A week ago last Saturday we acknowledged the third anniversary of that attack on the United States that we have come to remember as 9/11. The occasion served as a grim reminder that we are a nation at war: a nation with many enemies.
The next attack could be anywhere. Our whole infrastructure is at risk. Therefore, our nation has been called to perpetual vigilance in the fight against terrorism. Our whole nation has been animated to a state of watchfulness and readiness.
Please turn to Proverbs 4:23. I will be reading from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
God has also called his people to a perpetual state of watchfulness and readiness. For God's people also are a people at war. Our spiritual enemies have targeted the most important part of each individual Christian. No, they cannot have our souls. Praise God, the souls of true believers are forever safe with him.
Nevertheless, the thing at risk is very valuable. It is more precious than our church buildings. It is more important than our various church programs. It is more essential than the air we breathe. It is nothing less than the heart.
By this, I do not mean the physical heart; I do not mean that part of you that pumps blood. Rather, I mean the real you, the person you are on the inside. I speak of that part of you that thinks, decides, and feels--that part of you that determines what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.
God's word to us from Proverbs 4:23 says, "Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life."
This passage gives a command and a reason for the command. We are told to guard our hearts above everything else. The reason? The heart is the source of life. Everything that we think, feel, do, or want comes from our hearts.
Watch over the heart.
To guard the heart we must watch over everything that happens in it and around it. This requires the same diligence and commitment as watching over a child. There are many aspects of caring for a child that illustrate what it means to care for the heart.
Make sure it is healthy.
The first thing you do with a newborn child is make sure it is healthy. We need to make sure our hearts are healthy. Does your heart:
- Delight in God above all else
- Long for communion with God
- Love the word of God
- Love God's people
- Hate sin
- Quickly repent of sin
These are just a few things to check.
Give it a bath.
The next thing you do with a newborn child is you give it a bath. I gave Steve his first bath. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing--a nurse helped me. Your heart needs a bath sometimes. Filth creeps in, and you need to clean it up. Filth takes the form of bad thoughts, bad responses, and bad attitudes. These can be measured against Philippians 4:8 which says, "Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things." The love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is also useful for revealing whether your heart needs a bath. These verses help you to find the dirt so that you can wash it off through repentance.
You love it.
The next thing you do with a new baby is you love it: you wrap it in a blanket and you hold it. We need to love our hearts enough to care for them. Instead, the heart is often neglected. Sometimes the excuse is church activities. People get so busy with church programs that they ignore the spiritual depravation of their hearts. Sometimes the excuse is intellectual pursuits. People get so involved with the academic side of Christianity that they neglect their hearts.
You feed it.
Another thing you do with a newborn baby is you feed it. Likewise, the heart needs spiritual nourishment.
- It needs to read and hear the word of God.
- It needs to apply the word through meditation.
- It needs to interact with God through praise and worship.
- It needs to be encouraged by other Christians.
Another thing you do with a newborn is change diapers. Just as diapers catch the filth from the baby, you must through self-examination and repentance catch the filth coming from the heart. And if you wait too long, do you know what you get? You get diaper rash, diaper rash of the soul. Unconfessed sin spreads its infection throughout your soul.
You protect it.
Another thing you do with a newborn baby is you protect it. You guard it from danger. Likewise, we need to protect our hearts.
- You protect a baby from dangers around it, removing plastic bags and sharp objects. Similarly, to protect your heart you might need to remove, for example, certain magazines and abstain from certain television programs.
- You protect a baby by fencing it in. The baby bed has bars to keep the child inside. Sometimes you have to fence in your heart; you have to keep it from going certain places in your car or on the Internet.
You protect the older child.
You continue to protect the child as it grows older.
- You protect it by watching out for people who would steal your child from you. Similarly, there are many who would steal your heart away from its Godward focus, even as Delilah stole the heart of Samson. You must constantly examine your heart, looking to see whether your affections have raised an idol.
- You protect a child by restricting unsafe activities. You do not let it play with knives with matches. Similarly, many have had their hearts cut and burned by standing too close to sin. Therefore, you need to set wide borders between your heart and sin. For example, when your friends light up the marijuana, you need to get up and leave.
