READ : Proverbs 20:6-7
Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but a faithful man who can find? A righteous man who walks in his integrity — blessed are his sons after him! (Proverbs 20:6,7, rsv)
The proverb says, “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but a faithful man who can find?”
WHAT WE SAY ABOUT OURSELVES
It is frequently taught and widely believed in our time that the greatest of human problems is low self-esteem. Exponents of this view tell us that people go wrong because “they despise themselves, regard themselves as worthless and unlovable.” The words we have just read from the ancient proverb seem to point in a different direction. They suggest the tendency in us to extol our own virtues, to think of ourselves more highly than is appropriate. They express the pervasive human inclination which the Bible calls pride. It is striking to see how a number of findings in contemporary psychological studies support strongly this latter view.
“Many a man proclaims his own loyalty,” we read. Many a person professes unfailing love. Think of how we tend to compare ourselves with other people. These tests show that in every quality that is socially desirable, most of us rate ourselves as “better than average.” Most business people evaluate themselves as more ethical than the average person in business. Most community residents consider themselves less prejudiced than others around them. When 829,000 college students were asked to assess their ability to get along with others, zero percent saw themselves as below average! Imagine that — not a single one below average! Sixty percent put themselves in the top ten percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the upper one percent! It bears out what the writer William Saroyan once wryly said, “Every man is a good man in a bad world — as he himself knows.” Or listen to Albert Camus, “The idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his own innocence.”
And, like those of whom the proverb speaks, most of us tend to overestimate how nobly and desirably we will act in the future. A researcher once called residents in an Indiana city and asked each to volunteer three hours to an American Cancer Society drive. Only four percent of the residents agreed to do so. Meanwhile, a comparable group of other residents were being called and asked to predict how they would react if they were to receive such requests. Almost half of them claimed that they, in those circumstances, would help. “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty. . . . “
Let’s apply that now to promises which many of us make. If you have ever married, you probably vowed at that time to be a loving, faithful wife or husband until your life’s end. Have you been loyal to your spouse, or have you deceived him or her? Are you still following through on the commitment you made on your wedding day?
Again, if you are a professing Christian, there came a time when before God and your fellow believes, you acknowledged your faith in Jesus as your Savior, and your intention to obey Him as your Lord. You proclaimed your loyalty. What has happened since? Are you still following that course, still making obedience to Christ your chief aim in life?
We find it desperately easy to deceive ourselves about how loyal we will be to our family and friends and to the One we call “Lord.” Simon Peter was certain, for example, that he would remain faithful to Jesus even if everyone else in the world turned away from Him. He said as much. He protested loudly that he would follow his Master even to prison or to death. All of us know what subsequently happened. Peter not only failed miserably — he dishonored the Lord more flagrantly than his brethren did.
THE SOBERING QUESTION
No wonder the writer of the Proverbs goes on to raise a sobering question. “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but a faithful man who can find?” Many promise to be loyal, but how many prove to be? The U.S. Marine Corps in its advertising announces that the Marines are looking for “a few good men.” The Scriptures suggest that the search may not be so easy. Good men, loyal men, faithful men or women, may be hard to find.
Think of God’s search for righteous people. Once when His servant Abraham stood before Him, interceding for the city of Sodom, God promised that if He could find ten righteous in the entire city of Sodom, He would spare the whole populace. Apparently He didn’t find them, because swift judgment followed. Centuries later, He urged His prophet Jeremiah:
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note, search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth that I may pardon her (Jer. 5:1).
But the city, sad to say, was not spared. Apparently one couldn’t found. According to the psalmist, “God looks down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God” (Ps. 53:2). Here is the sobering result, “They have all fallen away. They are all alike depraved. There is none that does good, no not one” (Ps. 53:3). The question comes up again: “A faithful man who can find?” Among all those who profess to be true, who is really trustworthy?
This proverb was written by a wise man, seasoned by experience, and by long observation of human ways. He had seen people, perhaps known them, who had professed to be friends but who had proved false. He saw spouses unfaithful to their marriage vows, and the people of God violating their covenant commitments. And so, in spite of all the glowing protestations that he has heard, he wonders aloud, “a faithful man, who can find?”
There is a danger in public claims of our own loyalty. We may make them for effect, because they are expected. Or we may do so in an effort to impress others. The more vigorously we profess our loyalty, the more vulnerable we become. It’s perilous to promise more than we can deliver.
