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What Is the Meaning of the Proverb, 'Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick'?

What Is the Meaning of the Proverb, 'Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick'?

Proverbs 13:12 is where you can find the phrase, "hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life" (NIV).

Many translations translate the phrase "hope deferred makes the heart sick" in the same way, with the same words. "Defer" means to put off to a later time or postpone. When we’re hoping for something, we don’t want to put it off for later. We want it now. The Message paraphrase says it this way: "unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick." When we are looking at something as unrelenting disappointment, we probably aren’t seeing God’s providence. This is why God in His wisdom defers some things in our lives – so He can teach us more about the whole picture.

What Does 'Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick' Mean?

The phrase, "a longing fulfilled is a tree of life" is translated in various ways. A dream fulfilled is a tree of life (NLT). When desire is fulfilled, it is a tree of life (AMP). A sudden good break can turn life around (The Message). When the desire comes, it is a tree of life (NKJV). Fulfilled means to be satisfied, happy, content, or at peace. Being at peace is where God wants to bring us. Not everything that brings us happiness also brings us peace. But when peace comes into our hearts, happiness and joy will reside there as well.

What Do We Do with a Hope Deferred that Makes the Heart Sick?

Sometimes it is necessary for hope deferred to be a part of our lives even though it may take us on a roller coaster of emotions. Just don’t get off the ride in the middle. Wait until the end destination is reached. Here are three different ways a hope deferred can affect us:

1. Hope deferred can bring our doubts and unbelief to the surface.

In Exodus 32, Moses was up on Mount Sinai speaking with the Lord. It took a long time for Moses to come back down the mountain. The people got anxious and asked Aaron to make them statues that symbolized the gods they’d heard about (idols). Instead of waiting for advice from the God that had rescued them, their doubts caused them to look elsewhere for hope.

2. Hope deferred can cause you to step away from God’s plan into your own.

In Genesis 15, God made a promise to Abram that he would have many descendants starting from a son. But in Genesis 16, Abram’s wife, Sarai, let unbelief grow in her heart. She hadn’t become pregnant yet, so she thought of her own plan instead of waiting on God’s. Maybe her maidservant, Hagar, could bring about this prophecy? Hagar did become pregnant, but the prophecy remained unfulfilled, and enmity grew among Sarai, Hagar, and Abram. More years went by and Abram’s unbelief grew along with his wife’s. But God re-confirmed His commitment. He even changed their names with this new covenant. Abraham and Sarah would indeed bear a son to begin a long line of descendants.

3. Hope deferred can lead you to the One with the answers.

In 1 Samuel, Hannah desired a son with her husband, Elkanah. Hannah was full of sorrow but she didn’t curl up in her sadness. She took her anguish and bitterness to God in prayer and her sorrow left her, even before God granted her desire for a son. Hannah placed her hope in God.

What we do with our desires and hopes matters.

It’s actually waiting that makes the heart feel sick. We don’t know if the thing we want will ever happen. We want to have more control of our lives even while knowing that God always has the final say. During times of waiting, we either grow in faith or in bitterness. It is most advantageous to be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for Him to act (Psalm 37:7). In this way, our faith grows, and peace plants itself within our hearts. But if we nurse our anger and disappointment with feelings of this-isn’t-fair, bitterness will grow in our hearts and minds.

Perseverance is like a quiet bowing to God’s ultimate will. It’s not a pit bull desperately clenching a rubber ball. We don’t wait with gritted teeth. We wait with a softened heart and a subdued mind. We keep looking to the Lord. We keep learning. We keep on growing our character. And we also keep doing good as we wait. We don’t sit idle until we get what we want. At any minute, God can do what we desired or something even greater. Keep praying to see His will over your own. He gives us what we need in due season. A harvest of blessings should come our way if we don’t give up and if we don’t hold too tightly to our own thinking.

