on Knowing the Heart

A wise man once said, “Know thyself”—but a wiser man said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Ours is a culture that places a growing emphasis on doing what feels right, looking to the heart as the ultimate discerner between right and wrong. We fail to comprehend that the human heart is a labyrinth of self-deception, ignorance, and ulterior motives, and that for only five tickets, a better moral compass is available at any Chuck E. Cheese’s. Granted, it spins wildly and points in no particular direction, but it’s still a marked improvement over active deception. The point to take home from Jeremiah’s inspired rhetoric is that, even with the best of intentions, we cannot expect to navigate the corridors of our own hearts in their natural state.

Does this mean, then, that the heart is a lost cause? If the human heart is so unknowable, so vile, should our goal then be to keep ourselves away from it? Should we seek to quarantine it, lock it in a box and keep it hidden away?

On the contrary! The Bible reveals that not only is it possible, it is essential for salvation that we come to know and understand the condition of our own hearts.

The Heart-Knower

Jeremiah wasn’t unsure of the answer when he asked, “who can know it?” at the end of verse 9. His question was rhetorical, a set-up for God to respond in the very next sentence: “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:10). The heart, then, is knowable—not by us, but by the God who searches it. Searching out and understanding my own heart is impossible for me…but not for the God who created me.

The disciples understood this when they prayed to God for guidance in replacing Judas after his betrayal of Christ and subsequent suicide. They began their prayer, “You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all” (Acts 1:24). The Greek shows us that the disciples address God as the kardiognōstēs, literally “the Heart-Knower.” Our God possesses a perfect working knowledge of the state of every heart on the face of this planet, which includes yours and mine—knowledge He is willing to share with us.

A serious heart condition

It’s an important distinction, although it might not immediately appear that way. Any discussion of the heart has to begin with the understanding that it is God who opens our eyes to the state of our hearts, not us. Why is this important? Well, let’s look at a story.

Jesus Christ spoke a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess'” (Luke 18:11-12). In other words, the Pharisee’s approach was, “Hey God, I just wanted to say thanks for making me so awesome! It’s pretty great being flawless.”

The tax collector took a different approach. He, “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!'” (Luke 18:13).

Christ adds that only one of these men “went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14)—because only one of these men had a decent understanding of the state of his own heart. The Pharisee had only ever seen his heart through his own biased eyes, and that deceitfully wicked heart told him that he was the pinnacle of piety. The tax collector saw his own heart through a different set of eyes: God’s. He saw that his lifestyle was in conflict with God’s standards, and he cried out for help. He went to his house justified because he saw himself not as his heart told him he was, but as God told him he was. He saw problems that needed overcoming and sought mercy. The Pharisee failed to see the need for it. To request God’s mercy is to admit the need for that mercy, and that requires an honest look at our own hearts.

Beyond forgiveness

We can’t stop there, though. The life of a Christian does not culminate in admitting fault and obtaining forgiveness. That’s just the first step on the road to perfection. Thankfully, another story from the life of Christ makes apparent the next step in this struggle with our own hearts.

This story begins with a father—a father who, for years, had watched helplessly as his own son was tossed about in the clutches of demonic possession. Time and again, he was only able to watch as a fallen angel seized his child and sent him into convulsion as he foamed at the mouth and gnashed his teeth. He was powerless to help—until, one day, he heard the story of a miracle worker traveling from city to city in Israel, He and His disciples casting out demons and healing the sick wherever they went. What hope he must have had when he began to realize that these men had the power to save his son!

…And how that hope must have been dashed to pieces when he found that the disciples were just as powerless as him to cast out his son’s demon. As a heated debate broke out between the disciples and some onlooking scribes, Christ arrived on the scene and asked for an explanation. The father explained why he had come and what Christ’s disciples had failed to do, adding that his son’s demon “often…has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22).

The father’s request was also something of a challenge. If You can do anything. It was the “if” of a man quickly losing hope that there was anything to be done for his son. It was the “if” of a man wondering whether the stories he’d heard were really true. It was the “if” of a man plagued with doubt.

Christ parried that challenge with His own. He knew the son’s father was struggling with doubt, but was still willing to take the risk—and so He responds, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23, emphasis mine). The issue wasn’t whether or not Christ was capable; the issue was whether or not the father believed Him to be capable. The father’s response is one of the more heartfelt pleas in all of Scripture:

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!'” (Mark 9:24).

The father could have lied. He could have replied, “Of course I believe!” But he didn’t. Christ’s statement led him to take an honest look at his own heart, and he reported what he saw—he had faith, but not enough. Here’s where he could have thrown in the towel; his heart wasn’t up to snuff and he knew it. Instead, though, he looks to Christ for help. He doesn’t say, “I have unbelief,” but, “help my unbelief.” His plea, in essence, is, “I understand where I am—please help me get to where I need to be!”

That was enough for Christ to work with. The father wasn’t Hebrews 11 material by any means, but he was able with God’s help to see his shortcoming and then sought to fix it. We haven’t reached the finished line when God grants us the insight to see our own corrupt hearts, nor have we finished our race when we own up to our sins and obtain forgiveness. The rest of our journey (and arguably the hardest part!) is, with the help of God, coming to a deeper understanding of those sins and flaws, overcoming them, and replacing them with Godly character. In other words, we begin the Christian journey by allowing God to show us the truth about the darkness within our own heart—we spend the rest of the journey cleaning that heart up.

Searching it out

The heart of a converted, seasoned Christian shouldn’t fit the description given in Jeremiah 17:9. If, after years of striving to draw close to God and replicate His character, we haven’t allowed God to open our eyes to our own condition, we’re missing an integral piece of the puzzle. If, after all that time, our hearts can still be described as “desperately wicked” and “deceitful above all things,” then we’re doing something horribly wrong. We must continually seek to evaluate the condition of our heart through God’s eyes (lest we fall into the same trap as the Pharisee from the parable), praying always:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139:23-24)

Because that’s what God’s looking for—sons and daughters who keep close tabs on the condition of their hearts, seeking always to find and root out anything contrary to God’s way of life.

For thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
With him who has a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
(Isaiah 57:15)

Until next time,
Jeremy

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