Great Texts of the Bible
Trust in the Lord
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart,
And lean not upon thine own understanding:
In all thy ways acknowledge him,
And he shall direct thy paths.—Proverbs 3:5-6There are two ways in which people pass through life. They pass through it remembering God, or they pass through it forgetting Him. They go through it with Him in their minds, though they cannot see Him; or they go through it as if they had nothing to do with Him. They live as if this world were all they had to think about, or they remember that another life is coming, though they know they have to die in this world. And, of course, in what they do, this great difference shows itself. If people have not God and eternity in their thoughts, how is it possible that they should do anything as if they had? How can they try to please God, whom they never think of? And how can they give themselves any trouble to be prepared for eternity, when eternity is nothing but a mere word and sound to them, meaning nothing? But if they really have the greatness and mercy and judgment of God continually in their minds, they must either be openly rebelling against the light, or else they cannot help shaping their lives by the awful truths they believe, and living as those who must soon pass away from here to meet the Judge and Saviour of the quick and the dead. Either they are wise in their own eyes—that is, they trust themselves and the present world for everything they wish and work for, and feel no want of God, nor care for what He promises—or they acknowledge Him in all their ways; they think of His eye, His will, His hand, to uphold or cast down, to guide or to chastise, in all that they undertake through their life. Either they “lean upon their own understanding”; they are satisfied with what they see and have learnt about the ways and wisdom and good things of this present world, and will not listen even to God, when He tells them a different story about what men think so much of here; or they trust in the Lord with all their heart, knowing that “it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps,” and that it would profit a man nothing if he were to “gain the whole world, and lose his own soul.”
“Lean not upon thine own understanding.”
1. These words presuppose the existence of sin, of actual disorder, of want of harmony between fallen man and the moral universe. Were it not so, they could have neither meaning nor propriety, and would certainly never have been written. To write the former part, “Trust in the Lord,” would have been unnecessary; to write the latter, “Lean not upon thine own understanding,” would have been improper. It is quite natural for a sinless being to lean upon his own understanding; it is indeed a positive virtue in him to do so; it is, in fact, but one form of trusting in God. For who gave us our understanding? Who endowed us in the beginning with the light of reason? Who conferred upon us those intellectual faculties which make us differ from the brute creation? “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” He gave us understanding for a purpose: that it might be our unfailing guide throughout the journey of life. To doubt the credibility of the understanding—the understanding unadulterated by sin—would therefore be a reflection upon God’s wisdom and goodness. The understanding in man is analogous to instinct in inferior animals. In following instinct, the animal obeys God; for instinct is God’s law implanted in its nature, and compliance with it is invariably attended with beneficial results. To man, however, in his present state—sinful, polluted, degraded as he is—no advice can be more appropriate than this: “Lean not upon thine own understanding.”
If I had to single out any particular verses in the Bible which I am conscious of having influenced me moat it would be those which were taught me when a boy and which I long afterwards saw on the wall in General Gordon’s room in Southampton: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”1 [Note: W. T. Stead, in Books Which Have Influenced Me, 41.]
When the prophet Jeremiah expressed himself thus, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps,” he spoke words which we must all feel to be true, each one of his own self. Now, there is an uncertainty, a want of fixed purpose, a hesitation, a going backwards and forwards, an openness to any crafty temptation, an unsettled, infirm condition of mind, a wrong choice of objects, when a man “leans upon his own understanding,” and is “wise in his own eyes.” His steps are uncertain, his ways crooked, his principles shifting with the world in which, and for which, he lives: his whole course of action is measured out to him by the opinions of others as unsettled as himself: he is like a wave of the sea, tossed to and fro, at the mercy of every breath of ridicule and temptation that passes over him.2 [Note: W. T. Vernon.]
2. Yet this prohibition must have its limits. To live in utter disregard of our understanding, to allow our mental powers to be atrophied through want of exercise, would lead to the most disastrous consequences. Such a life would be the life of an idiot or a madman—dreary, mean, and purposeless. Every step by which we impair our understanding is a step in the direction of idiocy and madness; every chance of cultivating our intellect we let slip is a lost opportunity of perfecting our manhood. True, human nature can no longer boast of the exquisite harmony, beauty, and perfection which belonged to it in its primeval state; still, it is glorious in its fall, it is grand in its ruin; there yet linger about its shattered powers traces of the Divine image which sin has so miserably effaced. Our supreme desire, then, should be salvation—the salvation of the body, of the soul, of the entire man—the restoration of our nature to its original wonderful greatness. That man is engaged in the noblest occupation who, being awakened to a sense of his own dignity through the regenerating influence of God’s Spirit, eagerly devotes himself to the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of his understanding. Ignorance can never be bliss; much less can ignorance be the mother of godliness. It is knowledge of the truth that brings freedom, and a cultivated understanding is a Godlike possession.
