What is it that we really talk about when we speak of matters of the heart? It would be a simple enough question if we were referring only to that which lies inside our chest cavity and pumps blood around our bodies. But we are talking about something much more than just an organ. The heart is the place that we feel both love and pain; where we are inspired by tales of courage and kindness; where the evil in the world is deplored; and where we treasure the moments when life is most bearable. If you read the Bible and take note of what it says regarding the heart, you could have a book on its own just cataloguing some of its functions. Were you to sit down and consider each and every occasion that the heart was mentioned in those pages, you could easily while away a great deal of time. I want to share just a little of what the heart is all about.
The heart is where the battle for our salvation is won or lost. Salvation isn’t just about some prayer we say at some evangelist’s altar call. It is something we have to work out on a daily basis. God’s will for all of us is to be conformed to the likeness of His son. That can only happen if we let Him reign in our hearts.
A little over a two years ago, I stood in front of a noted prophetess, the wife of a near unrivalled Bible scholar, and she spoke words over me that I hadn’t heard for 25 years. They were words that I hadn’t shared with anyone else since they were first spoken. They were words that I had once treasured deep within my heart; but were long neglected and almost forgotten, if it had not been for her timely reminder. And the words came alive in me, just as they had when they were first spoken to me in 1988. I could feel them quicken me; quicken my heart.
As she stood and spoke words over me she said that my heart had been turned to stone but that God would soften it and break away the hard outer casing one piece at a time. Of course, I didn’t want that. I wanted God to just ‘zap’ me and I would be all sorted. Mended. But, often, God doesn’t work that way. He likes to take His time with us. When He mends something, He likes to get it right.
I didn’t feel like my heart was hard at the time. It is only now, when I look back, that I am able to see the work that He restarted that day is still ongoing. Open heart surgery, God’s way.
Before this fortuitous meeting with said prophetess, I had been praying a particular prayer for a couple of months. I had been praying the beautiful Psalm 51. It seemed apt. I had been unfaithful to God, just as David had. I was filled with a great sorrow as I returned to God, truly repentant after years of selfish living. My heart was grieved and I called out to God and He answered me. I had called upon Him with all of my heart. Everything. I was prepared to give up everything, just to be back in His presence again. And when I say everything, I mean every thing; for that is what it costs. Salvation doesn’t come cheap.
David had thoughtfully recorded His own prayer of admission and repentance. He had called upon the mercy of God and he had done so with all of his heart. That is why God had responded. A lesser man made not have survived such conviction of guilt as was delivered to David by the prophet Natan (Nathan). You can find the account of the encounter in 2nd Samuel chapter 12.
As to the story of what led up to David’s encounter with Natan and his subsequent repentance, much has already been said by those far more qualified than I. However, I would like to point out that it was the condition of David’s heart in the first place that brought about adultery, murder and the death of an infant. I think I use the word condition, wisely.
Famously, we know that David was the man after God’s own heart. We are told this, and that no one else ever received such an accolade from God. However, no one ever seems to explain what this means. What made this David, this shepherd boy, different to everyone else? What does it mean to be after God’s own heart? I could come up with a plethora of reasons that could be argued in such a way as to explain the phrase. But this isn’t a debate. I started writing this post to try and explain what is happening to my own heart as I pursue God. I only bring David’s heart into the explanation to use a biblical example. The truth be known, I cannot say why David was a man after God’s own heart. We assume that it means (somehow) that David’s heart was like God’s. I cannot say what his heart was like when God chose him. But I can say that I think I know what his heart was like when he pleaded with God to create a new one in him. I know what it had become…because mine had become that also – a place of darkness. And, in that moment of realisation of what my heart had become, I could see what God’s heart is truly like when He showed me the same mercy that He showed to David. Why could He show me mercy when I didn’t deserve it? Because He chose to only keep what He loved about me in the storehouse of His heart, just as He did with David…just as He does to all of us.