You teach a child to obey.
- You also teach a child to obey. For the good of the child, you assert a firm hand against disobedience. For the good of your heart, you must do the same for it. You must force it to live by principle rather than feelings. You must prevent it from being ruled and dominated by the cravings of the body.
- Not only do you teach a child to obey, but also you take careful note of the child's attitude. You seek to turn a rebellious spirit while the child is still young and trainable. Similarly, we must carefully examine the attitudes of the heart. With the help of God, we must identify sinful beliefs, goals, patterns, and anticipations and replace them.
This is how we diligently watch over the heart: with the same diligence that we would watch over a new baby or a young child.
The reason for this watchfulness is that if the heart is undone, the whole person is undone. Nothing can be right about a person if his heart is wrong. Apparently righteous acts done with unrighteous motives are actually unrighteous acts, no matter the benefit. As it is written in Romans 14:23, "Everything that is not from faith is sin."
The importance of the heart to God.
God is especially concerned about the heart.
- The heart is more important than physical appearance. When the prophet Samuel was sent by God to anoint the new King of Israel and Jacob brought out Eliab, God told Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart" (1 Sam 16:7)
- The heart determines the value of our actions. In Jeremiah 17:9-10 we read, "The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick—who can understand it? I, the Lord, examine the mind, I test the heart to give to each according to his way, according to what his actions deserve."
- The heart reveals the health of our souls. This was David's confession when he cried out in repentance, "Surely You desire integrity in the inner self, and You teach me wisdom deep within" (Psalm 51:7)
- The heart requires the touch of God. God regenerates the heart when he saves his people: when he brings them to repentance and faith. "And I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, so they may follow My statutes, keep My ordinances, and practice them. Then they will be My people, and I will be their God" (Ezek 11:19-20).
From these passages, you can see how important your heart is to God. Now, if it is this important to God, your heart should also be important to you as a Christian. For the security of your heart is constantly threatened by the flesh.
The flesh is not the heart.
This is because God regenerates only the hearts of people; he does not regenerate the flesh. It is true that because of regeneration, the old nature of the heart has been replaced with a new nature. That old nature is gone. The flesh as the ruling nature of the heart has been deposed. However, as influence the flesh remains. Like a terrorist within the walls of a palace, the flesh continues to live within the walls of the soul. Its wicked demands and patterns of behavior remain deeply entrenched. But it is entrenched not as a conquering lord but as part of a resistance movement. It is a terrorist under cover.
A terrorist might serve in the king's court. He might fill the king's mind with wicked ideas, even as Daniel's enemies sought to insight Darius against him and succeeded in getting Daniel thrown into a den of lions. A terrorist might play on the king's emotions in order to move his will towards evil. But this terrorist is neither the mind, the will, nor the emotions of the king. It is merely an influence.
The flesh, as a terrorist, still lives inside the believer. However, as a believer, you also have the living influence of the Holy Spirit. Because your heart has been regenerated, it desires to walk in obedience to God. But sometimes it chooses wrongly. Sometimes there are conflicting influences, and the heart has to decide whether to sow to the flesh or sow to the spirit.
In fact, sometimes the heart sows to the flesh while thinking that it is sowing to the spirit. The heart makes bad decisions. On other occasions, the influence of the flesh on the passions of the heart comes so quickly we are blind-sided. Before we realize what has happened, we are spewing out more bitterness, cursing, and filth than most infidels. This can humiliate the Christian to the point where he wonders how he could possibly be saved.
In times like these, it is especially important that you see the difference between the flesh and the heart. You must in some sense stand back and note the presence of competing influences and competing desires. Yes, it is you that sinned; it is you that must repent; and it is you must seek God's help to change. You are responsible for the decisions of your heart. But as you seek the Lord, it will become clearer to you that the dominant drive of your heart and the evil influences that sometimes tear you down are different.
