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“The Care of the Heart”
Proverbs 17:22 and others
September 23, 2018
The family of Christ can help to heal heavy hearts.
I. The church is full of heavy hearts
II. We can learn to discern heavy hearts
III. We can learn to help heavy hearts
I’m no expert in the care of broken hearts. In some ways I wish I was. But in some ways I’d rather not be, for the best experts in such things are those whose own hearts have been broken and burdened. One ‘expert’ is Joni Eareckson Tada. Long ago she wrote something that really stuck with me, though I can’t find the quote. She said that whether it’s paralysis or something seemingly smaller, everyone is carrying a load, everyone needs help with their own heartache. In her book “When God Weeps” she gives a compelling illustration of this truth.
Long after the accident that left her paralyzed, Joni was going to Baltimore to speak. It was near where she grew up, so she made plans to spend time with old friends. She says “I couldn’t think of a better way to spend time off in my hometown than to dress up for a fancy luncheon with my high school girlfriends and swap stories, pass photos, dig up funny memories and carve out an hour for prayer. I wheeled through Connie’s front door three weeks later, geared up for a soulful afternoon. It was a traffic jam of hugs and hellos in the entryway until Connie called us into the dining room.
“Okay,” I said after grace was sung and platters started around, “Let’s each give an update on what’s been happening.” Millie, her arm in a cast, started. What we didn’t realize was that it had been on for months. Her bleak prognosis, chronic infection subdued us. Next was Jacque. In my teens we had shared boyfriends, milkshakes and laps around the hockey field. “You know about my husband. It didn’t work out for us. My son’s having a rough time getting off drugs.” She spoke to her plate, pushing food with her fork. The table was quiet. Next the mother of my high school boyfriend, Mrs. Filbert told us her husband was struggling with Parkinson’s disease. Her son’s wife had fled the marriage, leaving her to tend her grandchildren while her son worked. “Some people say I shouldn’t give up speaking at Christian Women’s Clubs,” she said, her eyes wet. “But I’m sure the Lord has me where he wants me.” At the far end sat Diana, unusually quiet, taking it all in. Finally she shared her story, of rebellion and drug abuse in her family. Dishes stopped clattering. Since high school, Diana had been the stalwart. Closer to God than any of us. But today she stared into her lap. “I wasn’t going to come today. We brought my son home late last night from the rehab unit. It was pretty bad. I don’t know. . .”
Every person has burdens which threaten to weigh down their heart. In this room there are people struggling with heart issues, carrying heavy burdens, maybe depressed, sad or angry. If we had a device to turn the heart inside out, to examine the spirit of those who are here, we would see all those things.
It’s good when people share these burdens. Two weeks ago Luke Reed reminded us of his brother’s cancer, which was progressing rapidly. Yesterday, his brother passed away. Thank you Luke for allowing us to pray about that heart burden. Now we need to pray about being strengthened in the loss. The same morning we prayed for Courtney Cobbs, who is in tremendous, unexplained pain every day. It’s a deep heart burden, for Courtney, and for the whole family.
But we still may not recognize how widespread heart needs are. Be sure of this: everyone has some heaviness. For some, these burdens are not threatening their hearts. But many others are struggling and threatened. We need each other. We need to learn to recognize when people’s hearts are heavy. We need practical steps in how to help others .I believe Proverbs gives us that help and teaches that the family of Christ can help heal heavy hearts.
Let’s begin by noticing that Proverbs is keenly aware of these things. Proverbs 14:13 “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.” The verse recognizes the plain truth that no life is unmixed joy. Sometimes the person quickest to laugh is the one with the deepest hurt. Their laughter is a mask. When I was in high school Smokey Robinson had a hit song called “Tears of a Clown.” It was about having a smile on your face to fool the public, while crying “the tears of a clown when there’s no one around.” “If I appear to be carefree, it's only to camouflage my sadness. In order to keep my pride I try to cover the hurt with a show of gladness.” Many who came into this room today laughing, are covering their hurt with a show of gladness.
Proverbs 14:10 reinforces that conclusion. “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” Bitterness is a common reaction to crushing grief. This is the word claimed by Naomi in the book of Ruth. She comes back to Bethlehem after years in a foreign country, having lost her husband and both sons, and says “don’t call me Naomi. Call me ‘Mara,’” bitter. When people are weighed down by accumulated grief they can become bitter, and no one else can really know those hurts. In the same way no one, no stranger, but really not even those you are closest to, can fully share your joy.
Proverbs recognizes that heart heaviness can be just as damaging to life as a physical illness. Proverbs 18:14 “A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” Proverbs 17:22 “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Solomon knew thousands of years ago that a patient’s motivation plays a key role in his or her recovery. If someone has the desire to get better, even from devastating injury or illness, they often do, often remarkably. So proven is this truth that researchers have to discount the placebo effect when testing people with new treatments.
The contrasting thought is that if your spirit is broken you are in real trouble. “A crushed spirit who can bear?” “A crushed spirit dries up the bones’ When heart heaviness reaches the point of crushing the spirit, it’s more devastating than sickness. Again, doctors will tell you that a key part of recovery from disease is motivation. A hopeless patient is in grave danger. Even a healthy person who is depressed is at risk. We’ve noted before, with sadnesss, the huge spike in suicides in our country, the result of crushed and broken spirits.
