Matthew 12:33-37

            This is what Jesus said:  “Your words show what is in your hearts.  Good people bring good things out of their hearts, but evil people bring evil things out of their hearts.”  Our speech is the outward demonstration of what is really within the heart.  There really isn’t any room to believe that a constant stream of gossip, backbiting, slander, and negative comments is anything but coming from a heart of evil.  A person who speaks such words is not a loving, gracious, merciful person.  But the person who continually encourages, uplifts, and seeks to be positive reflects a deep heart of love for others.
 
            Therefore, simply altering our speech around certain persons is not the point and does no good.  That kind of behavior only breeds hypocrisy and is two-faced, a la the Pharisees.  Instead, the place to aim is the heart from where the speech arises.  And the only way to truly renovate a heart is to sub-contract the project to Jesus.
 
            The people we typically hang-out with the most are the people that most influence our attitudes and our speech.  So, if we spend copious amounts of time with Jesus it is inevitable that our hearts will become more like his and, thus, our words will be in alignment with the words and ways of Christ.  For, it is God who replaces a hard heart of stone with a soft heart of flesh.  Be rooted in Christ and the fruit of the tree will demonstrate it.
 

 

            Sovereign God, you hear every careless word spoken and see each harmful conversation as it takes place.  Our guilt is very great!  Forgive my egregious sin against you through the things I have said, and the things I have left unsaid.  Please let the benevolent and generous Christ rule my heart through the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Ezekiel 11:1-25

            Ezekiel is one of those Old Testament prophets that thoroughly uncovered the true state of the heart.  Through a series of visions given to Ezekiel for the Israelite exiles, one of the main messages of the prophet is that God would give them a new heart.  “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them.  I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them.  And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
 
            The human heart is fallen, often dark with evil shadows of pride and selfishness.  At best, the heart apart from God contains a miniscule vestige of its ancient Creator’s image; at worst, the heart is desperately wicked and on a highway to hell.  The issue, then, is whether the heart only needs to be modified, or whether we need a complete heart transplant.  The prophet makes it quite clear which option must be done.
 
            Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross so that we could be transformed into new people.  He did not come to tweek a few things in your life and improve it – he came to change and transform your heart.  If all we needed was a motivational speaker who would inspire our hearts to live better and reach our personal goals, then we would have not needed an incarnation, a crucifixion, a resurrection, and ascension.  Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior who replaces our hard stubborn hearts with a soft new heart of flesh.  We need transformation of life, not life modification.
 

 

            Awesome God, you have graciously and surgically removed my old heart bound for destruction and replaced it with a new heart oriented toward living and loving like the Lord Jesus.  May my heart always be inclined to the doing of your will, in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Luke 6:43-45

            Jesus worked the crowds of people who followed him by letting them know what true religion is:  “For no good tree is known by its own fruit.  For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
 
            The greatest test of a person’s inward heart is their outward speech.  Our words betray what is truly in our hearts.  Superficial and surface conversations evidence a shallow relationship with Jesus.  Slander, gossip, and backbiting reflect a heart that is angry, bitter, and bigoted.  Conversely, a stream of encouraging and helpful words flow out of a heart close to Jesus.  Saying what people need to hear, rather than blurting-out what I want to say, comes from a heart which has been carefully tilled and cultivated in the soil of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.
 
            Thus, just trying to change our speech itself will not do.  Instead, we must examine the heart and urgently attend to its state.  A loose tongue can only change by altering how we deal with the heart.  So, it is vital and necessary to regularly fill our inner selves with the truth and grace of God’s Holy Word; to praise and worship Jesus from a heart of devotion; to allow God to judge another’s heart; and, to monitor our heart’s condition.  For the spiritual fruit of loving words can only come from a heart rooted in Christ’s love.
 

 

            Heavenly Father, the words of your Son Jesus always came from a heart firmly established in relationship with you.  As I spend time with you may your Holy Spirit transform my heart to be more like Christ so that you are glorified and others are encouraged.  Amen.

