Many years ago, I had a good friend, let us call him James. James was the dearly beloved pastor of our church, and had walked together with the community through all kinds of blessings and challenges, on both a personal and corporate level. We often shared key high days and holidays and he and his household, together with other deep connections in our church, were something like family to us.
So, it came as a deep shock to us when, one day, James asked us for a meeting during which he excitedly told us he was going to join another denomination and would be leaving us. The denomination in question isn’t overly important here, other than to say it was one with which we had some serious doctrinal issues.
When we got over the initial shock, we wanted to understand what had motivated him to make such a radical change, in particularly without discussing with friends. But, to our dismay, it did not prove possible to have a meaningful conversation. His mind was completely made up, and any conversation was as if through a one-way valve – seeking to convert us to his viewpoint.
Shortly after, he left the church, and suffice to say unfortunately our friendship became rather strained. Over the subsequent months we sought to understand what had happened, and eventually we came to the thought that this was really about matters fundamental to the heart. Even though I have intentionally obscured the story, I will not divulge what I believe those matters were, though they were not something bad in and of themselves.
However, as a result of that time, it brought me to a deeper appreciation of how our heart drives us. How we can make a decision in our heart for reasons that we perhaps don’t really understand, and then we employ all the extensive resources of our mind in defence and justification of that decision.
It is not for no reason that God says:
The heart is deceitful above all thingsJeremiah 17 v 9
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
Above all else, guard your heart,Proverbs 4 v 23
for everything you do flows from it.
We often think that we control our heart, that we can make the decisions and our heart will follow along. Sometimes, maybe that is true. But do not be deceived, for it is so often not the case.
I want to be good, until I encounter urges in my heart that corrode my very being.
I want to be holy, until I encounter other people.
I want to do the right thing, until someone needs to take the garbage out.
St Paul understood:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.Romans 7 v 15
In the rest of Romans 7, Paul goes on to talk about what is today an unpopular concept – sin! He knows that “good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” And it is this law of sin, our DNA of rebellion, our heart sickness, that is still responsible for the darkness and marring of the world.
Secret sins are corrosive, our hidden idols reach out to claim what is not theirs, and false doctrine and perversion of truth comes from men trying to justify themselves and their unrighteous pleasures.
And what is interesting, much like God confirmed Pharaoh’s hard heart after the first 5 plagues, so does He confirm the lie within those who have ‘pleasure in unrighteousness’.
And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.2 Thessalonians 2 v 11-12
And don’t be deceived by the ‘them’. The them is also us, in our base nature.
In our popular movies, traditionally we identify with the ‘good guy’. Nobody wants to identify as the villain! It is a strange thing then that, in the vista that God presents over the millennia, in all the stories, that we are almost completely identified as the rebels. The ‘good guys’ are few and far between , and usually fatally flawed themselves.
Well, this is all a bit of a downer isn’t it? For sure. But until we have plumbed the depths of the illness , correctly diagnosed and accepted it, we can’t really move forward. Without understanding the very deceitfulness of our hearts, the likelihood is that we will continue to try to blame others, blame our environment, minimise our faults and continue to whitewash the tottering walls that we constantly erect.
We won’t get anywhere until we can agree with G K Chesterton who, when asked “What’s wrong with the world today?” was able to answer “I am.”
When we can get there, when we reach rock bottom and stretch out our hands and plead for help (real help not help* (*conditions apply)) – when we know there is nothing we can do in ourselves to push back our darkness – then comes something new.
For God also says something else about the heart:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.Ezekiel 36 v 26
And this is the essence of the Christian message, that
because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.Ephesians 2 v 4-9
This is the hope of the heart, that God takes our darkness and sinfulness into himself, and replaces it with light, grace, peace, mercy and love. And this is not of our doing, but by grace alone.
One last thought. How may these things be? If you are like me, you may be tempted to ‘help’ in the process. And by that I mean, take ownership. If so, hear this:
for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.Philippians 2 v13
That is to say, it is God’s good work in us. Fur sure, we need to be obedient to the work, but it is His work. One he will complete over a lifetime.
This is the hope of our hearts, that one day we will enter His presence, and find that somehow this work has been completed, and that we now fully and completely reflect Him – the author and finisher of our faith.