Matthew 15:1-20 – Holiness and Habits

Matthew 15:1-20 – Holiness and Habits October 17, 2016


Word BalloonHere’s an interesting experiment that would be fascinating to run: to write down every word that you uttered in a particular day and then examine the transcript.

I wonder what such a transcript would reveal about who you are and about how holy you are.

An even better measure, though even more impossible to use, would be to record every thought you had in your head throughout a given day.  Then, if you had certain clips of your day’s thoughts played back to you, what would you sound like?

It’s an intimidating experiment even to think about, isn’t it?

My point is the one Jesus is making today, which is that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man but what comes out of his mouth.  While He’s talking about the particulars of the Pharisees’ insistence on ritually washing the hands before eating (as opposed to the things that come out of their mouths), there is a deeper principle at work.  It’s not our outward actions that are really what make us impure but our inward desires and thoughts.

The Bible has a profound anthropology, and the biblical writers make it clear that the heart is at the center of our being.  It’s been said that “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” (Ashley Null on Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s anthropology).  To which I would add, “and the body enacts.”

We don’t just do things, not even when we have moments when we feel like we’re just reacting or having a reflex.  A common reflex is to get angry and begin to raise your voice.  This might be in response to someone cutting you off on the highway, to a poor call in a sporting event, or to someone being belligerent towards you.  But this so-called reflex of anger comes from a heart that allows itself to get angry.  There are other possible responses besides anger, you know.

It is the inner man, the heart, that God desires to cleanse, and not the outer man.  They say that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and personally I prefer clean people to slobs and those who drool all over themselves or who bathe only once a month.  But the “they” who say this aren’t the Holy Trinity or even the holy writers of the Bible.

The importance of the inner man is made clear even when we consider the outer actions that proceed from the inner man or heart.  If you have a problem with anger, adultery, fornication, theft, lying, or blaspheming, then you know that the way to solve the problem isn’t to simply will yourself to stop doing such things.  Such efforts are doomed to failure, and they simply compound the guilt.  You know that you must change your heart first so that the will is not fighting against the heart, and so that the body and emotions may learn to follow and not lead.

We can apply this principle to ourselves and our spiritual lives.  In many cases, we attempt to change our behavior by simply going out and changing.  If we’re a little more careful, we might muster up all of our will power to successfully cease our undesirable behavior for a short time, only to relapse.  But to successfully change, we must change our desires.

Think of your sinful desires in terms of a sinful appetite, in terms of what used to be called gluttony but which is now the unmentionable sin.  We’ve all known people who took a look at themselves in the mirror and saw that they had allowed themselves to become obese and then decided it was time to do something about it.  They go on a diet, exert their will for a while, and either quit or go back to their obesity when they have lost the desired weight and stop their diet.

What went wrong?  What went wrong was that the heart was never truly engaged, even if the body and will were put into motion.  What went wrong is that we see diets as the weather in our lives when we should see them as the climate of our lives.  Weather is what the atmospheric conditions are like at any given moment or any given day, but climate is the long-term conditions of a place.  A diet is really what you eat, and so we are always “on a diet”.  The only question is “Which diet?”  What people who diet are really doing is having a poor diet, choosing for a short while to have a good diet so they can then return to the poor diet.

Why?  When we put it in such terms, why do we continue to choose what we know to be poor and unhealthy diets?  Because we’re simply following our hearts.  We didn’t really desire the new, healthy diet and all that it entails.  We don’t like fruits and vegetables and whole grains but prefer our food to be white, fast, and fatty.  All we really wanted was a way to lose weight and feel good about ourselves so we can go back to the poor but tasty diet again.

This is also the way we are with our spiritual diets.  Why don’t we read the Bible or pray more?  There’s a part of our hearts that really don’t want to.  Why do we have evil thoughts, get angry, lust, plot how to maximize our benefits at the cost to others, lie to achieve our ends or protect ourselves, and covet?  Because we want what we want.

We might temporarily stop such thoughts and desires and behaviors, but really, they taste kind of yummy, and trying to stop them feels bad.

So the heart must be changed in order for the mind and the body to be changed as well.  In reality, all three must work together, which brings us back to the proper place of external rules and rituals.  Jesus isn’t saying that there is no place for tradition or rules or rituals, but He is saying that they are only a means and not the end.  The end is holiness, which can only come from a heart that truly desires God and His holiness.

