I am writing two blogs for the Society for Christian Psychology website this month. This is the first of my two posts (a reworked and expanded post from my own blog).
Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 ESV). One of the things we can glean from this is that the relative health of our lives will be largely (if not entirely) determined by where our hearts are “bent,” specifically, whether or not our hearts are trusting in God to care for us (see the context of the rest of Matthew 6). For the purposes of our Society, then, it would be helpful for us to consider where our hearts are in relation to trusting God, and consider how this affects our healthy functioning as image bearers. Let’s consider this text from Jeremiah 17:5-8:
Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (ESV)
In this passage of Scripture, two men are contrasted with each other. Reminiscent of Psalm 1 which contrasts the two paths of blessedness and wickedness, we are meant to see the ugliness of the wrong path in contrast to the beauty of the good path, so that we will choose the good path for ourselves and call others to it as well. As Christians involved in a variety of ways in the care of souls, it would be helpful for us to consider this text as a way toward spiritual and emotional health.
To feel the power of this text, we will unpack some of the contrasts. First, we notice that both of these men trust. The cursed man trusts in man and makes flesh his strength. Correspondingly, his heart turns away from the Lord. There is no neutrality before God; either we are trusting in Him or trusting in ourselves. What does it mean to trust in man? One of the things it means is that we cling to autonomous forms of living. We trust in our own ability to find life for ourselves, to navigate problems, gain affirmation and notoriety, etc. We also trust in others to give us the affirmation and love that we so desperately seek in this dark world. This leads to all our false selves as the public face of our sinful flesh which is determined to find life without God’s help. In contrast, the blessed man trusts in the Lord as a way of life. This is not restricted to initial trust for salvation from sin (though it is not less than that), but a daily pattern of trust in God, living interactively with him in all we do. It means acknowledging our need of him every moment of every day, and choosing to live in the brokenness of our own limits and inabilities, trusting in his grace and strength.
The second thing to notice is the motif of rootedness. The cursed man is described as a shrub in the desert. The image comes to mind of sagebrush floating across the prairie floor, without root, thrown here and there by the wind. Eugene Peterson captures this in The Message:
He's like a tumbleweed on the prairie,
out of touch with the good earth.
He lives rootless and aimless
in a land where nothing grows.
There remains only an expectation of trouble in the shrub-heart. There is little gratitude or expectation of God. In contrast, the blessed man is like a strong tree with roots connected to living water. The wind cannot topple it. The tree-heart leans hard on God and expects good from him. The image is that of a tree replanted in Eden, close to the source of all life.
The third motif is that of thirst. The cursed man dwells “in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.” How much misery is created living under the tyranny of unsatisfied thirst? I know in my own life, the potential for misery is nearly infinite, as my creative faculties are brought to bear on the creation of a multitude of false selves dedicated to scraping an existence without any help from God. The diagnosis of this text is so clear: On my own, I am scratching a living in the land characterized by loneliness and thirst (salt). After a while, I assume it is the “normal Christian life” and seek to numb myself. I do not experience gratitude or the ability to see the good that comes my way. All I know is the tyranny of unquenchable thirst. These are all my false ways of living (false selves):
I am what I do
I am what others perceive of me
I am what I have (categories from Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, p. 74-79).
In contrast, the blessed man is a tree with ready access to life giving water. Rooted next to God’s river, we are free from fear and anxiety during the inevitable times of heat and drought. Our fruitfulness derives from abiding in Jesus our vine (John 15), not in our circumstances. How easily we forget this! How much fear and anxiety are created in our lives through our shrub-heart trust in man?
The question I am left with is: how do we move toward trust in God? How do we move from the salt land to the lush forest of trust in God? It must take a lifetime of small decisions, otherwise it would be much easier! As Eugene Peterson has said, it involves a long obedience in the same direction. The salt land is miserable but predictable, the forest mysterious and chaotic (like slavery in Egypt vs. the promised land).
It all seems to hinge on whether or not I trust that God is good. I must resolve daily to trust that the unpredictability of God is infinitely preferable to the predictability of what I can manage for myself.
Lord have mercy on my corrupt heart and twisted mind, so that I can sink my roots into your love and faithfulness in ruthless trust.
Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship In An Instant Society. IVP, 2000.
Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Thomas Nelson, 2006.