Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
There’s a certain lyrical quality to this proverb which makes it beautiful, but there’s also an intriguing ambiguity about its meaning that makes you read it over and over again.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” When your dreams do not come true, it is easy to become depressed. But notice, the hope is not necessarily failed. It is only deferred. The Hebrew word in this place means “to drag.” And so the Proverb is saying that when your hope takes a long time to come to fruition, when it drags, the time of waiting can be very sad and disappointing.
You can imagine how it feels to wait for something, something that you believe to be very important, even the realization of your dreams. You start to wonder if God is ever going to give it to you. You start to wonder why He’s taking so long. Does He really love you after all?
And this is where the second half of the Proverb comes in, and it seems to cut both ways. “But a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” A tree of life– that’s an interesting metaphor. A fulfilled desire is like one of the trees in the Garden of Eden, the one that granted immortality. What could this mean?
There’s a simple contrast at work. The fulfilled desire is very good, whereas the deferred hope was sad. I think there’s something else going on, though, and I think the Eden imagery is an important clue. You see, Adam and Eve’s sin was a sin of false hope. Instead of trusting in God’s timing and being patient and content with His plan, they decided to take the object of their desire, the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Genesis 3:6 says that this fruit was “desirable,” and so we can see that the original sin was a false desire fulfilled.
Thus while the fulfillment of our desires can be a very good thing, the pursuit of this fulfillment can always also be a temptation to sin. Are we allowing our heart to become sick because of our desires and our expectations about when and how they should be fulfilled? Are we, like Adam and Eve, trying to grasp now what might be given to us at a later time, on our own terms rather than on God’s?
“Heart sickness” is a very complicated thing, but it always takes us to an encounter with God. What do we think about Him and what He is doing in our lives at this moment? Do we place our hope, as well as our faith, in Him or are we still hoping for something else?
We must make sure that our desire for the Tree of Life does not become a desire for something more, for something that is not ours to take on our own terms. We must learn to wait on the Lord, to trust that He knows best. And as we trust Him, we will find that He is the true fulfillment of our desires.
All of this should drive us to the Cross. Jesus Christ must finally be our Tree of Life.