Tim Keller on “THE WOUNDED SPIRIT” – Proverbs Series
SERIES: Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living
Preached in Manhattan, N.Y. on December 5, 2004
Book of Proverbs
25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.
12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
10 Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.
13 Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.
30 A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.
4 The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.
13 A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. 14 The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly.
2 All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.
14 A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?
1 The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.
We’re looking at the book of Proverbs every week, and we continue to do that. We’re looking at the subject of wisdom. We’ve said wisdom is competence with regard to the complex realities of life. It means being not less than moral and good, but more. For example, if you want to help a poor family out of poverty, that’s wonderful. That’s right. That’s good. It’s moral.
If you’re a simpleminded conservative and you think poverty is completely the result of lack of personal responsibility or if you’re a simpleminded liberal and you think poverty is completely the result of unjust social structures … In other words, if you’re reductionistic, if you’re simplistic, if you’re not savvy about the complex realities of poverty, though you mean well and you’re being moral and right and good, you can ruin that poor family’s life.
Tonight what we want to do is talk about wisdom with regard to the complex realities of the inner being, the inner life, or what we would today call the psychological life, which is, as we’re going to see in a moment, a modern category that’s actually itself too reductionistic. Nevertheless, what are we talking about?
We all at certain times just have a lot of trouble understanding and dealing with the very deep, conflicting, confusing, powerful, sometimes warring dynamic impulses and feelings that just roll through our hearts, roll through ourselves. Sometimes we don’t feel we have any power over it. We feel helpless, and we don’t know how we got to feeling like that. We know there’s something deeply wrong with it. We don’t know what to do about it.
Tonight maybe we’ll get some wisdom because we’re taking a look at what the book of Proverbs says about this subject, and I’d like to look at the passage under four headings. Let’s see what we learn from these collected proverbs. You’re not going to be wise unless you understand the priority of the inner life, the complexity of the inner life, the solitude of the inner life, and the healing of the inner life.
1. The priority of the inner life
Take a look at the second from the last proverb in the list, and we’ll learn something about the priority of the inner life. “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”What does the word spirit mean? In the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Old Testament, the word spirit is actually literally the word for wind.
Whenever the word wind, ruwach, is used in the Old Testament it has to do with force, with power, with energy. When it refers to your inside, the human inner being, the human spirit is roughly analogous to what we would call today emotional energy, passion for life, that which propels us out into life, makes us want life, makes us want to take it on, navigate, deal with it.
What’s a crushed spirit? A crushed spirit then is to look out at life and to have no desire for it, have little or no joy in it, have no passion to get out there and deal with it. Of course, there are degrees of a crushed spirit. It can be anywhere from listlessness and restlessness to discouragement to despondency to being very, very cast down and to losing all desire to live.
What is this proverb saying? Look at it again, and here’s what it’s saying. There is nothing more important than maintaining your inner being. When it says, “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” here’s what it’s saying. “A broken body can be sustained with difficulty by a strong spirit, but a crushed or broken spirit can never be sustained or carried by the strongest body of all.”
In other words, this proverb is getting at something actually the whole Bible gets at. We human beings are obsessed with the idea that our happiness is determined by our external circumstances, that our happiness is completely determined by whether our body is healthy or whether our body looks good, whether we have money, whether people are treating us right, whether things are going well out there. That’s what makes us happy, or that’s what makes us unhappy.
The Bible actually says, “No, it has nothing to do with your circumstances. Happiness is determined by how you deal with your circumstances from inside, how you process, how you address, how you view them.” That’s the reason why Paul’s prayers for the churches he’s writing in the New Testament letters are amazing.
When you consider when he’s writing all these churches, he’s writing churches that were in great difficulty and straits. He’s writing churches that were persecuted. He’s writing churches where civil magistrates had broken in and pulled off some of the Christian families to jail. Yet whenever he says, “I’m praying this for you” or “I’m praying this for you,” he never mentions things like that.
He never says, “I’m praying that civil magistrate won’t come and take any more of you off to jail.” He doesn’t pray for protection. He doesn’t pray against suffering. What does he pray for? He prays this sort of thing. Here’s Ephesians 3. He says, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being …”
Do you know what he’s saying? “If your life is all broken, all things are wrong, and your spirit is strong and powerful, you move out into the world in strength, but if everything about your life is going fine, just all the circumstances are doing fine but your spirit is crushed, you move out into the world in weakness.”
