I was fascinated recently to see a list of the most read Bible verses on Bible Gateway. Unsurprisingly, a number of these verses appear on similar lists from other Bible websites. What is it about these verses that draw people to them again and again? Over the coming months I will take several of these popular verses and explain them, sometimes linking also to useful materials from others. I hope this will be of interest to everyone and perhaps especially of help for those of you looking for serotonin ideas
Each of these verses could definitely be considered tweetable, but behind every soundbite is a mountain of truth. Join me as we take this journey together. Today as we begin, we will look at a couplet of two verses that gained entries 8 and 10 in the Bible Gateway list and are definitely among my favorite verses in the whole Bible.
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 straight [some translations: direct] your paths.
These verses speak to the great human hunger to know how to make right decisions. They offer a promise that God will lead us if we fulfill certain conditions.
Perhaps you are asking, ‘How can I know God’s will?’ ‘What if I make a mistake?’ or ‘If my life is in such a mess at the moment can I really be in God’s will? Shall I give up and go somewhere else where it will all be alright?’
The aim of this article is nothing less than that you will go from reading it understanding the steps needed to receive God’s guidance, and be enabled to practice them with complete confidence that you are in the centre of God’s will and the very best place that you could be.
My grandfather, Edwin Millington Warnock lost his father when he was relatively young, and later told my uncle that he had been called into his dying father’s room to be told of these very verses. He was encouraged to make this something of a life motto.
This passage from Proverbs has been precious to my extended family–it was mentioned at that Uncle’s wedding and I followed in that tradition, and also had the reference inscribed on the inside of my wedding ring. It is truly something you can build your life on.
Fascinatingly, despite their popularity these verses are not very frequently preached on. For example, neither Spurgeon nor John Piper who are often my first port of call have preached sermons on these two verses. The most helpful article I have found online is by a colleague of Piper’s called the insanity of leaning on our own understanding.
In a sermon based on the whole of chapter 3, Tim Keller outlines the problem we face that these verses address:
Wisdom is the ability to know what the right thing to do is in the 80 percent of life situations to which the moral rules don’t apply. For most of the decisions you have to make, the moral values, whatever you think they are, don’t apply, because there are three, four, or five different things that are options, and they’re all allowable, they’re all moral. Which is the right one?
In every area of our lives, the work area, the love area, the marriage, the family, we have decisions we have to make, and if we don’t make them wisely, we’re going to blow up our lives and the lives of people around us
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).
The bible says without vision the people perish or alternatively cast off all restraint. So it is critical for us to be convinced that we are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing in the right way, with the right people under the right leadership and for the right motives. Only that certainty will keep us going when things seem hard or people question why we are doing something.
One key question of our life and of this talk is ‘How can I know that I am doing the right and best thing?’ or alternatively ‘how can I know God’s will’? The two questions are of course identical- because what God wants is for our best.
Many a pot of ink has been spent on debating exactly what the Hebrew behind this promise ‘make straight’ found in verse 5 actually means. There is clearly a strong argument for this meaning straighten as in make right or pure. Certainly we should not imagine that it is mainly or merely talking about is us receiving personalized instructions from God about what decision we should make about our future paths. God is more concerned about us becoming righteous than he is about us having a sense of personal destiny and fulfillment. He wants to straighten our paths in the sense of making them to be not crooked or devious.
But there is no reason why the idea of God making our paths righteous shouldn’t also encompass the idea of him guiding us. We are by no means meant to stray off the right path, and we can certainly do so by falling into sin. But, I am confident that this passage encompasses also the idea that God will ensure we remain on the right path for us.
In these verses, then, are a promise. God says that if we fulfil certain conditions, he will direct us into a righteous path for us to walk in.
One amazing truth is that God is more ready to guide you than you are to be guided. As Psalms 25:12 says “What man is he who fears the LORD? He shall teach him in the way that he shall choose.“
The starting point is not our ability to hear God. Many Christians go wrong at this point. Some Christians dismiss any idea that God may desire to guide us in any specific way about decisions we need to make, beyond the moral guidelines of what is right and wrong. That error, and it is an error, is in my view less dangerous than its opposite. Other Christians are so committed to listening to God speak specifically to them that they rely on their own sense of what he is saying over and above any other way that God wants to guide us. You have probably heard of the crazy ones who won’t have a bath unless they feel God is leading them to. Some of us who try and live somewhere in between both extremes still worry that if we don’t act spiritually enough, and don’t fast and pray enough, we will miss out on what it is that God wants to say to us, and so make a mistake.
The good news is that God’s promise of guidance is NOT dependent on our degree of spirituality, or on our ability to hear him. His conditions are much more basic than that, and yet search our hearts more profoundly.
The truth is even the most spiritually in tune of us only “know in part”, and our hearts are very deceptive. If God’s ability to guide us was to depend solely or even mainly on our ability to hear him accurately then we would be in trouble. Oftentimes we think we are hearing him, when we are really hearing what we want to. I have written elsewhere on the dangers of prophecy. Whatever your view on modern prophecy Proverbs 3:5-6 contain a promise that actually has very little to do with it.