Proverbs says that every heart has burdens. The question is, what do we do? Isn’t the church supposed to be a hospital for broken spirits, a place where people get help? It is. As a family called together by Christ we have a responsibility to be sensitive to the burdens people carry. Let’s look at a few verses that will help us discern burdened hearts. Proverbs 15:13 “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.” We’ve already said that laughter can hide heartache, so this isn’t an absolute, but it’s wise to keep your eyes on people’s faces, how they carry themselves, how they interact. If someone has become sad and quiet, we need to be bold enough to ask “Is something wrong? How can I be praying for you?”
A second place to discern burdens is in conversation. A heavier heart has trouble being hopeful, while a lighter heart is able to see at least parts of life with joy. Proverbs 10:28 “The prospect of the righteous is joy, but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing.” Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” In the first verse the contrast is between the person looking forward to their prospects with joy and the one whose hopes come to nothing. Lack of joyful hope can, as the verse says, be evidence of hoping in the wrong things, but also evidence of a burdened heart.
Proverbs 13:12 reinforces that by saying ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick.” People say “I have no hope now.” When we stop looking forward to what we desire, what we’ve been promised, the heart gets get heart sick. When the future stretches before us an endless repetition of the same misery, we despair. But believers can have hope even in crushing circumstances, because our hope transcends circumstances. We have an eternal savior, eternal promises that reach down into the present to sustain us. So here’s a key: If a brother or a sister near you this morning has lost hope, you are called to help, not by insisting that they feel hope, but by hoping for them. One of the great people in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is Hopeful, Pilgrim’s companion who remembers with hope the promises of God. We need to be Hopeful to others.
Another indicator of a burdened heart is a lack of peace. Proverbs 14:30 “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”
The word ‘tranquil’ here is related to healing and health. Often when you spend time with people you can discern if they have a tranquil heart. Such people are lively but not hyper, not consumed by worry or fear, drivenness or false expectations. In contrast, a heart burden can lead to physical symptoms. The verse uses the word envy, and this is powerful. When we have troubles and we think others don’t that can be the most bitter pill of all. If this unrealistic envy continues we weaken. But if it can be set aside heart-heaviness can lift.
A final verse on discernment is Proverbs 15:15 “All the days of the afflicted are wretched, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” This reinforces what we’ve said: watch people’s faces; watch people’s lives. As a heart burden increases, people find it harder to enjoy even the simple things of life. When the burden is lifted, enjoyment of life returns. So if a person you know is doing something they normally love and they don’t enjoy it, become suspicious of the burden they’re carrying. The reverse works too: it can be therapeutic for a person to engage in something they like to do as a way to lighten their hearts.
We’ve seen in these verses practical ways to discern the burdens of our brothers and sisters. It’s all relational. We spend enough time with people to see their faces, listen to their conversation, see the ups and downs in life. With the help of the Holy Spirit you and I can discern those particularly burdened by heavy hearts.
The question is, what do we do about it? Let’s look back at Proverbs 17:22 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” This verse describes people with heart burdens, but is also instructive to the helper. We ought to approach helping people with confidence and cheer. No doubt you have your own burdens, and at times sharing them will help the person you’re caring about, but you need to do this with confidence that God helps the broken-hearted. Frank Kittle tells of a time he was significantly down, and one of the things that pulled him off rock bottom was the absolute confidence of those helping him that God was going to work in his life and be glorified.
Helping starts with confidence in God and continues as we listen and care. Listen and care. It’s often as simple as that. Listen, and keep listening. If you jump too soon into offering solutions you may very well miss the heart of the story. Proverbs 18:13 “He who answers before listening, that is his folly and his shame.” If you don’t listen you’re foolish. It’s like flying an airplane without looking at the instruments, or fixing your car without watching YouTube videos. Listening gives you the basic data you need to be wise in helping.
Along with listening goes caring. Even before you speak, your body language, your attentive attitude, your willingness to put down your phone, to give the gift of time, these convey caring without words.
When you do speak, your sincerity, your thoughtfulness, and the concern with which you share show caring. Proverbs 27:9 “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” My sense of smell is deficient, so this verse doesn’t speak to me, but in ancient cultures the smells of incense and perfume were prized. They conveyed the same luxury as “new-car-smell’ does today, the sense of well-being that “dinner-cooking-smell” gives. That pleasure is compared to the caring counsel of a friend.
So we help first by listening and caring. Only then do we begin to speak, carefully chosen words of counsel. There are several Proverbs that vividly address this point. Proverbs 25:20 “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” Clear pictures. Taking off your coat on a cold day causes discomfort. Pouring vinegar on soda, as I showed the kids, creates an unwelcome reaction. It’s the same if you try to cure heavy-heartedness with unsympathetic commands of optimism. If a person needs is weeping with, we should weep. If a person needs us to be brokenhearted rather than theological answers, we should be brokenhearted.
