Our flight was making its way into the Newark airport. The two seats next to me were open, so I thought I'd slide over, look out the window, and catch a glimpse of the Big Apple. I did, and there standing was the great lady in the harbor. Only this time she was shrouded with scaffolding. There they were scurrying around the scaffolding: welders and polishers and repairers and people maintaining her. I slid back in my seat and began thinking of the reality that this grand lady in the harbor had no capacity to take care of herself. She had to live by the scaffolding. She was not an organism. She was a monument, nothing more than a symbol.
Then my mind drifted to the fact that I know a lot of Christians just like that lady in the harbor, who've become accustomed to living by the scaffolding, who are hollow on the inside, who at the heart level have had something happen. In my own life and ministry, if my walk with God is not carefully maintained, there is that subtle drift to hollowness, where my Christianity becomes something of a heartless habit, often moving into some forms of hypocrisy.
God searches for the condition of our hearts
Our walk with God is, above and beyond everything else, an inside-out reality. God begins to work in our lives at the level of our hearts, and he is not impressed with the externals. When we permit ourselves to drift into that hollowness, we are forced to live by the scaffolding. Test it in your own life when you are propped up and maintained and polished by a book or a tape or a pastor or a professor or a message, and when you begin leaning on all those externals for the vibrancy of your Christianity.
In the Old Testament, God so often spoke to Israel about the coldness of their hearts. I'm struck by the fact they kept all the law, and then he said to them, "Your problem is that you are uncircumcised of heart." In Joel 2:13 he says that when you repent, "Rend your hearts and not your garments." And he looked at the Pharisees, the religious establishment of his day, and he said, "You're like whitewashed gravestones: dead on the inside."
I'm struck by the reality that you and I have a heart edge as New Testament believers. If you understand the new covenant predicted in Ezekiel and Jeremiah, you understand this. They prophesied that the day was coming when the new covenant would be instituted. God would dwell within us, and he would write his laws on our hearts. We would interact with him from the inside out. Then when Jesus Christ met with his disciples in that Upper Room, he lifted the cup and said these significant words, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you." And we were grafted into that new covenant promise of God, so that you and I have a particular edge on a heart relationship to God.
Throughout all of Scripture, God speaks so much about our hearts and our hearts' condition. But I'm intrigued by one passage in the Old Testament, a passage that drives the spear of its meaning deep into my own flesh to my own heart. In this Old Testament passage we get a glimpse of how God works in the hearts of men. It's found in 2 Chronicles 16:9, where we're confronted with the reality that God is looking for a few good hearts. I love the metaphor in this verse: "The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him." This is a metaphor. God's perceptive ability moves (the King James says "runs") throughout the earth looking for something specific: people he can strengthen.
I long for the strengthening work of God in my heart. God knows my frame is dust. I need him. The text says he is looking for people whom he can strengthen, but there's a qualifier: what kind of people? People with particular kinds of hearts. God is searching this earth for the condition of our hearts that he might then strengthen us if our hearts qualify us for that ministry in our lives.
It's critical that we understand what the heart is according to Scripture. The heart is that place of conscious decision making, that place of spiritual activity. The new abridged edition of The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament mentions that the heart in the Old and the New Testaments is a parallel concept. Our hearts are the comprehensive term for our personality as a whole. It's where we desire. It's our passions. It's our thoughts, our understanding, our will. It is the center to which God turns. It is where God meets you. It is where God meets me. What is the heart? It's the biblical umbrella term for the authentic you and the authentic me. The heart is what I am. It's where I desire. It's where I deliberate. It's where I decide. And God is searching for the condition of our hearts.
I notice that this is an insightful search. We live in a world that is bent on credentials. Everybody is interested in who you are and what you are like: business cards, acclaim, honors we've received. I like to think when God begins to probe my life that I can stop him on the outside and talk about my credentials. That would be much more comfortable. I would like to say, "Lord, wait a minute. Stay right there. I want to talk to you about myself for a minute. I've been in the ministry for 15 years, and during those years we've married 'em, we've buried 'em. We've put homes back together again. Lord, we take care of 'em. We counsel 'em. We help 'em through crises. We build 'em up through the Word of God to the image of your Son. Lord, what do you think?"
