• The Explore the Bible Lesson for June 14 focuses on Proverbs 3:1-12.
In an undergraduate psychology class, I learned about “positive reinforcement.” Simply put, “positive reinforcement” is the psychological term for rewarding desired behavior. When someone—or something—behaves in a way you desire it to behave, you provide a reward. Eventually, this someone or something associates the reward with the behavior, making it more likely that they will repeat the behavior in the future.
Our passage today appears at first glance to outline a regimen of positive reinforcement. If you pursue wisdom and live according to God’s word, you will, in the words of Star Trek’s Spock, “live long and prosper.” But is this truly the case?
Such a reading of this passage—and indeed, many others throughout the Bible—has informed much of what is now called “prosperity theology,” the teaching that God will give you abundant material blessings if you have enough faith and live an obedient enough life. If you give money to church, God will make you rich. If you pray enough, God will give you a long and healthy life. And so it goes.
Inversely, if you are enduring hardship, you clearly must not have enough faith or must have done something wrong. Suffering from poverty? You aren’t giving enough to the church. Suffering from cancer? You clearly haven’t been praying enough.
This so-called “prosperity theology” is patently unbiblical and harmful. Simply consider the book of Job, which appears just a couple books before Proverbs in our Bibles. Job is a righteous man who endures incredible hardship despite his relative innocence. And this is just one biblical example of many. So, the belief that righteous and wise behavior automatically leads to material blessing is wrong.
But then how do we make sense of our passage today? It certainly appears to teach that faithfulness leads to blessing. Just consider one example: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (Proverbs 3:7-8).
The Proverbs can be understood best as “general statements,” not as absolute or universal statements. They put forward claims about how things generally or usually will occur, not necessarily how they will always occur. Take the example quoted above. While faithfulness to God and pursuing wisdom do not automatically guarantee freedom from all sickness and disease, exercising wisdom and discretion in one’s lifestyle—particularly by abstaining from sins like gluttony and drunkenness—will generally lead to greater health and a longer life.
Understood in this way, our passage begins to make more sense, and we avoid the dangers of prosperity theology. Proverbs encourages us to seek faithfulness to God at all costs. We are to not simply give lip-service to God’s truth and wisdom; we are to “write them on the tablets of [our] heart[s]” (3:3). By setting ourselves on this path we can enjoy the blessings that flow from a healthy relationship with God.
Another way for us to understand the promised blessings as Christians is to interpret them eschatologically, as blessings that await us in the heavenly kingdom that Christ will consummate at the end of history.
This, of course, does not mean that we follow Christ simply for our own benefit. Christ is not a cosmic vending machine which dispenses blessings when we put faithfulness coins in the slot. We follow Christ primarily for his sake, not for our own. But because God is the source of all joy, goodness, and beauty in the world, being united to Christ inevitably will come with such blessings.
The final two verses of our passage, however, go in a slightly different direction. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (3:11-12). The New Testament also teaches the same thing, citing this specific passage (Hebrews 12:5-6).
What is the Lord’s discipline? What is his rebuke? The latter should be obvious. The Lord’s rebuke is when his word, preserved for us in the Bible, names and condemns sin in our lives.
The Lord’s discipline is slightly more complicated. Discipline can be temporal punishments endured in this life (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). However, as mentioned above, we must be careful not to assume that all negative circumstances we endure (sickness, grief, etc.) necessarily are discipline from God for some sin in our lives.
Another form of the Lord’s discipline may be the disciplinary action taken by the local church. Christ calls on the church to rebuke and discipline members who fall into sin (Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5). However, this discipline is to be pursued “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1) and out of love, with the goal of restoration (2 Corinthians 2:6-11). Of course, the local church is not infallible and may err in its judgment from time to time, so church discipline must not be taken as necessarily and absolutely representing the will of God himself.
The Lord does not offer discipline or rebuke out of hatred; he does so out of love. The Lord offers discipline and rebuke to put us back on the right path, the path that leads to blessing through fellowship with him.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary.