Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12 ESV

No one likes waiting. It feels good to get what we want. Nevertheless, when our expectations are delayed for a long time, we can experience disappointment, disillusionment, and hope loss. In some cases, prolonged waiting for what we eagerly desire can become such an affliction to us that it differs little from a lingering sickness. This scenario is the exact meaning of Solomon’s words, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”

The term deferred in the passage means “to put off” or “drag out,” as in a long, drawn-out process. It speaks to the agonizing season of life when it seems our hopes and our dreams are nothing more than a figment of our imagination. Hope deferred can be a debilitating experience. Unanswered prayers. Prolonged sickness. Lost loved ones. Even the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations in relationships or careers. As we eagerly hope for something, and it keeps being postponed, the longing we feel can make our heart sick.

The heart in this passage speaks to the mental and emotional state of man, the inward person. To “make the heart sick” causes despair and affliction. The Good News Translation renders the verse like this: “When hope is crushed, the heart is crushed.” 

Many people find themselves in this hopeless prison. Staring into the empty abyss of their hopes, depression, anxiety, and even physical sickness wreak havoc. We lose touch with God, we sink into apathy, and we become vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks. 

Good people from good backgrounds make terrible decisions when their hearts are sick. In our zeal to meet these desires, people can turn to sin and rebellion to end the misery they find themselves in. While getting what we desire can be an excellent thing, we must not allow the pursuit of fulfillment to become a temptation to sin.

I often think of John the Baptist and his incredible faith in Christ and how he forsook an everyday life, dedicating himself to the cause of Christ’s mission. It was this man, John, who proclaimed to the masses who would listen, “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” This same John unequivocally declared, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” 

However, when John found himself in prison, things begin to change. There is an eery scene that unfolds in Matthew 11. John, realizing that his time on earth has come to an end, sits alone in a dark prison cell contemplating everything he has preached. Imagine the wrestling match of the mind with which John was struggling.

John had announced judgment, but Jesus was doing deeds of love and mercy. John had promised that the kingdom was at hand, but there was no evidence of it so far. He was perplexed about God’s plan and his place in it. 

In Luke’s version of this account, we see an even deeper glance at John’s predicament. John’s disciples are relaying information to John of the exploits of Jesus’ miraculous ministry. John’s disciples were there when Jesus healed that Centurion’s servant. They were there when Jesus raised a widow’s son from the grip of death. They enthusiastically tell John, and it is as if John heard nothing they said. 

Imagine the despondent look in John’s eye, as John looks up at his disciples and says, will you go to Jesus and ask Him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” I find it interesting that instead of Jesus giving John a word of encouragement, he tells John’s disciples to go and tell John AGAIN, of all the things you both see and hear. 

Then Jesus drops a bomb. Before John’s disciples could return with Jesus’ message, he stops them and arms them with one more message for John. “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” I am sure John’s response was, “I’m not offended!” John had deceived himself into believing that. The truth was that John had lost confidence in Jesus. When John’s EXPERIENCE no longer matched John’s EXPECTATION, John became offended. When life turned out different than what John had hoped, John got offended. 

When John’s hopes were crushed, and his heart got sick with disappointment, John became disillusioned. John, who, as an infant, leaped in his mother’s womb in acknowledgment of Jesus as Messiah, now asks a haunting question. “Are you whom you said you were? Or do I need to find another savior?” 

Sure, we have never explicitly said this to God, but our lifestyle and choices have reflected it. When people venture outside of the will of God to find something that only God can give them, our hearts are sick, and our spirits are offended. 

Like John, often, our expectations do not match our current experiences. When this happens, the temptation is to think God lied or betrayed us. When we wrongly interpret evidence, we can come to the wrong conclusion. We always see what we are looking for. This can lead to mistrust. Suddenly, everything we view through those spectacles of mistrust causes us to see things wrongly, and only appears to confirm our suspicions. We think that God is testing us, or worse, punishing us. If we have the wrong interpretation of life, this can impact the way we view our life, our relationships, or see God. We can then begin to project our feelings of resentment onto Him, or those closest to us. We will turn and blame God or those around us for our misery. 

Perhaps that is why Solomon continued and said, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The tree of life represents the renewal of life. When our hopes and desires are fulfilled, we, in turn, are refreshed. Here is the real question. Where should our hope be found? In an answered prayer? In the desired outcome? In a job promotion, or a new relationship? No! The Psalmist asked this question in Psalm 39:7, “And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?” He then answered his own question and said, “My only hope is in you.” The Lord alone is the true fulfillment of our longings. As long as we search for external things to satisfy our souls’ emptiness, we will remain sick. However, when we learn to trust in Jesus, regardless of our circumstances, and when we find our fulfillment in him rather than external sources, we will have access to the tree of life. A never-ending renewing source of peace, joy, and contentment. 

It is not easy to keep trusting God in difficult times, especially when we feel disappointed by Him. If you find yourself struggling with mistrust or cynicism, come to God with an open heart. Lay your bitterness, confusion, mistrust, and cynicism at His feet. Let Him renew your hope for your future.

Published by Joshua McElhaney

Joshua McElhaney has served over 15 years in ministry, serving as both an Assistant Pastor for over a decade, and as lead Pastor. During his time in leadership, Joshua learned many valuable lessons about leading. Using his own experiences and the troves of Biblical treasures, McElhaney has created resources that will enlighten, empower, and enable leaders across the spectrum to lead the way God has called them to lead. Joshua married Karena, his college sweetheart, in June of 2007. Together they have three beautiful children; Mayli, Jaxson, and Asher.

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