Do you believe that? Do you understand the priority of that? The Bible says, Proverbs says, if you don’t, you’re a fool. I’ll put it another way. Are you far, far, far more concerned to deposit grace in your spirit than you are to deposit money in your bank account? If you’re not, you’re a fool.
2. The complexity of the inner life
After having said what we just said, it’s natural to ask a question like, “All right. So what do you do to keep your inner being from deteriorating? What goes wrong with a spirit? What causes a crushed spirit? Why do our emotions and our feelings seem to get out of control? Why do we get so downcast sometimes? Why do we lose all passion for life? Why do we struggle so much? What is our problem?”
Do you know what the biblical answer is? It’s complicated. I want to show you this for the next couple of minutes. In fact, the Bible’s understanding of human nature, understanding of what goes wrong inside is more nuanced, more multifaceted, more multidimensional, more complex than any other answer I know of, any other counseling model, any book on despondency or what’s wrong or how to have emotional health or how to have a happy life.
You read them all, and compared to the Bible they are one-dimensional. They are reductionistic. They boil everything down. They’re too simpleminded. They’re too simplistic. They’re not savvy. They’re not wise. The Bible gives you the most fully nuanced, the most complex assessment of what can go wrong and lead to despondency and lead to a crushed spirit. Let’s take a look at five of them. They’re right in here.
A. A crushed spirit may have a physical aspect. I know that sounds very weird. For example, let’s take a look at 14:30. “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.”The word passion means literally a hot feeling. That word can refer to anger or bitterness or envy or fear or something like that. What it’s giving us here is a very nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the relationship of the body to the emotions.
Emotional unhealth leads to physical unhealth in all kinds of ways, disintegration, deterioration, but what’s the implication? The implication, of course, is since the body and the emotions are united, then bodily weakness can lead to emotional unhealth. If you’re weary, if you’re not eating right, if you have chemical imbalances, there’s a physical aspect to being crushed in spirit. There can be. There often is.
You say, “How could that be?” For example, I had a thyroid problem a couple of years ago. Of course, the problem is gone, as well as the thyroid. That’s why it’s gone. One of the things I learned about is what happens when you don’t have the thyroid hormone or you don’t have enough of it. Oh my word! Even though I didn’t experience anything like this, here’s something I can just tell you the truth of.
If you don’t have enough thyroid hormone in your body, you’re going to eventually want to kill yourself. You say, “Of course, that’s all in your head.” Of course, it’s all in your head! The crushed spirit is in your head, but the point is if you lose all desire to even live because of something wrong with your body, you have a crushed spirit. It doesn’t matter what the cause is, and one of the causes can be the physical.
B. A crushed spirit may have an emotional, relational aspect. Look at the very first proverb on the list. “An anxious heart weighs a man down …” That’s synonymous with a crushed spirit. It’s talking about literally sinking. “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Don’t trivialize it. In English it comes across a little bit trivial-sounding.
What is it saying you need sometimes? What do you need? You need an outside word of love, of kindness. You need support. Sometimes you don’t need medicine. Sometimes you don’t need therapy. You don’t need an answer. You don’t need complicated reflection. You need love sometimes, because we have an emotional, relational nature. You just need arms around you. You need a shoulder. You need intimacy. You need support.
C. A crushed spirit may have a moral aspect. Take a look at the last of the proverbs in the list. “The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” What’s that talking about? It’s a quote from Leviticus 26, where God says, “If you disobey me, you will flee though no one pursues.”
My word, look how nuanced this is. It’s talking about conscience. It’s talking about guilt. It’s talking about what can go wrong inside, in your spirit, in your emotions, what can go wrong inside if you know you’re not living right, if you know you’re not living up to standards, if you feel guilt, if you feel shame, if you feel like a failure in any way.
Look how nuanced it is. It doesn’t say you flee when someone pursues; you flee when no one pursues. Guilt just generalizes a sense there’s something wrong with you, so you not only feel guilty for some things you ought to feel guilty for, but you also can’t help then feeling guilty for all kinds of things you shouldn’t feel guilty for.
Someone criticizes you, and you feel assaulted, attacked. It’s a bad conscience. You make a little failure, and you feel like a total failure. It’s a bad conscience. There’s a moral aspect. There’s a conscience aspect. That’s not all. Do you realize how wrong it would be if you treat a crushed spirit that’s basically a physical problem as a moral problem?