As the late Dean Church, himself a Dante student, says of Hooker, we may say of Dante, that he found, as the guide of human conduct, “a rule derived not from one alone, but from all the sources of light and truth with which man finds himself encompassed.” And again: “His whole theory rests on the principle that the paramount and supreme guide, both of the world and of human action, is reason.” “The concurrence and co-operation, each in its due place, of all possible means of knowledge for man’s direction.” “Conceiving of law as reason under another name, he conceived of God Himself as working under a law, which is His supreme reason, and appointing to all His works the law by which they are to work out their possible perfection. Law is that which binds the whole creation, in all its ranks and subordinations, to the perfect goodness and reason of God. Every law of God is a law of reason, and every law of reason is a law of God.”1 [Note: H. B. Garrod, Dante, Goethe’s Faust, and other Lectures, 75.]
1. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart.” This is a remarkable anticipation of New Testament teaching: “We walk by faith, not by sight.” “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” The trust we should repose in God admits of no limit or modification. This reminds us of the great commandment in the law, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” Thus, whatever we do in reference to God, whether we love Him, trust Him, or serve Him, it must be done with a heartiness, a reality, an earnestness which cannot for a moment be doubted.
It takes a long time to learn to trust in the Lord, and to acknowledge Him in all our ways. Those who try most to do so, who wish most to leave themselves, and all that belongs to them, to His manifest ordering—who have most reason to hope that they have given up trusting to their own understanding and wisdom in what concerns this life here—are reminded to the last how imperfectly they have learnt the lesson; how often, without knowing it, they are setting their will before God’s will, and fancying that they know better than God what is best for them. And if this is so with those who try to leave themselves in God’s hands, how shall they who never seriously try at all be able to do so when the time of trouble comes?
Faith is not mere belief; but such belief as leads us to have confidence in God—confidence in what He is to us, and does for us, and asks of us, with the necessary implication of a response on our part. And when we speak of a living, or lively faith, we mean a faith by which we live in conscious response to God’s love and its demands upon us; trusting Him for to-morrow because we know that we are obeying Him to-day.1 [Note: J. R. Illingworth, Christian Character.]
Faith is that temper of sympathetic and immediate response to Another’s will which belongs to a recognized relationship of vital communion. It is the spirit of confident surrender, which can only be justified by an inner identification of the life. Unless this inner relationship be a fact, faith could not account for itself: but if it be a fact, it must constitute a fixed and necessary demand upon all men. All are, equally, “children of God”; and the answer to the question, “Why should I believe?” must be, for ever and for all, valid: “because you are a child of God.” Faith itself lies deeper than all the capacities of which it makes use: it is, itself, the primal act of the elemental self, there at the root of life, where the being is yet whole and entire, a single personal individuality, unbroken and undivided. Faith, which is the germinal act of our love for God, is an act of the whole self, there where it is one, before it has parted off into what we can roughly describe as separate and distinguishable faculties.2 [Note: H. S. Holland in Lux Mundi.]
2. “In all thy ways acknowledge him.” Here we have a sample of the almost untranslatable pregnancy and power of Hebrew speech. The English word “acknowledge” represents only one of the many meanings which are to be found in the original term. This word, originally meaning “to see,” came to signify that which results from sight, unless the sense be imperfect or the understanding impaired, namely, knowledge. It exhibits knowledge at all its stages of growth. It stands for a knowledge of isolated facts, and for a knowledge of facts in their largest combinations. It describes a mere act of perception, an unsuspected discovery, a stern experience inflicted upon the dull understanding; it pictures casual acquaintance and the closest possible intimacy; it is used of knowledge by name and of knowledge face to face. It is used of the moral sense recognizing moral good or moral evil, and of the affections gaining knowledge of their object through being exercised on it. It depicts the movements, not merely of the heart and the intellect, but also of the will. It thus represents sometimes the watchful, active care of God’s loving Providence, sometimes the prostrate adoration of a soul, in which knowledge of its Divine Object has passed into the highest stage, and is practically inseparable from worship. As used in the passage before us, it describes nothing less comprehensive than the whole action of man’s spiritual being when face to face with the Eternal God. To “know” God in truth is to believe in Him, to fear Him, and to love Him, with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind, and with all the strength; to worship Him, to give Him thanks, to put our whole trust in Him, to call upon Him, to honour His holy Name and His Word, and to serve Him truly.
