"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight." Proverbs 3:5-6 were some of the first Scripture verses I memorized as a child. For some reason, the words seemed to bounce with joy, energy, and a sense of lightness as I learned them. For me, these were very "happy" verses in Scripture—verses that seemed to indicate God's direct guidance for all his children down happy, straight pathways. I inferred that trusting in God's guidance would be the result of seeing the wonderful, straight pathways laid out before me that I would willingly and gladly walk on towards all my goals, desires, and dreams.
Yet "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding" took on new meaning in the face of absence, want, and unfulfillment. Have you ever experienced this dissonance that comes from the contradiction of your personal experience and your beliefs? What do you do, for example, when you've believed that God always heals, and yet you watch helplessly as your mother dies of cancer? What do you feel when you've been told that God has a wonderful plan for your life, and yet you can't square that wonderful plan with a series of professional and personal failures?
If you're like me, the fortress of beliefs you thought were impenetrable comes crashing down as life experience smashes that fortress like a battering ram. In the aftermath, the alternative shelters of cynical doubt or blind faith beckon you to take your refuge with them. For most of us, we run perilously between both extremes, without the sense of security that the fortress once provided.
While these are still precious Scripture verses to me, I have come to understand them differently as an adult. I recognize now that trusting the Lord was easy when everything was going my way! I didn't rely on my own understanding because I didn't have to! But, when dreams began to die, life-goals went unmet, and desires dried up, I realized the challenge these verses really offer; they offered me the opportunity to learn the real meaning of "trust."
Real trust in the Lord is only forged out of the fires of testing—testing that reveals whether we truly trust in the Lord or in what we want the Lord to give us. In other words, do we trust the Provider, or the Provider's provisions? In my own life, when it seemed that God withdrew the "provisions" and things stopped going my way, my plans failed, or my goals and dreams didn't materialize, I began to realize that my trust was in my own understanding of what was necessary to make my paths straight. So, as God had abandoned my plans, my test of trust began.
A New Perspective
The Bible is replete with stories about individuals who faced the difficult conflict between what they held to be the truth and what they experienced in their lives. Think of the patriarch Joseph. He was told by God through a sequence of dreams that he would be great one day—so great, in fact, that his own brothers would come and bow down in reverence for him. He had been given a glimpse of his destiny, and perhaps he believed his path to that destiny would be paved with gold. Instead, his gilded trip to glory yielded an attempted murder by his own brothers, his enslavement in a foreign land, and much of his life spent in and out of prison falsely accused of various crimes he did not commit. How could this be the path to glory God promised to provide for Joseph?
Joseph's belief in a God who loved him and had compassion on him was now being challenged by God's demonstration of his compassionate care. Sitting in his jail cell, I'm sure Joseph wrestled with his ideas about God's loving care.
Despite the contradiction between his life experience and what he thought he knew about God, Joseph ultimately affirmed that God is good and trustworthy. How did he arrive at this? I would suggest that as Joseph (like his father, Jacob) wrestled with God, God gave him a new perspective and a deeper understanding of his love for him. But that new perspective is not lightly gained, but again, forged out of the fires of testing.
In his book When God Interrupts (InterVarsity, 1996), author and pastor Craig Barnes poignantly describes the emergence of new perspectives as the very process of conversion:
The deep fear behind every loss is that we have been abandoned by the God who should have saved us. The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God that abandoned us.... Only then is change possible.
Indeed, Joseph reveals his new perspective to his brothers who betrayed him: "As for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20). This is no biblical cliché. Joseph did witness God's intervention and love. But not in the way he expected. God has not promised to make our lives go as we plan. Instead, God promises to give us the necessary new perspective to see his goodness and grace in the midst of our abandoned expectations.
C.S. Lewis once wrote in his marvelous book The Screwtape Letters that in order for the believer to gain this new perspective and mature in trust, God must withdraw "all the supports and incentives" and "leave the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish." He continues this thought through the character of Uncle Screwtape, a senior demon who is coaching his nephew Wormwood on the skills of devilry:
It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He [God] wants it to be…. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's [God's] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
You see, when our paths are crooked we are tempted to place our trust in the things God provides. As God withdraws those supports we have the challenge of leaning on our own understanding (grasping for things), or allowing true trust in the Lord to develop and bloom (grasping for God). As we trust God even while feeling lost and abandoned to crooked, twisting, and unsafe paths, paths that we thought would lead us to our plans, dreams, and desires, only then can we follow the ever-straightening path to our heart's desire found in God alone.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight." As you find yourself wandering down crooked paths of disappointment, may you find God leading you to place your trust in Him alone. As your trust grows, may you see straight paths of rest and contentment unfold before you. As you release your own understanding, may you find the Lord to be your heart's desire.
Margaret Manning is associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.