D. A crushed spirit may have an existential aspect. Go to the fourth proverb down. “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” When you first read that, do you know what you’re automatically doing? You say, “Oh, I think I know what that’s talking about,” and you’re relativizing it.
You’re saying, “Sometimes some people are laughing and they’re having fun, but down deep they’re still sad. They’re putting on a happy face. They’re trying to forget their troubles. Though they are laughing, down deep they’re sad. Though they’re trying to be happy, in the end they’re still grieving.”
It doesn’t say, “Some people in laughter the heart is sad,” does it? It’s an absolute statement. What amazed me was every single Hebrew commentator, every Hebrew scholar, I looked at about this verse says we mustn’t relativize it. We must realize what a profound thing it’s saying. This is true of everybody. Why?
Do you not realize there’s an existential angst that comes down deep from under …? Everybody knows all parties eventually are going to be over. All joy really does end in grief. You say, “What are you talking about?” Let me just give you some examples. Here’s the happy family, sitting around the dining room table. The simple reality is one of those people is eventually going to see every other member dead.
Death ends everything. Everything your heart wants out of life eventually will be taken away from you. If you don’t die a tragic young death, eventually your health will be taken away from you. Your loved ones will be taken away from you. Everything will be taken away from you. It’ll all be gone.
Some of you are saying, “Gee, I’m so glad I came tonight. This is a wonderful … I guess that’s right. I guess that’s true, but do you have to tell me about it? Do we have to think about it?” Guess what? Try not to think about it. This is saying down deep you know about it. There is a ground note of sadness you cannot overcome.
New York is filled with people who say, “Well, I don’t believe I was created. I believe I’m here by accident, and I believe when you’re dead, that’s it. You rot. That’s it. You’re gone. I understand that, but the point is have fun while you’re here.” Wait a minute. If your origin is insignificant and your destiny is insignificant, which means someday nobody will even remember anything you ever did, have the guts to admit your life is insignificant.
What that means is unless you have some way of dealing philosophically with this, unless you have some way of ascribing meaning to the daily things you do, which is really pretty hard, you’re going to have this ground note of sadness that underneath all your laughter you’re going to be sad, because you know all joy eventually ends in grief. I’m not exaggerating. Do you see what’s happening now? This is a philosophical problem, and a lot of people have it.
In fact, we all have it until somebody helps us deal with death. If you’re not able to deal with the idea of death, if you’re not able to overcome your fear of it, if you’re not able to find some way in light of death you can ascribe meaning to the things you’re doing now, today, do you see there’s a medical possibility for a crushed spirit?
There’s an emotional, a relational, a moral, an existential, a philosophical … Do you see, by the way, doctors don’t want to think about philosophy, and friends don’t want to think about medicine? They just want to love you. Do you know what Christians do? We turn everything into moral.
We say, “Oh, you’re downcast? You’re down? Well, have you claimed all the promises? Have you confessed all known sin? Are you having your quiet time? Are you praying? Are you thanking God? Are you doing everything right?” Check, check, check, check. Checklists. We turn everything into a moral issue. We’re reductionistic.
Of course, the people who are into self-esteem, what do they say? “It’s all emotional and relational.” Of course, the people who think we’re just a body, what do they say? “It’s all the physical.” That’s not all. There’s a physical aspect, but not only a physical aspect. There’s an emotional aspect. There is a moral aspect. There’s an existential aspect.
E. A crushed spirit may have a faith aspect. Here’s what I mean. Look at 15:13. “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.”A lot of people would say, “Wait a minute. I thought the heart and the spirit are pretty much the same thing.” In English heart means emotions versus head which means the reason. That’s why we would say, “Wouldn’t the spirit, which seems to be emotional passion, and the heart be the same thing?”
No, in the Bible the heart means something quite a bit more than that. The heart is your core commitments, the things you most fundamentally trust, the things you most fundamentally love, the things you’re most fundamentally living for, the things you most fundamentally hope in. That’s why the second proverb that we’ll get back to in a minute says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” That word longing means a desire from the depths of your personality.
When your heart has been set on something … It has to be set on something. You have to set your heart on something as your ultimate hope, your ultimate trust, the thing you’re looking for to really make yourself happy, really make yourself feel significant, the thing you say, “If I have that, then my life means something, then I know I’m somebody, then I know I’m all right.”
