inside out


There is no real, lasting change that does not begin in the heart of a person.


I think we hear that and are inclined to nod our heads in agreement. Of course real changes begins in the heart! But we often live differently…


We often live as if the goal of following Christ is behavior modification. As if Jesus just wants us to tow the line and speak the lingo. As if Jesus ever, anywhere in the gospels, is concerned with or interested merely in appearances.


Remember that time that Jesus gets angry with the Pharisees for living lives that don’t look holy enough? Remember when he gets frustrated with his disciples because they aren’t picking up the new phrases he’s trying to get everyone to use so they are identified as his disciples? Remember when Jesus was worried that not enough people were seeing him do the miracles or coming out to hear him teach? Remember that time when Jesus said, “You just need to change the way you’re acting!”


Nope. You don’t remember any of that.


Jesus never cared about the outward behavior just for its own sake. That’s not to say he didn’t care about outward behavior or appearances, but what he cared about primarily was what those behaviors say about our hearts. His interest is not really in our actions, but the heart behind those actions.


So how did we get so lazy as to relegate spiritual growth in Christ to mean little more than changing our behavior? Since when is a following after the Messiah in a self-sacrificing way just about acting right and appearing to be committed?


But this is how we approach our own maturity sometimes isn’t it? And this is how we counsel others and “encourage” them to grow in their faith. We focus on the behaviors and tell them to do it differently.


“Stop losing your temper.”

“Quit thinking so lustfully.”

“Don’t have that attitude of bitterness.”

“Love him unconditionally.”

“Treat her with respect.”

“Be joyful in suffering.”


So what’s wrong with these statements? Aren’t they true? Shouldn’t we stop losing our temper? Should we quit thinking in such sinful ways? Shouldn’t we have a different attitude or love others better or live joyfully?


Yes we should! Without question this is a life that Jesus is calling us to live. So what’s the problem here?! Actually there are several problems with the way we tend to approach sinful patterns in our lives. Let’s start with our focus. When we—or someone in our lives—is struggling with a sinful pattern of behavior we tend to see only that behavior. We tend to forget to look behind the action, to look in to the heart from which it comes. There is almost always a sin behind the sin.


Jesus, when speaking to the Pharisees in Matthew’s account says this:


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”        Matthew 23:25-26


We focus on the outside of the cup—the behaviors that people see—and we forget that what really needs cleaned is the inside. The real problem lies within the heart.


It isn’t totally ridiculous for us to think this way. After all, this is how it works in every other aspect of our lives. You can’t clean your dishes at home this way. Cleaning the inside of the cup does nothing to get the outside clean. If this is how we cleaned our dishes we would not likely find many people willing to accept a dinner invitation from us!


But Jesus knows the truth: if we experience change at a heart level, behavioral change will follow.


Real change in our life never comes by merely addressing outward behaviors. We may find that we can stop certain activities, or start certain ways of thinking…for a time. But ultimately we’ll find ourselves back in the same rut, stuck in the same failures, battling the same heartaches. Is this the life Jesus called abundant? I don’t think any of us would argue for abundant life being little more than a cycle of momentary victories followed by continuous failures. We will always be sinners. True. And we will struggle against our sin nature all our days. True again. But does this mean real lasting change doesn’t happen? I would say absolutely not. Jesus seems interested in seeing us change in real and powerful ways. But his focus is not just on stopping this thing or no longer thinking that way. Jesus’ real interest is in our hearts. When those are clean the outside becomes clean as well. Our behaviors change when we are clean internally.


Real change that lasts is inside out. Jesus doesn’t start with what we see, but with what drives what we see.


This truth begs a lot of additional questions…


  • What does this mean for battling sinful behaviors in my life? How do I confront and battle behaviors with the heart in view?
  • Why not deal with the actions first so I’ll be cleared up to work on the heart stuff?
  • What do we do from here? How do we draw out the heart based on the actions we see?
  • How do we clean the heart (“the inside of the cup”)?


The good news is Jesus has answers for all of these questions. The Bible holds the answers. Real, personal change is possible. It begins with the heart. Over the next few posts I’ll be exploring the Biblical view of the heart and what it means for how we should live as sinners saved by grace.



10 thoughts on “inside out

  1. Modern psychology continues to struggle with how to motivate people to change, unfortunately they’re approaching it from the head perspective instead of the heart! I enjoyed your writing!

    • altonwoods,

      So true. Modern psychology (and our culture in general) likes to blame environment or biology for why we do the things we do. Of course this becomes a problem when we actually want to change!

      Thanks for the encouraging words and for taking the time to read. Hope to see more comments from you in the future.

      • I think this is beautifully written, and addresses one of the most important questions in bringing about change.

        I would like to say, as a psychologist, the aforementioned comments are not accurate. Behaviour modification is but one approach, as there are many approaches from which psychologists call upon. Good psychologists use a number of ways to help bring about change, but change can only happen if we so choose, and both Christianity and psychology agree on this 100%.

        I agree that Jesus was criticising the Pharisees for just pretending to be clean on the outside whereas they were not so on the inside. But, I think that what He really meant was that they focus so much on the details of the law and they miss the most significant aspects of the law.

        Altonwoods and jmworks, our biology or our environment can be used as an excuse just like me saying “God made me this way.” I think that part of the problem is how psychology is portrayed in the media and how psychotherapy is over-simplified. We as people can always find excuses.

        Jmworks, I agree that the Bible has answers, and Jesus states it clearly that He wants a repentant heart. The first to enter the Kingdom was a thief (I always find it funny) because it was honest repentance. I think what brings it about is suffering, suffering that brings you to the edge where you have no energy left… and the only thing you can do is but face the music.

        • Thanks for your kind words, Demos.

          And thanks for the thought-provoking comments. It seems that we have over-generalized our comments regarding psychology. Thanks for bringing that to light. Our personal experiences with pschology certainly do not merit speaking in broad strokes about the whole of it.

        • Hey Demos,
          I’d just like to say I agree with you, but I’d like to take it a step further on this subject:
          “But, I think that what He really meant was that they focus so much on the details of the law and they miss the most significant aspects of the law.”

          It’s true that the pharisees paid too much attention to the detail of the law, but this is actually just one part of it. This verse talks about cleaning the inside.
          The book of Mark says the following:
          To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33)

          Burnt offerings and sacrifices were a major part of the law. They were not details. Yet it states here that love is more important. The heart is more important. So we come back full circle to what Jmwork is saying. That a pure heart is what God is looking for. God cares about your heart more than even the major parts of the law. Following procedure with a hardened heart is not what He wants:

          “leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
          (Matthew 5:24)

          • Agreed, well said Costas!

            Just thinking that the cleaning process is constant – we sin constantly and so asking for forgiveness is also constant until the end.

            I know I may be arguing semantics, but I think this has implications for how we practice as Christians. And so I think God wants a repentant heart (i.e. a cup that we are constantly try to clean) rather than a clean one.

            And I would just like to add, we cannot do this on our own. Only by asking for His help and his forgiveness can this be done.

    • Thanks for the kind words Costas. I always appreciate your reading and thoughtful comments.

      By the way, where does one get a trophy cabinet for displaying blog posts? 🙂

  2. I have got 1 idea for your web site. It looks like at this time there are a number of cascading stylesheet issues while opening a number of web pages within google chrome as well as firefox. It is running alright in internet explorer. Possibly you can double check that.

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