2 Chronicles 36:11-21

            There are parts of the Bible’s Old Testament that are just plain sad.  Perhaps the most pitiful commentary of all is that God’s people acted like a spouse who was so distant and dissatisfied that they did not know how good they had it.  So, they looked for relationships with other gods, other lovers.  Despite God’s furious and longing love for his people, they spurned his advances and his appeals.  Judah’s King Zedekiah “did what was evil… He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD… He stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD.”  What is more, Judah’s leadership was “exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations.”
 
            God was patient, he was persistent, and he was long on love for his people.  “The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.”  Finally, after centuries of chronic neglect of God and active pursuit of idolatry, Judah reached the point of no return, and they lost it all.  Yet, even in this abject stubbornness and lack of love from Judah, God had compassion and did not forget.  The Chronicles end with a note of grace, letting the reader know that God’s mercy always has the last word. 
 
            God’s wrath is the servant of God’s love.  His punishes so that he can pursue; levels natural consequences so that he can meet needs; and, rebukes so that he might bring rest.  The end game for God is always restoration, renewal, and revitalization – a reviving of relationship between himself and his people.  This ought always to be our purpose, as well, to persistently, patiently, and lovingly pursue lost people because God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and has brought us into the life of his Son, the Lord Jesus.
 

 

            Merciful God, your anger flares but lasts only a moment.  Yet, your love is eternal and everlasting.  Thank you for sniffing me out and saving me by your amazing grace.  May I demonstrate the love you have shown to me toward others, so that your purposes are accomplished in my life today and always through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

Renovation of the Heart

 
 
            This past week, my wife and I enjoyed several days at our denomination’s annual meeting.  It was a wonderful time of worship, fellowship, making new friends, and discovering resources for church ministry.  Embedded into the time was, of course, the matter of business that goes into any kind of church or denominational apparatus.  At its best, church polity concerns itself with deep discernment, focused prayer, and intentional listening to God’s Spirit.  At its worst, church political structures clunk along with loud opinion-making, the dysfunction of personal agendas, and an inability to understand what others are truly saying.
 
            I appreciated the decorum of my denomination’s delegates and the leadership that went into ensuring that policy and procedure were carried out with decency and order.  Yet, as critically vital as church polity is in carrying out the business of the church, policies and procedures alone cannot bring a total transformation of life – only the Holy Spirit of God can do that.  As I sit and write today, a church shooting in South Carolina last night took the lives of nine black parishioners.  It seems clear that the tragedy was racially motivated.  Here is the point I am making:  even though an Emancipation Proclamation was passed in this country 150 years ago; even though Jim Crow laws have been upended; even though African Americans have equal access and opportunity according to the laws of this country; none of those laws, political triumphs, and policy making we have experienced in the United States has the ability to do a thorough renovating of any person’s heart from one of malicious bigot to benevolent citizen.
 
            We all desperately need faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to even begin addressing the profound brokenness of the human experience.  Apart from the Spirit, there will be individuals who continue in soul crushing stances of justifying their racism, excluding the LGBTQ community from their list of acquaintances, and insisting that their ideas are the only decent ones worth hearing. 
 
            Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount in order to upend such proud thinking. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Only those who are spiritual beggars recognizing they have nothing to stand on in and of themselves are worthy of Christ’s righteousness.  In a world where pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is hailed and validated, the biblical virtues of humility and meekness seem almost like concepts from some bygone era.  Yet, like a church building devastated by a tornado, until we can come to the end ourselves and admit how much our hearts are in chaos and need Jesus in the presence of the Holy Spirit, there will continue to be an endless stream of posturing and positioning to get what we want so that the other who seems so different from us will not get what they want or even need.  Indeed, there will be no mercy, purity, and peacemaking apart from identifying the deep depravity of our own hearts and inviting God to do an extreme makeover of our interior lives.
 