You have to put your heart on something because that’s the kind of beings we are. This is telling you if you put your heart on something in the most fundamental way and any problem happens to it, anything threatens it in any way, it’s deferred. You won’t even want to live. You’ll be crushed in spirit.
For example, if you’re dating somebody and you’re starting to really love them and then they break up with you, you break up, that’s going to create great sorrow, but if romance, having somebody love you, is the ultimate hope of your life, if you really do believe down deep what the Righteous Brothers said years ago, “Without you, baby, what good am I?” There’s another one. “You’re nobody till somebody loves you …”
Listen, if you really look at somebody else and say, “You’re my fundamental hope. You’re the thing that really makes me know I’m okay,” and you break up with that person, you won’t even want to live. Heartache creates a crushed spirit. A bad conscience creates a crushed spirit. Existential angst creates a crushed spirit.
Look at this. Go into Barnes and Noble, and you’ll never find a book that will tell you how complicated you really are. Every book on emotional health, every book on counseling, every book is going to reduce you. It’s going to simplify you, because some people think you’re basically a body. “That’s basically what you are.” They don’t believe in a soul, “So let’s deal with it physically.”
Some people are going to say, “You’re really your emotions. Your deepest feelings are the real you, not your conscience, not your beliefs, your emotions. We just have to nonjudgmentally support people to just follow their feelings.” You’re not just a body. You’re not just your emotions. You’re not just your conscience. You’re not just a will. You’re not just your thinking.
Of course, you have object relations, then you have cognitive therapy, you have psychoanalysis, and every one of them does something the Bible won’t do, because you are not mainly a body or mainly your emotions or mainly your conscience or mainly any of these things. You are a man or a woman in the image of God, and God’s image is stamped on absolutely every aspect of your being.
Unless you’re living with every aspect of your being before God, you are going to have despondency. You are going to have out-of-control emotions. You’re going to have despair. You’re going to have a crushed spirit you will not be able to remedy. You’ll get the books, and you’ll go and listen to people who tell you the way to emotional health. They’ll always be too simple. They’ll always be foolish.
When I read the books compared to the Bible, I want to look at those books, and I want to say what Hamlet said to his friend Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
3. The solitude of the inner life
If you take a look at the third proverb in the list, it’s a very interesting proverb. “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” What in the world does that mean? You say, “Well, I have friends. They can share my joy. I have people who understand me.”
Do you know what this is saying? Again, don’t relativize this. Here’s what this is saying. Your insides, the movements and motions of your heart, are so complex, they’re so inward, and they’re so hidden there’s an irreducible, unavoidable solitude about human existence. Nobody will ever completely understand you.
Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to do the same thing to you you’re doing to them. You’re going to think you understand them. You’re going to put them in a category and say, “It’s just like what happened to me” or “It’s just like what happened to so-and-so.” No, this is saying you are so unique and you are so hidden and you’re so inward nobody in the end, in the final analysis, will ever really understand you.
You’re going to have to basically go through life alone. Nobody can completely … Even the people closest to you very often just will not understand you. You can sense that, and it’s horribly disappointing. This is saying get over that. Don’t be shocked at being misunderstood, especially in light of the fact … Look at the third proverb from the bottom. It says, “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD.” Do you know what that’s saying?
You don’t even understand yourself. You have absolutely no idea what’s all down there. You have a better idea than anybody else, but nothing compared to what God can see. You are alone. There is no human being who can walk with you everywhere you go. There is no human being who can help you interpret really everything you’re going through. Do you know what this means? Here’s what it means. Listen carefully.
If God is only somebody you believe in, if he’s an abstraction or maybe he’s somebody you don’t believe in at all, but if God is not a friend, if God isn’t someone you know personally, if God isn’t someone you have a personal relationship with, if you don’t have sometimes a sense of God really with you, putting his love and his truth palpably on your heart, if you don’t have an intimate, personal relationship with God, you are utterly alone in the world. You are absolutely alone in the world, and human beings can’t live in that kind of isolation. They cannot.
He’s the only one who can walk with you through every dark valley. He’s the only one who can understand. He’s the only one. If you don’t have him … It’s not good enough to be good or moral or even to believe in God in some general way. If you don’t have him as a personal friend, if you don’t have an intimate, personal relationship, a sense of real dealing with him, you are utterly alone.
4. The healing of a crushed spirit in the inner life
What happens then? If you have a crushed spirit, what do you do? Do you see? I’ve actually set up (on purpose) how hard it is to heal a crushed spirit, and here’s the reason why. We just said we need a kind word from outside. We can’t heal ourselves. We need someone from outside to come in with love. Yet we also just said nobody really understand you.
