“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” ~ Proverbs 4:23
A human being is a fascinating creature. There is such depth to us. “How like a god!” Shakespeare marveled through his Hamlet. Yet have you noticed though how science today is trying its darndest to strip us down to nothing more than a hodge-podge of biological matter? All the great and complex dimensions of human behavior and thought which Shakespeare explored in his plays – desire, shame, morality, temptation, love, lust, vengeance, beauty, guilt and redemption – all of this is nothing more than chemicals and neurons firing away.
Which is why all modern science can do anymore to treat human ailments is to medicate it. “Oh, you’re depressed. Here’s a pill.” “You can’t sleep? Here’s a pill.” “You’re child’s acting up? Here’s a pill.” We can’t talk about what’s happening in the soul of a person. Because there is no soul. You’re just a body and brain, that’s all.
Sure, sometimes there are biochemical causes and imbalances behind our depressions and our pathologies, in which case, a medical response is appropriate. But a child acting out because his or her parents are divorcing, or you tossing in bed at night because you’ve done something immoral, doesn’t require a pill. It requires medicine for the soul. It requires an examination of the heart.
Depending on your English translation, the word heart is mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible. Rather than referring to a specific aspect of our personality, these verses describe the heart as a composite of our will, emotions and intellect. The heart is the entire interior, invisible part of us that connects with both body/brain and spirit. It’s like the control room of a TV show (if you saw the brilliant Pixar movie “Inside Out” you should be able to easily visualize this.) All the decisions you make about what to do, what to think, what to feel, all come from the control room of the heart.
The heart can be described as the motivational center of a human. The heart is where we learn the direction of a person’s will. The heart is like the possession arrow in college basketball pointing to one team or another.
When David says in Psalm 9:1 – “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,” he’s not saying he wants to jump up and down. He is saying, “God, I’m praising you with all my being. Every part of me is oriented toward you. I’m not holding anything back.” Someone like Pharaoh in the time of Moses had a hard heart. It was hard, not because he was unemotional about God, but because he resisted God. A person with a soft heart wants to please God and keep in step with his leading.
Sometimes to get a soft heart, our heart must first be broken. So David says in Psalm 51:17 – “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Sometimes we do things half-heartedly and we say, “My heart’s not in this.” (That’s how I change the cat litter.) Sometimes we treat God the same way. We go through the motions and put in our time, but we’d rather be doing something else.
We can honor God with our lips while our hearts are far from him (Matthew 15:7-9). Or sometimes part of us wants to know God better, but another part of us could care less. Our heart is divided. King David understood this tension and so he prays in Psalm 86:11 – “Unite my heart to fear your name.”
Most people have no idea what drives them from within. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, they treat everything externally. They say to themselves, “If I fix what’s happening on the outside, I’ll be OK.” Many young people are shocked to learn that what they thought would be the ultimate porn blocker – marriage – does not take away their uncontrollable urges. Until those urges are evicted from your heart, they will go wherever you go, even down the aisle.
Jesus made it clear that the main driver of evil is not what’s outside of us, but what’s inside of us. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Matthew 15:19-20). Until the heart is brought to heel and disciplined, you won’t experience real freedom.
So how do you train the heart?
First, you and Jesus have to make regular inspections of the condition of your heart.
The Puritans of old called this the discipline of self-examination. The idea is based on Scriptures like 2 Corinthians 13:5 – “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test
yourselves.” Or Lamentations 3:40 – “Let us test and examine our ways and return to the Lord!”
This is admittedly a very difficult thing to do because ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ (Jeremiah 17:9) and it is so very easy for us to deceive ourselves. So how do we examine ourselves in a way that might actually do us some good?
Second, you then need to be willing to listen to what God reveals to you about the sin that’s in your heart.
David gives God a carte blanche in Psalm 139:23-24 that many would find unnerving. “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
If you’re wondering how we learn these things from God, you’re forgetting everything we talked about in last week’s readings. First and foremost, God speaks to us through his Word. The Bible calls itself a mirror in which we look every time we read it (James 1:23-25). Nine out of ten times when you look at a mirror, you respond to what you see in some way. You toss your hair. Adjust your shirt. Scratch at a zit. Your respond to the reflection. The same should be true with Scripture.
You read and reflect, then you pray and listen, and in that quietness you invite God through his Spirit to put his finger on those things that he wishes to work on in you. I can’t think of a better prayer to pray than David’s from Psalm 139.
Don’t stop there. For it’s still possible to be blind to the churning of our inner demons.
Third, give permission to an accountability friend, or your pastor, your spouse, or your small group to speak into your life.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” says Proverbs 27:6. Share with them where you think God wants to work on your heart, and ask for their feedback. Be bolder yet, and ask them, “Would you speak to me truthfully about anything you see in my life that is hurting me spiritually? That is falling short of what God expects of me? Is there anything you see in me that is hurting me or anyone else?”
As you do this, pay very close attention to your emotions. As we’ll discuss in the next reading, your emotions can be a very telling diagnostic clue to what lies beneath, in your heart.
Fourth, ask yourself why is this sinful behavior or attitude there? What are its roots? Where did it come from?
No healing or maturing can come to your heart until you summon the courage to ask yourself this question. In Genesis 4, God came to Cain while he was stewing in jealousy and anger at his brother Abel, and God asked him, “Cain, why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” God wanted to nip this thing in the bud before something worse happened. “Sin is crouching at your door, Cain, but you must master it.” Cain though wouldn’t look at his heart honestly. He refused to ask the ‘why’ question, and went on to murder his brother and ruin his life.
So ask yourself: Why do you tear people apart with your tongue? Why can’t you keep from piling up more and more debt? Why can’t you get on the Internet without going into forbidden places? Why does food rule your life? Why are you always late to meetings? Why are you and your spouse always quarreling?
I promise you, there are roots to each of our behaviors. There are reasons why we do the things we do. You must get at those roots. They may be twisted. They may be entwined together with other roots. They probably sink deeper into you than you ever could have imagined. But Jesus wants to get the whole thing out – flower, stem, leaf and root. We’ll drive this thought a little deeper when we discuss our emotions.
The soul-work of self-examination is not for the faint of heart. Many would far rather do colonoscopy prep than this. Self-examination is not for the impatient either. There are no quick fixes in repairing the soul. And it’s painful. Scripture calls us to ‘die to ourselves’. Dying, the last time I looked, wasn’t a lot of fun. But until you begin the work of training your heart, most everything else we’ll talk about this week will fall far short of the healing you desire.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
Write out five observations you make about the “heart” from this reading.
Have you ever practiced true self-examination? What obstacles make this a difficult thing to do?
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “From The Inside Out” (Joel Houston)
This Week’s Memory Verses
“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” ~ Philippians 4:8
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” ~ Psalm 42:11