Recently, I’ve wondered how often I allow my circumstances to dictate how I feel about God.
It’s not that I (or any of us, probably) vocalize the question: based on what’s happening, how do I feel about God right now? Intuitively, I understand that how I feel about God is irrelevant to who he is. I understand that my feeling toward him should not be dependent upon anything but trust, resulting in devotion. But circumstances seem to play a part in my degree of devotion, regardless….
It’s easy for me to fall into a habit of scanning various news sites for a ray of hope—as if hope could come from man. When I don’t find it; that is, when I discover again that everyone else is panicking, I end up in fear. This plays out similarly on an individual level. When work is stressful; when health issues arise; when looking into my square backyard reflects to me my anxieties about a warming, changing planet—I lapse into the easy and spiritually lazy apprehension of someone who doubts God’s dominion.
If I stopped to think, of course I’d say that God is in control. I could even quote Scripture, a psalm: “for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28). The right words are there, but my anxiety or anger shows that my habit is to turn from God.
Jeremiah draws a sheer dichotomy between these two postures in chapter 17:5-8. To him, the difference is—for all intents—life and death. “Cursed is the one…who draws strength from mere flesh…” (17:5). “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him” (17:7).
A line is drawn between those who trust in God regardless of circumstances and those who turn about, looking for ways to justify the circumstances; and the imagery Jeremiah uses to describe each side is vivid. The first—the one who leans on the strength of the flesh—“will be like a bush in the wastelands…” “They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.” (17:6).
According to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible note in Bible Gateway Plus, Jeremiah may have had a specific place in mind that the recipients of his words would have been familiar with. The depression of salt land beyond the Dead Sea, which was completely barren and “which conjures up memories of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
It also calls to mind the desert region that the Israelites wandered for so long after their exodus from Egypt. And, as God has shown his people, even these places are fertile soil for him to fashion us to his will. If my own circumstances (or circumstances in a broader sense) make me doubt either God’s power or his supremacy, it’s only because of my attempt to justify God. Instead, it’s he who justifies us, his creation. The Christian’s life is a process of his justification.
On the other side of Jeremiah’s line are those who understand this and live by it and are blessed. The images he uses are verdant, bringing to mind thoughts of (what else?) the Garden of Eden. For those whose confidence is in him:
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit. (17:7-8)
Recognize the potential for aridity around us (“a year of drought”). These are the circumstances that test us, from which we’re not exempt. And yet, through these circumstances, those who trust in the Lord still bear fruit by the vitality given us by the Lord’s power.
Skip ahead to the planting of the first churches after Jesus’ resurrection, and Paul draws a similar line in Romans 8:6. With him, the difference between “a mind governed by flesh” and one “governed by the Spirit” is precisely life and death—nothing more nor less. “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.”