We said we have a conscience. Years and years and years of therapy … You can go to therapy for 30 or 40 years. I know people who have. Some of you have and have been told almost every week, “Stop feeling guilty about everything. Don’t let them put that guilt trip on you. You don’t have to feel guilty. Don’t feel guilty.”
Guess what? You still do after 30 or 40 years, because even when no one is pursuing, you flee. There is something indelible about a sense that, “I’m just not right. I’m not living up. I’m not doing what I ought to do.” What are you going to do about that? What are you going to do about existential angst in the face of death, and how in the world are you going to stop your heart from putting its ultimate trust and ultimate hope in things you can lose?
Here’s the answer. The secret is the Tree of Life. What do I mean by the secret being the Tree of Life? The Tree of Life, which is mentioned twice here, actually three times in Proverbs, is an interesting reference because the Bible talks about the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Bible talks about the Tree of Life in Revelation, but there’s nowhere else in all of the Bible where it’s discussed except in the book of Proverbs.
Through wisdom, the book of Proverbs says, you can actually get a taste of it. If you go back to Genesis, the Tree of Life was in the middle of the garden of Eden, Paradise. What does the Tree of Life mean? What does it represent? It represents, not just eternal life being endless; it represents fullness of life, absolute satiation of the deepest desires.
You have creative desires to accomplish things. You have aesthetic desires for beauty. You have romantic and relational desires for love. You have epistemic desires for knowledge. The Tree of Life represents absolute satiation a million times over, a million times magnified, of the greatest amount you could think you could want. That’s the Tree of Life, but the book of Genesis also tells us we lost it.
The end of Genesis 3, says there is a flaming sword that turns and sweeps back and forth keeping us from the Tree of Life, because when we turned to be our own masters, to be our saviors, to be our own lords, when we decided we want to be in charge of our own lives, we lost the Tree of Life. What does that mean? Here’s what it means. What is this saying here? Look at the second proverb. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”
It would be possible to read this as just saying, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick. Okay, when you really have your heart set on something, it’s a disappointment,” but it’s talking about something different. What it’s really saying is the things we put our hearts on to fulfill our deepest longings will never fulfill them because what we’re really looking for in everything we do is the Tree of Life.
In other words, when you get into your career and you get so excited about the new career, when you get a new boyfriend or girlfriend, when you get into a new relationship, when you go on a vacation, when you travel to some place you’ve never been, there’s always something. It promises something it can never actually deliver. Why? One commentator says this Tree of Life image in the Bible is not simply referring to eternal life.
One Hebrew commentator puts it like in the Bible the Tree of Life is an image of immortal, eternal life, but also it’s an image of irretrievable loss. It’s an image of cosmic nostalgia, a longing for something we remember yet we’ve never had. In all of the music you go to to kind of give yourself a high, you’re actually looking for a song you remember but you have never heard.
What you’re looking for in love is you’re looking for arms you remember but you never really had. That’s what the Bible is saying; that’s what the Tree of Life is. Unless you understand what you’re looking for in everything you’re looking for is the Tree of Life, you’re not going to be wise.
Of course, there’s nobody who has put it like Lewis, who says, “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. […]
The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.”
In another place Lewis writes, “… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” Once you get a little older … Some of you look like you have a ways to go. Some of you look like you don’t. You start to realize every single thing you looked for to give you a sort of satisfaction it never really delivers, and there are several things you can start doing.
One is you can be really stupid and say, “I need a new city. I need a new job. I need a new wife. I need a new husband. I need a new lover. I need a new place to go,” and you’re just constantly changing all the time. You could just get mad at yourself and blame it on yourself. “You’re a failure. It’s something wrong with you.” You could just get cynical and say, “You shouldn’t expect anything out of life.” In every case you’re going to have a crushed spirit or at least an atrophied spirit.
What’s the solution? Do you know the New Testament continually says Jesus died on a tree? “Yeah, in the book of Acts and 1 Peter 2 and Galatians 3. They hung him on a tree. He was nailed to a tree. He died on a tree.” Have you ever wondered about that? Have you said, “That’s kind of an exaggeration. It was a cross. Obviously, there was a big trunk, but it wasn’t really a tree, was it? Why do they say a tree?” Oh, it’s so significant, and I’ll tell you why.
