By Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are continuing our sermon series, The Bible Doesn’t Say That. Last week we talked about the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves,” and we learned that what the Bible really teaches is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. We all fit into that category, especially when it comes to developing our relationship with God. We cannot help ourselves, so we need God to help us.
This week we look at the popular phrase “follow your heart.” Does the Bible tell us to do that? This one is a little bit trickier. Part of the problem is that what we in modern society means by “heart” and what it means in the Bible is very different. But where does the phrase even come from? What does it mean? I did a search on the internet to try to find some answers, and the results were surprising. The number one result from a Google search for “follow your heart” is a health food store and eatery specializing in vegan and vegetarian offerings in Canoga Park, California, northwest of Los Angeles. In fact, there were a lot of entries focusing on the health of our physical hearts. That’s good in many ways, but it was far from what I expected.
Maybe I am way out of the loop, but when I hear the phrase “follow your heart,” something different comes to mind. A related phrase might be “follow your passion,” “follow your bliss,” or “follow your dreams.” It has an idea of doing what is most authentic to you as a person. Not getting caught up in logic and reason and doing what looks best on paper with a list of pros and cons. What do your emotions have to say? Your most primal core. What is your gut telling you? Just follow your heart.
You can understand the appeal. There’s a related phrase. “Do what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” That’s true to a certain extent, but it can still take an incredible amount of energy and effort. And at the end of the day, you still have to take out the garbage and pay the light bill and a hundred and one different things that you might define as “work.”
All of this comes from Greek culture and what has become the western culture’s understanding of our metaphorical heart. We know now (and they knew then) that this organ called the heart that we have in our bodies pumps blood to keep us alive, and when it stops, we die. However, when we are emotionally excited or scared or enthralled, we may feel it beat faster in our chest. We feel the rush over our whole body, but the feeling often starts in the heart. In our modern times, we know that all of our emotions come from the brain. Our fight or flight mechanisms may send electrical signals to our heart saying, “Pump faster. You have to be ready for anything!” However, it is all happening in our brain. Center of emotions. Center of logic. Center of all the involuntary things that our bodies do every second to keep us alive and functioning.
Yet, we still associate all of that emotional stuff with the heart. On Valentine’s Day, we may send heart shaped things to our loved ones: cards, candy, flowers, toys. Follow your heart. Do things that make you feel good. All of that is based on Greek philosophy and Greek thought.
Hebrew thought is a bit different. The words translated as “heart” in our Pew Bibles (NIV) occurs over 513 times. Emotions are just a part of what is represented by the heart in the Bible. It represents a person’s center, their physical, emotional , intellectual, and moral actions. (Bruce K.Waltke, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 1996.) Usually, when the Bible is referring to the heart, it is referring to the whole of a person, with the exception of when it is literally talking about the organ that pumps blood. It does not separate our emotional center with our intellectual center like we do in western culture. So,when Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 to, “Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30), he is not talking about different aspects of a person. He is repeating to reinforce the message. Love the Lord with your whole being, your soul, your mind, your strength. We will come back to that later. The heart can refer to any of those individual things, but usually all of them together, your life force.
The Bible has a lot to say about our hearts in their natural state, and it is not good (c.f. Jer 17:9, Jer 16:12, Gen 6:5, Gen 8:21, Psalm 53:1, Prov 28:26, Mt 15:17-20, Heb 3:12, Jas 1:14). Genesis 6:5 says, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent on the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” That was from the time before the flood, but shortly after the flood and Noah’s family departed the ark the Lord says in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21).
In the time of Jeremiah just before the Babylonian Exile God says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer17:9)
But, perhaps the words most helpful words for understanding this come from Jesus in Matthew chapter 15. The Pharisees are complaining that the disciples are breaking the traditions for ritual washing. Jesus takes them to task, as we can imagine, then quotes Isaiah in verse 8. “These people honor me [God] with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Then a few verses down, he explains what is important, beginning at verse 17:
[Jesus says,] “Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated. But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
Jesus is saying that these are the things that come out of us, our hearts, in our natural state. In this state our hearts are far from God and the things that are pleasing to God. We cannot trust our hearts to know what is right. That leads us to our theme verse for today. I will be using a lot of Scripture today, but the emphasis of it all is this theme verse. It is our Bible Nugget for this month, Proverbs 3:5, which is found on page 987 in your Pew Bible, but it is also conveniently printed in your bulletin this week. Let us read it together again:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
Trust in the Lord with your whole being, not just your emotions, not just your gut or intuition, but your mind, your rational brain, your physical body. Trust in the Lord with every part of you, and don’t depend merely on yourself, what you think and what you want. When you do that you move closer to that “peace of God, which transcends all understanding,” that Paul talks about in Philippians (4:7).
But that cannot happen until we turn our hearts over to God. When God says in Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things,” to whom is it being deceitful? To us! It betrays us. It lies to us. It rationalizes. It can even flatter us that even though we did something we know is wrong, told a white lie, betrayed a confidence, we’re not really so bad, or at least we’re not as bad as others we’ve seen. It leads us to do what makes it feel good. Sometimes that can be a good thing,but sometimes it can take us down a dangerous path.