Come to Jesus just come as you are, covered with the filth of giving in to the flesh. Even in the midst of your humiliation, be assured that the God who saved you will even now lift you up.
Sometimes God will take away sinful thoughts if you ask him. Other times he leaves the thoughts but shows you sinful patterns and attitudes that glue those sinful thoughts to your mind. He shows you the glue so that, with his help, you can scrape it off.
The essential question is whether you are repenting or ignoring? Do you truly hate your sin? Are you fighting against it? If you ever stop fighting against the flesh or if you ever stop repenting of your sin, that is when you should be greatly concerned about whether you are really a Christian. Christians are fighters. They show their faith to be alive in their willingness to fight. Though they fall many times, they never surrender.
To secure the heart, we need our allies.
Securing the heart is hard work full of setbacks and disappointments. The Christian will often be discouraged over what he finds in his heart--maggots and worms of the soul, planted by the flies of the flesh. In order to avoid despair, the Christian needs encouragement from his allies. He needs someone to spur him on to keep up the good fight.
Just as the United States is looking to its allies for help in waging war against foreign terrorists, we must look to our allies for help in fighting against the terrorist activities of the flesh. We need the church and we need the Holy Spirit.
Satan knows how useful the church can be. In fact, he will do anything he can to turn the people of the church against one another. If he can keep us fighting each other, we will be so occupied with our self-centered interests that we will neglect our hearts--and that is just what he wants.
One way Satan attacks is by making us resistant to accountability. Accountability to our brothers and sisters in the church is not a nice option; it is a necessity. As it is written, "Better an open reprimand than concealed love. The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive" (Prov 27:5-6)
The word also says, "A fool’s way is right in his own eyes, but whoever listens to counsel is wise" (Prov 12:15)
We respond with gratitude when people warn us of physical dangers. We are grateful for warnings of fire, fallen trees, downed power lines, and flooded roads. But we respond differently to warnings of apparent spiritual problems. These warnings touch the tender nerve of pride and the fleshly demand for independence.
For example, if you were to graciously point out some sin in my life, I would have several things to deal with:
- Your comment.
- My embarrassment over having my sins or errors exposed.
- My irritation towards you for bringing this to my attention.
- My reflex action of wanting to humble you by pointing out some flaw in your life.
So where you would have pointed out only one sin, I would now have three or four sins to deal with--thanks a lot! But you know what, that would be my fault, not your fault. It would be my fault for not being prepared to be accountable.
Do not miss this: we must decide in advance that we will be accountable. We must be prepared to be accountable. We can do well with these kinds of encounters only if we prepare for them. The following resolutions could help:
- We must be willing to hear and consider a rebuke from a fellow Christian.
- We must be willing to subdue our passions and at least think about the grain of truth such a rebuke might contain.
- We must be willing to repent publicly and/or privately if called for.
- We must be willing to consider the possibility that this rebuke is from God, even if the spirit of the person giving it is less than gracious.
- We must be willing to carefully examine how our hearts are responding to this rebuke: watching for bitterness and resentment.
Accountability makes sense. If my brother or sister in Christ really loves me, does it not make sense that he would care about my heart? It is hard to rebuke people; it is painful. No one really wants to rebuke people they love and care about. So when they are willing to rebuke you, even at the risk of losing your friendship, it is nothing less than the love of God flowing from them to you, for "faithful are the wounds of a friend."
A right attitude towards accountability will help all of us to work together in keeping the heart and in securing the heart against the terrorists of the soul.
Contentment with who we are in Christ.
We also need a right attitude regarding who we are in Christ. We must resolve to be content with how God has made and gifted us. Otherwise, Satan will easily set us against one another.
For example, Satan loves to get us to compare ourselves with other people. One might feel insecure because of his perception of his low position in life. He might go to a church filled with well-paid doctors, lawyers, accountants, and entrepreneurs and imagine that they all look down on him because he works as an unskilled laborer. A woman might be insecure because she cannot dress the way the wealthier ladies dress. A man might have had some bad experiences that make him feel branded as second class Christian. A single mom or dad might feel out of place in a church that appears to be filled with perfect families. A working couple may feel slighted in a church where most families educate their children at home. A man might be self-conscious because of his inability to speak with good grammar. A person might feel like a hindrance or a burden because of his disabilities. There are many things that might make a person feel insecure in the body of Christ. Failure to address the attitude behind these insecurities can lead to bitterness and resentment.