You know what he says? If I understand the meaning of this text and of the full revelation of Scripture, he pushes all that aside and says, "I'm not impressed. I want to see your heart."
I've got guys in my church, very successful businessmen, some presidents of important corporations, and I can see them as God begins to probe their lives: "Wait a minute, Lord. Here's my business card. What do you think? Look at the tag on my corporate door."
God says, "I'm not impressed."
This is an insightful search for a few good hearts. I want us to be like David, who could be so transparent that he would move all his own credentials aside and say in that wonderful prayer, "Search me, 0 Lord, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. See if there be some wicked way in me. Lead me in the way of life everlasting." That's what I want our prayer to be.
What is God looking for?
So I ask myself, "What is God looking for when he gets by all that external stuff?" He begins to lead us in a spiritual EKG in this text, because he has in Scripture at least six objective standards for our heart condition. The first one is right here in this context. Notice that he says, "The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him." That's what he is looking for: a heart of full commitment.
The first measurement is loyalty to him. The Hebrew word is used earlier in Scripture when David was inaugurated as king. It is said of one of the legion—same word—that the legion was absolutely unflinchingly loyal to David as king.
If you read the context, you know that before it is said of King Asa of Judah that he had a heart fully committed to God. The king of Israel has now placed his legions around Judah so that no people could go in or out. Asa is in a tight spot. What will he do? He has two options. He can lift his eyes to the Almighty God of Israel who has rescued his people time and time again in their history and say, "God, we of Judah beg you to deliver us from this invasion." God had proven that time and time again: the Amorites, the Hittites, the mosquito bites, all those Old Testament nations that against great odds God had shown himself strong.
Or Asa had the option to strike an allegiance with a pagan king, Ben-Hadad of Aram. The text tells us that Asa went to the treasury of God and took silver and gold to strike a deal with Ben-Hadad.
God said to Asa, "Your heart is not fully committed to me, because when you got in a tight spot, you struck an allegiance with a foreign, pagan system, and you didn't trust in me."
The application is profound for us. Women have a particular struggle in our culture. Everybody expects them to get married. We've long forgotten that God places a priority on singleness. So we put all this marriage stuff on our women. When our girls are about 16, they have a list of 25 things they want in a husband: needs to be a believer, spiritual commitment, and the rest. I find when women get to be about 33, something has happened to the list. It's down to two: anything warm or breathing. Along comes the gallant knight. He doesn't know the Lord, doesn't know spiritual commitment. Now we're in a tight spot, and what do we do? Do we strike an allegiance with the pagan world system, or do we fully trust in God and remain loyal to him? That is the measure of our hearts.
A young businessman in our church was climbing the corporate ladder. He lived in a beautiful home in a great section of the Detroit metropolitan area. He was the head of the Continental Cablevision Company in Detroit. About 18 months into the assignment as he was growing in the Lord, he began to struggle. He came to me and said, "Pastor, I don't know how I can continue to grow and be God's kind of man and market this unrighteousness in my community. I'm in a bind."
Some of you may understand what it means to step off the corporate ladder when your upward momentum is so strong. I'll never forget the Sunday he said, "Pastor, I resigned my position this week, because I came to realize if I am going to be a man after God's own heart, if I am going to be a man committed to righteousness, I can no longer market unrighteousness in this community."
I said, "Tell me about your new job."
He said, "I don't have one. In fact we're packing up and moving back to Minnesota, where our parents live."
I'll tell you this: that guy left our community with his heart showing. There was a guy who would not strike an allegiance with a pagan world system but would trust in his God when he was in a tight spot and be unflinchingly loyal to him. When God was looking for a heart in the Old Testament, that was the kind of heart he was looking for. So it is loyalty.