Until the moment when the Ruach HaKodesh (The Holy Spirit) opened my eyes to the salvation of God by revealing in me the sin that had long separated me from God, and the punishment that I deserved, which was laid upon His only son, Y’shua (Jesus), my life was run and controlled by my sinful nature. At that moment, when my eyes were opened to this, my spirit was reborn; I became a new creation. This meant a clean slate, and a new clean heart. Not the organ, but the core of us – the thing that drives our lives. With this clean heart, my desires were clean too – I wanted to respond to my salvation and somehow try to repay my cleaned slate with a life of servitude to Y’shua. But after a while, I started to allow the things of this world and the desires of my old sinful nature creep back in. It was slow at first; almost impossible to detect, just little things that I thought wouldn’t matter. But soon I was filling my new clean heart with all the things that had poisoned the old one, until I was led, once more, by my sinful nature. As a result, I turned my back on God instead of turning to face Him; I stopped listening to Him and instead I hardened my heart when He sent people to speak to me and persuade me to choose life. I chose death instead. And I kept choosing death until my heart was so full of grief and poison that I wished for death to come and take me. But I was a coward. I couldn’t do it. In my frustration and my weakness I called upon the name of God, and He heard my cry. Moreover, He was waiting there ready to welcome me back, just like the father of the prodigal son was waiting for his own son to return.
That last paragraph covered 25 years, 23 of which were spent in exile from God. When I say exile, I mean that I didn’t have His peace, His presence, His Spirit. Just the most dreadful emptiness that no drug, no drink, no nothing could appease. What I did have, though I didn’t want to acknowledge it, was a hard heart full of years and years of pain and misery and despair and disappointment and malice and hatred and all the bad fruits of a sinful life. I had stored these things in my heart and it poisoned me. Paul wrote in his first letter to the church at Corinth, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” I did, everyone of them. Thankfully for me God, being love, doesn’t.
As I said earlier, I started praying part of Psalm 51. I knew I needed God’s help but thankfully, because of His great mercy towards me, He didn’t show me just how much. This was my prayer:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit, then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.” [Psalm 51:10-13 NKJV]
When you seek God with all of your heart, He will be found by you. All of your heart. He answered my prayer. Not in the way I expected. He let me experience His presence again for the first time in over twenty years. With that came joy. Real joy. It hasn’t left me in two and a half years – save for a few dark days of extreme testing. The joy of His salvation is what I first experienced back in March 1988. It fills your heart and overflows out of you. Back then it chased out all the bad stuff and left me full of light. This time my heart was harder and filled with all sorts of darkness. But God was merciful. He knew exactly what my heart could withstand. It is true, He could have ‘zapped’ me and fixed me on the spot. He did with my addictions to drugs, drink and cigarettes. But this time He wanted a lasting change in me. He wanted restoration.
When I was told three months later that my heart was hard and that God intended to break the hard outer shell one piece at a time my reaction was one of impatience. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted it now. However, what He has been showing me over these past couple of years or so, I wouldn’t have missed for the world. My God is in the restoration business and He is the Master Craftsman.
If you are looking for a progress report from God – a check on where you are on your journey, it almost never comes. God doesn’t work like that. At least, not with me. I only get some notion of how I’m doing when I am faced with a situation that I have dealt with badly in the past. For me, it is often to do with money or relationships, or both at the same time. Today’s church tends to see trouble as something of the devil and starts screaming at God to take it away. I have learnt that God uses trouble to refine us, to smooth off the rough edges. Divine sandpaper, you might say. And it is in these moments of testing situations that you learn just how much God has done in your life since the last time you encountered the situation. Recently, in one particular situation, instead of my usual hot-headed, over-reactionary response, I prayed and simply asked the Ruach HaKodesh to help me. And He did. Wonderfully. My heart swelled with love, light and joy as a result.
I wasn’t looking for a progress report. But I got one. I saw fruit where I didn’t expect to see it. Let me explain.