For your attitude affects your expectations. If you already think that people look down on you, then your mind will be looking for ways to prove it. If you already think that people hold you in low regard, your mind will be looking for confirmation.
The key is to learn to see yourself and others from God's perspective. This preoccupation with worldly postion and experience is not from God; it is from the world. We must learn to see ourselves: either in Christ or outside of Christ. Christ is all. Without Christ, we are nothing and we have nothing. The poorest and plainest person who knows Christ shall reign with Him in eternal glory. But the richest and most articulate person who ignores Christ now shall abide in eternal disgrace.
Another thing that disrupts the body of Christ is misunderstandings. It is so easy to misunderstand why people do the things that they do, that we should always give one another the benefit of a doubt. As written in 1 Corinthians 13:7, love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
On the day that I wrote this part of the sermon, something funny happened while I was walking down a long hallway where I work. One of my coworkers walked out into the hallway when, just as I was about to walk by her, I suddenly remembered that I forgotten my coffee. Well, I made an abrupt about-face that was totally innocent on my part, but to her it looked like a very energetic snub. Thankfully, she had a good sense of humor. Things like this happen all the time. How many people get barbequed over so-called rudeness or charges of preferential treatment that they are probably not even aware of? We really need to give each other the benefit of a doubt.
We also need to be quick to resolve potential misunderstandings. If you think someone might have misunderstood your heart, be diligent to check with him or her. Do not wait. Even though they might not be willing to admit that they were offended, the love that you show by being sensitive to them now will help to prevent them from being offended in the future.
And when an offense really has been committed, we need to be quick to forgive. The Bible speaks of two kinds of forgiveness between people: forgiveness from the heart and forgiveness in response to the offender's repentance. I call these heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness. Many others refer to these as vertical and horizontal forgiveness. Forgiveness from the heart, vertical forgiveness, is always required. This happens when you subdue your passions, leave the penalty with God, and lay aside bitterness and revenge. The offender need not be present--you do this before God. In verbal forgiveness, also called horizontal forgiveness, you respond to your offender's repentance by telling the offender that he is forgiven.
If you are quick to forgive, you will keep the flesh from defiling your heart with a root of bitterness. Mark 11:25 says, "Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him."
Those are the things I wanted to mention that will help the members of the body of Christ help each other to fight for the security of the heart:
- Be accountable.
- Be content with who you are in Christ.
- Be slow to accuse people of evil.
- Be quick to forgive.
We have another ally besides the church. Much more than an ally, He is God with us, the Holy Spirit. One of the jobs of the Holy Spirit is to make Christ known to us. The Holy Spirit mediates the presence of Christ. To walk with the Holy Spirit is to walk with Christ.
We receive the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit at conversion. However, we continue to walk under the influence of the Holy Spirit only as we continue to walk with Christ. In fact, if we are not careful, his influence in our life will diminish.
Walking with the Holy Spirit is a lot like keeping a garden. What do you have to do to get weeds in your garden? Here in Middle Tennessee, how hard is it to get weeds to grow in your garden? It is not hard at all. You do not have to do anything, do you. In fact, you can completely ignore your garden, and weeds will grow there. You do not even have to plant them.
Compare this to walking under the influence of the Holy Spirit. How hard is it to have the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit drowned out by the raucous shouting of the flesh. It is not hard at all. All you have to do is ignore the Holy Spirit and his influence will leave. Instead of the influence of the Holy Spirit, you have the unopposed flesh planting weeds in your heart. You will have the flesh directing your mind, your will, and your emotions.
Talk often with God.
