I'm going to talk today about the most important thing there is about you or me or anyone else we are ever going to meet. To get there, I want to take you to a very decisive moment in the ancient history of a nation that is still making news today. The year is 1000 B.C., and the nation of Israel is desperate for leadership to guide them through a very tumultuous time. The people of the country are divided and fighting. The economy is in tumult. There is serious competition from outside the country and moral decay within. God directs the prophet Samuel to go to the house of Jesse, one of Israel's leading families. There Samuel is to anoint the individual whom God knows has the stuff needed to guide Israel through the next chapter of its famous history.
We pick up the story in 1 Samuel 16:6:
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab [Jesse's oldest son] and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed stands here before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, "The Lord has not chosen this one either." Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, "Nor has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, "The Lord has not chosen these." So he asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?" "There is still the youngest," Jesse answered, "but he is tending the sheep." Samuel said, "Send for him." So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, 'Rise and anoint him; he is the one."
What was it about the youngest son of Jesse that made him the one God chose to establish a kingdom that is still around 3,000 years later? That ought to make us wonder, as we struggle today on so many fronts to determine what it is that will make our nation endure the challenges of our time. What did God see as he scanned this boy's life? Was it because David had "a fine appearance and handsome features" (1 Samuel 16:12) as the Bible remarks? Was that why he was the one? Was it because he was athletic with a slingshot or had a personality that made him politically popular? Was it because he was a fine musician or had the sort of brain that could compose poetic psalms so beautiful that they are still being read all over the world today? Why, when there were seemingly more obvious choices, was David "the one" God determined to choose and use? The Bible answers: "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
A heart after God's own heart
Good looks, athleticism, personality, artistic talent and brains are all marvelous instruments, but these gifts are valuable to God only to the extent that they are being operated by a person with a certain kind of heart. The world has no shortage of fabulous looking people. You see that in the mirror every morning, don't you? Great athletes and popular politicians abound. Superb musicians and geniuses of other varieties are not in short supply. But still we battle in the halls of congress, the halls of our workplaces and schools, the halls of our homes and churches, with problems that seem intractable, with Goliaths that seem insurmountable. It's not that we lack the right instruments; rather, we do not have the right hearts directing those instruments.
Why did God choose and use David? Why, in spite of his notable flaws and failings, do we still speak his name with fondness and admiration? The writer of Acts answers this question: "After removing Saul, [God] made David their king, saying: 'I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do [all] I want him to do.'" The writer goes on: "From this man's descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised," the implication being that having the right heart is the start of salvation (Acts 13:22-23).
Do you want to see the salvation of our nation, your marriage, your kids? Do you long to see your church become the redemptive influence in your community that it can be? Do you want to see the part of your workplace, school, or neighborhood you influence become a better place? Then turn off the celebrities, turn down the music, tune out the shrieking pundits and all the trivial twitter, and pay more attention to the condition of your heart.
God designed human nature and our world to work wonderfully, so long as it stayed in sync with his heart. His heart was meant to supply and resupply our hearts. His heart was meant to be the pacemaker that guides the rhythm of our hearts. His heart was meant to be the ultimate reality that influences the health, the functioning, the outflow of our hearts. Therefore, the most helpful thing I can do for the world is to ask you to reflect with me today on this crucial question: How's your heart? Is it beating after God's own heart?
What is the heart?
Before we go there, however, there's an even more primary question to be answered:What exactly do we mean by "your heart"? We're obviously not talking about that ten ounce muscle behind your breastplate, though there are some helpful analogies to be found in your physical heart. We're also not talking about heart in the emotional sense. We have a tendency to think of the heart as the place of emotion or sentiment. Is that how you think of it?
When the Bible is trying to get at the place of our emotions or feelings, it uses the word "mind" not heart. Our mind is the place where both ideas and emotions reside and are intertwined. We never have a feeling that isn't in some fashion shaped by our thoughts. When someone cuts me off in the donut line, and I feel this emotional surge of anger, it's because there are all kinds of ideas wrapped up with that feeling: People are supposed to wait their turn. That guy's cheating. I was first. Conversely, I never have a thought that isn't accompanied by a feeling of some sort, even if it is very subtle. I'm afraid all the donut holes will be gone.
