The Search for Relief
People come to counseling because they want relief. The man whose life is being destroyed by his online gambling habit wants relief. The mother who worries that her efforts (and their results) are not good enough for God wants relief. The man whose demanding and ungodly boss is making his life at work miserable wants relief. The woman who wishes she could respond in a faithful way to her chronic physical pain wants relief. The husband and wife who cannot seem to keep the peace in their home want relief.
The desire for relief — in its many manifestations — will show up early and often in counseling, making it important for the counselor to know how to understand and address this desire in light of what Scripture teaches. Proverbs 3:5-8 provides a helpful framework for describing what biblical relief is and how one can go about finding it. This description can also help in giving a corrective to those who have been seeking the wrong kinds of relief and also in explaining why true relief has been elusive.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your body
And refreshment to your bones.
Where Not to Lean or Find Wisdom
There are two negative instructions in Proverbs 3:5-8:
- Do not lean on your own understanding (v. 5)
- Do not be wise in your own eyes (v. 7)
The Proverbs writer identifies only two options when it comes to the source of wisdom and understanding: either self or Yahweh. As we will see, those who make Yahweh the source of their wisdom and understanding will experience straight paths and complete well-being — generally the opposite of what people are experiencing when they seek counseling. This means that counselees will often be experiencing the consequences of leaning on their own understanding and being wise in their own eyes.
The ways in which this manifests will vary from case to case, but in general it reflects two main errors in counselees’ thinking and behavior: First, they define relief in a certain way, making that their highest good; and second, they seek after that relief by whatever means seems most likely to get the results they want (often in direct disobedience to God’s Word, whether knowingly or not).
Before getting to the biblical definition of relief, we should first note the foolishness of defining relief according to one’s own understanding. A helpful tool in determining how a counselee has defined relief is to ask them to fill in the blank: “I would be happy if only ____________.”
As you might notice, this same fill-in-the-blank tool is often used to help identify an idol of the heart — and rightly so. Those things to which a person would wrongly look for relief can otherwise be labeled idols. As Jeremiah says, such things are broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jer 2:13).2
In short, what this means is that even if the counselee were to obtain “relief” as he or she has defined it, this would not be biblical relief. The idol would not finally and fully satisfy, and other idols would quickly take its place with the same (or similar) problems likely still manifesting in the counselee’s life.
In addition to identifying counselees’ inadequate definitions of relief, a counselor should also help them identify ways in which they have relied on their own understanding in their efforts at seeking relief. For example, the mother who has made her children’s obedience her highest good might have resorted to yelling and screaming in an effort to get the “relief” that she wants.
When something like this comes to light (perhaps in answer to a question like, “what have you done to try to get your kids to obey?”), Scripture can show her that the way in which she was seeking her children’s obedience was not pleasing to the Lord (cf. Col 3:21).
Again — although there are many manifestations of self-understanding and self-wisdom — the main thing here is to see that I and My Wisdom are not good sources for the definition of relief — and neither are we good sources for the methods of finding relief!
Trusting, Knowing, and Fearing
There are three positive instructions in Proverbs 3:5-8:
- Trust in Yahweh with all your heart
- In all your ways acknowledge Him
- Fear Yahweh and turn away from evil
The instructions being given here are from a father (the Proverbs writer) to his son (cf. Prov 3:1). As good and necessary as it is for a son to heed his father’s wise words, this father is pointing to a greater object of trust than himself and his wisdom: Yahweh. Counselees desiring biblical relief must place their trust — all of it — in Yahweh.
It is instructive that the word “trust” often has a negative connotation when used in the Old Testament (cf. Prov 11:28; 28:26; Ps 52:7; 62:10; Isa 30:12; Ezek 16:15; 33:13). While there are many examples of trusting in things other than Yahweh — each of them condemned — the positive command, which will bring good, is to place all trust in Yahweh.