(1) In order to acknowledge God truly there must be a real conviction that God rules the world.—An atheist, who believes that no God exists, or a theist, who believes in His existence but not in His active government of earthly things, or a fatalist, who dreams that all things proceed by an iron necessity which nothing can change—not one of these men can really acknowledge God as the text requires. It is presupposed that we believe in the existence of an almighty, free, intelligent Spirit, from whom all things have sprung, and on whom all things depend; that He fills the whole universe with His presence, or illumines it with His smile; that He is guiding, controlling, and disposing all its affairs for the consummation of holy and glorious purposes; that He cares for the well-being of all His creatures, from the highest seraph who flames before His throne down to the little sparrow which cannot fall to the ground until He permits it; that He has special care for the dignity and well-being of men, and most of all for those who fear Him or who hope in His mercy. A settled conviction of all this is essential to a right acknowledgment of God. If there be no God, it is unreasonable to acknowledge any. If God be not a free or almighty intelligence, but a blind or necessary force, we may as well do homage to the storm that lays waste our fields, or to the earthquake that converts our home into ruins. If God has no care for the concerns of this lower world, to acknowledge Him is useless; if He acts in all things quite independently of our conduct, acknowledging Him is an impertinence. If He is not graciously disposed to accept our prayer and our trust, we may as well give them to the winds. In a word, in order to yield any acknowledgment of God which is worthy of the name, there must be that state of mind described by the Apostle as the condition of all acceptable coming to God—the belief “that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
(2) It follows that we must have communion with Him.—It is impossible that any one can really be acknowledging God—can be thinking of anything but worldly things—who does not pray by himself in secret, and pray every day regularly. Therefore, if any one knows that he does not take care to say his private prayers to God daily, there is at once a proof and a warning to him that he is not acknowledging God, that he is living without God in the world. He may be as industrious and quiet and respectable and kind-hearted as possible, but he is living without religion, as one who has only this life to pass through, and has no everlasting state waiting for him after he is dead. Private, secret prayer, offered to God daily and regularly, is the one great proof whether we believe and trust in God. If this proof is not there, then it is certain that, whatever we may say or do, we do not in our hearts believe God, or fear Him.
(3) Then, to acknowledge God in all our ways is honestly to admit to Him in each particular case that the matter is in His hands, and that it is to be ordered as He may see fit. We are presumed to feel that God is actively present in all the concerns of this world, from the least to the greatest. Our own concerns, therefore, are neither too vast nor too trifling to engage His attention. Small as things may be in themselves, they are still parts of the great whole, links in the chain which girds the world and reaches up into the hand of God. The breath which stirs the seared leaf is a part of the mighty force which wheels the planets in their courses; and He who keeps the spheres moving in measured harmony numbers the hairs of our heads. Thus, to acknowledge God in all our ways is just to tell Him all this, it is just to advert emphatically to His presence as with us, to regard each interest of our lives as placed in His hands, to view every event in the light that streams from His throne, always to feel, wherever we are or whatever we are doing, that we are in closest connexion with God, and to make a solemn acknowledgment of this.
(4) Along with all this there is to be a sincere dependence upon God for direction and help.—This is the practical bearing of our conscious reference to God. In the absence of this it is useless to believe in His supreme rule, or to advert to His universal presence. A devout regard to God, indeed, cannot but be pleasing in His sight, and it is a healthy state of soul. Whatever is right in itself cannot fail to be practically useful. But such a devout regard implies humble reliance upon His guidance. It is a kind of faith spread like a leaf of gold over our whole life; or, to change the figure, it is to live and breathe in the very atmosphere of prayer, though no formal petition may escape our lips. To acknowledge God in all our ways is to acknowledge His goodness and wisdom in guarding our interests; and the very thought cannot but inspire us with a humble, trustful reliance, and call forth now and then earnest entreaty from the depth of the soul. To acknowledge God is not to recognize His presence and remain blind to His perfections; it is not to mark the working of His hand and forget the goodness of His heart; or to believe that He is ever surrounding us as a watchful friend, and yet not yield Him our confidence or utter to Him our prayer. Acknowledgment of such a Being must, in the nature of things, include faith, and without this it would be only a lifeless form—a skeleton of religion without its soul.
I am often tempted to trust too much to you; not, I think, to believe your wisdom, and gentleness, and patience, and faith to be greater than they are, but to think too much that I was to trust to them in you, instead of in God, because I have not felt Him to be an ever-present guide, not only into the mysteries of His own Love, not only into the meaning of past wants, but into the grounds of all right and all wise action. This and this only has confused me; all has been ordered to teach me, all to strengthen me; and I alone am wrong. Only with these thoughts others mingle; I must not, in order to recover faith in a Director, give up the direction He places in my way; I must not mistake self-will for conscience, nor impatience for honesty. No one on earth can distinguish them for me; but He will. It so often seems to me as if two different courses of action were right or might be right; and this is what puzzles me, even though it is a blessing as binding me to people of widely different opinions.1 [Note: Life of Octavia Hill, 155.]