But I find in the New Testament that Christ often talks about the measures of our hearts. In Matthew 6:19 we read, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." The context is earthly values versus heavenly values, investing our lives in things that remain, in fruit that goes on into eternity. In verse 21 he says, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Did you ever wonder where your heart is? Try looking at where you put your treasures.
I'll tell you what my treasure is: my time. I don't know if there's a more valuable commodity in my life than my time. There's the treasure chest of self-fulfillment, and there's the treasure chest in this text of the kingdom values. When I get a segment of time, I have to ask myself, "Where do I put it?"
Now don't take that too far. You say, "If that's the case, I'm never going to relax. I'll never take a vacation."
There's a friend of mine in the ministry who was taking his vacation. A man came to him and said, "Why are you taking vacation, Pastor? Satan never takes a vacation."
My friend said, "Satan has never been my example. My Lord got apart and rested a while, so he could recover enough to be more effective for the kingdom the next day." There are times when I take the treasure of my time and regroup, so that the work of God through my life can be fresh.
I think of taking time to be with my children. Several years ago I was traveling to Europe and Africa. I got on that plane, and as my family drove home, my little boy started crying. He said, "Mom, what happens if Daddy doesn't come home?" That's all my wife needed to hear, but she tried to comfort him anyway. Finally he said, "But if Daddy doesn't come home, who'll wrestle with me?" My children have great expectations for my relationship with them. In Ephesians 6 it says I should not bring my children to anger and break those expectations. I'm to be a father to my children like God is a father to me, so they can understand what it means to have God as a father. I take that treasure of time and begin to invest it in those children's lives for the glory of his kingdom.
The treasure of my money, the treasure of my relationships, the treasure of my spiritual gifts, the equipment God has given me—Christ says where you put your treasure tells me where your heart is. He looks at the treasure chest of self-fulfillment, self-satisfaction, self-serving things. I hope when he looks at mine, he sees that it's empty.
Let's turn to Matthew 9:4 for the third measurement of our hearts. To the Pharisees Christ said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?" As the Lord penetrates my life, he says, "I see your thoughts, and they are a reflection of your heart." This is especially convicting to me, because I've got this darkened closet in my brain, that place no one can invade, and I think no one will ever know. I've deceived myself. The Bible says, "As a man thinketh in his heart, he soon becomes." It's in that brain where fantasies move, sexual fantasies fanned by a sensual world. It's in that dark closet of thoughts that fantasies of revenge take fire.
I don't know that I should admit to you that as a pastor I would ever have fantasies of revenge. The Lord says to love your enemies, bless those that curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you. But I must admit that often I find when someone has hurt me (and in the pastorate we are vulnerable and we do get hurt), I'm thinking, "I gotta take care of them." And I have exegetical clout and the power of the pulpit. When thoughts of revenge begin to run in my mind, I'm amazed at how my exegesis changes. I can be in any text studying for the message, and there they are. To my shame, I have mounted this sacred desk on some Sundays with a pointed application of revenge. But God has taught me a wonderful lesson: invariably when I do that, I look out over the congregation and they're not there. Thoughts of self-centeredness—Jesus Christ said, "I know your hearts are evil because your thoughts are evil."
The fourth measurement that Christ gives to us is in Matthew 12:34: our words. Christ was never at a loss for words when he wanted to make a point with the Pharisees. He says, "You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." Christ said, "I know your hearts are evil because I hear what you say."
I've come to realize our words are tattletales on our hearts. I have been with people on occasion and wanted to tell them, "Stop! Your heart is showing, and I don't want to see it." There have been times when I've said words and I'd like to grab them and jam them back in, because I think my heart is showing.
It may come as a surprise to some of us that God intended that our tongues be controlled by the Spirit, by having a heart for God that might heal and encourage instead of being so destructive in the body of believers. Having a heart that is not a heart for God will always show in our words. It's like getting all dressed up and going to a big party, but your slip is showing. It wrecks the whole thing. So Christ says, "When I search your heart, I measure your words."