A preacher once told me that very regularly men will come to him and say something like this, “God has told me that I have made a mistake and married the wrong woman for me. To get back into his will I must divorce my wife and marry this other lady in the church.” To most Christians that seems obviously wrong, but it gives us nonetheless a strong warning against relying too much and solely on ‘hearing God’ for our guidance. In fact, hearing God and learning how to do that, is clearly the wrong place to start.
There are only three conditions outlined here, and if we meet all of these, we can have an absolute confidence that God will not let us make a mistake that damages us permanently. We may start off down the wrong path, but if we follow these conditions, we will be brought back on track- to use the NIV word he will straighten our path.
1. Trust in God with all your heart
This passage does not tell us to trust our own heart. The popular notion that we should follow our heart, and that somehow it knows the way is PLAIN WRONG. Our hearts are not to be relied on. They are deceptive. They have at best mixed motives. But we can direct our heart to Someone who is reliable and who can be trusted. We can rely on the God who will never give up on us.
It is only as we learn to trust GOD and not ourselves that he will guide us. Notice that biblically the heart does not merely equal emotions, but rather the very centre of our being- the decision making, and constant part of us that doesn’t change. It is the part of us that determines the value of things. We may not feel like trusting God but must preach at ourselves that we are to trust him and have every reason to.
Some people put their trust in their career, or their relationships, their money, or their health. If your trust is in something that can be taken away in a single telephone call then you are building your life on sand rather than a rock.
When it comes to your job, this is how it might go one day. A mysterious meeting appears in your calendar to which there are only two invites other than yourself: your boss, and someone from Human Resources. For a multitude of reasons, or for no reason at all that meeting will probably lead to you being fired, made redundant, or offered a ‘compromise agreement.’ Don’t depend on your work always being there for you.
Trusting God is defined by Wesley as follows:
Wholly rely upon God’s promises and providences
John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, vol. 3 (Bristol: William Pine, 1765), 1839.
This idea is also elaborated further by Matthew Henry, that great Puritan:
We must believe that he is able to do what he will, wise to do what is best, and good, according to his promise, to do what is best for us, if we love him, and serve him. We must, with an entire submission and satisfaction, depend upon him to perform all things for us
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 959.
We must learn to trust in God as he is revealed to us in the Bible. The primary way that God wants to speak to you as an individual today is through the Bible. We must determine in our mind that God’s Word is Truth and can be relied on (see John17:17).
Only in the Bible can we have find guidance which never fails. Do not go to God to speak to you if the answer is found in the word. Immediately you fall down at the first hurdle and give the devil a field day and permission to speak to you.
A command in the bible does not need to come to you specifically in revelation for it to be binding on you ! Do not wait for God to speak to you about baptism- if you want to follow him, obey what he already has said.
I was once told about a leading Christian gynecologist who made the mistake of seeking God for a sign regarding abortion. He was given a sign in a vision that claimed it was fine to encourage a change in the law to allow abortion- but I am sure that vision wasn’t from the same God who said ‘In the womb I knew you’ Jer 1:5.
Trust God’s ways
Mercy and truth are always the best way of handling a situation- for example, simply asking yourself what is the most truthful and merciful way of dealing with this will often answer the question ‘what should I do now?’
We mist believe that God is the strong all powerful God who’s decisions are infinitely better than ours
Trust God in others
There are people that God has put in your life who’s wisdom is one way God wants to guide you. Part of having faith in God and trusting him, is trusting that he will give you sound counsellors and so listening to them.
To summarize, lets give the last word on trusting God to John Piper:
And the response of our hearts to God’s act of creation and Christ’s act of sacrifice is single-minded faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior
John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1980–1989) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).
2. Trust not in your own understanding
Do NOT trust YOURSELF
The worlds ideas are pure foolishness. We must put no trust in the flesh, even our own. Relying our own understanding or the wisdom of this World is a great path to failure. It is also not a new mistake:
I believe that the Church of Christ suffers more today from trusting in intellect, in sagacity, in culture, and in mental refinement, than from almost anything else.
Andrew Murray cited in Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Modern Church, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).
We must actively determine not to rely on our own thinking. Piper says that this is the core of true prayer.
That’s what prayer is: not leaning on your own understanding
John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (2000–2014) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014).
Of course, it is not that our minds themselves are the problem, it is rather us DEPENDING on our own minds.
We need to allow our minds to be SHAPED by God’s Word. His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9)
What seems reasonable to us is not necessarily right to God!
Solomon was the worlds wisest man wrote much of the book of Proverbs. But Solomon, God gave you your common sense. Surely you should follow it. This way makes sense, so God must be in it.
Solomon replies ‘No- I will not depend on my great wisdom and understanding- don’t you realize how puny that is- I know in part, God knows fully- God may seem foolish at times to me- but even that foolishness is far wiser than the wisest I could be- God gave me my brains yes, but I will trust in him first. I do know what I am talking about- after all I didn’t always do that- Kings have lots of wives and it seemed reasonable to me that I should marry to extend treaties with my neighbours. When the wives wanted me to join them in worshipping their gods it seemed sensible to me to do so- after all if I went with them, perhaps they would come with me to God’s temple and would be converted- how wrong I was! The truth is that, though you think of me as a wise man, and I accept God has given me wisdom, I think of myself as a fool’
The great paradox of the book of Proverbs is wise people are extremely aware of their foolishness; fools think they’re wise. To put it a little more starkly, if you don’t think you’re a fool, you’re a fool . . .