 

            While I applaud and laud every policy and law that turns the tide away from injustice and puts a death nail into systemic evil, I am realistic enough to discern that only the gospel of grace can bring human hearts in line with the kind of society that will truly be characterized by peace.  I hope that you will join me in praying for the shalom of God to takeover this broken world so that our hearts of stone are replaced by hearts of flesh by the Spirit who alone transforms both culture and church, society and self, law and life.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Do Not Lose Heart

 
 
We all face circumstances and seasons of life that stretch our faith and press the limits of what we can handle.  We have no promise from Scripture that we will avoid trouble.  Instead, Jesus promises trouble to his followers (John 15:18-20; 1 John 3:13; 2 Timothy 2:12).  The pressures of life can sometimes be so overwhelming that we might lapse into losing heart by either blaming ourselves for the adversity we experience and wish things were different, or by blaming others for our troubles and believing that if they would just get their act together all would be well with my soul.  No matter the source or nature of the problem, the church needs a point of focus to direct their troubled hearts. We all need to be reminded of the grace we possess in Jesus Christ.
 
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is both a spiritual and a physical reality.  If we believe this truth in our hearts we will be raised both spiritually and physically (Romans 10:9-10).  This faith in Christ gives shape to the hope that, although we might be experiencing the effects of mortality and the fall of humanity, we are, at the same time, being spiritually renewed day by day.  The very same afflictions that cause our bodies to degenerate and dispirit us are the means to achieving a glorious resurrected existence (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).  There cannot be the glory of spiritual and bodily resurrection without a shameful death.  The way of Jesus was to absorb the shame of the world’s violent ways on the cross so that we might be raised with him in his resurrection. 
 
However, this does not mean that the church will never experience difficulty in this present life.  In fact, daily spiritual renewal can and does happen through adverse circumstances.  There must be suffering before glory, both for Jesus and for us.  Just because we are saved does not mean we are inoculated from daily stress and pressure because it is the troubles of this life that teach us to trust in God and weans us from all that we have previously trusted in to deal with those troubles.
 
The truth of God using adversity and trouble in our lives begs several questions for each believer and every local church: 
 
Ø  Do we give inordinate attention to either the tangibly physical or the intangible spiritual? 
Ø  How does Christ’s resurrection impact us today? 
Ø  How do we interpret our earthly troubles? 
Ø  What place does faith in God have in our daily decisions? 
Ø  The older we get, are we being renewed in Christ? 
Ø  Does the Lord’s Table, as a tangible sign and seal of our intangible faith, shape our hope?
 
When I think of a person who is outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed, I think of Joni Eareckson Tada.  She has been a paraplegic for forty-five years after an accident as a teenager in which she dove into shallow water and broke her neck.  After the accident, lying in the hospital for months unable to move, she had completely lost heart to the point of being suicidal.  But she could not even kill herself since she could not physically move.  Finally, in her darkest moment she cried out to God with what she says to this day was the most significant prayer she ever prayed:  “Lord, if I can’t die, show me how to live.”  And he did.  Joni’s faith is as strong and robust as anyone’s, despite her infirmity and her handicaps.  She has learned to embrace her troubles as the means of growing her faith.
 
We cannot accept, cope, and transcend our troubles and afflictions if we do not acknowledge them.  They only have power over us for ill if we ignore them or put up a false front to hide them.  Paul was open with others about his life:  We do not want you to be uninformed about the hardships we suffered…. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.  But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).  Paul faced whippings and beatings, stoning and shipwreck, hunger and poverty, danger and trouble, not to mention all the pressures of his concern for all the churches he established.  Through it all Paul was transparent and named his troubles so he could apply the poultice of God’s grace to his afflictions.  It is our brokenness and not the pretension of having it all together that shows the grace of God to others.
 

