(By Thor Knutstad)
Proverbs 14:10 – Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share in its joy.
Empathy can sometimes be overrated. When we feel understood by another person, our heart feels a connection – a safety of sorts. They seem to be able to step back in time with us into the darkest and most painful moments of life. Our hearts want to rest in the compassionate sympathy of someone else walking in our shoes. At a simple glance, even the most seasoned theologian will read the above verse and want to hone in on the word “bitterness.” The legalism of a moral stance is taken, and we wrongly assume that the wise poet is saying something about forgiveness or maybe resentment. But that isn’t what he is saying at all. The first part of the verse says something like this (as I can best translate in my biblical vernacular): “Every person’s journey is unique to him or her – only that person knows how they have suffered, been under tests and trials and hurt in pain through heart moments individually.”
This is not a stance against empathy. Empathy comes from the one who has experienced something similar or who can, at minimum, feel what has been experienced. But when I read the wisdom of Proverbs 14:10, I am reminded that my journey has this unique direction – it’s made just for me. And it’s not just about pain and suffering; it’s also about my joy. In other words, I am the only one who really gets the good things in my life – these things that absolutely elate my heart and bring happiness. I don’t think that there is a distinction between the temporary and the eternal here, but it appears that the lean is on the earthly and the “earthy” of this present and pre-eternal life. So whether in my pain or in my joy, only my heart has lived in that context and within all that history of moments both individually and accumulated. Of course, our ever present God was and is there through all the moments and sees into my overall heart, but others really cannot – not my wife, not my husband, not my pastor, not my counselor and not even anyone in my family.
The reason a verse like this ought to prick our hearts is to remind us that though we think we see into the depths and the scope of another’s life, we cannot and we do not. When we wrongly do this or some variance thereof, we border on being a Pharisee. Our counsel is full of shoulds, woulds, oughts and ought nots. Our assumptions judge the moments and another’s varied responses and reactions. We label reaping and sowing and consequence without marrying this to God’s grace and mercy – which only He can ever do in His magnificent combination of omniscience and sovereignty. I think maybe I can say that our God knows His own pain of weep and magnanimous joy simultaneously. The best illustration of this is in our Lord Jesus, where the cross merges in all of history. It’s a bitter moment to watch Your Son be beaten, be mocked, be condemned and be crucified – sad, painful and fearful. But it is joy knowing that Your wrath (God’s) over sin is fully satisfied by the cross and that sin is paid for – fully. Joy. And the resurrection awaits. God’s joy, eternal fellowship and bliss await. The pivotal moment of the cross forever changes history because it merges perfectly both suffering and joy. God gets it. He lives it as a Father, and He lives it as a Son. He lives it as the Spirit who permeates our lives and walks each step in us and with us. In this we can rest. In all the bitterness there is joy. And an even greater joy awaits us still yet. Praise Him.