Apply your heart to instruction

Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.

Proverbs 23:12

Sometimes I find myself wondering if I genuinely make a difference in my work. I teach History in a prep school and sometimes I do question if the lessons a teach have a profound, lasting impact on the children I teach. That has particularly been the case today as I tried to work through the intricacies of the Wars of the Roses with Year 7. But then I remember that History is a vital subject that plays a central role in the education of all young people. We learn about people, who they were, and why they acted the way they did. We learn about the world, how we got to where we are. We learn vicariously what it means to be human. We also learn how to write, how to frame arguments, how to research, how to… Well, you get the idea!

The truth is, though, that actually it is hard to measure quite what impact a school-based education has on a typical person. Education is life-changing. Education is world-changing. But the same education will affect different people in different ways. Some people will be profoundly impacted by their school days, others less so.

Solomon, the writer of the Proverbs, clearly understood this. He recognised the importance of knowledge (he did, after all, ask God for wisdom). But he knew that knowledge in and of itself is only part of the equation. This is the message he seeks to convey in the proverb above. He commands his pupil to “apply your heart to instruction.” Solomon knows that it is not enough simply to have knowledge in one’s head. The truly wise person will allow teaching to percolate through their head and into their heart. Once teaching lodges in the heart, it will change a person deeply and profoundly. Teaching in the heart will shape a person’s actions as well as their thoughts. It is when knowledge transcends the brain and enters the heart that it can truly impact a life, and through that life, the world.

How does one acquire this life-changing, world-changing knowledge? In the second part of the proverb, Solomon tells his pupil to apply his ears to words of knowledge. Knowledge isn’t received intravenously. It requires an action on the part of the recipient, namely listening. Listening seems to be something that we find rather difficult these days; we’re so keen to get our own voice heard, our own viewpoint across that we can sometimes forget to listen. Knowing what to listen to can also be challenging. With dozens of television channels, a similarly large number of radio stations, and an increasingly large number of digital media outlets, there is just so much choice. Not only do we need to listen, but we also need to be selective in terms of what and who we listen to.

This proverb, though short, gives us much to think about as we strive to follow Christ. We need to seek out good quality sources of Christian teaching, and we need to listen carefully to those with a gift for explaining scripture. Our churches play a key role here, and we need to ensure that we are settling in churches that strive to teach God’s word diligently and effectively. We also need to ensure that the teaching we receive does not simply slosh around in our heads but reaches our hearts. We need to allow God’s word to transform our lives as we seek to mould our lives to more closely resemble our saviour, Jesus Christ.

Trusting God v. Self Reliance

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

Trust. It’s easy to say that we trust someone, but do we really? One of my teachers had an interesting test to see if his pupils really trusted him. He’d blindfold one of us, and stand us right on the edge of his desk. When he gave a signal, the person on the desk had to lean back, and just allow himself to fall off the edge. The teacher would then catch the victim before he hit the floor. Some people trusted our teacher enough to just relax into the fall, whilst others, who were a little bit wary about trusting a grey-haired, eccentric RE teacher, would start to fall, and then when they felt themselves going, would try to grab at something, anything, to stop themselves falling.

It can be really hard to trust people. We’ve all been hurt by someone at some stage in our lives, and after we have, it can be really hard to trust people again, particularly if we were betrayed or let down by someone close to us. It can also be very hard to put our complete trust in God, who, after all, we cannot see, and whom we find it difficult to understand. Some people say that they have complete trust in God, and whilst many probably have, I’m sure there are a lot who struggle with this. I think I’m one of them. Trusting in God can be a very, very hard thing to do.

That is just what we are called to do in this proverb, though. We are told to trust in God with all our heart. Not a little bit. Not half-heartedly. Not when it is easy to do so. We are called to trust in God completely and utterly.

Solomon, the writer of Proverbs, does not leave it at this, though. He knows exactly how people work. He knows that we are comfortable living in our own little cocoon, feeding off what we know, or think, to be true. We like to feel secure. We are creatures of habit. We get scared by what we do not know. Just as a child is shy and nervous on their first day at school as they head into the unknown, older people, more experienced in life, also get nervous when they head into the unknown. The first day in a new job can be just as stressful for an adult as the first day at school can be for a four-year-old child.

This is the challenge, though. We have to put our own perspective on life to one side. Whilst we may not know what is going to happen to us tomorrow, God does. If we trust in God with all our heart, we can stop worrying about the unknown. This message is repeated often in the Bible, most famously in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus says, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25). God loves us, and will provide for us, so why do we need to worry? We should, as the proverb instructs us, trust in the Lord with all our hearts.

In the same way, we in the early twenty-first century can be very reliant on our understanding of the world. If we come across an alien concept, we tend to ignore it. If something does not fit into our world-view, the way we see the world, we push it to one side and get on with life. This is one of the most challenging things when conducting evangelism. Non-Christians don’t want to think about the possibility of there being a god, because a higher being doesn’t fit into the neat little chart they’ve drawn up of life, the universe, and everything.

Solomon knows we think like this. He tells us we must not rely on our own understanding. This ties into his command to us to put our trust completely in God. There are things we won’t understand, but then it is rather arrogant of us to think that we will understand everything in God’s great plan. I was made redundant in 1999 from a job which I firmly believe God led me into. After the initial shock had worn off, I was very angry. Angry with the company for casting me aside, and angry with God for leading me down a path which ultimately caused me a great deal of pain. I simply could not understand why God had let redundancy happen to me. With hindsight, however, I can see that God wanted me to experience working in a large company, but this was not what his ultimate plan for me was. He wanted me to grow, but not to put down roots.

If we rely completely on our own understanding, we run the risk of missing out on much. We should try not to get caught up in our way of thinking, but continually leave ourselves open to what God has in store for us. Our understanding is extremely limited; God, on the other hand, knows exactly what’s going to happen to us today, tomorrow, next week, next year – in fact, he knows and understands everything.

We saw in a Word of the Week article a while ago that God has a plan for each and every one of us. With this in mind, it seems rather silly to “lean on our own understanding” when we have no knowledge at all of what the future holds. Surely we’d be far better off putting our complete trust in God?

How, practically, do we put our trust in God, then? The writer deals with this in the final part of the proverb – “in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” We have to defer everything we do to our Lord. We have to hand over everything we do to him, and trust that he will guide us along the appropriate path. It is when we do this that the contradiction within us disappears. So often, we have an idea of what we want, and will pray that God will give us what we want. It can be hard when we don’t get our way. But if we place God first in all we do, our desire will be the same as his – he wants to see his kingdom expand, and that is what we should want as Christians.

By placing everything we do before God, and “acknowledging him in all our ways,” we will be rewarded – God, we are told, will “make our paths straight.” The devil, who may try and drag us away from the path God has set out for us, will not be able to erect obstacles in our path, that will cause us to weave around. God will ensure that, all the time we are acknowledging him, and putting his will before our own, we will not be dragged off the course that ultimately leads to eternal life.

Life as a Christian can be hard, but we often make life harder for ourselves, by not following God’s path. If we make a conscious decision to trust God, to lean on him, and acknowledge him in everything we do, we will be rewarded. So put aside your self-reliance, and strive to trust God.