‘Do not depend on your own understanding’ is a phrase in the midst of two famous verses in the book of Proverbs (3:5-6). The two verses are, NIVUK, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not (do not depend) on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him (seek His will in all you do), and He will make your paths straight.’ In order to consider this phrase, first, I will say why verses 5-6 are important to me, seek to set the context they were written in, then explore what the two verses mean, and finally what the phrase in question means for us today.
Why consider them?
I have to say that these verses have been very important to me throughout my Christian walk. In fact, eight years before I became a Christian, in 1979, my mother bought me a King James Bible – it was five years before she became a Christian, and these were the two verses she wrote in the front of the Bible along with her message to me. Hence, not only are the verses important to know and obey – they are the first Scriptural bequest that God gave me – through my mother. Revelation, inspiration and sentimentality are all tied up in them, that is a heady mixture.
Proverbs 3 is advice given by ‘wisdom’ to her children, ‘my son.’ She seeks to feed her child’s mind with godly knowledge and wisdom leading to the fear of the Lord – the true source of a successful life. In order to grow in grace, the child needs to also obey, from the heart, God’s word. At the very heart of the book is 1:3, ‘the purpose of the Proverbs is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them do what is right, just and fair.’
In 3:2-4, the writer reiterates this truth that by living according to God’s wise ways – a person adds years to their lives, will live contented lives, and will have favour with God and others. Afterwards, 3:7-10, he states that we shouldn’t be impressed with our own understanding or wisdom – instead fear and honour God with everything we are and have, and turn from evil – this lifestyle will bring healing for our bodies and strength to the very foundations of our lives.
Exploring verses 5-6
In verse 5, the basis of this godly approach to life is to ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart.’ This is to trust Him as our Creator and Sustainer, God knows what is best for us. We can trust His Providence, His ability to provide what we need, to sustain us through life. We are commanded to trust God completely relying on His perspective rather than on our own. He sees the full 360 degrees – we only see that which we are focussing on. He sees every interlinked thing that is part of what we are trying to understand – we only see and understand that which we are focussed on.
No matter how careful we try to be to see the other person’s, or God’s, point of view, we will always bring our own experiences, outlook and received cultural imprints to what we are trying to understand. We see in part – He sees completely and in whole. We know in part – He is all-knowing, omniscient. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on our own understanding – is a couplet – connected with verse 6.
Verse 6 has traditionally been translated, NKJV, ‘in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.’ A better rendering of the verse is, ‘He will make your paths straight or level.’ In Hebrew thought the writer is saying more than simply that if you trust, obey, and do not lean on yourself – then God will guide your every decision – set out a clear road well signposted for you to follow. No, Yahweh does not remove human responsibility, nor the stretch of faith as we try to work out the best course for life.
He very rarely makes each decision clear and easy to make. He will not hold the steering wheel of your life. No, in Hebrew thought, by trusting and not relying on yourself, by seeking His guidance – then He will make your way successful in the end. The amazing thing is that God entrusts the steering wheel for our lives to us.
He is saying that the only way to be successful is to walk in fellowship with Him. Thus, ‘do not rely on your own understanding.’ Jeremiah 10:23-24a is worth referring to here: ‘I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own. We are not able to plan our own course. So correct me, Lord, but please be gentle…’ When we lean on ourselves – we are leaning on a finite, vulnerable and weak foundation. We do not know the best course for our own lives. Trusting in and following God aligns us with a better way to live.
Interpreting them for us today
We must have no other trust, no other confidence than in the Lord. If we put our confidence in ourselves, another person or thing in the place of God, then we are unwise and foolish. If we lean on anyone or thing other than God, any other truth than God’s truth, then our paths become unsuccessful in His eyes, and ultimately for ourselves.
Trust in God is always first; Jesus said, ‘no-one can come to the Father except through Me.’ Charles Bridges wrote, ‘Human power is man or woman’s idol.’ People are conditioned and taught in our Western setting to trust in Education, in Science, in ourselves, in humanity’s power to know best and to improve itself. Christ says, trust in Me, follow Me for I have overcome the power of sin and will lead you in a life that pleases God and is good for your souls.
The great problem is that humanity cannot deal with the biggest issue it faces – our own sinfulness. Education, science, our own abilities, and Humanistic hope all fall short when confronted by the power and hold of sin. When the writer says, ‘don’t lean on your own understanding,’ he is confronting that deep seated human condition to turn to oneself before turning to God. We try to work things out, to apply our own wisdom, reply on our experience, listen to other people we think are wise, we look up to, or think who know better than we do.
Seeking to apply the truth in this phrase has been a constant battle throughout my Christian life. These verses are not saying that we should set aside our minds and experience, to not reason and evaluate using the facets of mind, intelligence and learning that we possess. Searching for and evaluating trying to discern the best option is godly wisdom applied – when God and His word are at the heart of our search.
I enjoy the discovery of new concepts, learning new facts, reading about history, seeking to develop my own capacities, using the mental and physical capacities I have to move forward. In fact, it is really good to set out and explore all the options seeking the best way forward. The danger is that I seek to problem solve with my own understanding alone, to fix issues that need addressed without God’s perspective, to work out the best option without praying over it.
These verses remind me what always must come first – trust in the Lord and do not depend, rely or lean on my own understanding. My trust is only truly developed in God as I gain His perspective through Scripture, prayer and godly dialogue with others. May God richly bless us as we seek His face, trusting in His Sovereignty and Providence – even through the times of doubt, and His promise to us is that our way will be successful.