You have to be absolutely, accurately, intimately aware of all of your limitations, all of your weaknesses, all of your flaws, all of your besetting sins, all your areas of foolishness. If you don’t, you’re going to make stupid choices all the time.
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).
This is not to say that reason is always worthless. We apply our reasoning to understand God’s ways. But we recognize the frailty of our own minds.
Although Spurgeon never preached a whole sermon on these verses, He has summarized perfectly these first two points:
To be saved you must trust Christ; simply trust him; wholly trust him, trust him implicitly; let no other confidence intervene; lean not to your own understanding; trust him for everything, for the pardon of your sins, for the righteousness which justifies your soul, for the grace which renews your heart, for the power which guides the new creatures in a new course.
Everything must come from Christ. You are to rely on him because he is God; because, being God, he became man that he might put himself into the place, and room, and stead, of those who have come to seek shelter under his protection. He deigned to suffer what they ought to have suffered, to pay the debt which was due from them to the justice of God. If your faith is fixed upon Christ as the great substitute for sinners, you shall be saved.
I meet with persons almost every day who tell me that though they have been attending a place of worship for years, they do not know what the Gospel is. Alas! in many cases they cannot plead that it is not preached to them, but it is painfully evident their ears are deaf that they hear not, and their hearts are waxen gross by sin that they feel not. Such ignorance is terrible. Do seek to understand the gospel. A clear knowledge on this subject, though it will not suffice to save you, will whet your appetite for the salvation which they enjoy who walk in the light of the Lord’s countenance.
Charles H. Spurgeon, C H Spurgeon’s Sermons beyond: An Authentic Supplement to the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Forty-Five Forgotten Sermons Compiled from the Baptist Messenger, ed. Terence Peter Crosby, vol. 63 (Leominster: Day One, 2009), 61–62.
At this point dear reader, I must ask you: Are you a Christian? If not, please do learn how to begin to follow Jesus, and begin this journey with Jesus.
3. Acknowledge him every step you take.
The only way to have a fulfilling life is to stop relying on our own savvy and to start relying on God to provide the necessary turns of affairs.
John Piper, Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2005), 234.
The third condition is really about applying the first two to every step we take along the journey we call life. At the outset of our Christian lives we decide to make Jesus our Lord. This condition is all about making that decision a reality in every little step of our lives.
Life really is a journey. It is a series of minuscule decisions that taken together lead us towards or further from the destination God has for us. There are no short cuts.
You’re not going to make much progress on the path if you somersault down the path or if you leap down the path, because you can’t keep it up. If you’re going to go miles and miles, it’s right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. Boring, repeated, steady. Things that are fairly easy to do. As long as you do them over and over and over and over again, you get somewhere.
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).
Some people claim they want to be guided by God but the reality is they want God to fit into THEIR plans. If they pray at all about their latest plot, plan or scheme it is to ask, even insist, that GOD blesses their plans. A Christian starts from a different point. He or She wants to follow GOD’s plan for their life.
What this looks like in practice is that whenever there is a small but significant step to take, like for example sending off an application for a job, there is a caution or a pause that says ‘God, I think this is right, but please close the door if it is not.’
Even if you are absolutely sure you are in God’s will, as you go down a path we must say. ‘Not my will but yours’. If I am wrong Lord, show me. Speak to me. Tell someone else to tell me. Shut a door. Do whatever you need to to keep me on track. This attitude is explained in James 4:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-15)
Sometimes you will feel unsure what the right path is. But you will just decide to ‘do it’ rather than panic and do nothing. It is easier to guide a moving ship. DO something. Make a step. Don’t commit yourself though emotionally or in any other way initially. Instead hold it lightly. Better to look a fool by withdrawing an offer on a house, or fouling up at an interview or whatever than end up bludgeoning your way into something that is not of God.
God will use a wealth of things to guide us. Yes, I do believe in a form of prophecy available to us today. But only a fool trusts in that as their sole way for God to guide them. I believe that if I apply for a job and then go and be interviewed, if I do my best, but ask God to close the door if it is not right, sometimes he will do just that.
One vital truth to grasp in this is that sometimes God will use an unpleasant person or set of circumstances to fulfill his purpose and guide you.
As Joseph said to his brothers at the end of his life about their decision to sell him as a slave to Eygpt:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20)
Similarly, as another famous Bible verse puts it that we may get to explaining here one day:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 ESV)
Maybe you feel that you’ve already blown it. You’ve made your path crooked already. Well theres a promise here for you too. Simply determine to follow these conditions today. Resolve to surrender to God’s ways.
God will re-straighten your path. You can get back into the centre of God’s will. And amazingly when you do so, God can even change your mistakes and sins around to be part of his purpose for you and his world.
So fulfil these criteria and know with all certainty that whether by prophetic revelation or by common sense or by circumstances or by whatever means God will keep you on the right path.