Humble yourself under the mighty power of God, and at the right time He will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, because He cares about you very much (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Waiting often takes longer than we want it to. It isn’t easy. We can grow exhausted from constantly crying for God’s help. Our eyes may swell from our weeping. It is hard. This is why we must continually take all of our waiting-induced anxieties to our Father in Heaven. He promises to calm us down, dry our eyes, and instill hope within us again. Always remember that God’s timing is a lot different than our desired schedule. A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day (2 Peter 3:8). So, rejoice in confident hope, be patient in troubles, and keep on praying (Romans 12:12).

God sometimes gives us glimpses of something in our future. He doesn’t usually give us every detail. If He did, our faith would be obsolete. Yet sometimes those small glimpses are there giving us something to hope for. This vision is for a future time, so if it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place (Habakkuk 2:3). Although you should hold that initial glimpse loosely because it may be different from what you envisioned. The essence of it will be there but the details may look different.

Our initial desires aren’t always in line with God’s thinking. Sometimes we must wait in order to process those desires properly. God takes us deeper than our surface desires. He takes us to our deepest longings and our needs and those will be fulfilled and will bring life to ourselves and those around us.

Consider a farmer who works hard getting his soil ready and planting many seeds. He keeps busy at everything he knows to do. But he prays for the things that aren’t under his control. He has a vision of a grand harvest. So, he prays for the proper amount of rain and he looks forward with hope for that harvest to come in the fall. He does what he can and trusts God for everything else.

Practical Applications of Proverb 13 and 'Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick' in Our Lives Today

In life, we’re always waiting on something. Each season has its own hope deferred moments. A teenager is waiting to be out on their own. A college graduate is waiting on their first big job. A single person is waiting for when they’ll fall in love and get married. A married couple is waiting on their first child. An empty nester is waiting for their prodigal to return to God. Then there are times in life when we’re waiting on answers. Will my loved one in surgery make it? Will the cancer go into remission? Will criminals and perpetrators be caught and punished?

Life is so uncertain. The best thing to do is wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous as you wait patiently for Him (Psalm 27:14). And pray about everything. Every detail and every hope. Because the Lord cares for you.

Yes, hope deferred can make the heart sick, but also it can make the heart stick. Stick to God throughout everything. Clinging to God is what brings us hope.

So the Lord must wait for you to come to Him so He can show you His love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for His help. Isaiah 30:18

A Prayer for Hope When Life is Chaotic

Jesus, some days my world seems to be spinning out of control. Everywhere I look, I see chaos—even in my own life. There are days where I long to just throw in the towel and say, "Enough." Where can I turn? Who can I talk to?

You're the only one I know who will truly listen, Lord. And I know you have the answers. But I can't seem to find them. I long to see a little clearing in this tunnel. I need a little hope, Jesus. Your Word tells me I can come to you for that hope and that you won't disappoint, that your load is easy and your burden light.

When things look hopeless, I will hope in you. You died to give us hope, not only eternally, so we could live forever with you, forgiven and free. But you also provide a way daily for us to live above the cares of this world. Thank you for reminding me of that in your Word. Your spirit lives in us—in me—as your child and follower. Sometimes I forget that!

Thank you for understanding me and loving me, just as I am. And thank you for accepting me even when I was a hopeless case—just as we all were at one time. Perfect people in a perfect world would have no need of your gift of hope. With my eyes on you, I want to see life as you see it. I don't want to waste time being negative or withdrawn from others, focusing only on what can't be or what might never change. Teach me how to find contentment even if my circumstances remain the same. With your perspective, I can push past the impossible and find the strength and courage to believe that no matter what happens, your hope will lift me to a higher plane—where joy and purpose reign again.

In Your precious name that is above all names and all this mess, Amen. (Debbie McDaniel, A Prayer for When Things Seem Hopeless and Chaotic)

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/ksenija18kz

headshot of author Jenni HeerenJennifer Heeren loves to write and wants to live in such a way that people are encouraged by her writing and her attitude. She loves to write devotional articles and stories that bring people hope and encouragement. Her cup is always at least half-full, even when circumstances aren’t ideal. She regularly contributes to Crosswalk. Her debut novel is available on Amazon. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia with her husband. Visit her at her website and/or on Facebook.

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