We mourn the life we think should have been, yet it’s hard to remain sad when we discover God has written a better script for us.
Disappointments of All Kind
Back in the eighties, a Japanese psychiatrist identified “the Paris effect,” a syndrome related to disillusionment. He noted that visitors to France, primed by popular cultural images, often “expect a place full of romance, beauty, and wealth. Instead, they find pavements peppered with cigarette butts and aggravated commuters in packed metro trains. For some, the shock is too much to bear, prompting them to seek medical help for symptoms that may include irritability, fear, obsession, depressed mood, insomnia, and a feeling of persecution by the French. In extreme cases, the only remedy is a one-way ticket out of France.”¹
If this sounds ridiculous, other people’s disappointments usually are. Regardless of the particulars though, it is always disillusioning when expectations collide with reality.
For instance, you have physical expectations about yourself. You should be ripped and tan, able to fit into the same size trousers you wore in the previous decade. Professionally you have expectations. You don’t need to be CEO, but you ought to at least be a VIP, and very well-compensated. You have expectations regarding family. Your spouse should remain utterly adorable, even the first thing in the morning, and you should have a select number of children (if any at all), whom you can boast about with bumper stickers.
Then along comes uncooperative reality, stubbornly vetoing your version of the good life. This becomes especially difficult when you’ve fought so hard to maintain your grip on the steering wheel. It’s easy to become angry at circumstances, and resentful of people. Even Christians succumb to bailing out of their lives and marriages, hoping to get another shot at the dream they originally envisioned, or one newly invented.
Caught in the maelstrom of disappointment, the last thing we care to ask is, “God, how do you see me? What do you have in mind?” But asking is always a good idea. In Isaiah chapter 55, God says, “Your thoughts are not my thoughts. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my thoughts than your thoughts.” It is very possible that as you sit reading this post, the life you imagine for yourself may vastly differ from the one God desires for you. His version is quite a bit higher than your own. More than likely, your problem isn’t that you didn’t get what you wanted. You just didn’t know what to want.
Which brings us to the point: when you want what God wants for you, wonderful things can happen.
Understand the Divine Mind
Consider these verses in Psalms 92:12-15, where we’re told what God has in mind.
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; He is my rock and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
When overly creative readers see a word like “flourish” in these verses, they assume God wants their business to flourish. They see the word “grow” and say, “Yes, God wants me to grow in my career field,” or they see “bear fruit” and find in it a confirmation that they will have more children. In some pathetic circumstances, a few may even see the reference to “sap and green,” as being the color of money, and that God forecasts plenty of “green” in their future.
You’ve heard of carjacking. This is verse jacking—borrowing a passage from the Bible and subtly imposing your own dreams upon it. That interpretive process changes it into whatever you want, which is why some ministries treat the entirety of Scripture as a message about how God will give you the American dream. Remember though, that God says “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”
These verses don’t generically describe successful living. They first describe “The righteous” (v. 12). Who exactly are the righteous? You might say it’s those who do the right thing. That would be correct, if your Bible only had the Old Testament in it. But for those with a New Testament as well, we would have to say a man or a woman stands righteous in front of God based on their faith in Jesus Christ. We believe that we are “justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law” (Gal. 2:16). From the fuller vantage point of both Testaments, these verses in Psalms portray God’s blessing on believers in Christ.
It’s what He wants for you.
Your Life as a Tree
First of all, God wants us to flourish like the palm tree. Don’t confuse it though, with the palm of coconuts, tropical islands, and sand volleyball. This is the date palm, that flourishes in the middle of the desert wilderness, where there is no water above ground. These trees always manage to locate the hidden water table. They don’t rely on anything at ground level, thriving instead on what is beneath the surface.
In John 12:13, as Jesus headed into the city of Jerusalem, the people celebrated, coming out with palm branches, and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And in Revelation 7:9-10, a great throng of the redeemed who have come out of all the tribulation occurring on this earth, stand before Christ, singing to him, and saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the lamb!”—while waving palm branches. They made it because of Him, and these branches are a symbol of their victory. God wants you to find the water table of the Holy Spirit within you, and joyously and victoriously flourish in the presence of Christ. This is not something we need to beg for. God wants it for you and intends it for you already.
The righteous also grow like a cedar in Lebanon. These are the most substantial trees in the entire region, reaching 120 feet high and 40 feet around the base. When the prophets spoke of them, especially Ezekiel, they always used them to represent majesty and royalty. God sees you growing this way. This is the reason why, when you make that remark, or you tell that joke that technically wasn’t sinful, you still feel somewhere deep inside that it was beneath your dignity as a man or woman of God. In Christ, we are royalty.