All through the Bible there are accounts of when people followed their hearts, their passions, to catastrophe or catastrophe for the people around them. We have the account of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis chapter 16. God had promised that Abraham would have more descendants than there were stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore, but Abraham was about 86 years old, and his wife Sarah was 76, and they still didn’t have any children. What happens? They follow their hearts and try to help God. Sarah sends her servant Hagar to Abraham, so there can be a child. It works, but much pain and misery ensue. There is a child, and there is jealousy and bitterness. The mother and son are cast out (though God does promise good things for Hagar and her son Ishmael).
Judas Iscariot follows his heart to betray Jesus. There is much speculation as to why Judas did this. Whether he was never really a follower, or he was trying to force Jesus’ hand to bring about the revolution against the Romans quickly, he was convinced that he was doing the right thing. He rationalized it. His actions can be seen in a good light in that it was an important piece that brought about the crucifixion of Jesus, which was necessary for our salvation. It can also be looked at as a major link in the chain that caused the painful and wrongful execution of our Lord. Ultimately, it also led to Judas’ suicide when he realized that Jesus would be put to death (Mt27:3-5).
Last year at about this time, we were looking at the book of Judges. We looked at the end of the book, which is a horror story of betrayal, vengeance, and violence. It all came from people following their hearts and doing what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25, NKJV; c.f.Judges 19-21). There are many more. We could talk about Moses,David, Peter, and Paul.
Of course, it is not just in the Bible. We see this kind of thing on a daily basis. It can be a politician having an affair with someone on their staff, or the poor judgment of the staff person for that matter. What about saying something hurtful? I had to say what was on my heart. That sounds like the very definition of what Jesus says comes out of the heart in Mt. 15 that we looked at earlier.
You could ask, but what about people like Steve Jobs who followed their dream/their heart and did amazing things? You could ask, “What about you, Cherie? Didn’t you follow your heart with your ballroom dancing career or even going to seminary?” They are both true. There was nothing wrong with a career in ballroom dancing particularly. It can be an honest way to make a living…and like most things, it can be practiced in a very dishonest way as well. While I loved the dancing, learning, and teaching aspects of it, it also brought me into contact with many dangerous situations and people.
Going to Seminary was in a completely different category. It is something that I wanted to do with all my heart (both the western culture definition and the Biblical definition). However, it was my primary desire to do what would honor or glorify God, to do what I could discern that God wanted me to do, to the best of my ability.
We have to remember that doing what God would have us do doesn’t have to be unpleasant or even contrary to what we want. Psalm 37:4 says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
We have this idea of actually giving our hearts to the Lord, and we come back to the Greatest Commandment mentioned earlier. In Mark’s Gospel, a teacher of the law asks Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus answers, “The most important one is this…’Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30). As we talked about before, in the Bible, the heart refers to our whole essence, our whole self. Jesus is not listing off separate parts of ourselves with which to love God. He’s saying love God with everything you are: your soul, your mind, your strength, everything. In other words, give your whole self over to God.
If we are so bold to do such a thing, if we can trust the Lord enough to give our hearts to the Lord, what will God do with it? God transforms our hearts. Remember what God says about our hearts in their natural state, before transformation from the book of Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer 17:9) He says this in chapter 17, but later in chapter 31, when God is talking about the restoration, he says, “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time [the time of exile]…I will putmy law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer 31:33
In the book of Ezekiel God says, “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.”
As it says in the hymn “Here I Am, Lord,” “I will break their hearts of stone//Give them hearts for love alone.”
God takes our hearts and makes them trustworthy and true, a process that we refer to as sanctification. It changes our motivation for things. We move away from selfish motives, merely satisfying our own desires. We want to do what pleases God. We want to figure out what that is, a process known as discernment. Once this happens, in a manner of speaking, at this point following our heart becomes a different thing because we are really following God. It gives our heart, our being, joy to do so. We have that peace of God that passes all understanding(Philippians 4:7).
We can think of amazing people like Mother Theresa. We could say that she followed her heart when she left the safety of the convent to live on the streets of India to beg and learn what the destitute had to go through there on a daily basis. We could say that she followed her heart when she opened up hospitals and hospice centers, so that the poor and destitute could receive help and die with dignity. What we more properly should say is that she was following God.
Mother Theresa can seem like a pretty high bar to meet, but we can do it in our daily lives. A few weeks ago, we asked the question of why. Why do we do what we do as a church. That’s how we can decide whether what we are doing is following our own selfish desires, or if what we are doing is motivated by a changed heart following God.
Have you ever considered that kindness can be selfish? If we are kind, so that that person will be nice to us or like us, that is selfish. It is for our benefit. It isn’t to benefit the other person. It isn’t to glorify God. It is for us. It can make life more pleasant, but even the desire for that is selfish. Even in the best case, that’s the most our hearts can do on our own. That isn’t so bad is it? There is a lot of people out there doing a lot worse…Thinking like that is our hearts deceiving us again. What if there was no benefit for us in being kind? Would we continue to do it? That is the difference between following our hearts and following God.
I will close with a word from Les Lanphere, “Jesus saw the best in me, then he died to forgive me for it.”
Next week we look at a concept that has intrigued a lot of people. Obedience, or doing what God says, always leads to financial blessings.