Day 31: Returning to God with Our Hearts

What I'm about to say may not make me popular with some, but here goes: I'll admit that I'm a bit gun-shy when we talk in church about doing anything with our "hearts." I think the term gets used far too often, and–perhaps because of nothing more mature than trying to be macho–I always have my radar up for things that are going to require me to do something "touchy-feely." Whenever something shows up as a blip on that radar, I usually try to avoid it, and one of the primary indicators to me that I might want to avoid something in church is if its title includes the word "heart." (If, in addition to the word, there is also any sort of heart clip art, I will almost certainly steer clear.) I'm not proud of this, and I realize that it's not a particularly holy tendency, but at least I'm being honest.

So I admit that machismo rather than maturity is mostly to blame for my anti-heart reaction, but I think there's also another level to it: usually we have very little sense of what we're talking about in church when we talk about doing things with the heart. Most of our associations with it have to do with our feelings or emotions (which explains my avoidance of anything pointing in that direction), so any suggestion that we should do things such as praying with our hearts, or reading the Bible with our hearts, or even loving God with our hearts meet my initial defenses.

Again, thanks to Dallas Willard's work in Renovation of the Heart, I've come to see that loving, reading, and praying with our hearts are all things that should have a very concrete, practical meaning. In the book, Dallas proposes that–according to the images in the scriptures–talking about doing something with our hearts isn't actually talking about our feelings or emotions, but rather about our wills (to which the macho me heaves a sigh of relief).

Dallas makes the case that references in the scriptures to the heart, the spirit, and the will are all referring to the same part of us, essentially the part of us that chooses. Regardless of whether or not you share my disinclinations toward the touchy-feely, this is actually very good news for all of us. I'll see if I can explain why.

Think for a moment of someone who, in your estimation, is "world-class" at something, perhaps a professional athlete, musician, or some other kind of performer. We normally think of such people as not only being talented, but also having tremendous willpower. They have made the difficult decisions, day after day and year after year, which have resulted in their world-class abilities.

But what if I told you that I know something surprising about whichever great performer you have in mind: that, rather than having tremendous willpower, they actually have none at all? What if I told you that neither do I, and neither do you?

This makes sense if, instead of thinking of the heart as something indefinite but related to our feelings, we think of the heart in the context of a human life as we're considering it this week (again, thanks to Dallas). If we look at the heart, spirit, will as the part of us that chooses, and we understand the ground we covered yesterday about the role that our minds play in shaping everything about who we are, we can let ourselves off the hook about not having enough willpower to do certain things, because we'll realize that the will actually has no power. Instead, it is pointed in some direction(s), and makes decisions accordingly.

Back to your world-class performer: It's undeniably true that they indeed have made the tough decisions over years and decades to refine their talents into world-class abilities. But if what I'm saying is true, they didn't make those decisions based on tremendous willpower. Rather, they put the right things into their minds, and directed their minds to dwell on those things, so that whenever big or small decisions were presented to them, their hearts/wills/spirits chose accordingly, and all of those choices added up over time to turn into remarkable abilities.

So here comes the good news: the ability we are after is the ability to live our lives according to God's desires for us, namely that we would be people with the character of Jesus who participate in his kingdom in our everyday lives. This does not rest on our willpower. More concretely: your ability (or lack thereof) to actually live without anger, lust, deception, vanity, greed, and worry–to bless those who curse you and be completely free of the need to judge others–does not depend upon you having a world-class amount of willpower. No one does. We're all off the willpower hook.

What does matter, tremendously, if we seriously want to return to God with our hearts, is that we do the things that will naturally–over the course of months, years, and decades–point our hearts/wills/spirits to choose in the direction of that kind of life.

So, if you want to live a life completely in God's will five years from now, the question is not whether you have a five-year strategic plan to get you there. The question is whether, today, you are putting the things in your mind that will shape your thoughts and feelings in such a way that, when decision times come over the next five years, you will consistently choose in that Godward direction. And–the biggest surprise is–rather than requiring tremendous willpower, it won't even be difficult. (See Matthew 11:28-29.)

A Prayer for the Day:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*

Click here for this week's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]