 

Over and over again Paul described his life and ministry in apparent paradoxes:  strength in weakness; glory through shame; life through death; riches through poverty.  Although we experience the fallen nature of the world, God bends each situation for his own purposes so that what seems to be our downfall becomes the means to our spiritual renewal.  Every church is inherently paradoxical, a strange amalgam of victory and defeat, faith and doubt, full of sorrow and joy.  Let us all embrace this reality and allow God to use whatever means he so desires to shape his church for kingdom purposes.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Loving God with All Our Heart

 

 
 
God prefers loving actions that come deep within our hearts more than any religious ritual we might perform.  He wants His will done by not just fulfilling the letter of the law, but the spirit of what is required – and what is required is love, a love for God with one’s entire being (Mark 12:28-34).
 
            I love my three girls with all my heart.  I think God made them all beautiful to compensate for all the ornery things they have done so that I wouldn’t go crazy.  Once Sarah (the ringleader of the three hoodlums) was at the top of the stairs with two year old Mikaela in a laundry basket and pushed her down with Charissa at the bottom to catch her.  I love my wife with all my heart.  Yet, Mary always thought it would be a good idea to have an open door policy for the girls to come into our bed at night whenever they needed us.  I’ve been puked on, peed on, kicked on and pushed out of bed; it’s like living with a bunch of drunks….  And that’s not to mention things like the hundred times I’ve been way-laid before going out of the house with “you’re not really going out in public looking like that are you!?”
 
            I have dealt with it all because I love my kids.  But larger than that, God has children all over this planet earth, and he loves them.  To begin to love God with all our hearts is to begin to see what God’s heart is – a big expansive heart for people all around the world.  God’s heart is close to the broken-hearted, near to those in need.  His heart is a heart of compassion.  God’s wrath is actually a response of his love to make things right in this fallen world.  His heart yearns for his creatures to love Him.  As early as the book of Genesis, just a few chapters in it says, The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain (Genesis 6:6).  So God sent a great flood and wiped out nearly all of humanity.  It bothers God and He is not okay with the sinful and idolatrous hearts of people.
 
            We cannot just have a Disney-style follow your heart.  Trusting in our own hearts is a mistake, for they are, apart from God, desperately wicked.  Jeremiah said:  The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure (Jeremiah 17:10).  The heart is beyond repair and the only way to deal with it is to have a heart transplant.  God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel and gave a promise:  I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19).  A stony heart betrays not knowing God.  A soft heart of compassion toward others reveals loving God.
 
            Does your heart break for the things that break the heart of God?  God is concerned for suffering, injustice, and death.  To love God with all our heart means that our hearts beat for the things that touch the heart of God.  It means that God’s heart of compassion is the driving motivation of our lives.  It means that we will love people.  Hear what the Apostle of Love, John, said:  We love because Christ first loved us.  If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.  And he has given us this command:  Whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:19-21).  The reason sins of the tongue get listed alongside things like murder and adultery in the New Testament is that they are offenses to God’s heart.
 
            God’s heart is with the children of this world.  Every year 15 million children die of starvation.  That’s more than 40,000 children a day.  Today over 8,000 people will die from AIDS.  The numbers are staggering not only of hunger but of war and disease not to mention other great problems of humanity including illiteracy and the sex slave trade.  My goal is not to depress us.  What I want us to see is a very small glimpse of what God sees every day.  And, what is more, God knows each one of their names.  When it comes to us, people need to move from being numbers to being names.  God is not okay with all the brokenness on this earth and his heart breaks over the sin of the world that causes such evil to go on day after day.  God wants His Church to champion causes that are close to His heart.  If we love God He wants us to aim that love with all our hearts toward people who need the compassion of Christ.
 
            Love is a deliberate decision to meet a need in another person.  Churches must see the needs and not allow their hearts to shrink.  Leonardo Da Vinci once observed that the average person “looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, inhales without awareness of fragrance, and talks without thinking.”  Sharing God’s heart for people is to have a heart of compassion that is aware of the great needs of the world and will do whatever it takes to be a part of meeting those needs.  In so doing, the Church follows her Savior who so loved the world that he gave himself for it.