The heart according to Jesus

The word of God tells us that the sickness of the human heart is such that no person can understand it. [Jer. 17:9]  We can take this scripture to mean that it is impossible to understand the workings of the spiritual heart in a general sense.  Or, we can take it to mean that it is impossible to understand the heart’s sinfulness, specifically.  Either way, what seems abundantly clear is that we cannot know our hearts completely if we rely only on our human knowledge and wisdom.  The nature and extent of the condition of these evil hearts is veiled from our eyes, and it takes someone to unveil the truth for us.  While on Earth, Jesus did just that as He taught quite a bit about the heart, and those teachings can give us insight into how this spiritual organ operates in us.

Lk. 8:11-15

Now the parable is this:  The seed is the word of God.  The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.  And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.  But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.  And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.  As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

The general message of the parable is that the word of God interacts with the heart to bring about a change.  That is the place where we are changed at justification, but this is not a simple process.  There are several things that can get in the way.  The devil himself can take the word from a person, and that seems to suggest that we must guard the word in our hearts.  The same way we lock up worldly treasure that we do not want taken from us, we also must be vigilant about keeping God’s word safe in our hearts from day one.  Beyond that, we must allow it to take root.  Yes, the pure word of God can take root in these desperately wicked hearts, but we must foster that growth.  To receive the word of God joyfully is insufficient if the process stops there.  Something more is needed for roots to grow in that heart and pass the time of testing.

We can be successful in guarding God’s word from the devil and in allowing it to take root in our hearts, but we still can be distracted by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this world.  Those things are in opposition to what the word of God wants to do in our hearts.  His word should bring us security, true wealth, and pleasure.  The heart is naturally focused on the things of this physical and fallen world, but the word of God shifts the focus to his spiritual truths.  Those who submit to those distractions eventually will abandon the good word they initially received so gladly.  The victorious ones are those who hold fast to the word, guard it from being stolen, and yield the heart to change.  The changed heart will be good and honest, and it will bear good fruit in its time.  If we allow God’s word to serve its purpose in our hearts, we need not fear the power of the devil, the times of testing, or the cares and distractions of this world.  He can make our hearts good, honest, fruitful, and strong. 

Mt. 6:19-21

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This passage contains a specific principle and a general principle.  Jesus’s words here speak specifically to what we consider treasure.  Many of us might acquaint this with monetary treasure, but this can be anything that we believe holds true value.  Some people chase things that are not necessarily worth a lot of money but that bring them joy or fill a void.  It is a matter of where we spend not only our money, but also our time, our attention, and our affections.  The specific principle here is that the way in which we store up our treasures indicates the things our hearts value.  The man who spends his time, energy, and resources focused on building a worldly empire at the expense of building in God’s spiritual kingdom shows us clearly which of these his heart considers valuable.

The general principle here is that we behave according to the whims of the heart.  Whether we spend our time doing good, Godly things or every kind of evil under the sun, we are acting according to that which resides in our hearts, and this is where maturity comes into play.  While justification is an instant change, it does not bring the spiritual maturity necessary for us to grow in Christlikeness and please God.  It is not as if one moment after justification we decide that we hate all sin and love everything that is pure and holy.  The heart is changed and matured over time to desire what is good instead of what is evil and to produce good fruit.  This is a process, and its completion is necessary for our faith.  Without maturing in Christ, we do not belong to Christ.  It is for us to yield to this process so that change in our hearts brings genuine change in our actions.

Mt. 12:33-37

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.  You brood of vipers!  How can you speak good, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.  I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

If you plan on spending a lot of time around vipers, the most important thing to remember is that these snakes are venomous.  While their bite will be painful, the greater concern is the deadly nature of the substance that enters your body by means of that bite.  The purpose of the venom is not merely to injure or mame prey.  While the venom of some species is more lethal than others, viper venom generally causes necrosis and contains an anticoagulant.  It kills the cells in the affected tissue and keeps the blood from clotting.  In comparing the Pharisees to a brood of vipers, Jesus was saying that what came out of them was deadly poison.  Instead of speaking good words and bringing life, they were speaking evil words and bringing death.  These words were spoken from hearts that sincerely desired to lead the people away from Jesus and the everlasting life He offers.

