A pearl of wisdom I’ve often found helpful is the age-old proverb, “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” With an economy of words, it reminds me to be pleased and satisfied with all the Lord has given, and at the same time, to be wary of the fickle hunger of the flesh that can never be satisfied. While the ambitious may reject it as needlessly cautious, I’ve yet to find a follower who does not also find peace and contentment.
In many ways, I believe this passage agrees with Scripture. Indeed, Solomon says nearly the same thing in Ecclesiastes 6:9: “what the eyes see is better than what the soul desires.” Also, we keep the tenth commandment when we appreciate what we have instead of longing for what could be. And, as James points out, it helps us avoid multiplied sins:
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel… (James 4:1-2)
Without discounting this agreement, I think there’s also an important sense in which Scripture disagrees with the proverb, and it relates to our previous discussion on God’s reward. The previous blog entry recounts from Hebrews 11 how faith in God requires us to believe He is the great rewarder, and His reward is far greater than the costs of remaining faithful. But it’s important to remember that the reward is not yet realized, and will not be realized here on earth. Now, we are daily looking forward to something better than what we have, which is why the Bible calls it ‘faith’: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Since we do not yet possess this reward—at least not in full—then it is fair to say that two birds in the bush are worth much more than the one in hand.
If we were to reorient our understanding this way, I see at least three benefits. First, it pleases and honors God when we patiently keep our eyes on Him and His prize, and He gives divine endorsement to such anticipation. As Hebrews puts it, “…by [faith], the men of old gained approval” (v2). Second, we protect ourselves from being content with the meager offerings of this world. Hebrews tells us that the Old Testament saints considered themselves exiles on the earth, always looking forward to their heavenly homeland:
…if indeed they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God. (Hebrews 11:15-16)
Finally, when we look forward to the birds “in the bush” that we do not yet hold, we gain endurance to live a life of faith. It was by such faith that Moses “left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen” (v27). I had long assumed in reading Exodus that Moses fled because Pharaoh was seeking to kill him; but this verse contradicts that conclusion. Instead, Moses left because he considered “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking for the reward” (v26). To gain that unseen reward, Moses left Egypt to endure forty hard years as a desert shepherd, and that without regrets.
As is often the case, the Bible challenges our conventional thinking—and the instruction to embrace an unseen reward at any cost is no exception. It is easy to let the painful trials of this life occupy our minds and displace any thoughts of a better future. I think the problem here is that we either fail to let the word remind us of the truth of the matter, or we simply have too small a concept of what God’s reward might be like. In both cases, our inadequate understanding allows us to linger over earthly enticements rather than pursue the heavenly prize with reckless abandon. As John Newton describes it:
Suppose a man was going to New York to take possession of a large estate, and his [carriage] should break down a mile before he got to the city, which obliged him to walk the rest of the way; what a fool we should think him, if we saw him ringing his hands, and blubbering out all the remaining mile, “My [carriage] is broken! My [carriage] is broken!”
This poor man’s frustration makes it clear he is preoccupied with his present condition, and has given very little thought into where he is walking. Having a healthy understanding of where we are headed is the key to avoiding discouragement on the difficult road of faith. Our example, of course, is our Savior, which is why Hebrews urges us to fix, “our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)