On reflection I felt that I was going to make a grand fiasco in Berlin, and compromise a career which, tolerably brilliant at the outset, had already brought on me much resentment, as well as calumnies and attacks of which I have not ceased to be proud. The idea was unbearable, and I felt that, in the interest of The Times, as well as in my own interests, it would be better for me not to go to the Congress.… Just then my young friend was announced. I had not seen him for a long time, and had positively allowed him to slip my memory. Here I must confess that I have a theory which will, perhaps, be ridiculed, but which has governed my whole life. I believe in the constant intervention of a Supreme Power, directing not only our destiny in general, but such actions of ours as influence our destiny. When I see that nothing in Nature is left to chance, that immutable laws govern every movement, that the faintest spark that glimmers in the firmament disappears and reappears with strict punctuality, I cannot suppose that anything to do with mankind goes by chance, and that every individuality composing it is not governed by a definite and inflexible plan. The great men whose names escape oblivion are like the planets which we know by name, and which stand out from among the multitude of stars without names. We know their motions and destinies. We know at what time the comet moving in infinite space will reappear, and that the smallest stars, whose existence escapes us, obey the fixed law which governs the universe.… Everything moves by a fixed law, and man is master of his own destiny only because he can accept or refuse, by his own intervention and action, the place he should fill and the path traced out for him by the general decree which regulates the movements of every creature. By virtue of this theory it will be easily understood that I have always endeavoured to divine the intentions and designs of the Supreme Will which directs us. I have always sought not to thwart that ubiquitous guidance, but to enter on the path which it seemed to point out to me. As, at the very time that the idea of going to Berlin plunged me in despair, my door opened and I saw my young friend enter, it struck me that he was destined to assist me in the accomplishment of the task devolving on me in Berlin.… At the very hour on the 13th of July when the treaty of 1878 was signed in Berlin, a London telegram announced that The Times had published the preamble and sixty-four articles, with an English translation appended.1 [Note: H. S. De Blowitz, My Memoirs, 132.]
“He shall direct thy paths.”
1. This is not a mere arbitrary promise. If we trust God with all our heart, and acknowledge Him in all our ways, we have within us the guarantee of sure guidance. God has placed man’s happiness in his own keeping; and by true submission to the Divine will man is able to “lay hold on eternal life.” The Kingdom of God is within. It comes not with observation. Its rewards are the continued extension of the soul’s capacities; its treasures are incorruptible, laid up beyond the power of rust or robber. Surrendering ourselves, not to a blind destiny, but to the guidance of holy and eternal principles, we are unconcerned about the future. Precisely what that future may bring forth we know not; but the unknown is to us neither mysterious nor terrible. Our delight being in the Lord, that is, in the integrity and holiness of His will, we know that He will give us the desires of our heart. Waiting patiently for Him, and committing our ways unto Him, we know that He “shall bring it to pass.” Clouds and darkness may befall us, but we know that He, the eternal Sun, is above the clouds, and will, sooner or later, shine upon us.
O end to which our currents tend,
To which we flow, what do we know,
What can we guess of thee?
A roar we hear upon thy shore,
As we our course fulfil;
And we divine a sun will shine,
And be above us still.
Mr. Gladstone’s speech on the second reading of the Reform Bill of 1866, as a whole, ranks among the greatest of his performances. The party danger, the political theme, the new responsibility of command, the joy of battle, all seemed to transfigure the orator before the vision of the House, as if he were the Greek hero sent forth to combat by Pallas Athene, with flame streaming from head and shoulders, from helmet and shield, like the star of summer rising effulgent from the sea. The closing sentences became memorable:—“You cannot fight against the future,” he exclaimed with a thrilling gesture, “time is on our side. The great social forces which move onwards in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of our debates does not for a moment impede or disturb—those great social forces are against you; they are marshalled on our side; and the banner which we now carry in this fight, though perhaps at some moment it may droop over our sinking heads, yet it soon again will float in the eye of Heaven, and it will be borne by the firm hands of the united people of the three kingdoms, perhaps not to an easy, but to a certain and to a not far distant victory.”1 [Note: Morley, Life of Gladstone, ii. 203.]
