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“The Care of the Heart”

Proverbs 17:22 and others
Bob DeGray
June 8, 2003

Key Sentence

The family of Christ is sensitive and responsive to the needs of the heart.


I. The church is full of heavy hearts.
II. We need to learn to discern heavy hearts.
III. We need to learn to help heavy hearts.


        Recently our church hosted an event called ‘Life Line Screening’. A group of nurses and technicians came and set up equipment right over there and people came all day to have their carotid arteries checked for blockages, their aortic arteries checked for aneurisms, and a couple of other tests. All were done with ultrasound, which allowed the technicians, and later the doctors to see and hear what was going on inside the person’s body. As the host I got to have a couple of tests done free, and one of them showed a minor buildup in one of my carotid arteries. I wouldn’t have known it was there if this kind of test wasn’t available.

        I’ve often wished a similar test was available to the church. Every Sunday a large number of people walk through our doors who are struggling with heart issues, who carry heavy burdens, who may be depressed and downcast. If we had an instrument that could look inside the heart, could examine the spirit of those who are here, we’d find a number of places where a buildup of sadness, heaviness, distress is blocking the flow of spiritual life and threatening the well being of many around us.

        If you’ve been here long enough you already know the burdens people have shared. David Jackson has been open about the difficulties and blessings of the last few years. Debra Reynolds has told us of the burden of Kelly leaving and the way God has been at work. The back of our bulletin lists prayer needs for some burdened by sickness, financial stress, relational issues. What we may not recognize is how widespread heart needs are. I think if we subjected each one of you to a sonogram of the soul we would find that everyone has some heaviness and that many are deeply affected by burdens we sometimes can’t even understand. My goal this morning is to help us help each other by learning to recognize when people’s hearts are heavy, and by suggesting several practical steps for helping the hearts of others.

        Now don’t get the impression that all this is going to be Bob’s personal insight. I’m not a particularly adept counselor, nor do I have that x-ray vision into souls. But we’re studying the book of Proverbs, and it’s a book full of practical insight. God has included in Proverbs significant thoughts on the care of the heart. As we study fifteen or so key verses this morning we’ll be shown from Scripture how the family of Christ can be sensitive and responsive to the needs of the heart.

I. The church is full of heavy hearts.

        Let’s begin by showing that Proverbs is keenly aware that many people have heavy hearts. Let me start with Proverbs 14:13 Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief. The verse recognizes what we all know to be true - that no life is unmixed joy. There is heart ache for every person - and sometimes the person quickest to laugh is the one with the deepest hurt; their laughter is a mask.

        When I was in high school there was a hit song called “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. 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.” The second verse says “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.” So many cover their heartache. But it’s still real. Many who came in laughing today and who leave laughing still have a corner of their heart that is dealing with grief.

        Proverbs 14:10 reinforces that conclusion: Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy. The word bitterness expresses a person’s reaction to heart crushing grief. We get insight into the word as used 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 to the people “don’t call me Naomi – call me ‘Mara’” - the Hebrew word we’re looking at: ‘call me bitterness.’ It’s a common feeling. When people are weighed down by accumulated grief that has not been addressed they become bitter, and no one else can really know those hurts. In the same way no one, not even those you are closest to can really share your joy. I can’t dissect the joy I felt Wednesday morning as it began to rain - it was just there.

        So every heart suffers from some kind of heaviness, and Proverbs recognizes that often heart heaviness can be just as damaging to life as a physical illness. Proverbs 18:14 A man's spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear? Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. The author of Proverbs, in this case Solomon, knew thousands of years ago what medical science has only learned in the last few decades: that a patient’s motivation play a critical role in his or her recovery. If someone has the desire to get better, even from a devastating injury or illness, they will - not always miraculously, but often remarkably. Christopher Reeve, the ‘Superman’ actor who was paralyzed a number of years ago has regained remarkable use of his arm and even the ability to breathe on his own through incredible willpower and some incredible medical technology. A person’s positive heart attitude does sustain him in sickness.

        But the contrasting thought is that if your spirit is broken are you 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 disease. People get caught in a web of depression and despair that takes away the very skills needed to live. People whose hearts are heavy are in danger because a broken spirit is deadly. In recent years suicide has been nearly twice as common as homicide. There are 30,000 suicides a year, each the result of a crushed and broken spirit.

        So far we’ve said that in church, or anyplace you meet people, there are going to be heavy hearts, burdened individuals. They may hide it behind laughter, they may show it with tears, but it’s there. Proverbs says every heart has it’s burden. I read something by Joni Eareckson Tada a while back that stuck with me, though I haven’t been able to find the quote. She basically said that whether it’s paralysis or some other burden, everyone is carrying a load, so that everyone needs to learn to cope with heartache. Some people’s loads may appear unbearable, while others may appear tiny, but large or small each has a burden which weighs down the heart.

II. We need to learn to discern heavy hearts.

        The question is, what do we do about it? Isn’t the church supposed to be a hospital for broken spirits, a place where people can 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 in Proverbs that will help us discern burdened hearts. Proverbs 15:13 A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. 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 bothering you? How can I be praying for you?” Are there people in this room you know well enough to see when they are burdened? There should be.

