“The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct,
according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jerm. 17.9-10).
In Biblical anthropology, the heart is the control center of the human personality, and if it is wicked, deceptive, darkened, then a person is in deep trouble. The verses cited above from Jeremiah makes perfectly clear that human fallenness was a reality taken very seriously by the OT prophets, and rightly so. All the more disappointing of course is the fact that Jeremiah is addressing God’s people who are busily committing idolatry and immorality with impunity. No wonder that God’s judgment begins with the household of God.
In the powerful song by Michael McDonald, he beseeches us to recognize the ‘enemy within’. It’s good advice. So what are those tell tale signs that your heart is leading you astray? What are the interior sins? The first big tell tale sign, of course is when the heart allows itself to believe that ‘no one will notice this infidelity, I can even hide it from God’. But as Jeremiah says, God is the searcher of human hearts. He knows precisely what we are thinking, feeling, planning, plotting. There is no escape from the inner searchlight and bed check by the Almighty. None. Self-deception begins with the inner lie that one can hide the truth about one’s sin. But since there really is an all-knowing God, this is foolishness supreme. Sin will out, because God will have it so.
The second thing to notice about inner sins is that they involve both cognitive distortions and ungodly emotions. For example, in your self-talk you may give yourself permission to do all kinds of things, that actually, you know you ought not to do. You tell yourself you ought to be allowed a guilty pleasure or two, once in a while. You tell yourself, ‘it’ll be o.k. just this one time because ‘you can sin in haste, and then repent at leisure’. Really? What if you’re caught with your pants down? What if you are caught red handed? There is so much sheer illogic going on in the human heart which gives a Christian permission to sin. And for sure, such thinking grieves the Holy Spirit within. The Spirit will indeed fight back and try to check and rebuke such wayward thoughts, but it’s an inner battle. Paul calls it in Gal. 5 the leading of the Spirit which tugs in one direction as opposed to the sinful inclinations which pull one in the opposite direction. The battle in the Christian life is not between the old person and new person, because the old person is dead and buried. No the tension in the Christian life is between Spirit and flesh, by which Paul means the sinful inclinations of our mortal flesh.
Cognitive distortions can of course take other forms such as hubris– believing you or your work or your musical talent or etc. is way better than it actually is. This is just pride rearing its ugly head, and involves having an over-inflated view of yourself and your accomplishments (think for example of the recent bombastic speech of Donald Trump when he announced his candidacy for President).
Even worse than pride is straight up hatred of other human beings, whether it takes the form of racism, or some other kind of heinous sin. But hate starts in the human heart. It is such a clear manifestation of human fallenness and the need for redemption. Hatred of Jews lead to the extermination of 6 million of them in death camps before and during WWII. Hatred of black people led to the recent horrible tragedy in Charleston when nine people were gunned down during a Bible study in a historic church! All such incidents, which keep happening over and over again are salient reminders of just how desperately wicked the human heart can become. God’s solution is that people need to be changed from the inside out. If you just change the outside of things, say for instance the laws of the land, but the heart doesn’t change, this will not solve the problem. It’s the enemy within which only God’s Spirit can deal with that is the real source of human wickedness, and the rot needs to be stopped at its source.
A word about problematic emotions— whether we are thinking of lust, or greed, or something else. Feeling are a notably unreliable guide to the truth, especially when feelings are tainted by human falleness. It’s never a good sign when someone gives you the advice ‘to trust your heart’. Nope. Far better to trust in God and his Word as a guide for life. Feelings come and they go. They are up and they are down. They are genuine and they can be intense, but just because they are real doesn’t necessarily make them good. To the usual plea ‘I can’t deny how I feel’ the appropriate answer is ‘while it’s good to be honest about your feelings, this doesn’t mean that your feelings are true and helping you have a good grasp of reality’. Take for example when you have feelings, even strong feelings, for someone other than your spouse. These are feelings that need to be doused, not indulged. They need to be chastened and snuffed out. The fact that they are deep, real, and genuine does not make them good, godly, or helpful. Some attractions can be fatal, and they do not come from God, for example same sex attractions.
It is precisely because sins start in the heart and mind, that we need to guard our feelings and thoughts. We need to regularly take inventory and check ourselves. If we find that there are certain stimuli in our lives that are likely to lead to ungodly feelings and thoughts, then we need to remove those stimuli from our lives. The problem of course is that often when the preacher says ‘flee sin’ people flee, but they leave a forwarding address!! Repentance, inner cleansing, sanctification is an ongoing need of God’s people, all of God’s people. A good and godly life doesn’t happen by accident or by osmosis. It requires all of us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. The good news is, God has not left us to do this alone. He is working in our midst, in the body of Christ to will and to do.