2. How will this direction be effected? Not by an audible voice from heaven, not by the sudden appearance of angelic messengers to point the way, not even by any undefinable and irresistible persuasion, arising unaccountably within the mind, that a certain path and no other is to be taken. Of miraculous interposition there is no need, and the time has gone by for superstition. No, God will guide men that acknowledge Him through the working of their own minds and the counsels of others, by opening new paths and placing fresh aids within their reach, by influencing their souls through the teachings of His Spirit, and preserving them from false signs by which they were wont to be led astray.
(1) God sometimes leads us, and we know not how; we cannot say by what means it is. We are in the midst of difficulties, our way seems hedged up, foes are on every side, snares are spread for our feet, and darkness is on our prospects. No human help is nigh, and possibly, if it were, it could not effect our deliverance. We acknowledge God, and in the course of a short time all these difficulties clear away as of themselves, the whole scene changes, everything seems to fall into its right place, and we walk again at large as free men. We cannot tell how the change is effected. It appears as if the shadows of night had given place to the realities of day. We are like them that dream, our mouth is filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. “The Lord hath done great things for us.” Such events as these are to be found in all Christian experience. We cannot tell how God directs our paths, but the direction itself is so real and so marvellously brought about as to illustrate to our wondering eyes His infinite wisdom and power.
On one of the Irish lakes there is a particular spot where there appears no possible means of exit; you may be within twenty yards of the right course, and yet beat about for hours without finding it. But the experienced boatman can make his way to it in a few minutes. So it is often in human affairs. Your frail bark may be tossed about for days upon the cold waters; you are surrounded by hills which form an enclosed prison, and all escape seems cut off, but acknowledge God, and the path before hidden gleams up in brightness before you, and you wonder that you had not seen it before.1 [Note: J. M. Charlton.]
(2) God often directs us by obstacles and delays. We want to proceed in a certain direction, and to gain a certain point. We acknowledge God therein, and the only response is that He appears to cast up loftier barriers in our way, and to render our progress still more difficult and perplexing. How is this? For a time we are ready to faint in despair; but gradually it becomes clear, in the light of the events themselves, that these barriers were safeguards, breaks to check a too impetuous descent down the incline, or stepping stones to help us over a mountain elevation which could not otherwise have been scaled.
Two vessels may sail out from the same distant shore; the one, impatient to set sail, and to reach her destination as speedily as possible, departs some days before the other, but thereby encounters a storm, and is thrown some weeks behind. The gain of a little time in the one case proves a heavy loss; in the other, the loss of a little time at first proves an immense gain afterwards. Now, if the second vessel had been thus delayed awhile at first under the direction of one who clearly foresaw the coming storm, would not all men have said that the direction was most wise and good? So God often directs our paths. He holds us back from coming danger; He keeps us, as it were, in the harbour of safety until the storm has passed by, and though, during this time, we chafe and fret, as if our hopes were gone, by-and-by, under smiling skies, our vessel flies before the wind, leaps over the waves, and enters with flying colours the long-desired haven. Then at length are we filled with the assurance that Divine wisdom and goodness have guided our voyage.1 [Note: J. M. Charlton.]
(3) God sometimes seems to guide our way even by our very enemies. They come forth in power to oppose us, to ruin our plans, to thwart our objects, and the final result is that they promote their accomplishment, and that in a degree which could not otherwise have been attained. We and they may be alike blind to the real conditions of success; but God, who knows all the secret workings of causes, which are hidden from us, in this way most effectually secures our ends.
I cannot say what very quiet, relying comfort there is in doing everything quite openly and irrespective of the consequences. We are weak and uncomfortable when we act for man’s view of things; it is humbugging God in reality, not man, and as surely as we do that we shall reap the reward. The things may be comparatively small, but a very immense principle is involved in them. It is most wonderful what power and strength are given to us by living for God’s view and not man’s. I do many things which are wrong, and I can say truly that, thanks to God, I am comforted in all the troubles, because I do not conceal them from Him. He is my Master, and to Him alone am I accountable. If I own in my heart that I am culpable, I have such comfort that I do not care what my fellow-man says. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”2 [Note: General C. G. Gordon, Letters to His Sister, 23.]
Buckland (A. R.), Text Studies for a Year, 53.
Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, i. 172.
Howatt (J. R.), The Children’s Angel, 104.
Liddon (H. P.), University Sermons, i. 139.
McCheyne (R. M.), Additional Remains, 142.
Rowlands (D.), in Comradeship and Character, 237.
Stalker (J.), The New Song, 118.
Talmage (T. de W.), Sermons, vii. 176.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, xxvii. (1904), No. 7.
Christian World Pulpit, vii. 405 (F. Wagstaff); xvii. 324 (J. M. Charlton).
Church of England Magazine, xxxi. 128 (W. T. Vernon).