Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, wrote a book called “Lean In,” encouraging professional women to embrace the challenge of work-life balance, to work smarter and stop getting in the way of their own success. “Lean In” is a term used in sports to push harder and become stronger, to shift your body weight towards the obstacle, not away from it.
It’s a very American idea: to respond to challenge by stepping up your game. “Lean In” makes sense to middle class Americans who have been taught to be independent, tough, hardworking and self-sufficient. But the Bible doesn’t teach “lean in” so much as “lean on.” Proverbs 3:1-12 contains one of the most-quoted verses of Proverbs: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” Proverbs goes on to advise us, “do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh, And strength to your bones.”
According to Proverbs, you cannot lean into your own understanding. The Hebrew word for “lean” is “shaan,” and it means to physically lean on something as well as to metaphorically rely on someone or something, like the song “lean on me.” One place we can find this word is when Samson comes to the temple in Judges, after his hair has been cut, he’s been blinded, and everyone thinks he’s lost his strength. He says to the boy leading him that he is so weak that he needs to lean on a pillar for strength. But he pulls a trick on the boy and all the Philistines; he doesn’t just lean on the pillar but pushes it down, so that the Temple crushes him and a whole lot of Philistines with him. When Samson says he needs to lean on something, he uses the same word that’s used here.
Proverbs says you cannot lean on your own understanding, or insight. You cannot, according to Proverbs, support yourself. You can’t lean on yourself. You can’t stand on your own two feet. This is very hard for most Americans. And I see it a lot with aging. Please forgive me for speaking about something I haven’t yet experienced firsthand, but I believe aging is one of the most difficult things we have to do in life, and very few people talk about it. Aging is pushed under the rug. We don’t like to think about it. And it’s because we, as Americans, like to think we are independent, self-reliant, free. When you physically have to lean on a cane, or a walker, or an arm, to find handles to grab and low steps, it’s not just a physical challenge, but the emotional challenge is perhaps just as hard if not more so. People don’t want to lose their independence, we don’t want to be a burden.
But the fact is that we are, none of us, independent. Even those who seem strong, powerful, the “lean in” superwomen and men who seem to have it all together—we all of us lean on others every day. You did not come into this world on your own, and you will not come out alone. You and I did not cut the grain that made the bread on our table. We did not pump the water that comes through our tap. We cannot do it on our own.
Proverbs calls us not to try to lean, or rely, on our own understanding, but to trust God and follow Him. Now this word, understanding, can also be translated insight; it means to judge between different things and figure out what is right. When we try to figure out what is right or wrong on our own, we fail. Because my understanding is based on a very limited range of experience as to what “right” is. But God is right itself, goodness itself, love itself. In our moments of temptation, frustration, and discouragement, we must recognize, first, that we are too weak to go it alone, and turn to God and his Word for strength. We have to shift our body weight off of our own two feet and onto Him. We cannot be wise in our own eyes. Religious people, especially, can be guilty of this; thinking we know everything about the Bible and are holier than others. When you begin to think you can see everything, you start forgetting to check your blind spots.
Now, the point of this passage not that we can have no freedom or independence at all. Understanding as it is used here is, fundamentally, distinguishing between right and wrong; it’s not the same as knowledge. “Do not rely on your own understanding” does not mean we cannot learn, get knowledge, about the world from science and history. It does not even mean that we can’t take into account our own thoughts about right and wrong. But we can’t stop there. Another translation of the word “shaan” is “rest.” Do not rest in your own understanding. You can pause there, but don’t stop. Turn to God, lean on him, rest in him, and keep going. This a partnership between you and God. Think of the cane; think of the walker. You lean on them. But they still won’t work unless you do. We have to keep going. But we can’t do it alone.
The Olympics finished recently, and so I thought today, I would leave you with an image from another Olympics, over twenty years ago, of what happens when we can no longer stand on our own two feet.
You and I have to finish the race. We have to keep the faith. But we don’t have to walk alone. Our father runs to us! Breaking through every barrier, every wall, breaking down our own pride and resistance and coming to hold us, to carry us, to lift us to the finish line. You’re never a burden to God. Lean on him. Rest in him. He will lead you through.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.