Verse 13 speaks of where all this flourishing and growth takes place: “They are planted in the house of the Lord and they flourish in the courts of our God.” The house of God in the Old Testament represents the communal aspect of worship—the gathering of God’s people. The timber used to build it came from the Cedars of Lebanon. Workers harvested these trees, fashioned them into boards for the walls, and before the wood was overlaid with gold, the builders engraved upon it images…of palm trees. Thus, both cedars and palms appear throughout the house of God.
The New Testament tells us the church is the house of the Living God (1 Tim. 3:15). Unfortunately, it is popular for millennials to dismiss the church as needless institution. They throw out the baby with the bath water, for while they’re discarding lifeless things, they also dispose of fellowship, accountability, responsibility, and sacrificial ethos. Out goes the chance of flourishing and growing as well, at least the way God defines it.
Regardless of popular consensus, the house of God remains an inescapable theme in the Bible. You need a setting of other people who will rub you the wrong way, comfort you, encourage you, challenge you, confront you, and if necessary, rebuke you. Others need the same from you. That’s how it works in the mind of God.
But not only do we grow, we also bear fruit. Verse 14 says we still bear fruit in old age, and we are ever full of sap and green. Amazingly, the date palm produces the sweetest fruit when the tree is between 30 and 100 years old.
It’s hard to believe that aside from wine, anything older could be better. Our culture abhors age. We try to delay it, hide it, or reverse it with huge amounts of money. If none of those work, we attempt bald-faced denial. It is as though the most important thing in the world is how someone looks in a speedo. The world has bet the farm on the most external part of a human being—the very part that decays. But God sees the believer as full of the sap and the green of the Holy Spirit. The fruit you produce over time will only get better. The Christ-like virtues within you will improve in quality. The effect you have on other human beings will become more profound. We appreciate with maturity.
Age will not be stopped. We can either fight it by dressing and acting twenty years younger (newsflash—that strategy will eventually fail), or we can embrace God’s fruitful future.
The effect of all this growth and fruit is not an adoring throng gathered around us, talking about how wonderful we are. Verse 15 indicates that our lives become a testimony of Christ, declaring that He is upright, that He is our rock, and no unrighteousness is in Him.
The Blessing that Wouldn’t Die
How committed is God to this purpose for your life? I think of David Brainerd, a young man who lived during the mid-1700’s. He was orphaned at a relatively young age, but made it into Yale, when Yale was still new. During his time at school, Brainerd was saved (popularly referred to as “converted” by the Christians of the time). Unfortunately David’s zeal got ahead of his mouth, and he criticized a Yale administrator. This led to his being thrown out. It was a major life disappointment, but after some searching, he felt called to Western Pennsylvania to become a missionary to the Indians.
Brainerd set off for the new adventure, hoping God would bear fruit through him. The results of his ministry there can only be described as lackluster. The Pennsylvania mission stalled. With dreams of ministry success dashed, he moved once again to New Jersey, to reach the Indians in that area. By then, his spiritual realizations had progressed to include a deep trust in God for their salvation. Accordingly, his work had a greater effect than ever before. But at the height of his success, young Brainerd was overcome with the tuberculosis that had been troubling him for years. Far more frequently he lapsed into bloody coughing, vomiting, and incapacitating fatigue. He became so deeply depressed that he earnestly wished for death on a number of occasions.
Brainerd finally died at the age of 29, a tree cut down while still a sapling. Or maybe that’s the embittered way we might interpret it.
He was done. God wasn’t.
For Brainerd had kept a journal. Upon reading it, his friend, Jonathan Edwards, was so deeply moved by Brainerd’s example of personal spirituality that he decided to publish it. Before long, the book found its way into the hands of missionaries. Exposed to Brainerd’s intense passion for Christ, their own delight in the glory of God was reignited. Untold others felt provoked to enter the mission field.
William Carey, who was called “the father of modern missions,” and influenced an entire generation to the mission field, himself referred to Brainerd’s journal as “a second Bible.”
God has continued bearing fruit through Brainerd’s “palm tree” long after tuberculosis cut him down. In the 267 years since it was published, his diary has never gone out of print.
And, as with him, God’s view of you—a “righteous one”—is bigger than the narrative you could create for yourself. Even before you knew about it, He wanted it for you.
It’s your turn to want it now.
¹Lena Berton, “State of Paris Streets That’s Inspired Its Very Own ‘Syndrome’.” The Wall Street Journal (9-17-15).