        A second way to recognize a heavy heart is through conversation. Maybe it’s the response to ‘is something bothering you’ or maybe it’s just casual talk over Pizza lunch. Either way, a key thing to look for is hope. Let me read two verses. 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 longing fulfilled is a tree of life. In the first verse there is a contrast between the person who is looking forward to their prospects with joy and the one whose hopes come to nothing. It brings joy to hope for righteousness, but no joy at all if our hearts are hoping for evil. Lack of joyful hope is sometimes evidence of a burdened heart.

        The second ‘hope’ verse reinforces that truth by saying ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick.’ It’s very hard to have your hopes raised and dashed, raised and dashed time after time, to put off what you hope for. But the real danger comes when we stop hoping: hope deferred might be ‘I’ll hope later - I have no hope now.’ When we stop looking forward to what we desire and what we’ve been promised we fall into depression. When the future stretches before us as an endless repetition of the same misery we despair. But believers have the greatest hope anyone has ever found; we have a tremendous Savior, tremendous promises, a tremendous future. If a brother or a sister near you this morning has lost that hope, you are called to help. 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 heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. This verse doesn’t use the classic Hebrew word for peace, ‘shalom’, but another word more related to healing and health. The New American Standard chooses the word ‘tranquil’ to translate it.

        Very often when you spend a little time with people you can discern if they have a tranquil or peaceful heart. The person with a peaceful heart is lively but not hyper, not consumed by worry or fear, drivenness or false expectations. On the other hand, someone consumed by anxiety will often experience physical ailments, health problems. Does that mean sickness is always due to sin, that there is always a heart reason for physical illness? No. Remember, these are Proverbs: guidelines for right living. They tell us how to be wise. A wise person will try to look behind physical illness to see if there is a spiritual component - but will not presume that a sick person has sinned or that a healthy person is free from sin or other heart burdens.

        A final verse in the area of discernment is Proverbs 15:15 All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast. It makes perfect sense that someone who is wretched is probably feeling oppressed or afflicted, unable to enjoy even the enjoyable things of life. Do you know someone like that? They are probably carrying a burden. On the other hand a person who is truly enjoying life is probably not very burdened. They have ‘a continual feast.’ There is a correlation between these things: as the burden increases the feast decreases and at some point you slip into depression, where the burden of life is greater than the blessing. If a person is doing something they would normally love to do and they don’t enjoy it, become suspicious of the heart burden they are carrying.

III. We need to learn to help heavy hearts.

        We’ve seen in these verses some practical ways to discern the heart burden in our brothers and sisters. The ideal is a cheerful appearance, the presence of hope in their lives, peace with their situations and joy at the things they are doing. But we need to be sensitive to people at the other of the scale: grim, hopeless, anxious, and wretched.

        The next question is are there any practical ways to help? Proverbs offers several. Let’s begin with this week’s theme verse Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. We noted this verse when talking about people with heart burdens, but it’s also instructive to the helper. You ought to approach helping people with confidence and cheer. No doubt you have your own burdens to bear, and maybe sharing them will help the person you’re caring about - but not without hope. You yourself need to be confident that God helps the broken hearted. Frank Kittle tells a story of a time he was significantly down, and one thing that pulled him off rock bottom was the absolute confidence of those helping him that God was going to work in Frank’s life and be glorified. When we have this confidence, we can be good medicine to those who are hurting.

        So helping starts with confidence in God and continues as we listen and care. These two things are key. First you have to listen, and you have to keep listening even after you’ve begun to give help. It’s easy to think ‘Oh I understand this problem’ and begin to work it without hearing the whole story. But you may not have even heard the real problem if you try to solve the presenting problem too soon.

        Does Proverbs teach this truth? You bet. Here’s 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 blindfolded or buying a car without looking under the hood. Listening gives you the basic data you need to be wise in helping someone.

        Along with listening goes caring. Even before you speak, your body language, your attentive attitude, your willingness to give time and attention convey caring without words. When you do speak, your sincerity, your thoughtfulness, and the concern with which you share all communicate caring. Proverbs 27:9 Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one's friend springs from his earnest counsel. Now I’m not much of a scent person. My favorite smell is dinner. But in ancient cultures the smells of incense and perfume were prized. They conveyed the same luxury and well being that ‘new car smell’ does today. In this Proverb that pleasure is compared to the caring counsel of a friend. It’s not that he always agrees with you, but he cares about you and is there for you when your heart is heavy.

        So we help first by listening and caring. Only then do we begin to speak carefully chosen words of counsel. ‘Carefully chosen;’ there are several Proverbs that address this point: maybe the most vivid is Proverbs 25:20 Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. Clear pictures: someone who takes a garment on a cold day causes great discomfort. Pouring vinegar on soda, as I showed the children, creates a major reaction. And it’s the same, this Proverb says, if you sing songs to a heavy heart. It causes discomfort and is likely to provoke a major reaction. So we need to be careful - if what a person needs is weeping together rather than praise songs, we should weep. If what a person needs is us to be brokenhearted rather than to give theological answers, we should be brokenhearted. If we care for this person in need we will weep and be heartbroken even as we seek to communicate God’s hope.