Harold S. Kushner tells of going with his father to the funeral of a business associate who died under tragic circumstances. The man's widow and children were surrounded by clergy and psychiatrists trying to ease their grief, but nothing helped. They were beyond being comforted. The widow kept saying, "You're right, I know you're right, but it doesn't make any difference." Then a man walked in, a big man in his eighties. He had escaped from Russia as a youth, illiterate and penniless, and had built an immensely successful company. Despite his success, he’d never learned to read or write. He hired people to read his mail to him. He’d been sick recently, and it showed. But he walked over to the widow and started to cry, and she cried with him, and you could feel the atmosphere in the room change. This man who had never read a book in his life spoke the language of the heart and held the key that opened the gates of solace where learned doctors and clergy could not.
Now you may think I’m advocating no counsel at all, no words, no Scripture to help people. That’s the farthest thing from the truth. But it’s in the context of caring that well-chosen words have a chance to be heard. Proverbs 12:25 “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” A good word is a kind word, a well-chosen word, an encouraging word. I remember a time many years ago when I was discouraged. I was depressed. I shared with Frank Kittle and he said a number of things that helped, but one was simply that the work I was doing made a difference. That affirmation stuck with me. A kind word can do a lot for a heavy heart. Be an encourager. Kindness costs you nothing, but it can be of inestimable value to those who receive it.
Let me throw in a caution. When you encourage, be honest. Don’t build someone up by telling them lies about themselves. It’s only going to haunt you when you have to challenge them in areas you previously said were OK or even great. Proverbs 15:4, NIV “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Don’t have a deceitful tongue. Only honesty brings healing that blessing to those who need to hear it.
Finally, before we close, I need to give you some idea of what the content of your words should be. Every situation is different. I can’t tell you words for every heavy heart. But a few things are common. One is that people who are carrying this burden need to be gently shown the ground of their hope. A few minutes ago we saw Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Hope deferred, “I can’t even hope right now” is one of the clear signs of heart sickness. But as believers in Jesus we have hope, the promise of eternity with a loving rescuer. We need to confidently and gently share that hope with the hopeless. We need to share Psalms, share promises, share the vision of “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
Specifically Proverbs calls us to share good news. Proverbs 15:30 “The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the bones.” What is this good news? In this context it’s not specifically the good news about Jesus. It can be all kinds of good news: personal, family, national. But the best news is usually built on Gospel truths. To someone who has fallen into sin, the good news is that though everyone is a sinner, they’re not unredeemable. Sin is serious, but there is hope. God’s love in Jesus, expressed by his sacrifice on the cross, is a bedrock truth that has lifted many hearts from deep despair. Add to that things like forgiveness, healing, the Holy Spirit and the loving presence of a God who cares and you have good news for every person in need. When someone is feeling alone, attacked, hurt, the knowledge that the God of the universe is their refuge speaks peace. When someone is feeling an inadequate failure the knowledge that nothing can separate them from the love of God gives security. Proverbs 25:25 “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” This is our last verse and I don’t need to say much about it, because you’ve all experienced it. A hot day, hard work, thirst. A glass of cold water with the condensation running off it, handed to you by a friend and ample for your needs. That’s good. So is the good news we gently share, from Scripture.
So what have we said? That everyone is burdened in some way with cares and concerns. For many the burden of those things has grown so great that it threatens to outweigh joy. We need to be sensitive and recognize a burden when we see it. We can care for people, by listening, by speaking gently and carefully and by bringing the good news of God’s hope to those in need.
Let’s close with the rest of Joni’s story. We head Diana say “I wasn’t going to come to this luncheon. We brought my son home late last night from rehab. It was pretty bad. I don’t know. . .” Silence settled over us. One person felt uneasy with the quiet. Jacque, the one whose son also had drug problems. “Well, you gotta keep hoping, keep praying. Somehow it’s going to work out.” Jacque checked off a few inward qualities God was probably fashioning: Ironclad faith. Robust character. Buoyant hope. Sensitivity to others. But the table fell silent because Diana already knew all that, from years of Bible study, not to mention a masters in counseling. She knew the doctrinal ropes; she spoon-fed me “suffering develops patience, suffering refines faith” thirty years before.
Slowly, out of the silence, a song began. First faintly, then all joined in: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” The old favorite from Young Life days came rising out of our memories, an old spiritual inspired by the prophet Jeremiah who, amidst the horrors of the Babylonian invasion asked, “Is there no healing for our wounds? Is there no answer for our weeping?” Back in high school we sang to soothe a hearts wounded heart from a sophomore crush. But now the words breathed peace in the midst of divorce, paralysis, disease and drugs. When your heart is wrung out like a sponge, an orderly list of “sixteen good biblical reasons why this is happening” can sting like salt in a wound. A checklist may be okay may be okay when you’re looking at your suffering in a rearview mirror, but when you’re hurting in the present tense, the only answer that satisfies is the truth that a faithful God has given you not answers, but himself, his own heart. There is a balm in Gilead - and you and I can never do anything better than point people to the good news of our hope in Him.”
Those are the words of an expert. Our hearts are inward and personal, yet as brothers and sisters in Christ we’re called to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep. We can help those carrying the burdens of heavy hearts.