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Browsing the Bible's Self-Help Aisle

People like Proverbs. When I ask my high school students what they'd like to study, Proverbs always appears toward the top of the list (right behind Genesis and Revelation). And, when pastors preach through Proverbs, they often get more comments from people expressing how much they appreciated the sermon. 

And I’m sure it’s because Proverbs has so much practical advice for daily living: disciplining unruly children (Proverbs 13:24), controlling your temper (Proverbs 14:17), managing your money (Proverbs 21:5), finding the perfect wife (Proverbs 31:10), just being wise (Proverbs 6:20), and much more. This is good stuff! Unlike those boring laws in Leviticus, these are things you can apply every day. (Before you start defending Leviticus, I don’t really think this. But admit it, most people think that Leviticus is boring and irrelevant while Proverbs is fascinating and practical.)

I recently sat through a sermon series on Proverbs that was just like this: every sermon packed with wise tidbits. I felt like I was hearing Benjamin Franklin reincarnated: be more disciplined, wake up earlier, control your temper, choose your friends carefully, spend wisely, and so on.  This is good advice that everyone should follow: the Bible’s own self-help aisle. 

But is this really what Proverbs is about? Should we read Proverbs as a book of wise advice that anyone can and should follow?

According to Proverbs, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7). But do we really read it that way? I know lots of people who understand the importance of spending their money wisely and controlling their tempers, but who have no fear of the Lord. So, if Proverbs is really about giving the kind of advice that even a non-Christian could follow, why do the first several chapters spend so much time talking about the fear of the Lord and the kind of wisdom that only God can provide? 

Proverbs In Its Proper Place

When I was a kid, I used to carry around a little Bible I got from the Gideons. It had the whole New Testament as well as Proverbs and Psalms. I think that's a great illustration of the problem. We think that books like Proverbs and Psalms can be understood in isolation from the rest of the biblical narrative of the Old Testament. They seem so timeless.

Regardless of when and why they were originally written, however, all of the wisdom books (Job through Song of Solomon) are now part of a larger story. Reading them in isolation from the rest of the Bible is like reading some random chapter in the middle of Les Miserables and thinking that you'll still be able to understand what's going on.

Instead, we need to read them as part of a story that already includes God creating humanity as his chosen image bearers, our fall into sin and alienation, God’s continued faithfulness in electing Israel to be his special people, and so much more. Proverbs can only be read well in that context: written by and for God's people as they seek to manifest His glory in fulfillment of their calling as his image bearers in a broken world.

Reading Proverbs as part of this larger story will change how we see the book in at least three ways.

1. Proverbs is about God's Glory

What is the central question that Proverbs is trying to answer for us? For most people, the answer is fairly simple. The central question of Proverbs is "How can I live a happier and more successful life?" Or, if you have slightly more theological bearings, “How can I avoid sin and live more righteously?”

These are fine questions. There’s nothing wrong with being happy, successful (whatever that means), and righteous. Indeed, God created us for those very things. The problem comes when we see those as the central issues in Proverbs.

They’re not.

The reason that the “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom is because wise living is all about living in conformity with God’s good plans for us and all creation. And what are those plans? To manifest his glorious presence in creation through his people.

From this perspective, Proverbs is about far more than how to live happier lives. We’d do much better to see Proverbs as a kind of handbook for being the kind of people who manifest God's glory in the world. Only in this way are we truly “blessed.”

2. Proverbs is about Grace

I think many people like Proverbs because it sounds like a book about things you can do. There's none of this sitting around praying and hoping that God will change things someday. If you want to live a happy life, get up off your lazy butt and do something about it. Work harder. Be smarter. Make better decisions. It's all right there.

But when we place Proverbs in the larger story, we’re reminded that this whole thing is grounded in God’s grace.

Without that context, Proverbs is one big "to do" list. And if your "to do" list is anything like mine, it's not a good thing. It never ends. Check off one item and two more magically appear at the bottom. It just keeps growing. And even worse, on this "to do" list you never actually get to check anything off! When exactly have you reached the point where you are completely honest, perfectly humble, and as hard a worker as you can be? Never.

If you read Proverbs without grace it becomes the most depressing book in the Bible:

1.    Your life is a mess because you're not trying hard enough.

2.    If you want to be happier and more successful, here are a bunch of things that you need to do.

3.    You can't do any of them well enough.

4.    Go back to bed.

But Proverbs is written to those who are already God’s people striving to manifest his glory in creation. Proverbs is not a book about "works," but about working as those already redeemed by grace.

3. Proverbs is Incomplete

If you read it carefully, you’ll see that Proverbs doesn't actually provide real solutions. God’s people are broken and sinful. Nothing in Proverbs changes that basic reality. We can be as honest, hard-working, and wise as we’d like, but we can’t change the fact that we are broken people living in a sin-riddled world.

Well that’s depressing.

Proverbs may not provide solutions, but read in light of the larger story, Proverbs does offer a model of faithful living. Proverbs sees the reality of a fallen world, and the shameful brokenness of our own hearts, and its answer is basically to trust God and keep living as his image bearers, knowing that he will faithfully work everything out according to his gracious and good plans, even if the precise way in which he will do that is not at all clear.

The Bible’s Self-Help Aisle

If we read Proverbs badly, we end up with a rather depressing book. It sounds like it’s offering helpful advice for happy living, but it’s not. Instead it’s a depressing checklist of things that we can never actually accomplish, a constant reminder of what big failures we are.

Read differently, Proverbs is good news, a model of how to live faithfully despite our fallenness, trust in God’s grace to carry the day.

In a way, Proverbs is a self-help book. It helps us understand what it means to be an image bearer in a broken world. Read in the context of the biblical story, it reminds us of who we are (self) and offers a great model for how we should conduct ourselves in the world (help). It may not be what you’ll find at Barnes & Noble, but this is the Bible’s self-help aisle.

Marc Cortez is a theology professor and Dean at western seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. This post is an excerpt from his new book good news for the living dead: a fresh take on the gospel story. Visit him at marccortez.com