I do a great deal of reading. I immerse myself in God’s word and I read the words of other men and women who have been (and some still are) looking for the Narrow Path. Nothing else will do for me. To have been given a second chance with God after so many years is not to be sniffed at. It was an ‘all or nothing’ type of situation. I chose all. That meant taking absolutely seriously the notion of casting aside all ambition, all selfish desires, all self-promotion, and everything else that hinders, in order to follow Y’shua. Over the course of my reading I have seen a common strand in both God’s word and in the words of certain others who have found their way to the foot of the cross and through the narrow gate onto the narrow path. It is that of the heart, or rather the condition of the heart. Whether I was reading of David, or about George Muller, or from the pages of RT Kendall, it was there – the condition of the heart. Now, this was no ‘synchronicity’. This was not me simply seeing what God Himself was trying to teach me. This is the key factor to each and everyone’s salvation. No exceptions. God first showed me about it so that I understood what He was talking about just over a year ago. I have shared what happened on this blog before, so to spare those who have already read it, I will be brief.
Knowing what to read from the Bible can sometimes be a tough decision. I mean, you can open the book randomly if you want and expect God to speak to you. Or you can be methodical or topical, or chose a reading plan and be disciplined. I chose to take a leaf from the Moravians’ book. They had a jar with each and every chapter of the bible on individual pieces of paper. I created a spreadsheet with the name of each chapter in individual cells (for example PSA 51 is Psalm 51; ISA 6 is Isaiah 6). I printed it out and spent hours carefully cutting it up, before placing the pieces into a jar. Then I pray and ask God to give me something that I need to read. I shake the jar put my hand into it and from the nearly 1200 tiny pieces of paper I get my reading for the day. Did I say that there are nearly 1200 tiny pieces of paper in the jar? And that I shake it up? Well, you can imagine my surprise when three times within 7 days I pulled out NEH 13. Nehemiah chapter 13.
The first two times of reading it, I simply didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what God was wanting to say to me. After the second time of pulling it out of the jar I kind of figured that there was something important in there! It wasn’t until the third time that I simply asked God to show me. And He did.
The important text is from verse 4 to verse 12. It details Nechemyah’s (Nehemiah) return to Jerusalem to find that the priest had moved Toviyah (Tobiah) (one of Nechemyah’s strongest opponents) into the storehouse of the Temple. As a result of this, the Levites had been forced to work in the fields because the storehouse was meant to be filled with their portions of the tithes and offerings. Nechemyah promptly threw Tobiah out and purified the whole Temple and reinstated the correct use for the storehouse. For a moment I couldn’t see it. Then God showed me that the Temple is now in our hearts. God’s dwelling place was no longer a stone building but in the very core of each of us. He then also showed me that I was storing something in my heart that prevented it being used for the purposes He had intended. He showed me a sin that I had tried to hide, even from myself. Like David, the movement I saw it, I repented. And, do you know what happened? The moment I repented God showed me a vision, crystal clear and awesome. It was for someone else and I was able to share that vision with that person later and they clearly had needed to hear it. Well, that was just the beginning.
Since then I have been purposing to seek God as to what is in my heart that hinders its true purpose. This is mainly because every time He shows me something that doesn’t belong, and I repent of it, He brings me revelation of one sort or another. I have to tell you that it is a great arrangement. The only thing is, that He only shows you when He knows you are ready to see what is a hindrance. Some things we simply don’t see as hindrances. Some things that we store in our hearts appear perfectly valid. Let me give you a great example that I read about this week.