The heart, however, is a different thing. The heart can be influenced by my mind—by my thoughts and feelings—but it is far more often the other way around; it is usually the condition of my heart that determines the thoughts I entertain and the feelings that get wrapped up and ignited by them. If my heart is basically oriented toward myself and getting my own, then my thoughts and feelings are going to flow a certain way when I'm cut off in the donut line or when the donuts run out. But if my heart is basically oriented toward receiving life as a gift or toward the blessing of others, even when they don't deserve it, then my thoughts and feelings are going to flow in a very different direction. This is why Proverbs says: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (4:23).
Do you understand this Proverb? It is the character and condition of our hearts from which our life flows—how we think, feel, and act. In fact, as Dallas Willard points out, the Bible uses the words "heart", "will", and "spirit" interchangeably. It's why when we say, "His heart wasn't in it," or "he didn't have the will," or "he lost his spirit," we're saying the same thing. Your heart isn't just one, isolated aspect of you; rather, it is the central, motivating, reality-sorting, life-determining thing about you. As John Eldredge observes, this is why "the subject of the heart is addressed in the Bible more than any other topic—more than works or service, more than belief or obedience, more than money, and even more than worship." And Dallas Willard says: "Our life and how we find the world now and in the future is, almost totally, a simple result of what we have become in the depths of our being …. From there we see our world and interpret reality. From there we make our choices, break forth into action, try to change our world. We live from our depths …. We live from our heart."
Christ's concern for our heart
This truth is at the crux of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees we read about in Matthew 15. In this story, the Pharisees come to Jesus railing about how poorly Christ's disciples are observing the cleanliness rituals that they believed were at the core of religious faithfulness. You must understand that the Pharisees were like the first seven of Jesse's sons: from an appearance standpoint they were Angelina and Brad, fine and handsome. They were hall of fame candidates when it came to their athletic observance of all the things they felt the holy God wanted. They washed not only their hands but everything they touched before eating (Mark 7:3-4). They ate only at the kosher training table and avoided being sullied by sinners. With their brilliant brains they studied the Jewish law. They sang the psalms and codes of Israel like lyric opera stars.
In other words, they were like a lot of us. They looked cleaner, they talked cleaner, they kept their Sabbath mornings cleaner, they kept their website filters and their cable TV program selection cleaner (or would have, I'm sure) than the bulk of their society did. They could see that the world might be better if others did likewise, and they were probably right. But there was one problem. Do you know what it was? The problem was that the Lord looks at the heart.
And what did God see when he looked at the Pharisees' hearts? The Pharisees had developed this little rule saying that if you name something as "a gift devoted to God," you didn't really have to share it with people in need. That way, if your mother or father or someone else needed some support and you had the ability to meet the need, you could say: "Hey, I'd love to help, but I've committed this resource for the Lord's use." In doing this they were revealing two things about themselves: first, their hearts really weren't oriented toward honoring one's parents, as God's heart is oriented, witnessed by the fact that God made it the fifth commandment. Secondly, the Pharisees believed that appearing to do God's will was the same as actually doing God's will.
Jesus didn't buy it. "You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain'" (Matthew 15:7-9). They are more concerned with man-made rules, with rationalizations and thin appearances, with looking good rather than having a heart that is good.
If our hearts are in sync with God, then our thoughts will focus on good things. We will work to preserve sacred life. We will respect marital covenants. We will honor sexual boundaries. We will work for and steward money wisely. We will the truth. We will care for our neighbor's reputation. This behavior will just flow out of us. But if our hearts are not in sync with God's, then all kinds of unclean things are going to flow out instead. The spiritual cells that make up "evil, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander" will be on the move through us and toward others, even if our appearances fool others while we're standing in the donut line.
How's your heart? And how do you want it to be? Here's a simple discipline I encourage you to practice along with me this week. Ask God to help you do a searching Heart Scan. Let him use those fear or anger or anxiety-producing circumstances you'll run into as part of his test, to show you what comes out of you. Let the words of David be your prayer: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me … See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:24). For that's his desire: to give you a heart that beats just like his, forever.
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?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.