        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. They knew all the right words, 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 only in the context of caring that even carefully chosen words have a reasonable chance of being heard. Proverbs 12:25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up. A kind word, a well chosen word, an encouraging word is of great help to those who are burdened. In early 2002 I was down. Christmas usually takes it out of me, and I was on empty. I shared that with Frank Kittle and he said a number of things that were helpful, but one of them was simply that the work I was doing was making a difference. That affirmation stuck with me and comes back when I get discouraged. 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 confirmed by Proverbs: when you encourage, be honest – don’t build someone up by telling them lies about themselves. It’s only going to come back to haunt when you have to challenge them in areas you previously said were OK or even great. Proverbs 15:4 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 is a blessing - a tree of life - 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. Since every situation is different I can’t tell you words for every heavy heart. But a few things are common. A number of years ago the Kingrys hosted an Introduction to Counseling video course. One thing Jim Berg taught has stuck with me: his emphasis on generating hope. He said any time you see a lack of hope, you should stop addressing the immediate problem and focus on building hope in God.

        A few minutes ago we looked at Proverbs 13:12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. Hope deferred - “I can’t even hope right now” is one of the most dangerous signs of heart sickness. It’s when we stop looking forward to what we desire and what we’ve been promised that we fall into depression and despair. But as believers in Jesus we have the greatest hope anyone has ever known. We have tremendous promises and a tremendous future. So we need to gently and confidently share that hope with the hopeless. We need to share the Psalms, share the promises, share the vision of an eternity with Jesus where there will be no more tears or mourning or crying or pain. We need to share hope.

        The underlying principle is that we share truth from Scripture. Specifically Proverbs calls us to share good news. Proverbs 15:30 A cheerful look brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones. What is this good news? In this context it’s not specifically the good news about Jesus. It’s all kinds of good news: personal, family, national. But the best news is usually built on simple Gospel truths. To someone who has fallen into sin, it is good news that everyone is a sinner, that they are not unique and unredeemable, that though sin is serious, there is hope.

        It is even better news that God loves them, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. God’s love in Jesus is bedrock truth that has lifted many a person’s heart from the deep parts of despair. Add to that truths of forgiveness and healing, the help of 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 fortress and refuge can bring peace. When someone is feeling an inadequate failure the knowledge that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus is security.

        Proverbs 25:25 Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land. 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 and a glass of cold water with the condensation running off it, handed to you by a friend and ample for your needs - that’s a blessed moment. And the good news we share from Scripture with those who feel hurt - that’s a blessing too. We will have many things to say to those with heavy hearts - counsel, advice, offers of help, and more. But the words we say that generate hope, that point to Jesus and his love are probably the words that will make a difference.

        So what have we said? That everyone is burdened in some way with cares and concerns. That for many the burden of those things has grown so great that it threatens to outweigh joy. That we need to be sensitive and recognize a burden when we see it, and finally that we can care - by listening, by speaking gently and carefully and by bringing the good news of God’s hope to those in need.

        When I was looking for that Joni Eareckson Tada quote, I ran across a great story in her book “When God Weeps.” Once when Joni was flying into Baltimore to speak, she made plans to spend time with some old Young Life 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 and hymn-singing.

        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 entry way of her house until Connie called us into the dining room. “Okay,” I announced after grace was sung and platters started around, “Let’s each give an update on what’s been happening.”

        Millie, at the far end with her arm in a cast, started. Yes, we’d all sign her cast before leaving. No, we didn’t realize it had been on for months. Oh, really? The prognosis is that bleak? The news of chronic infection subdued us. Next was Jacque, with whom in my teens I had shared boyfriends, milkshakes and laps around the hockey field. “You all know about my husband. It didn’t work out between 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, excpet for the clinking of silverware.

        The mother of my high school boyfriend, Mrs. Filbert, told how her son’s wife had fled the marriage, leaving her to tend her grandchildren while he worked. Now that the grandkids were older she was caring for her husband, stricken with Parkinson’s. “Some people say I shouldn’t give up speaking at Christian Women’s Clubs,” she said, her eyes becoming wet. “But I’m sure the Lord has me where he wants me.”

        At the far end sat Diana, taking it all in. She hadn’t said much. When we greeted each other, she seemed unusually quiet. Diana’s look fit her words as she shared a story of rebellion and drug abuse in her family. Dishes stopped clattering. Ever 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 to this luncheon. We brought my son home late last night from the rehab unit. 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. She could tie any of us up in a tangle of theological thread from her years of Bible study, not to mention a masters in counseling. She knew the doctrinal ropes; she had spoon-fed me “suffering develops patience” and “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 about God, the balm in Gilead, to soothe a heart 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 being wrung out like a sponge, an orderly list of “sixteen good biblical reasons why this is happening” can sting like salt in a wound. You don’t stop the bleeding that way. 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.