In the garden of Eden, God comes to Adam and Eve and says, “Obey me about the tree. Don’t eat it, and you will live.” They didn’t. Centuries later, Jesus comes into a garden, the garden of Gethsemane. God comes to Jesus and says, “Obey me about the tree.” He did, but look at the difference.
To the first Adam God said, “Obey me about the tree, and you will live,” but to the second Adam God says, “If you obey me and go to the tree and go to the cross and do what I’m asking you to do, you will be crushed, crushed in spirit, crushed in body, crushed eternally,” and he did it. In Psalm 22, which he quotes from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” there’s a place in verse 14 where it says, “My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.”
There is a crushed spirit. Jesus lost his ultimate hope. He put all of his hope in his Father, and the only person in the history of the world who put his ultimate hope in his Father, the Father, lost the Father eternally on the cross. He was crushed in spirit. He was infinitely crushed. He went through all that agony. Why? For us, to pay the penalty.
George Herbert, the great poet, puts it perfectly, sums up the whole Bible in one stanza in that great poem “The Sacrifice,” in which he depicts Jesus speaking from the cross, and there’s that one stanza where Jesus says …
O all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me …
The cross was a tree of death, but because he climbed the tree of death, we have the Tree of Life. Actually, he turned the tree of death … The cross was a tree of death to him; therefore, it was a tree of life for all of us. To the degree you let that melt your heart, to the degree you see what he did for you, to the degree you rejoice in that, to the degree you orient your heart toward that and it just melts you at the thought of that love, to that degree you will experience what Tolkien calls, “… Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
There is a joy. It’s the foretaste to the Tree of Life. That’s the gospel. When you take the gospel and you start to use it on your spirit, that’s what you finally need. That’s the ultimate kind word. It’s the ultimate good word. We just said, “Do you need to get rid of your isolation? Do you need emotional connection and yet nobody understands you?” The only eyes in the universe who can see you to the bottom love you to the skies. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your relational aspect. Use that on your conscience. This last verse I was looking at a minute ago …
Howell Harris, I think it was, was an old Welsh preacher 200 years ago. When he was a young man, he wasn’t a Christian yet. He was like 14 or 15. His aunt was dying, and the family was all gathered around her. Back in those days they were waiting for her to die, and it looked like she was dead.
They said, “I think she’s gone. Poor Aunt So-and-So.” She opened her eyes, she looked up, and she said, “Who calls me poor? I am rich, and I will stand before him as bold as a lion.” Then she died. It had a big impact on Howell Harris, who later on wrote a hymn, I think, that went like …
What though the’ accuser roar
Of ills that I have done!
I know them well, and thousands more;
Jehovah findeth none.
Come on. He took the tree of death so you could have the Tree of Life. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your conscience. Use that on your existential angst. That’ll get rid of your fear of death. Most of all, use it on the hope of your heart. Love the people you love and love the things you love, but through them realize the ultimate song, the ultimate beauty, the ultimate arms, the ultimate Tree of Life you’re going to have.
Am I saying to you, “Okay, you really don’t need people now. You just need God. You just need to take this tape home, take this CD home, and listen to it. ‘Just me and God and my Bible, and I’ll be able to overcome all my depression’ ”? No, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s way too simplistic.
Besides that, do you know how hard it is to get the gospel deep down inside every aspect of your being? Do you realize how long it takes? Do you realize how almost always you need somebody to tell it to you over and over and over again? You need friends. You need counselors.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it something like, “It is possible that a person may by God’s grace break through to certainty, new life, the cross, and fellowship without the benefit of confessing to a brother or sister. It is possible a person may never know what it is to doubt his own forgiveness in Christ.
Most of us cannot make that assertion. When the confession of sin, when opening up the heart, is made in the presence of a Christian brother or sister, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders. He gives his heart to God and finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus and his brother.
The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin, and as the open confession of my heart to a brother or sister ensures against self-deception, so too the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother or sister in the name of God.”
Put your hope in him. Take hold of the gospel. Work it into one another’s lives, not just into your own life, and you will know power in your inmost being. Let us pray.
Father, we ask that you would help us now, as we come to your Table, to really taste the Tree of Life. We know the sacrament can be a foretaste of that, and we pray that you would nourish us and feed us in our hearts through our faith in you. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
ABOUT THE PREACHER
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:
Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).
Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).
Judges For You(God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).
Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice:How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross:The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.
Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.
Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.