to show us what not to be, lions who prowl around living off others, strutting roosters or goats making more of ourselves than we really are, and proud kings showing off in front of our subjects. It all goes back to that humble acknowledgement that we are not wise, we are not great, we are not all winners ready to do our little victory dance in the end zone. We need God.

         So the last couple verses warn us not to be foolish, not to keep trying to make ourselves great and powerful. If that’s what we’ve been talking about, let’s put our hand over our mouth and stop any more nonsense from coming out. And let’s not get angry about it, says the last verse. Anger isn’t going to help. It’s only going to push us out to the extreme of strife and conflict with other people.

         All the arithmetic here, all the math says “Trust God, believe in Him, rely on His help, not on your own understanding,” just like we read back at the beginning of Proverbs in chapter 3, verse 5. And just like Jesus taught in that parable of investment, trusting God is good arithmetic. The numbers work out. Do the math and it makes sense.

         I’m reading some work by a Christian philosopher named Lara Buchak. Like Christian thinkers down through the ages, she wants to show that faith is rational. It’s not stupid or careless or unwise to believe and trust in God. Her new twist on that old conversation is to argue that the mathematics of decision theory, what some might call game theory, makes it rational to have faith.

         Buchak says[1] that faith is believing something and being willing to act on it, usually believing something about another person. So you have faith in a person when you believe something about that person, like that she’s trustworthy, and you are willing to act on that belief, maybe by telling her your secrets. You have faith in God when you believe in Him and what He says and are willing to act on those beliefs by worshiping and giving and serving and so on.

         But faith also involves something that is part of every personal relationship. We can’t always be absolutely sure about what we believe when another person is involved. We can’t see into each other’s hearts and minds. You seem trustworthy, but I can’t know that with hundred percent certainty. We learn from Scripture that God is good and powerful and loving, but there’s no way to completely verify that. So faith is being willing to act on those beliefs even though we can’t be certain. There’s no absolute guarantee that my wife won’t blab my secrets to the world, but I have faith and tell her my secrets anyway. There’s no irrefutable proof that God will save me and give me eternal life, but I believe it and worship and give and trust Him anyway. That’s faith.

         And Buchak explains that the math shows faith like that is rational, reasonable. If what you’ve got to lose by not acting on beliefs about someone else is large, you would be foolish not to have faith and trust your spouse or to trust in God. If you wait to get married until you are totally, completely, hundred percent confident in that other person, you will never do it and you will lose out. If you wait to commit your life to Jesus and get baptized and follow Him until you’ve seen concrete evidence that He’s who He says He is, you will never take that step and you will miss all the blessings.

         So good arithmetic, good math, says the step of faith makes sense. It doesn’t say take it blind or against what you know to be true. You don’t marry someone you met yesterday or who other people tell you is a loser or abuser. You don’t give your life to the Lord just because you heard a radio preacher or when you see Christians acting like jerks. You have faith when you see and experience some good reasons to believe and trust and to keep on believing and trusting even though you can’t be certain.

         During my seminary training, Beth and I lived out in the country, 13 miles from the school, because the rent was cheap. One day in the winter I got the flu and was running a high fever. I stayed home while Beth went to work at the seminary library. She came home that evening and immediately realized she had left her purse back at the seminary. In her anxiety about it, she decided she needed to immediately drive back and retrieve it before some dishonest seminarian made off with it.

         My fevered brain was not working brilliantly either, so I told her to take my driver’s license along so she would at least have that with her. So she went off as the light was fading and it was starting to snow. She got to the seminary, got the purse and started home. By then it was dark and snow was coming down fast. About two miles from our house the road curved. but our little car didn’t. Beth slid down the bank and out into a snow-covered cornfield where the car got stuck.

         As hard as it is to imagine, there were no cell phones then. So I got a frantic call from Beth who had crawled out, walked through the field and up the bank, across the road to the only house nearby. I was so sick I could hardly move and I had no driver’s license, so I told her to stay there and I would find somebody to come get her. She said, “I can’t.” I said, “Why not?” She just said, “I can’t. I can’t talk about it. I’ll be in the car.” And she hung up.

         I found out later that the guy who let her use the phone just creeped Beth out and she didn’t want to stay in his house a moment longer than necessary. She would rather hike back out to our stranded car and sit there. While she sat, someone came up in the dark and knocked on her window. She looked out and saw a man bundled up a dark coat and hat and motioning her to roll down the window. Already frightened, she refused, until he took something out of his pocket and held it up. She rolled down her window a crack, he slipped it in and she saw that it was a law enforcement badge. He told her he was the sheriff and he would give her a ride wherever she needed.

         She couldn’t see the police car up on the road. She couldn’t see this guy’s uniform. All she had to go on was a badge and a reassuring voice. But she knew she had too much to lose if she didn’t trust this man. It was really cold. She had to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t sit there much longer. So she got out and hiked behind that guy up to the road where she found a sheriff’s cruiser, got in, and he brought her home.

         That’s like our faith in God. That’s like putting your life and talents and time into service for Jesus Christ. You have some reasons to trust Him. The people who wrote the Bible, and Christians down through the centuries, tell you He is trustworthy and true and that He will save you and make your faith pay off. You can’t be sure, though. As Agur says, there is lots and lots you don’t understand and cannot see. But the cost of waiting until you know, until you see for sure, is just too great. The time for faith, the time to put your life to work for Jesus is now, not later.

         Our psalm, Psalm 90 verse 12, said, “teach us to count our days.” Do the math that counts how brief your time here may be, that counts how much you have to gain by putting yourself in God’s hands, by trusting Jesus Christ with everything you have. Do it now, do the good arithmetic that means you will live by faith and give yourself and your time and your skills and your resources to Jesus. As Proverbs tells you, it’s the only wise thing to do.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] See Lara Buchak, “Can It Be Rational to Have Faith?” forthcoming in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 7th edition, eds. Louis P. Pojman and Michael Rea, Wadsworth.

Last updated January 5, 2014