When You Need to Know, You’ll Know
October 18, 2007
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
These two verses are among the most beloved in the entire Bible. You may have memorized them in Sunday school when you were a child. Or perhaps you made a cross-stitch pattern of these words and hung it on your wall. Or you may have learned to sing these words as part of a contemporary worship chorus. British Bible teacher G. Campbell Morgan said that when he was leaving home for the first time, his father pressed a note into his hand. When Campbell Morgan unfolded it, he discovered it contained just one verse of Scripture: “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Looking back years later, he noted that his father had written that verse with no accompanying comment. No comment, he said, except the comment of his father’s godly life.
This text is striking in its simplicity. There is nothing difficult about it. It is so simple that it can be understood by the youngest believer, and yet it is a comfort to the oldest saint of God. And it is good for everyone in between. These words cling to the soul because they speak to a great need we all feel–the need for guidance. Proverbs 3:5-6 suggests the basis on which guidance will come. It is a short course in knowing God’s will for your life. If you learn what this passage is teaching and begin to apply it to your daily life, it will make a profound difference when you need to make a tough decision.
Five Key Words
I start with the assumption that some of us have known these verses for a long time. Sometimes when we know a passage so well, we almost know it too well. We have heard it so often that we have never stopped to think about what it is really saying. Not long ago I had a chance to study these verses in depth for the first time. As I did, I discovered that five key words unlock the message of this text. Let’s take those key words one by one and see what each one teaches us.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart.” The word “trust” in Hebrew means “to lean with the full body,” “to lay upon,” “to rest the full weight upon.” In our thinking the word trust means to rely upon or to have confidence in. But the Hebrew word is stronger. It has the idea of stretching yourself out upon a bed or resting on a hard surface. The word means to put your full weight on something. To trust in the Lord is to rest your whole weight upon him–to depend on him completely.
“Lean not on your own understanding.” To “lean” means to rest upon something for partial support. Leaning is what you do when you walk with a cane or hold on to a walker because you are unsteady. This word is used for leaning against a tree or a stone cliff. You lean on something when you are not strong enough to stand alone.
“Lean not on your own understanding.” “Understanding” refers to the mental processes by which you analyze a problem, break it down into its smaller parts, and then make a decision about what you are going to do. Early in the morning when you make a list of all the things you have to do that day, you use your understanding to sort out your priorities. Or it’s what you use on Sunday night when you map out the upcoming week. That’s understanding. You use it any time you plan your life or solve a problem. Understanding is the decision-making ability that God has given you.
When you take the word “lean” and bring in the idea of “understanding,” then add the negative, the meaning is something like this: “Use all your mental powers, but do not lean on them for total support.” Don’t trust in your own ability to figure out your life. Lean instead on the Lord! Rest your weight on Him!
“In all your ways acknowledge him.” This word deserves extra consideration because the word “acknowledge” can be hard to understand. In the Hebrew this word is an imperative–a command. You could translate this by saying, “In all your ways know him.” The Hebrew word means to know deeply and intimately. It’s the kind of knowing that comes with personal experience. It means to know something through and through. For instance, somebody might say, “Do you know the President of the United States?” I would say, “Sure, I know the President.” If the President walked in the room, I would know who he is. If I heard his voice coming over the TV, I would recognize it. Or if I saw his picture on the front page of the newspaper, I would know it was the President. Now, I don’t really know him. I can’t pick up the phone and call the White House and say, “Mr. President, this is Ray Pritchard. Let’s do lunch this week.” He won’t take my call because I don’t know him personally. I just know him at the level of head knowledge. I don’t know him intimately or on a friendship level.
There is another kind of knowing. My wife and I know each other in a completely different way. We’ve known each other intimately for over thirty years. After being together that long, strange things begin to happen. I will be sitting in the car thinking about a song–and she’ll start singing it. How does that happen? I don’t know. Or I will be thinking about a question, and before I can ask it, she’ll blurt out the answer. How does she do that? I don’t know. Or I’ll start a sentence, and to my great consternation she will finish the sentence before I do. When I say, “How can you do that?” she says with a smile, “I know what you are thinking even before you say it.” Things like that happen to all married couples eventually. When you live together for many years, you get to know each other at such a deep level that you actually begin to know what the other person is thinking even as he or she is thinking it. You know what your wife is going to say before she says it. You know what your husband is going to do before he does it. You have a deep, personal, intimate knowledge of each other.
