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Shrivelled Shrubs or Towering Trees?

A frequent topic of conversation I have with my teenage children is the unreliability of emotions as a guide in life. Maybe I wasn’t as different as I imagine at that age. In the contemporary world, however, the pressure to “follow our heart’s desires,” and be “true to our inner selves” seems greater than I can remember.

My children need deep roots if they are to be resilient through a lifetime of challenges. My wife and I can help provide those roots with a stable family life, but that is not the place of ultimate stability. For that, my children need a father far greater than me. Or should I write Father?

These thoughts weren’t far from my mind recently as I joined our Living Leadership staff meeting. My colleague, Jess Coles, led our opening devotions by reading from Jeremiah 17, where the LORD presents his people with two contrasting images (verses 5 to 8):

“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.”

This contrast between two ways to live – a cursed way leading to death and a way of blessing and life – is a familiar motif throughout the Bible. It struck me afresh as I related it to my parental conversations. The key question these verses confront us with is, “Who are you trusting in?”

At Living Leadership, we use the word “Refresh” to describe our ministries that support leaders and their spouses to serve in God’s grace. The word resonates with this passage. We want to see leaders who are like trees with deep roots, drawing deeply from the water of God’s grace and bearing fruit for his glory. But we know that leaders are often more like wizened shrubs in a parched place. At Living Leadership, we’re convinced that’s often because leaders aren’t adequately cared for or well-nourished spiritually. It’s our motivation for providing opportunities for leaders to be fed, prayed for and mentored. We also provide churches and organisations with resources to help them fulfil their responsibility to care for their leaders.

Take another look at these words in Jeremiah. When you look at them closely, they seem to speak of a deeper reason why we may be dry: it’s because we aren’t trusting in the Lord, but in human beings. That could mean trusting in other people, of course, but it’s more likely in our “me culture” that we’re trusting in ourselves. I can do ministry from my own wisdom, thinking I have the ability or strength to do it, rather than realising my need for God’s wisdom and a recognition that all my abilities and energy are gifts from him. Ultimately, when I allow the flesh to lead me, I end up giving in to its hunger for recognition and praise. When I do that, I lose my connection with the Spirit of God, and I become dry. Then I wonder why I don’t see any good come! Why do others seem to see so little of the glory of God in my ministry? The simple answer is that I won’t see lasting fruit because I’ve lost my connection with the source of life. To use Jesus’ metaphor in John 15, I’ve lost connection with the vine.

Tragically, as I drift into this shrivelled state, I’m able to convince myself that all is well by telling myself that my motives are still pure. How do I manage this? Jeremiah 15.9 is very clear. It says:

The heart is deceitful above all things,

and desperately sick;

who can understand it?

This famous verse exposes just how dangerous the modern confidence in the inner self really is. I am prone to self-deception. I do not truly understand my own heart, and my sinful nature is expert at finding a million ways to justify actions that are self-interested. In addition, I could win an Olympic medal at blaming others. I would prefer to blame others for my lack of fruitfulness - in fact, I will cast around to blame anyone or anything rather than confess my own lack of connection with the Lord.

This topic – the deceitful heart - relates to a podcast series we released over the past few weeks, entitled Ministry Motivations. In those episodes, I explore some key New Testament passages about motives in ministry. One of my points is that our motives will usually (if not always) be mixed. We need to recognise that fact. Even in our best moments of pure devotion to the Lord, there will usually be some element of selfishness. Awareness of mixed motives and the complex feelings of my heart can lead me to despair. The evil one will try to paralyse me, whispering, “If you are so mixed up, how can you serve God?”

It all sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? I want to trust in God, not flesh, but I know my heart is always divided and I don’t trust my own judgement. What a miserable man I am! But Jeremiah 17 continues to give me hope. In verse 10, God responds to Jeremiah’s question, “Who can understand [the heart]?”:

“I the Lord search the heart

and test the mind,

to give every man according to his ways,

according to the fruit of his deeds.”

I can’t understand my own heart, but there is One who can. Nothing is hidden from him. And because he has spoken his Word to us and given us his Spirit, we can learn from him to test our own hearts. As the writer of Hebrews says, “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4.12). As I read and meditate upon the Scriptures and allow the Holy Spirit to convict and teach me, I can learn to put the flesh to death and follow his leading. He can continue his work of writing the law of God on my heart as Jeremiah’s wonderful prophecy of the new covenant foretold (Jeremiah 31.33; see 2 Corinthians 3.3).

So, in those moments when I feel paralysed by my impure heart, I can pray the words Jeremiah said shortly after God assured him that he searches the heart (Jeremiah 17.14):

Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed;

save me, and I shall be saved,

for you are my praise.

Here is our hope. God, who knows our desperately wicked hearts, can save and heal us. He can nurture within us clean hearts. He can lead us in his service.

So, let me ask you today, “Who are you trusting in?” Yourself or God?

Will you follow the flesh or the Spirit?

Will you live by your desires or by the will of God?

Will your guide be your reasoning or his Word?

Will you be a scraggly shrub in a desert place or a fruitful tree by the river of grace?

Let the Lord expose your heart. That may be painful, but he cuts deep in order to remove the cancer of self-service and to implant in you a new heart – a heart that trusts in the Lord alone.


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