To secure our hearts against the flesh, our transactions with the Holy Spirit should take place daily and several times during the day. Like that monk Brother Lawrence, we should practice the presence of God
By analogy, we have two flowerbeds at home that are protected by sidewalks. On days when I work from home, I love to walk out to these flowerbeds while drinking a cup of coffee. Usually I will find weeds in the front of the flowerbeds that have just started to grow. But I just stoop down and pull them up. It is so easy to pull them up roots and all when they are still small. In fact, it is so easy that I can pull them up without even spilling my coffee.
This illustrates one of the benefits of walking with the Holy Spirit. If you are talking to God throughout the day, then just as soon as you mess up and sin, you can go ahead and talk to God about it and deal with it. You can get this weed out of your heart before it sends down deep roots. This is also very useful when bad thoughts come to mind. You can take an objective look at your heart, note that your heart does not want to have these kinds of thoughts, and cry out to the Holy Spirit for help. How wonderful it is to be able to deal with these heart issues immediately, rather than trying to remember them at the beginning or end of a day when you are tired and sleepy. Be often in conversation with the Holy Spirit.
Have concentrated time with God.
In the above example, I talked about pulling up weeds while holding a cup of coffee. Would that it were always that easy--the life of the coffee cup gardener. But the coffee cup gardener misses the weeds that grow between the shrubs and behind them. And he misses the weeds that grow in the other flowerbeds where there is no sidewalk.
Two weeks ago it was clear that I could not be a coffee cup gardener anymore. Weeds that I had ignored were out of control. A serious time commitment was required and serious digging was necessary. By the time I finished, I had three full wheelbarrow loads of weeds.
In the same way, we need serious, intense time with the Holy Spirit through prayer and the Word. We need concentrated, dedicated time alone with God. But oh how we need to be careful. For we can read without reading and we can pray without praying. We can read and pray mindlessly.
Reading without reading.
We read without reading when we read too quickly. We read without reading when our primary purpose is to appease the conscience with the fact that we did our duty--we had our quiet time. We read without reading when we fail to seek the help of the Holy Spirit in understanding the text. We read without reading when we fail to carefully think about what we are reading, when we fail to meditate, when we fail to thoughtfully examine how the words touch the way we live. We read without reading when we read with low expectations, when we do not anticipate being taught by the Holy Spirit. And we read without reading when we forget that we are reading words that are inspired by God himself.
Of course, different ways of reading the Bible are appropriate at different times. A quick reading may be appropriate when the only purpose is to locate a verse or find information. However, when the purpose is communion with God, reading should be slow and thoughtful.
The reading of scripture often leads in a natural way to prayer. Sometimes it is good to stop reading for a moment, as the Holy Spirit leads you, in order to respond to scripture. It might be a prayer of confession, a prayer of repentance, or a prayer of gratitude. It could be that the scriptures remind you to pray for someone who has an urgent need. Or perhaps the scriptures move you to just stop for a minute and celebrate the majesty, the glory, and the love of God.
Pray without praying.
Nevertheless, just as we can read without reading, we can also pray without praying. We do this when we choose our words merely for their pious and lofty construction. We pray without praying when our words spill out without careful attention. We become like one who mindlessly sings a hymn, but when it is done, he cannot remember what he sang. We pray without praying when we do not expect God to respond. And we pray without praying when we forget that we are speaking to God.
Fortifying our prayers.
There are several things that we can do to fortify our prayers, and we must do them. For if we plan to use prayer as part of the arsenal of the heart, we want our prayers to serve as powerful, well-aimed missiles against the fortifications of the flesh.
- Some find it helpful to pray with a framework. For example, many take the Lord's Prayer, using the framework of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer to structure the broader and more personal prayers of their hearts.
- Some use the A.C.T.S. acronym, where A stands for adoration, C stands for confession, T stands for thanksgiving, and S stands for supplication. Cat lovers sometimes reverse the A and the C, making the acronym C.A.T.S. and placing confession at the beginning of the prayer, although the A.C.T.S. purests will argue that adoration leads to confession.
- Some find it helpful to pray aloud.
- Others who write more easily than they speak find it helpful to write down their prayers.
- Sometimes people with long commutes use their driving time to pray.