Seen in that light, we might translate verse 5 this way: “In all your ways know God intimately … deeply … personally. When you know God that way in every area of your life, he will direct your paths.”
“He will make your paths straight.” That brings me to the fifth word, which in the King James Version is translated, “He shall direct your paths.” That isn’t bad. But I think the ESV translation is a little better: “he will make straight your paths.” Imagine that you are driving along a road that appears to be impassable. The road winds through the mountains and down into the swamps. It seems to have a thousand switchbacks. As you travel on, you discover that portions of the road are washed out, others are filled with potholes, and still others are blocked by huge boulders. In some places the road apparently becomes a dead end. This is the road of your life. As you look at it, it appears to be covered with boulders and rocks. Some parts of it seem to be filled with potholes; other sections appear to be going nowhere. That’s the way life is.
Here is God’s message to you from Proverbs 3:5-6. If you will know God in every area of your life, he will take personal responsibility to make your way smooth and straight. He will remove the obstacles if they need to be removed. He will fill in the potholes if they need to be filled. He will redirect the detour so that what seemed to be a dead-end turns out to be the shortest way to reach your destination. All you have to do is trust in the Lord. Lay yourself completely on him for full support. Don’t lean for support on your own human understanding. In all your ways know God intimately. He will take the path of your life that seems to go up and down and around and sometimes seems to curve backwards, and He will make your way straight. That’s the promise of Almighty God to you.
Philip Yancey’s Definition
But it won’t always be easy or come quickly. For most of us, most of the time, the exact opposite will be true. Discovering God’s will takes times as the events of life unfold before us, often in ways that seem to make no sense at all. Rarely will we know the whole plan in advance. As I sit at my computer and ponder the course of my life over the last decade, I find it easier to recall the hard times than the good times. A very close friend died suddenly and without warning. Our youngest son went through a harrowing medical crisis seven years ago. Marlene was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2005.
But that’s only one side of the ledger. In the last decade our three boys graduated from high school. Josh graduated from college, went to China, came back to America, married Leah, and now they are teaching English in China. Mark graduated from college, spent two years in China where he met Vanessa, and they got married after coming back to the States several months ago. Nick graduated from college last May and is now pursuing his master’s degree. I am blessed with a wife of amazing gifts who still loves me after thirty-three years of marriage. After serving many years in the pastorate, we felt led of God to start Keep Believing Ministries. My health is good. Marlene got an “all-clear” at the two-year mark of her breast cancer follow-up. So what do I have to complain about? Not much at all. Ten years ago I had no clue what the next decade would hold. Looking back, I’m happy that I didn’t know anything in advance.
My favorite definition of faith comes from Philip Yancey who said, “Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” We want to know why things happen the way they do and why couldn’t things have happened some other way. It would be wrong to say that faith provides all the answers. It doesn’t. Perhaps in heaven we will fully understand, or in heaven our desire to know will be transformed by our vision of the Lord. By faith we see things that are invisible to others and by faith we believe in advance those things that right now make no sense but one day will make perfect sense because we will view them in reverse.
The world says, “Seeing is believing.” God says, “Believing is seeing.” We believe, therefore we see.
When You Need to Know, You’ll Know
I saw this principle in action when a young couple, recently graduated from college, came to see me. They had just finished the first part of a training course with a missions organization in the Chicago area. Their advisor told them they needed to talk with their pastor before making the next step. So they came to see me with the good news that God was calling them to the mission field. “Where do you want to go?” I asked. “We don’t know,” the husband replied. So I looked at the wife and she smiled in agreement. “You mean you have no idea at all?” “No idea at all.” Then I held up my hand and moved it as if I were twirling a globe. “You mean that in all the world, you don’t have even a tiny idea where you would like to go?” “No.” That does make it difficult when you are trying to raise funds because they couldn’t answer the first question: “Where do you plan to go?” I sat there silently for moment, pondering the situation. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. Suddenly I had a flash of inspiration. Looking right at that young couple, I said, “I’ve got the answer. The reason you don’t know is because you don’t need to know because if you needed to know, you would know, but since you don’t know, you must not need to know, because if you had needed to know by now, you would know by now, but since you don’t know, you must not need to know because when you need to know, you’ll know. If God is God, that must be true.” They were dazzled and speechless, and I was pretty amazed myself because all of that just came popping out at the spur of the moment. We prayed and they left my office, still smiling.
