For many years, I had a habit of constant, soul-sucking, “Why do I keep doing this myself?” introspection.
Every motive was to be examined from every angle like I was crime scene photographer for the soul. I constantly scrutinized my actions, trying to evaluate whether I might have slipped into sin. If CSI married The Gospel Coalition, I would have been the result.
“Was I angry or was I just upset?”
“Did I turn my eyes away quickly enough or did I lust?”
“Why exactly didn’t I want to read my Bible? Was it sinful laziness? Maybe I was just exhausted.”
I was always playing Sherlock Holmes on myself, looking for clues, making startling (usually wildly inaccurate) deductions, and jumping to conclusions. The slightest unpleasant emotion was cause for deep evaluation.
As you can imagine, I was a boatload of fun to be around. If there were a character on Inside Out named “Constant Drag”, I would do the voice.
On top of that, I had been told that the heart is deceitful above all things. After all, in Jeremiah 17:9 it says:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
It turns out that for a spiritually insecure person, that’s a really unhelpful verse. It created an Inception-like phenomenon within me where I kept going deeper and deeper trying to figure out what was really going on in my heart.
But the deeper I went, the harder it was to see straight. The landscape pitched and tilted and abruptly shifted positions. It was like a nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare.
Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older, two things have happened:
- God has helped me far less introspective
- I’ve come to the conclusion that Jeremiah 17:9 is not a verse intended for Christians, at least not in the sense it normally gets used.
The reason for number one is relatively simple: I’ve learned that no matter what my motives, the gospel is ever and always my hope and that my eyes should constantly be directed toward it.
Number two takes a bit of explaining.
A Dead Heart IS Deceitful Above All Things
When you read the story of Israel throughout the Old Testament, one thing occurs again and again: they wandered from the Lord and pursued idolatry.
They are rescued from Egypt in a dramatic and stunning way, Moses goes up Mount Sinai, and the Israelites throw a debauched frat party/orgy around a golden calf. God brings them to the border of the Promised Land and they refuse to enter because there might be giants ( a nod to the band “They Might Be Giants”).
God sends Ehud to deliver Israel by assassinating a fat king with a knife to the stomach. A short while later Israel is serving Baal and Ashteroth.
Judges 2:18-19 are a nice summary of Israel’s behavior throughout the Old Testament:
Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
It sounds insane, right? God rescues Israel, abundantly provides for them, leads them to sweet places, and then they turn around betray him. God would allow them to overrun by enemies, they would cry out for deliverance, and the cycle would repeat itself.
It was like a terrible, twisted version of Groundhog Day or a person who rampantly cheats on their spouse despite his/her faithfulness (which, coincidently, is the literal story of Hosea).
So what was their problem? Why were they so prone to wander? Why did they constantly desert the One who treated them with such kindness?
Because their hearts were sick. Desperately, terribly sick. Actually, dead would be a better word for it.
It’s pretty simple actually: apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, every person is dead in their sin, and every dead person has a heart that is deceitful above all things. A person who has a dead, diseased heart does things that are beyond understanding.
Sin is fundamentally insane. It’s why husbands abandon their families for a few fleeting moments of sexual ecstasy. It’s why a mother loves plunging a needle into in her veins more than her kids. It’s why a man or woman will pursue their career at the expense of everything else. It’s why an internationally known male athlete will decide to live as a woman. It’s why another massively popular athlete will brag about having had sex with 10,000 women.
Sin is like drinking Clorox and expecting nothing to happen. It’s like playing with a Molotov cocktail and believing you won’t get burned. Only an insane person would do that. Only a person who has been terribly deceived would do such a stupid thing.
Every person who isn’t born again has a heart that is dead, deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.
I think this is what Paul is getting at in Romans 1:21:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
When you don’t honor God or give thanks to him, your thinking becomes futile, infantile, foolish, idiotic, destructive, and detached from reality. Your heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. The heart is a hustler and you’re the mark.
Jeremiah 17:9 is NOT written about those born again and it shouldn’t be used by Christians as a principle for godliness. Doing that is like a healthy person seeking out radiation treatment.
It does more harm than good.
A Living Heart Has The Holy Spirit
When you read the Old Testament promises of a new covenant, it becomes beautifully, startlingly clear that God intended to replace his people’s dead, sick, deceitful, putrid, decaying hearts with something else entirely.
With new hearts that pulsed and hammered and thrummed with spiritual life. With hearts awash with the Holy Spirit and bent toward obedience rather than idolatry.
In Jeremiah 31:33-34, God gives this breathtaking promise:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.
That verse makes me so happy. God would fundamentally, ontologically change his people. The very core of their being would be radically altered, and a spiritual heart transplant would take place.
Dead hearts gone. New hearts sutured into place.
Hearts that had the commands of God burned upon them. Hearts that had the law written within rather than upon tablets of stone. Hearts that were no longer deceitful above all things or desperately sick.
In John 16:13, Jesus told his disciples:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
Now, to be clear, in context I think Jesus was talking about their apostolic ability to guide the church in truth after he departed.
But this also gives us insight into the role of the Spirit in our lives.
He guides us into truth. He convicts us of sin and righteousness. He pursues us when we wander, like the Hound of Heaven. He is faithful when we are faithless. He shepherds us when we stray outside the sheepfold.
We have the Holy Spirit within, and that deeply, fundamentally, powerfully changes everything.
Yes, I once had a heart that was dead, deceitful, and desperately sick.
I have a heart that is alive. I live in Christ and he lives in me, and never the two shall part.
Can I still be deceived by sin? Of course. James makes that clear. Is it possible for a believer to dive headlong into catastrophic, sinful muck? Sure. I’ve seen it again and again, and it’s devastating.
But (and this is crucial), my fundamental disposition is not toward being deceived by sin. The Holy Spirit aggressively militates against that happening.
That changes everything.
And I couldn’t more grateful.