The words of Jesus questioning how these men could speak good while being so evil served at least two purposes.  First, it was an opportunity for introspection and humility.  Jesus was telling these men what they were and how they were, and He was giving them an opportunity to respond to what they should have known about themselves.  Some responded by asking to see a sign from him, but they needed no sign.  They should have known the truth of the words God spoke to them about themselves because they knew so much of God’s word.  Second, Jesus made this statement in front of the public.  This was a warning for them to be wary of what might have appeared to be good or holy words coming from these men.  If they were evil, and no good could from them, then that means that anything apparently good from them was counterfeit.  Without a heart changed by God, they would not be able to produce anything good on their own, and that is the case for all of us.

Mk. 7:5-9

[T]he Pharisees and the scribes asked [Jesus], “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’  You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”  And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

We can live this life our own way, but that will lead to death. [Pro. 14:12]  That way can be something that does not look remotely like what the scriptures describe as a Godly way of life, or it can look very much like that but not be exactly so.  The Pharisees and scribes followed a specific way of life, but it was really a way of death.  Generations of deviation from God’s truth led to an establishment of ungodly tradition held out as being Godly living.  Those who were in authority and control over God’s people were living spiritually dead lives and oppressing and deceiving the people in the process.  This is because their hearts were not receptive to the truth of God’s word.  They were more concerned with their traditions and the appearance that it gave them among the people.  What I think we see here is disobedience and dishonor resulting from a proud heart.

Jesus quoted a prophecy of Isaiah which declares that the issue for these men was the distance between their hearts and God.  What they decided to follow was their own human teachings, but they held those teachings out to the people to present them as God’s truth.  What appeared to be worship was nothing more than pretense.  The words they spoke to show God honor were fake.  They did not honor the one true God but honored themselves and this religion that they had manufactured by adulterating the truth for their own gain.  This false religion supposedly rested on the scriptures, and these men could argue that well.  Yes, they knew the scriptures, but they did not know their meaning.  They instead gave a different meaning to God’s word and tried to make it their own.  This is the result of hearts, which do not love the truth, attempting to write a more desirable truth to satisfy the self.

Jn. 7:37-39

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

A thirsty person in search of good potable water must go to the right source.  A pond of still water covered in algae would be out of the question.  A sewer pipe under the street would be no better.  Not all liquids and not all water are life-sustaining.  If the thirsty person drinks from the wrong source, the result will be death.  Spiritually, it works much the same way.  Every heart is the source of an outflow.  The question is whether the source is full of life or death, because the heart that is still sinful cannot be a source of life.  The way that the heart becomes a source of life is through transformation and the indwelling of God’s Spirit.  Perhaps this is why the scriptures address friendship and influence as being spiritually significant.  Just as we must be mindful of what resides within our hearts, we also must be mindful of what pours out of the hearts of others. 

The great conflict between good and evil, the struggle between darkness and light, is foundationally a war between life and death.  On one side, we have our sinful nature and the demonic realm, which both work to keep us dead in our sin.  On the other side, we have a gracious and loving God who wants to give us eternal life in a kingdom infinitely greater than any we could find in this world.  If we want to navigate this battle successfully, we must be able to discern that which is produced by the hearts we encounter.  We must be wise to draw near to those who pour out life.  Their friendship and influence is valuable and beneficial.  We also must be wise to keep a safe distance from those who pour out death.  We should desire to influence them, but we cannot allow them to influence us, and we do not call them friends.  Our fellowship must be with light and life, not with darkness and death.

Our journey of faith begins and ends with the heart.  That is where our sin resides.  That is where the word of God penetrates and takes root.  That is the source of our words, actions, and desires.  When we speak of spiritual death, that death resides in and pours out of the heart.  It is only through the surrender of that heart to God for transformation that we can hope to be filled with life, and it is only then that we are able to pour out living water through his Spirit for others.  A seat of influence and affection, we must guard the heart fervently so as not to be led astray.  The success of the solitary saint, as well as that of the greater body of Christ, depends on how the heart is kept.  We must treat the matter as criticality as the scriptures demand.  Let us pray that God would help us keep our hearts inclined toward him, abounding in goodness, truth, light, and love.