Not long after that, I happened to meet a young lady whose job as a music librarian was about to end in a few months. Our paths crossed in the sanctuary lobby between services. When I asked her what she planned to do next, she said she had no idea. So on the spur of the moment I decided to try it again. “The reason you don’t know is because you don’t need to know because if you needed to know, you would know, but since you don’t know, you must not need to know, because if you had needed to know by now, you would know by now, but since you don’t know, you must not need to know because when you need to know, you’ll know. If God is God, that must be true.” She laughed and said that sounded right. And off she went.
Several weeks later when I saw her again, she had a big smile on her face. “Pastor Ray, you won’t believe what happened. I was talking with a friend about things and my friend asked me if I had ever considered going to the mission field. I said no and she said I should think about it. But I’m a music librarian. What would I do on the mission field? But a few days later I happened to pass by a missions display and saw a representative sitting there. Normally I would just walk right by but this time I stopped to talk. When I asked if they ever needed librarians on the mission field, the man said, ‘Absolutely! We could use some librarians right now.’ So I started doing some research and on a website I discovered a Christian school in Kenya that needed a librarian starting exactly when I finish my current job. I e-mailed them, they e-mailed back, and they checked my references. And guess what, Pastor Ray? I got the job! I’m moving to Nairobi, Kenya, in late July to get started as the librarian for a Christian school.”
Not long after that, the young couple came back to see me with similar good news. “We’re going to Russia.” No kidding. Russia, that’s great. Did you know about this when you came to see me? “No, we had no idea.” So where in Russia are you going? “We’re going to the Black Sea.” That’s fantastic. What are you going to do there? “We’re going to teach in a school and help with church planting.” When I asked them how they ended up going to the Black Sea to teach and do church planting, they told me a story that was so detailed that it was positively Byzantine in its complexity. They met someone who knew someone who “happened” to know a woman whom they met almost by chance. She came over to talk to them and one thing led to another and now there were going to Russia. I couldn’t draw it on a chart if I tried. But they were so happy about it and I was happy for them. They are currently involved in their ministry near the Black Sea teaching and helping plant churches.
I am amazed as I thought about how God led that young woman and that young couple to Kenya and Russia, respectively. But on second thought, why be amazed? That’s how God works, isn’t it? When you need to know, you’ll know. Not one day sooner, not one day later. And if today you don’t know what to do next, it’s because you truly don’t need to know. Because if you needed to know, you would know. If God is God, that must be true.
That’s why the search for God’s will is so exhilarating. When God is leading the way, every obstacle will eventually be removed. The path may have many twists and turns, but in the end he will make your path straight. You have his word on it.
“Bless It All, Lord”
So many people struggle at this very point. The Bible says, in all your ways know God intimately, know him deeply, know him personally. Know him to that depth. Know him with that kind of intimacy. So often we skip this. When we get up in the morning, we say, “O God, help me. I’m busy today. I’ve got so much to do. Lord, I don’t even have time to pray–so here’s my list. Bless it all, Lord. I’ve got to go.” We throw our list up toward heaven while we run out the door. What we are saying is, “God, here’s my schedule. Please rubber-stamp it with your blessing.” And we wonder why our days are filled with frustration.
Many of us go through life leaning almost completely on our own understanding. We like to be in control. I number myself among that group. I like to know what’s going on. I like to be in charge of my own destiny. This passage is a warning to all of us who lay out life the way we want it and then say, “Here, God, stamp it with your blessing because I am going to go out and do it for you.” God says, “I don’t work that way. Know me first. Put me first in everything, including all your plans, all your thinking, and all your scheming. Put me first. And I then will make your way straight.”
Do you want to know the secret of knowing the will of God? Here it is: in everything you do, know God. But we all want a formula. “I don’t like that. Give me a formula. Give me three steps.” Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us that the secret is a relationship with God. Let’s talk about Joe, who has been dating Shirley for nine months. When he picks her up for their Friday night date, she asks the logical question: “Where are we going tonight?” “I don’t know. I want to take you someplace you like. I wish you would give me a three-step formula so I could know where you really want to go on Friday nights.” How would Shirley feel? Angry, upset, frustrated. “How is it that we’ve been dating every week for nine months and you don’t know what I like and don’t like? Where have you been all this time?” She has a right to be angry.
We want to reduce our relationship with God to a formula. God says, “Know Me. Spend time with Me. Put Me first in every area of your life because when you do that I will take care of all those details.” This is a revolutionary way of looking at life.
Minnesota or South Carolina?
