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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 11, 2015

 Successful Living:

The Seven Pillars of Success

Proverbs 9:1-12; James 3:13-18

            You will recall that we have been talking about successful living for the last three weeks.  Remember our operational definition of success?  “Success is to know the will of God for your life, and to pursue it with all your heart.”  This morning I want for us to visit the Book of Proverbs, which is a collection of wisdom sayings gathered together across the centuries by the sages of Israel.  The collection begins with wisdom sayings of King Solomon, David’s son who was renowned for his wisdom, but others were added from other sources as time passed.  The whole book, arranged in three major sections with five appendices added at the end, extols wisdom, which in Proverbs is a gift given by God.  Indeed, we are told in our text today that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  The Book of James is in some ways like the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, which includes Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon.  James offers a beautiful definition of wisdom.  “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.”  And wisdom always leads to a “harvest” of peace.  In other words, wisdom is to live according to God’s will.  Wisdom in the Proverbs is skillful or right living – wisdom leads to what the Rabbis called “the good life.”

            Our Proverb this morning says, “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars.”  A great house was built upon seven pillars, and elsewhere the Bible refers to the “seven pillars of heaven.”  I have been thinking about this image, and decided to offer “seven pillars of success” by focusing upon seven proverbs foundational to successful living.  We could add two or three more under each of these “pillars.”

            First is this one: Trust God.  Proverbs 3:5, 6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”  Maybe more than anything else, we crave security.  Yet we all know how precarious our sense of security can be in a world like ours.  This fear, always just below the surface, makes us crave security all the more intensely.  We seek security in other people; we seek it in our work; we seek financial security.  Many choose to live in gated communities.  The number one concern of parents who send their children to school is security.  Many finally only trust themselves.  But you know what I have learned?  You cannot even trust yourself completely!  We are all too much like Paul: “I do the thing I ought not to do; and the things I ought to do I do not do.”  Isn’t it curious how we seek security in wealth or in things, in people who will make us feel secure, in everything else but God, the One who alone made us and sustains us in life?  Only God is ultimately trustworthy, and wisdom says that you do well to trust in God “with all your heart.”

            The second pillar is integrity.  Proverbs 10:2 says, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.”  We live in the age of Bernie Madoff.  Would that he were an isolated instance of greed gone viral!  But our own nation is now full of folks who will do anything to get rich.  It is one of the unfortunate consequences of how skewed and out of proportion what we pay people has become.  People start to want reward without contribution, which tears at the very fabric of society.  When football coaches and CEO’s make the astronomical salaries that some of them do, it becomes infinitely more tempting to cut corners and to bend the rules.  It is tempting to do anything it takes to keep your wealth.  And greed is literally a deadly sin – it kills the soul and can kill the conscience.  “Treasures gained by wickedness do not prosper, but righteousness delivers from death.”  Goodness is its own reward, and a clear conscience is always worth the price.  Proverbs 21:6 says, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.”

            Third: Be prepared.  (Call this the Boy Scouts proverb!)  Proverbs 6:6 says, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.  Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer, and gathers her sustenance in harvest.”  The ant knows winter is coming and prepares.  Do you?  The ant knows that there is no substitute for diligently pursuing her goals.  I love stories like Rudy that tell us that hard work and discipline pay off, as many successful professionals and business people know.  Malcolm Gladwell talks about what he calls “The 10,000 Hour Rule.”  It takes ten thousand hours of practice or work to achieve mastery.  Excellence in any field comes from discipline, from the hard work of preparation.  No pain, no gain.  Winter is coming for every last one of us.  Are you ready for whatever may come?  You can be.

            Pillar Four: Always persevere.  Proverbs 21:6: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.”  To be diligent means to have grit, it means to stick to it, never to give up on your goals and dreams.  But to do this, you have to expect that life is hard, that the road is steep at times, and that you must endure pain as prelude to glory.  I think about so many successful people who only succeeded because they hung in there when disappointment and disaster came.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have never become President without the struggle he waged to meet polio and his own paralysis.  He was too pampered and too privileged prior to polio ever to succeed.  To live well, you have to become resilient, you have to become tough, because life always includes the slap of setback.

            I have just read a great book on The Inklings, written by Philip and Carol Zaleski.  The Inklings were that group of English writers who wrote to contend for the faith.  The two most successful of them, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both suffered great trauma during childhood, deep pain that never left them.  They endured and mined that trauma to bless the world with their wonderful stories.  Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 dirt poor.  He lost his mother when he was nine, he probably had a violent relationship with a very harsh father, yet he prevailed.  His words still provide the best music our nation has ever produced.  What doesn’t make you bitter will surely make you better.

            One man lost his mother at eight, his father at ten.  He stuttered all his life, but he never gave up on his dream to write.  His name was W. Somerset Maugham.  “Never give up,” Winston Churchill once said to a graduating class of boys, “never, ever, ever give up!”

            Pillar Five: Watch your tongue.  Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.”  The tongue is small, but James tells us it is like the rudder of a ship.  (I was speaking once at a Rotary Club, and I didn’t touch my meal.  The man sitting next to me asked why.  I explained, “When you eat, the process of digestion takes blood from the brain.  When I speak, I want my mind to be nourished with all the blood it needs.”  When I finished, he leaned over and said, “You should have eaten!”)

            Words are powerful, and with your words you build a legacy.  James also says, “the tongue is a fire,” and all of us know what it feels like to torch someone, and then to regret what we have said in heat and haste.  “A soft answer turneth away wrath….”  “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”  Reinhold Niebuhr was right.  “Most folks need to be charmed into righteousness.”  Harsh tongue lashings hurt everyone, including the one giving them.  Proverbs 16:21 says, “Pleasant speech increases persuasiveness.”

            Pillar Six: Have healthy friendships by being a good friend.  Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  A wise person invests carefully, judiciously in friends.  A fool uses people, and ends up alone.  I treasure my friends, and I know that Connie Jones is the best friend I will ever have.

            “He who walks with the wise becomes wise; but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”  The best thing about college for both my children was the second chance it gave them to make new friends – they both have dear friends from high school, but both especially cherish the ones they made in college.  They grew in their choices as they grew in wisdom.  Josh even married one of his friends, Molly Jordan, whom he met at Davidson!  Mark Twain said, “A friend is someone who will stick by you even when you are wrong.”  Don’t we long for those kinds of friends?

            Pillar Seven: Learn to be generous.  Proverbs 3:9 says, “Honor the Lord with your substance, with the first fruits of all you produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will be bursting with wine.”  The opposite of greed is generosity.  Greed is ugly, while generous people are beautiful.  Why?  Because God is generous, and all beauty traces back its origins to God, “from whom all blessings flow.”  We are never more like God wants us to be than when we give generously of our self and substance.  If you want to be truly successful, never fail to be generous with what God has entrusted to you!

            If you fail in giving, trust me, you will finally fail in living.  God is love, and love is all about giving.  Jesus said it.  I believe it with all my heart.  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

            So let me end with this proverbial wisdom I heard long ago from another preacher: Drink, Steal, Lie and Swear!

Drink deeply from the Proverbs, and God’s living Word.

Steal a few minutes each day to spend with God – that is how you learn trust, integrity, to be prepared, to persevere, to watch your tongue, to be a friend and to be generous.

Lie – When you lie down each night, give thanks to God.

Swear that you will remind yourself each day that success only comes from heeding Godly wisdom.

            “Wisdom is more to be desired then gold or silver.”

 

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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