I was prompted to read a book by AW Tozer called ‘The Pursuit of God’. It is truly fascinating and speaks from his own experiences rather than some ethereal, unattainable concept. As soon as I started reading it, I realised that God had been teaching me the very same stuff from another person and another angle. But, that He had chosen to emphasis it, meant that it was very important. The Pursuit of God isn’t a big book but it is full of challenges. When he started talking about the heart being where we store treasures, I knew God was speaking loud and clear. Tozer shows us the account of Avraham (Abraham) and Yitz’chak (Isaac) when God tells Him to sacrifice Yitz’chak on the mountain. Just imagine, if you will, what it must have been like for Avraham. God had spoken to him and told him that through his offspring a great nation would come. After years of endless waiting, Sarah, his wife, finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Yitz’chak. How Avraham must have doted on the child. How protective he must have been. After all, it was through Yitz’chak that all of the promises of God would be reckoned.
And Tozer makes this point – that Avraham’s love for Yitz’chak had become greater than his love for God, Himself. Now, what followed is a story that should be familiar to all of us. You can find it in Genesis chapter 22. I have read the account a great many times and have often pondered on why God challenged Avraham in such a way. When I read Tozer’s observations, I was able to see it from a point of view that I hadn’t seen before.
It wasn’t simply a test to prove the faith of Avraham. It was to teach Avraham about what should be stored in the heart. Yes, it is true that Yitz’chak was a very precious part of Avraham’s life, but God wanted Avraham to see that if he held God as his chief treasure then everything else would fall into place. The best way that Avraham could make sure that Yitz’chak was loved, and looked after, and safe, was to keep his own heart devoted to God, just as it had been before Yitz’chak was born. No doubt that Avraham would have even noticed that his attentions and affections had shifted since the birth of Yitz’chak, but they must have done. How could they not?
Avraham still had work to do for the good of what was yet to come. The nation which God had promised him would never be seen with his own eyes, but Avraham saw them in his heart and believed God. We know that this belief was credited to Avraham as righteousness. In asking Avraham to sacrifice Yitz’chak, God was saying to him, ‘keep your eyes on me’. And there is a very simple but exceptionally valuable lesson in what happened up there on the mountain. When Avraham was prepared to put the pursuit of God above everything else in his life, including the one thing he treasured the most, his only son Yitz’chak, God acted. He provided Avraham with a ram, stuck in a thorn bush – foreshadowing what was to come in the sacrifice of Y’shua. When we give up things that are precious to us in order to pursue God, He always replaces it with something better. Always. And that is how our hearts work. If we store in our hearts only the right things, things that are beneficial, then God will always honour that. It is when we start to store the things that are not so beneficial to us, that we start to encounter the real problems.
Let’s return to the story of David and Bat-Sheva (Bathsheba). How did this man of God get himself into such a ridiculous situation? This was God’s chosen king; His anointed one. The pages of the Bible offer little in the way of evidence. In the years leading up to his adulterous and murderous behaviour, David had slaughtered many thousands. He had been at war with everyone but God had been with him and given victory to him on every side. He had a decent right-hand-man in the person of Yo’av (Joab) who could run things for him, and, for some reason, when kings commonly went to war, David chose to stay at home. He sent Yo’av in his stead. There is no clear reasoning for doing this shown in scripture. We have to turn our attention to a song by Leonard Cohen to, perhaps, grasp something of what was going through David’s mind:
“Well, your faith was strong, but you needed proof. You saw her bathing on the roof, and her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.” [Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen]
Pride then. Certainly, in the past, the Hebrews had got themselves into difficulties because of pride. In the book of Y’hoshua (Joshua), in chapter 7, we see that the Hebrews because of their recent success at Yericho (Jericho), were convinced that they could defeat the city of Ai with only a few thousand men. They had quickly forgotten that it was God who had given them Yericho. Pride had been allowed to prosper in their hearts. When they should have been giving the glory to God, they gave the glory to themselves. Elsewhere, God had warned them not to do such things as that or they would face the consequences. See D’varim (Deuteronomy) chapter 8.