We’re hung up on the decisions of life. Should I go here? Should I go there? Should I live in Minnesota? Should I live in South Carolina? Should I marry Jane or Sue or Ellen or Sherry? Should I take the job, or should I say no? Here is the teaching of this passage stated in one sentence: God is much less concerned with what you do than with what kind of person you are. So when you say, “Lord, should I go to Minnesota or should I go to South Carolina?” you are asking the wrong question. The question is not where are you going to go, but what kind of person you are going to be wherever you go. The question is not, who should I marry, but what kind of person am I going to be no matter whom I marry?
While you are wrestling with the question of relocation, God wants to know, “Are you going to be my man or my woman whether you go to Minnesota or South Carolina or whether you stay in Santa Fe?” If you decide to put God first in everything, it doesn’t matter where you live. And if you are not going to put God first in everything, it doesn’t matter where you live either. We focus all our energy on decisions. But God says, “Know me and I will take care of the details.” We want specific direction. God says, “In all your ways know me, and everything else will fall into place.”
A few years ago I heard someone say that most of our decisions won’t matter at all in 10,000 years. That blew my mind at first. What a liberating way to look at life. The next time you face a tough decision, ask yourself, will it really matter in 10,000 years? Ninety-nine percent of what you worried about this week won’t matter three weeks from now, much less 10,000 years from now. In the year 2452 it won’t matter whether you lived in Minnesota, Santa Fe, or South Carolina. But what will matter is that you have decided in all your ways to know God. That is what will really matter. All these trivial, piddly details that just soak up so much energy will in that day be seen for what they really are–trivial, piddly details.
In light of this text, what is the will of God for your life? To know God in everything. To see him present everywhere and in everything, and to live in total surrender to him. The most important thing is not the decisions you face; the most important thing is your relationship with God. And the closer you get to God, the easier it will be for God to guide you in the way he wants you to go.
“Lord, Here Are My Hands”
Knowing God means using all your energies for him.
Lord, here are my hands.
Lord, here are my lips.
Lord, here are my eyes.
Lord, here are my ears.
Lord, here are my feet.
Knowing God means taking all that you have and placing it at the disposal of the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Proverbs 3:5-6 ends with a promise: “He will make your paths straight.” God is able to remove the obstacles in front of you. He is able to fill in the potholes and turn a dead-end into a four-lane highway. God rewards those who show regard for him by leading them straight to the right end and removing all the obstacles along the way. We rarely see this in advance. We mostly see the potholes. The boulders block our view. Many times it seems as if there is no path at all. But he will make a way. No one can say how he will do it. There are thousands of ways in which God leads his children. He leads us through delays, detours, miracles, the advice of friends, unexpected opportunities, suddenly closed doors, answered prayer, unanswered prayer, inner impressions, and a still, small voice in the night.
You don’t see it on this side. On this side you see the problems. But when you know God, he leads you step by step. When the journey is done, you will look back and say, “I don’t know how I got from there to here, but I do know this: Jesus led me all the way.”
“How Did We Get Here?”
A friend of ours used those very words to describe a months-long ordeal that involved a change of jobs, a cross-country move, and a total redirection of her life. As the time drew near, the emotional stress of leaving the familiar for the unknown almost overwhelmed her. I think she would probably say that making this particular move was the single most difficult thing she has ever had to do. All along the way she was torn with inner doubts–wanting to do the right thing, but not sure if she was. When I saw her around a campfire one night there were tears in her eyes. “Are we doing the right thing? I’m not sure.” Then two weeks later she took a deep breath and moved to her new home. Just before leaving, she made an interesting comment: “How did we get here? In my heart I believe we’re doing the right thing, but looking back I’m not sure how we got from Point A to Point B. Only God could have done it because I never would have done it myself.” But she smiled when she said it.
Doing God’s will often involves great uncertainty and periods of deep doubt. But if you are willing to do what he wants you to do, he then takes responsibility to reach into the chaos of life and lead you step by step to the place where he wants you to be.
Life is a mysterious journey, full of unexpected twists and turns. The path ahead is a mystery to us all. No one can say for sure what is around the next bend. It may be a smooth road through a lovely valley or we may discover that the bridge is washed out and we have to find a way to cross a deep river. Often the road will seem to disappear or it may suddenly seem to go in three different directions and we won’t know which way to go. But there is One who knows the way because the past, present, and future are all the same to him and the darkness is as the light of day. He knows the way we should go. He promised to direct your path and he will do it. You can count on it.
When you need to know, you’ll know. If God is God, that must be true.