But this raises a profound question for me: how can we get this more holy heart that desires God and His holiness?  This is where I see the two natures at work in me.  As I’m writing this, I truly desire God and His holiness.  I’m truly committed in my heart and mind and body to doing what the Lord wants me to and to not doing what He doesn’t want me to.  But I know that sometime today, when I least expect it, I’ll be tempted to do what the other will within me, the Old Man, wants to do.  I may not even become aware of such slips until after I’ve made them.

What am I to do?  Knowing that God is absolutely sovereign and that I’m rather helpless, I could simply wait for Him to change me.  But that isn’t God’s way.  He wants me involved.  He has given me various means of changing my heart, and even when I pick them up and use them, it is all of His grace.

What are these means?  First, of course, I must pray.  I have to ask: I don’t receive because I didn’t change my heart enough to humble myself before God and ask Him.  I also have to act.  When I’ve prayed, a lot of which is to train my heart to seek God, I need to immediately seek to act according to what I’ve prayed for.  When I’m next confronted with a choice of which diet I want to eat, God’s or mine, I must choose God’s.

Here’s where the outer man and his rules and rituals come in handy.  Although they are not the end of holiness and aren’t the starting point, they are still essential.  I must construct my life in such a way that I am more likely to follow what my newly God-oriented, praying, self truly desires.  When I go to the supermarket to do the weekly shopping, I should choose to buy more fruits and vegetables and less white food.  I should prepare to not eat out some of the times I normally would.  I must choose to exercise, even when I don’t feel like it.

The funny thing is that through such external actions and rules and rituals, all the time I’m establishing new rituals and subtly changing my desires.  When I was a kid, I put a spoonful of sugar on every cereal that wasn’t already sugar-saturated.  Wheaties, Cheerios, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes – they all got the sugar treatment.  But today, I find these cereals already have enough sugar and taste better without more of it.  After a month of a consistent time to exercise, I find that I desire to exercise because my heart, mind, and body have all come to expect it.

Frankly, this is how Give Us This Day gets written every day.  Over the two years I originally wrote Give Us This Day I developed a heart, a new desire to write Give Us This Day so that it felt wrong to not write it, and I thought that it was wrong since it was a primary way I came to God and listened to Him and helped feed others.  I truly desire it because it’s good for me, and I enjoy meeting God in it.  Even on the days when I didn’t feel like writing Give Us This Day I wrote it, because through the external rules and rituals it’s become a part of me.

Those who study behavior and change understand that if an action is active, public, and effortful, then that behavior is more likely to become a part of the person who does it.  This is true both for good and evil actions.

Every time we decide to follow God and His holiness, it’s a good idea as well to bring someone along for the ride.  Let someone know what you are seeking so they can walk with you and support you and hold you accountable.  Other Christians are the best external support for holiness that you’ll ever find.

All of this, of course, has implications for the raising of children.  We must give them rules and rituals, but the real goal is for them to be inner directed and not outer directed.  They must desire God in their hearts, and not just because their parents desire Him.  This is what’s behind the classic titanic struggle some Christian parents have in dragging their teens and pre-teens to church.  The child is still outer directed and doesn’t want what the parent wants anymore.  Such children have never developed a true heart for God on their own.

Being children, they need a lot of external supports and props to help them love God in the inner man.  But the goal for all of us is to reach Christian maturity, the full stature of Christ, in which we do the will of the Father because we desire it.  We desire the will of the Father so much that, like Jesus, to do the will of the Father is our very bread.

What comes out of the heart makes a man clean or unclean.  And what comes out of the heart is what is in it.  Put God in your heart today through every means available to you.

Prayer:  Lover of our souls,

Come into these cold and empty hearts of ours,

Come to fill them with light, warmth, and love,

With the heavenly music,

With the sound of the eternal harmony,

With the footfalls of the saints that rejoice in Thy bliss;

Thou art Lord of all, Master of suns and stars,

Yet art Thou our Beloved,

The Savior of our souls from death and night.

Come, our Lord, Thou Lover of our souls,

Come to purify and uplift our failing hearts,

Come to impart unto us the eternal joy of those that are in bliss with Thee.  Amen.

(John S. Hoyland)


Points for Meditation:                     

  1. In what ways does my heart desire what it wants instead of what God wants?
  2. What rules, rituals, and reminders could I place in my life to direct my heart more towards God?

Resolution:  I resolve to meditate on one way in which my heart does not desire what God desires, to ask God to change my heart, and to take the first opportunity I have today to seek Him in this thing. 


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