In Luke 8:15 we have the fifth measurement of our hearts. It is the parable of the seed and the sower. Christ is talking about the good soil: "But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop." Our response to the Word of God is a reflection of our hearts. He said people who have a good and noble heart do three things with the Word of God: they hear it, then they retain it, and then they produce through it.
Hearing the Word of God is not an easy task. I'm much like you when I get under the instruction of the Word. I sit there for the first three minutes, and then my mind is off to my backswing: if I slow it up just a little bit and not bring it up so high, I think I can stop slicing the ball.
The Lord says, "Hey, Stowell, would you come back, please?"
Oh, that's right. I come back and I'm thinking, Let's see, nine o'clock tonight …
You may not have the problem of wandering minds as you hear the Word. More subtle, probably, is those of us who hear the Word of God with reflectors on our heads. It's as though we have a built-in system, a huge reflector, and we hear the Word of God and say, "Boy, I hope Bob's listening to that." We've forgotten that God intends us to listen to his Word and hear it as though we had funnels over our heads with broad mouths to drink in everything and internalize it for ourselves.
He said a good heart hears the Word of God and retains it. That's a tough test, too. I can easily spin off naughty little rhymes I learned in elementary school. I've also memorized hundreds of Bible verses, but come to me a couple months later and I struggle to get them out. It takes work to retain the Word of God.
Note that a good heart produces through it. We have to stop thinking that God gave us his Word to make us theologically astute. God gave us his Word to measure us and to grow us into the likeness of Christ. Anything other than a changed life as a result of hearing and retaining the Word of God aborts the process. God says a good heart hears, retains, and produces the good crop because it has listened to the Word of God.
The most penetrating measure is this sixth, found in Matthew 15:8. It is the measure of our worship. Christ walked into a religious system that was full of traditions. People worshiped their traditions, although they gave lip service to the God of Israel. Scoring them about a religion that had gone shamefully sour in its traditions, Jesus quotes Isaiah: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me."
Do we worship our traditions and our expectations and all the false things we've built around our system of Christianity and simply give lip service to God? Or do we have hearts that genuinely glorify God in worship?
Obviously worship is everyday experience. Romans 12:1 makes that very clear. Paul says, "Do you want Old Testament sacrifices? Then climb on the altar and give your body as a living sacrifice to God." That's the worship he's looking for.
I pastor a church that has hundreds of people who know how to worship God, but every once in a while I observe some to whom Christ would say, "You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me." When I left seminary, I went to pastor a church in Ohio. In that state there was a man who had a successful ministry. I loved to hear him preach. He could communicate the Word of God with solid exegesis and profound application. He was my model. He ministered to a large church. He kept it all together. I'll never forget the shock of hearing that he'd left a note on his desk saying good-bye to the church and had left for Texas with a woman he'd been counseling. But the greatest shock came when I found out some months later that he'd been carrying on an affair with that woman for four years. He was nothing more than a high-tech spiritual robot.
We hear a lot about lifestyle. He had a lot of lifestyle. The Pharisees had a lot of lifestyle. We've forgotten the God who is concerned about heartstyle. Lifestyle without heartstyle before God is no style at all. We were saved and redeemed not to be monuments in the harbor of Christianity but to be an organism, a movement, a power from the inside out.
Bob was a deacon in our church. It was about three minutes before the Sunday evening service when an usher rushed in and said, "Pastor, Bob Rasmussen just fell to the sidewalk." I ran out to the sidewalk, where a group of people had gathered. I could tell it was serious.
Just then the emergency unit pulled up, and three men ran out, took one look at Bob, and said, "His tie is crooked and he scuffed his shoes. Look at his hair! Go in and get the brush and the hair spray, and I'll shine his shoes. We gotta get this guy lying right on the sidewalk!" Not on your life. Cosmetics were of no concern. They went right for the heart. That was the core of the issue.
We need to remember that beyond everything else, God goes right for the heart. It is my prayer that we will learn what it means to be like David of old, that it might be said of us:
"They were people after God's own heart."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Joseph Stowell is president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of numerous books, including Jesus Nation (Tyndale).