When I was at a summer Bible conference in my college days, I once took a 1300 mile trip by car to reach a friend who was in distress and bring him back with me. The whole project seemed fantastic to some. My friend didn’t know I was coming and I had no assurance that he could leave what he was doing there. I simply went out of a deep conviction that it was the thing I should do. When things worked out marvelously and my mission was accomplished, I remember saying in my euphoria, “Forgive me, Lord, for my unbelief about this. I’ll never doubt You again.” I cringe now when I remember those words of promise and how many times I’ve doubted since.
Because I’m a minister, I have to encounter first-hand all the time the perils of public profession. For example, it’s amazing how we who speak the Word can convince ourselves that we have done something simply because we have earnestly talked about it. It’s frightening to realize how easy it is for us to convey an impression about our own discipleship and devotion which may have little touch with day-by-day reality. It’s well to ponder if our hearers may be asking a similar question about us: “Many a minister proclaims his own godliness, but a faithful one who can find?”
SOME CAN BE FOUND
There are faithful men and women, mind you. I don’t mean to imply for a moment that there aren’t any. Nor does the Bible teach that. It simply warns us that not everyone who professes loyalty demonstrates it, perhaps to make us wary of those who advertise their virtues overmuch. There have been many servants of God who have been described in Scripture as loyal, many others to whom the King will one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.” Perhaps these are chiefly among those who have never made extravagant claims about themselves.
My father, blessed be his memory, was one of those. My dad never thought that he was much of a Christian. He was acutely conscious of his failings and thought himself the least of all saints. I never remember him putting himself forward or calling attention to his piety. He was reserved almost to the point of shyness, self-deprecating almost to a fault.
But what a man he was in the home where I grew up! He was married to my mother for 28 years. When she died in her early fifties, my dad married her younger sister and lived with her for 25 years more. He was always intensely loyal as a husband, habitually putting the interests and desires of his wife ahead of his own. He was a man of integrity, scrupulously honest, careful to meet all his obligations. No hint of dishonor, as far as I know, ever attached to his name.
I was in my teens when my dad became a deeply committed Christian. He began to pray often and to study the Scriptures diligently. He always had a seriousness of purpose about him in seeking God’s kingdom first. At his funeral a few years ago, I preached on this very text we’re thinking about today, “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but a faithful man who can find?” I could say from a lifetime of observing him, “Here’s one.” He was not a perfect man. He had his faults and failings and he noticed more of them about himself than anyone else did. But he was faithful.
The word means, of course, “full of faith.” It has the note of loyalty in it, of being true to one’s commitments. But always at the heart of that lies “faith.”
A man is faithful, strange to say, when he has largely given up proclaiming his own loyalty. The faithful are not like the Pharisee in the temple who thanked God that he was not like other men. “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I get” (Lk. 18:12), he said. Again, “I’m not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk. 18:11). He wasn’t the faithful man. No, the faithful one was the tax collector who wouldn’t even lift up his eyes toward heaven but smote upon his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” The difference between them, you see, was faith. In faith I stop boasting about my own performance. I stop trusting in my own merits. I stop depending on my own strength. In faith I look away from myself to God. I confess before Him both my sins and His saving grace. I cast myself on His mercy, depending on Him entirely to be my Savior and my strength. I do not claim to be righteous in myself but receive righteousness from Him as a free gift. I don’t justify myself; I rather receive His justifying word. I don’t boast in anything about me but only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God may still look across the land and up and down the city streets to find someone who walks in perfect righteousness. He finds none of those, but He does look down on some who are faithful. They are His covenant people. They have received forgiveness through the sacrifice of His Son. They are being renewed by the power of His Holy Spirit. And, in fellowship with the Lord who is truth and who always keeps His Word, they are learning to be loyal and steadfast. God can count on such people. He lets them in on His plans. He calls them, as Jesus did His disciples, His friends. Doesn’t the desire to be one of those — one of those friends of God — make every other ambition seem trifling by comparison? Oh, may our lives be so full of faith in Jesus Christ that when God goes searching again for a faithful man or woman, the quest will not be in vain. May that be true for you, and for me!
PRAYER: Oh, God, in Your marvelous mercy through Christ, You have made us Your children and called us Your friends. So work in us by Your Word and Spirit that we may be a faithful people. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.