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.