The Insanity of Leaning on Our Own Understanding

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 straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5–6)

When the Bible tells us in this verse not to lean on our own understanding, it is not encouraging us to be irrational. The Bible puts up no wall of separation between our intellect and faith. In fact, the book of Proverbs speaks very highly of understanding:

  • “[Incline] your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2).

  • “Raise your voice for understanding” (Proverbs 2:3).

  • “Understanding will guard you” (Proverbs 2:11).

  • “Blessed is the one who . . . gets understanding” (Proverbs 3:13).

  • “Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding” (Proverbs 14:33).

  • “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 15:14).

  • “To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver” (Proverbs 16:16).

  • “Buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (Proverbs 23:23).

So, if we’re supposed to get understanding, why are we not supposed to lean on it?

What we’re told not to lean on is our “own understanding,” meaning conclusions based primarily on our own perceptions. Because our own understanding simply will not bear the full weight of reality. It was never intended to.

The Insanity of Trusting Ourselves

Let’s go back to the garden of Eden. The one tree in the garden that humans were forbidden to eat from was not, interestingly, the tree of life (Genesis 2:9). It was not life that God denied human beings. He forbade them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17).

“Our own understanding simply will not bear the full weight of reality. It was never intended to.”

The point of this prohibition was not to keep humans ignorant but, as John Piper says, “to preserve [for us] the pleasures of the world.” It was as if God was saying,

If you eat of that one [tree] you will be saying to me, “I’m smarter than you. I am more authoritative than you. I am wiser than you are. I think I can care for myself better than you care for me. You are not a very good Father. And so, I am going to reject you.” So, don’t eat from the tree, because you will be rejecting me and all my good gifts and all my wisdom and all my care. Instead, keep on submitting to my will. Keep on affirming my wisdom. Keep on being thankful for my generosity. Keep on trusting me as a Father and keep on eating from these [other] trees as a way of enjoying me.

You see, in order to handle the knowledge of good and evil, one must possess (1) the ability to completely comprehend all possible options and contingencies (omniscience), (2) the righteousness and wisdom to choose the right course, and (3) the power to make reality conform to the right course (omnipotence).

In other words, only God can handle such knowledge.

What this means is that it is not the one who trusts in the Lord that is irrational, but the one who leans on his or her own understanding. It is insane to trust such pitifully limited understanding when one can trust the unlimited understanding of God.

The Joyful Sanity of Trusting the Lord

So many of the things that cause us the most difficulty and heartache in life, the source of so much of our anxiety, fear, doubt, and anger with others and with God, is the result of leaning on our own understanding.

“We’re resting our intellect upon the intellect of God. Nothing is wiser or saner.”

God does not want us to be miserable, even in this fallen, futility-infected evil age. He wants to relieve our anxiety (Luke 12:11–12; Philippians 4:6–7), fear (Psalm 118:6; 1 Peter 3:6), doubt (Matthew 21:21; Luke 24:38), and sinful anger (Ephesians 4:31). And so, he gives us Proverbs 3:5–6 as a priceless gift.

In exercising faith — trusting fully in the Lord and not leaning on our own understanding — we’re not setting aside our intellect. We’re resting our intellect upon the intellect of God. Nothing is wiser or saner. To do so is to allow him to direct our paths, which not only lead to ultimate joy, but also make the journey itself, even when laden with sorrow, joyful (2 Corinthians 6:10). And it preserves for us all the pleasures God provides us in the world. To not do this is the height of foolishness and the path to misery.

So, let us choose joy today by not leaning on our own understanding but in sweet, childlike trust on the sure foundation of our loving Creator’s omniscience.