So, if it was pride that caused David to stay at home and not go to war, then pride gave birth to lust, and lust gave birth to adultery, and adultery gave birth to murder. All of these things start in our heart. Y’shua said that both adultery and murder begin in the heart. Perhaps you can imagine the situation: After his success at fighting every nation around him, David decides that his assistant Yo’av can handle things for him. So David lets the success fester in his heart. It makes him feel good about himself. There’s no need for him to go to war. He’s too important. But the trouble is, David clearly isn’t good with time on his hands. After an afternoon nap, David is wandering around on the roof of the palace, perhaps surveying his kingdom. He is the lord of all he can see. Including the woman he could see bathing. The right thing to do would be to avert his eyes, but he was already feeling somewhat invincible. Instead, he has to make enquiries. He has to have her. And, by the time he has made her pregnant, David sees no issue with trying to cover his tracks at any cost, including that of the life of Bat-Sheva’s husband, Uriyah (Uriah). See how easy it is to slide from one sin to the next. The heart is like that. From the moment that Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge that God had longed to protect them from, their hearts were corrupted, and that corruption was passed on and on throughout all generations. David knew this. That is why he begged God to create a new, clean heart in him. He knew that if God didn’t do that, the sin would pollute him until he was beyond the point of no return.
Nothing has changed today. Our hearts are still deceitful and wicked beyond all compare. Unless we keep them full of only good treasures then we will lose our way. The only way to do that is to hold God above all other things. To love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your mind and with all of your strength. That’s how much it will take just to keep us on the straight and narrow. Everything we have. Consistently, Y’shua’s message was to follow Him and that anyone who would follow Him would have to deny themselves, or sell all they owned, or leave much behind. We don’t really teach that in churches these days.
What God has really spoken to me about over the past couple of years as He carefully plucks away the hard outer case of my softening heart, is about what I keep stored in my heart. If there is something that I treasure more than my walk with God, then that is where my heart will be. If in my heart I hold the notion that one day all of His promises to me will be fulfilled, then He is there with me, causing His word to come to life. I must take great care to guard my heart. If He alone reigns in my heart and everything that I once chased or pursued is removed, then I will see God at work in every aspect of my life. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
God has challenged me since I prayed to Him to create a clean heart within me. He has challenged me about where He is in my heart. He has challenged me about what I hold dear, about what I don’t want to give up. He has challenged me to give up completely many things and He has been faithful in restoring my heart as I do. He hasn’t been mean in challenging me, but rather, like He did with Avraham, He has shown me that keeping my eyes on Him is The Way. The Narrow Path.
Of late, He has shown me that because His son Y’shua paid the price for the punishment that was due to me, He is able to only keep the good things about me in His heart. When He looks at me He sees Y’shua. Because of that, He shows me mercy when I ask for it. In doing this, in showing me that He only keeps the good things about me in His heart, He has challenged me once again: “How about you? What do you keep there about others?”
And, slowly, I realised that I kept lots of bad things about other people in my heart. In fact, I saw that about most people, I chose to only recall the bad things – their failings or gossip about them. Rarely when I thought of someone did I recall something admirable or good. Love keeps no record of wrongs. And so, my latest challenge is this: to deliberate choose to remember only good things about people. To choose not to store their shortcomings or the innuendos that I hear about them in my heart. Only good things. Out of the mouth comes the wellspring of the heart.
We are made in the image of God. God’s example to us is to only store good things in your heart. To treasure only the things of God as important is healthy. God doesn’t tell us this to be mean; to make our lives tiresome. He tells us this to make our journey from here to eternity a simpler one. With our hearts set on Him, it matters not what trouble befalls us, for He is with us.
This post isn’t a formula for everyone. It is simply encourage you to think about what is stored in your heart. God will show you, as and when you are ready, what shouldn’t be there. The Narrow Path, the way, is when He speaks and you listen, instead of hardening your heart as I did. It is a long way back from where I went and I still have such a long way to go.
Challenge yourself to clear from your heart all that doesn’t belong there. Be like Nechemyah and clear out of the storehouse all the rubbish. Then let God purify you and your heart. I am liking my softening heart. And I am liking what God gives me when I give up what doesn’t belong there.
Shalom. Every blessing.