“The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.” That’s a sentence so often repeated that the original author is probably now lost to obscurity. But a phrase gets repeated for a reason – it speaks something truthful and clear, that our issues spring from our hearts.
The Bible puts it this way in the book of Proverbs:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”Proverbs 4:23
The book of Proverbs has 31 chapters and 915 verses of advice, direction and wisdom. So when Proverbs says “above all else…” you really ought to sit up and listen! What is the wisdom that we are to grasp ‘above all else’? It is to guard our heart, to keep it and to protect it.
For the Biblical worldview the heart is the centre of a person, their will, direction and desires. It encompasses emotion, certainly, but it isn’t to do with emotion alone. It is about who we are and what we want; our identity and our desire. It is this heart that we are to keep watch over and guard with all wisdom.
The reason for this is plain: everything you do flows from the heart. There is a fundamental direction that we need to understand here. Often we try and change our heart – our identity and our longings – by changing our behaviour. Do what is good, then surely we will be changed to be good. But that is to get the direction of our hearts the wrong way around entirely. What we do flows from our hearts. Our hearts generate thoughts, feelings and actions; we know what is happening in our hearts because of the behaviour it produces. If we don’t like the behaviour, and it doesn’t match what God desires, then a heart change is needed more than a behaviour change.
Our heart is of utmost importance, because all we do – and in a sense all we are, at least toward others – flows out from it. Yet it is surprising how little time and attention we give to the workings of our hearts. We have a sense that they are there, but we don’t look into their details or examine them for ourselves. Instead we mostly ignore them, hoping that they keep going okay, much like the engine in a car to most of us with little mechanical knowledge. Only when the warning light begins to blink on the dashboard do we give any attention to that which drives everything.
So let’s say we’ve seen a warning light flashing on our dashboard: a behaviour we would like to change, a sin that we constantly struggle with, a doubt or difficulty with discipleship, a circumstance or suffering that is too much for us to bear. We know that the heart is the place we need to look. We know that a change needs to take place in our heart. So how do we do it?
The answer is, we don’t. We can’t. I don’t think any heart surgeon would attempt or advocate performing open-heart surgery on yourself. We simply aren’t able to do the work of heart change that living for Jesus requires. But that should not lead us to despair. We have a living God who has taken up residence in us by his Spirit. The Spirit is the only one who can transform a Christian’s heart and do the work necessary to help us grow in grace. The Spirit is the skilful surgeon applying his work to the core of our being.
What we need to do is echo the words of David from Psalm 51. He called out to the living God:
‘Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.’Psalm 51:10
David longs that God’s Spirit is not removed from him, but allowed to work in him. That is precisely what God does for those who call out to him. By his mercy and grace he restores the joy of his salvation to those who need his goodness, and transforms us. The heart of the matter is indeed the matter of the heart, and we have a Saviour who is able to deal with the matter of the heart and make it new again.