What it means to trust Yahweh with all one’s heart is further defined in verse 6 with another expression of totality: Those who trust in Yahweh acknowledge him in all their ways. The word translated “acknowledge” simply means “know,” and is best understood here as meaning to know personally or intimately. Counselees who would find biblical relief must have a personal relationship with Yahweh and their conduct in every part of life must be informed by this relationship (i.e., seeking submissiveness to Yahweh).
Finally, to trust Yahweh with all of the heart is to fear him and turn away from evil (cf. Prov 1:7, 29; 2:5; 8:13). The opportunity to “trust” often comes in situations of danger or distress (cf. Deut 28:52; Judg 20:36; 2 Kings 18:30; Isa 36:5). The question this poses for counselees is this: When your definition of relief is threatened, do you resort to whatever means you think necessary (sinful or not) to seek your own way, or do you fear God, seek him (and his definition of “relief”), and forsake sin?3
Stated positively, a counselee who would find biblical relief must fully trust God and seek to do what God says, even (perhaps especially) in stressful or troubling circumstances, and even when it seems like doing things God’s way is likely to bring more trouble.
The Relief of Straight Paths and Complete Well-Being
There are two benefits listed in Proverbs 3:5-8:
- He will make your paths straight (v. 6)
- It will be healing to your body and refreshment to your bones (v. 8)
This is where the good news comes in — where we get to tell our counselees that rather than hoping for too much from God and from life, they have actually hoped for too little! Even as we encourage them to discount and forsake the idols they thought were precious, we get to direct them to their good — to that which alone can meet their need for righteousness and healing — to Yahweh and all of his benefits.
Although the literal meaning of “straight” in verse 6 is physically smooth and straight, the sense here is figurative: The path of the one who trusts fully in Yahweh will be right, upright, and honest (cf. Prov 2:13; 9:15). Yahweh will direct this path so that his or her way is line with God’s will.
The need and longing for — and the relief of — such “straight paths” can be seen in other texts that emphasize this theme. Psalm 37 treats this as the thing most worth “fretting” over, but which will be provided by Yahweh without our fretting (Psa 37:1-6). The relief of the psalmist whose path has been made straight is palpable in Psalm 32:1-5.4 Jesus describes as “blessed” and “satisfied” the one who would hunger and thirst for this kind of relief (Matt 5:6).
Finally, in verse 8, we find that the definition of relief found here includes whole-person healing. This, rather than literal physical healing, is what is meant by the merism extending (literally) from the outer navel to the inward bones.5 What a sweet promise for our counselees: Even as they forsake their own definitions of relief (perhaps even including freedom from physical pain), they can hope in this promise of ultimate and complete healing for their whole person.6
True biblical relief is no less than a clean conscience and whole-person well-being. Those who have been defining relief in other ways and pursuing it in ways that will bring the opposite of a clean conscience must receive hope that God wants and is able to radically reverse their definition and pursuit of relief. It is our privilege as counselors to walk alongside them as they learn to trust God instead of themselves, knowing God in all parts of their lives as they turn away from other things that will never satisfy.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this post are from the NASB translation.
- For a much fuller treatment of the application of the heart idolatry concept in counseling, see Lou Going, “Modern Idolatry: Understanding and Overcoming the Attraction of Your Broken Cisterns,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 20, no. 3 (January 2002), 46-52.
- There are many instructive biblical examples of this, both positive and negative. One of the most frequently recurring is the faithfulness (or, more often, lack thereof) of Israel’s leaders to avoid trusting in gold, horses, and women (i.e., alliances) from other nations, as prohibited in Deuteronomy 17:16-17 (cf. 1 Kings 10:14-29; 11:3; Isa 31:1; Ezek 17:15).
- It should be noted that while the relief of all physical suffering is not promised (see more on this below), there can be physical manifestations of the misery of unconfessed sin that are relieved when paths are “made straight” (cf. Psa 31:10).
- Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 246.
- This brings to mind at least one case where someone who was despairing over the pain of a kidney stone shifted their hope away from pain relief to dependence on God and faithfulness to suffer well. Although the physical pain actually worsened, this person experienced true and persistent relief (of the kind described here in Prov 3:5-8) well before receiving medical care that finally took care of the physical problem.
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