Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)
Some proverbs venture into the realm of psychology, making important observations about human experience. In this verse, we see that waiting for something that we really want can make us sick, but obtaining our desire fills us with life. When we are hoping for a relationship, career, or opportunity to materialize, it can become all-consuming: our thoughts run on a constant circuit of desire, emotions rise and fall at the smallest signs of success or failure, we lose focus on all other tasks.
In the long run, this is not a pleasant way to live if you desire the wrong things. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke comments on this verse: “The frustrated [person] suffers a loss of morale. With his true longings never satisfied, he stumbles in resignation and despair to his death.” The proverb contrasts two types of lives, “moving either (a) toward final despair of every expectation in death or (b) toward a fulfillment of every desire in the everlasting presence of the LORD.”
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller shares the story of Sally who placed all her hopes in a romantic relationship that made her heart sick:
Sally had the [paradoxical] misfortune of being born beautiful. Even in childhood she saw the power that she could wield with her physical attractiveness. At first she used her beauty to manipulate others, but eventually others used it to manipulate her. She came to feel that she was powerless and invisible unless some man was in love with her. She could not bear to be alone. As a result she was willing to remain in relationships with men who were abusive.
Why did she endure such treatment? She had come to look to men for the kind of deep affirmation and acceptance that only God can provide.
This is why Jesus counsels us to “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) – God provides a deeper and surer fulfillment that the things of this world cannot. God is the ultimate desire, and finding him is the greatest “tree of life.” So we should work for success in our careers and relationships – and rejoice when those things succeed! – but we should remember that the best hope to pursue is the hope of life with God. Growing in our prayer life with him will be bring stability and peace even when we wait on other things to materialize.
Keller tells of the surprising and hopeful next chapter of Sally’s life:
One day Sally told me how she got her life back. She went to a counselor who rightly pointed out that she had been looking to men for her identity, for her “salvation.” Instead, the counselor proposed, she should get a career and become financially independent as a way of building up her self-esteem. The woman agreed wholeheartedly that she needed to stand on her own two feet economically, but she resisted the advice about finding self-esteem. ‘I was being asked to give up a common female idolatry and take on a common male idolatry,’ she said. ‘But I didn’t want to have my self-worth dependent on career success any more than on me. I wanted to be free.’
How did she do it? She came across Colossians 3, where Saint Paul writes, ‘Your life is hidden with Christ in God … and when Christ who is your life appears, you will appear with him glory.’ She came to realize that neither men nor career nor anything else should be ‘her life’ or identity. What mattered was not what men thought of her, or career success, but what Christ had done for her and how he loved her. So when she saw a man was interested in her, she would silently say in her heart toward him, ‘You may turn out to be a great guy, and maybe even my husband, but you cannot ever be my life. Only Christ is my life.’
May that be the case for you today, as well, keeping the deferments and disappointments of this life in proper perspective and finding your deepest desires satisfied in God.
Father, thank you for creating me with longings that can only be filled by you. Teach me to pray, to sing, and to rejoice in your promises again today. Help me find consolation in you for every earthly disappointment. In Christ’s Name, Amen.