I have been thinking a lot about the heart lately. Not the four-chambered muscle working around the clock to keep us alive, but the heart in the biblical sense, as the seat of our emotions and desires. Our truest selves. The youest you.
The Bible has a lot to say about the heart. A search through scripture shows that our hearts can be divided or made of stone, and need replacing; our hearts can be wise, and they can be stolen by one glance of the eyes; our hearts can be filled with pride; they can be glad and they can be broken; our hearts can leap for joy or lament, and they can writhe in agony, and they can fail; our hearts can be confident and steadfast, brave like a lion’s; they can harden, they can open, they can condemn us.
There is much more. The heart, it seems, is boundless in its ability to shape our actions and attitude for good or for evil. In James, we read that the cause of quarreling and fighting is the war of our passions within us (4:10), that is, in our hearts. James says, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). Besides being especially timely advice for those of us living through a pandemic, this verse speaks to the beginning of the cure of this heart sickness. But before any of us head to the doctor, we have to come to terms with how sick we really are.
As the prayer goes in the Puritan prayer book The Valley of Vision, “My heart is an unexhausted fountain of sin, a river of corruption since childhood days, flowing on in every pattern of behavior.” Harsh, but not wrong, if we’re being honest. Even the good things that our hearts desire we manage to turn into sin. But the writer doesn’t leave us hopeless: “Thy grace has given me faith in the cross by which thou hast reconciled thyself to me and me to thee, drawing me by thy great love, reckoning me as innocent in Christ though guilty in myself.” Neither does James leave us bereft as sinners and double-minded: “But he gives more grace.” That one little sentence is a sermon in itself!
Then in the following chapter James says, “Establish your hearts.” I pondered for a while what that could mean, but the best clue comes from many other translations that use the word “strengthen” in place of establish. That makes sense to me, because physical fitness is something I understand and work hard at. After years of soreness and sweat and blood and broken bones, I’ve seen some small measure of progress. Progress has been halting and slow and frustrating, but I’m stronger than I was before. I may not be finished with the journey, but I’m further along than I was when I started.
Likewise, strengthening our hearts can be hard work. Another Puritan prayer says, “…that with self-loathing, deep contrition, earnest heart searching I may come to thee, cast myself on thee, trust in thee, cry to thee, be delivered by thee”
While I have come to enjoy the hard-earned pain of a good workout, earnest heart searching is still not my favorite thing. I don’t like the things I find in my heart, the sin and fear and unbelief and discontentment. But God gives more grace. He loves me when I am unlovable. And that is where true strength of the heart is found.
1 Thes. 3:11-13 says, “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” So while there’s legitimate heart work for me to do, the strength of my heart ultimately doesn’t rest on my hard work but on the mighty power of our God and Father himself. Hallelujah. The weight lifting off my shoulders when I read this is like setting a fully loaded barbell back on the rack.
Psalm 73:23-26 sings out:
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
In her book Even Better Than Eden, Nancy Guthrie talks about an emptiness and a longing in our hearts that we try to fill with anything that we think will make us happy, fulfilled, and satisfied. We see this longing in Eve when she ate the fruit. We see this in the children of Israel when they had all their needs met in the wilderness and yet still complained they were hungry. They weren’t truly hungry, they simply wanted something other than what God had given them. And God, Guthrie writes, allowed them to feel that hunger and that emptiness. “Why? So that their hunger pangs, their discontentment, would cause them to consider carefully what would deeply satisfy them, what would fill them up. … Have you ever thought about the emptiness you feel in this light? Do you think, perhaps, that God has let you hunger for whatever it is you are so hungry for so that you might become more desperate for him, more convinced that he is the source of what will fill you up? Do you think he might want to retrain your appetites, redirecting them away from this world, this life, even this age, so that your anticipation of the age to come might begin to shape your perspective on whatever it is you lack?”
I love the garden/wilderness imagery of the Bible that Guthrie explores here, the perfection and fullness and life of the garden that was lost, the wilderness that we wander through now, and the promise of the remade garden to come. Just like the wandering children, we complain and mess up and become confused and worship idols and turn from what we know is true and forget what God has done for us. We want more and more of all the wrong things because our hearts are full of misdirected passions. But God can give us new hearts, hearts that desire what he desires, hearts that want to be filled up with more of him, the only one who truly satisfies, who strengthens, who establishes.
The Puritan prayer called The Broken Heart pulls together all those strands of our sinful hearts and the wilderness and God’s grace, so we’ll end here:
“Give me perpetual broken-heartedness,
Keep me always clinging to thy cross,
Flood me every moment with descending grace,
Open to me the springs of divine knowledge,
sparkling like crystal,
flowing clear and unsullied
through my wilderness of life.”
Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass