The Payoff for Righteousness
Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; Psalm 73:1-3, 13-14, 21-26
I once read a newspaper article entitled, “Immune system benefits from going to church.” The article said, “In a study of more than 1,700 North Carolina adults, 65 and over, Duke University researchers found those who attend religious services at least once a week have healthier immune systems than those who don’t” (Spokesman-Review, November 1, 1997). There is good news for you folks who come from Wesley. Going to church can strengthen your immune system. I am waiting for the day when I hear that sermons can lower your cholesterol.
But the benefits of going to church don’t only apply to older adults. In 2004 there was a study commissioned by Dartmouth Medical School about the medical benefits of religion on young people. The article, which reviewed years of research, including brain imagining studies, concluded that religious young people are better off in significant ways than their secular peers. They are less likely to smoke and drink and more likely to eat well; less likely to commit crimes and more likely to wear seat belts; less likely to be depressed and more likely to be satisfied with their families and school (Laura Stepp, “Religious Benefits,” reprinted in the Spokesman-Review, April 3, 2004).
A more recent study from 2018, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that “people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults (ages 23–30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33% less likely to use illicit drugs” (published online September 13, 2018).
These studies resonate with my experience at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium. For six days on the campus of Purdue University I was in fairly close proximity to 4000 teenagers. We lived together in dorms, ate together in crowded dining halls, walked in groups through high heat and humidity for nearly a mile to get across campus to the Triennium events. During those six days I never once heard anyone swear, or even more I never heard anyone say anything cruelly demeaning to another person. I am sure it happened, but I didn’t hear it. What I saw was an amazing attitude of respect for each other, especially respect for people of different races or abilities. The atmosphere at Triennium would have brought a brought a high school principal to tears. It brought me to tears. There is something powerfully healthy about growing up attending a Presbyterian church.
Which, in a way, fits the perspective of Proverbs:
3:33—“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.”
12:21—“No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.”
19:23—“The fear of the Lord is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm.”
These verses may overstate the matter, but Proverbs insists that religion pays off, that loving and serving God will make your life better.
Notice that Proverbs is not talking about a reward in heaven after we die. You have to look very hard in the book of Proverbs for any reference to life after death. Proverbs is not concerned about heaven; it is concerned about life here on earth. Proverbs 11:31—“If the righteous are repaid on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner!” According to Proverbs the pay-off for righteousness is in this life, and not just in heaven. Look at Proverbs 13:22—“The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” Proverbs does not say that the good people will receive their inheritance when they die; it says they will leave it to their grandchildren. It is talking about blessings in this life. Proverbs 22:4—“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.”
Unfortunately, it does not always work that way in each individual case.
At the church I served in Potlatch, Idaho, there was a 50 year-old farmer named Mike, who had ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mike was an elder in the church and had served on the Pastor Nominating Committee that called me as their pastor. I was also told he was a concert quality pianist, though I never got to hear him play, because by the time I knew him his disease had begun to paralyze his arms and hands. He served as an usher at our church until he could no longer hold the offering plates. He sang in the choir until he could no longer stand through the anthem. On his farm, when he could no longer drive the farm equipment, he directed operations by radio from his house until his voice began to give out.
Then one night his house burned down in an electrical fire. His family barely got him out alive. The night of the fire I went to see him, and he said to me, “Have I been doing something wrong?” I didn’t know what to say. I certainly wasn’t going to quote to him Proverbs 12:21—“No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.”
So here is another case where we must look at the Bible as a whole, and not just at a few verses. It is significant that in the Bible the book of Proverbs is surrounded by other books like Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms. For when you read Job, Ecclesiastes, or Psalms, you realize that Proverbs does not tell the whole story.
As an example, look at our first scripture reading from Psalm 73. Psalm 73 starts out sounding a lot like the book of Proverbs—verse 1: “God is indeed good to Israel, to those who have pure hearts.” But look at what follows in verses 13-14:
All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.”
I could picture the farmer from Potlatch saying those words. “All day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.” Being religious does not always help our immune systems. Sometimes our immune systems attack us anyway. Sometimes even the righteous experience depression. Sometimes even the righteous lose their homes in a fire or a storm.
For this reason the book of Proverbs contains what I call “better than” Proverbs. I have mentioned these before, but I have again included two of them on the insert in the bulletin:
15:16-17—“Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.”
16:8—“Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.”
If you notice, there is an assumption in these verses that being religious may not always pay off with prosperity. “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord…. Better is a little with righteousness.” Those who serve God may not end up blessed with wealth or health or success. Nevertheless, Proverbs says, it is still worth it to be righteous. Why? Because the ultimate pay off for righteousness is not in having health, wealth, or success, but in having right relationships. “Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.” “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.” Better than wealth or health or even a sunny disposition is a right relationship to God, who will still be there in our lives when everything else is gone.
Psalm 73 concludes, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
The most memorable conversation I had with Mike, the farmer from Potlatch, was my last visit with him before he died. At that point he was in a wheel chair. His arms hung uselessly by his side. His voice was weak, but he could still talk. He said to me, “You know, I’m not afraid of death. I just want to find out how it is all going to turn out.”
I thought of those words when I read Proverbs 23: 17-18—“Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always continue in the fear of the Lord. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” One day we will see how it all turns out, and that’s when we will realize the ultimate payoff for righteousness.