- Prayer lists can be helpful.
- Even pre-written prayers can be useful, as long as they do not become a mindless ritual.
Whatever it takes to pray rightly, each of us needs to find something that works for us and do it, recognizing that the well aimed missiles of prayer engage the very power of God to change the world.
Means of grace.
So far, I have been speaking primarily about private prayer, private meditation, and private reading of the Word--devotional activities that you do by yourself. These can also be called the private means of grace.
Earl Blackburn defines the means of grace as "channels by which God conveys his blessings to his people." This is how God strengthens and encourages his people, and this is how we walk with Christ.
Public means of grace.
There are also public means of grace. These are exercised primarily when we meet together at church. They include:
- The ordinances
The first one, worship, would include several things under that heading: the public reading of scripture, preaching, teaching, and singing. Prayer can be considered both as worship and as a separate means of grace.
Hebrews 10:24-25, is one of the most direct scriptures for encouraging public assembly and participation in the public means of grace: "And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near."
Part of the motivation for assembling together is to encourage one another and to stimulate one another towards love and good deeds. This is how the public and private means of grace complement each other. When a person has been encouraged during the public means of grace, he is more likely to pursue the private means of grace. Similarly, when a person worships God during the week through the private means of grace, his worship at church on Sunday during the public means of grace will be greatly improved. He will not have to spend the first half of the service trying to get in the mood to worship.
But if you let a person neglect the public means of grace, he runs the risk of neglecting the private means of grace as well. We simply were not designed to be lone-ranger Christians.
Yet, this is what people often do after a major setback--they stop going to church. They tell themselves that they just need some time, time to heal up a little bit. Weeks go by, then months, then years. Many never return.
It was not easy to return to a worship service after my son died. At first the noisy tempest that was going on in my heart drowned out most of what I was hearing from the pulpit. Some of the songs were unbearable, and in the worst cases, I got up and left until the song was over. Nevertheless, as hard as it was to return, the thought of not returning was terrifying. The thought that I might slip away was frightening, and it is still frightening.
Sometimes the only way you can make sure that you will stand is to just go ahead and stand, even if it hurts. Specialists in physical rehabilitation know all about this. They have to encourage patients that if they are going to recover, they must bear pain now: they must exercise those aching and traumatized muscles and limbs.
Similarly, when emotional trauma is at its worst, perhaps you will not be able to bear more than one church service. Then come for that one service. Perhaps you will not even be able to stay for a whole service. Then come and stay as long as you can. Stay for fifteen minutes and work up to thirty. And do not worry if you break down and cry in the middle of a service. The people there love you. They want you there, tears and all.
Do not buy into the lie that the public means of grace are optional. Your participation in the public means of grace is vital to the security of your heart. It is that extra push that keeps the merry-go-round turning. It is that extra shove that revitalizes your private efforts. Without that extra force to keep your spiritual life going, it could die. Do not stop going to church.
We have discussed the security of the heart. The heart is the real you. The heart is that part of you that God cares the most about.
While the regenerated heart has the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit and a natural desire to be righteous, it still faces the powerful and evil influences of the flesh.
To protect the heart from the terrorist activities of the flesh, we need our allies: the church and the Holy Spirit. Satan tries to destroy the unity of the church. To live in unity we must be accountable, we must see ourselves the way God sees us, we must be slow to take offense, and we must be quick forgivers.
The Holy Spirit is also our ally. The third part of the Trinity, he is our counselor, our teacher, our comforter, and our friend. He serves as all these things by making Christ known to us. To walk with the Holy Spirit is to walk with Christ.
We receive the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit through the private and public means of grace. The private means of grace include: prayer, Bible reading, and meditation. The public means of grace include: worship, the ordinances, fellowship, and prayer.
The strategy for keeping the heart secure is to watch over everything in it and around it, to walk in unity with the body of Christ, and to walk in communion with God.
The challenges to the security of the heart are many. Our adversaries are very creative. But the captain of our faith is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Through his wisdom and by his power we are standing, and we shall stand for the glory of God.