Who can understand the heart?

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September 02, 2018

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Transformation. Formation.

The Christian life is a supernatural life. When someone is a Christian, we see an observable difference in their life. It shows up. Scripture tells us that we are miraculously, though we may not feel it, new creatures in Christ. The old has passed away and behold the new has come. Our Epistle today gives us a tangible example and exhortation of how our Christian life is different and observable…or not…

In this reading today, we hear about our actions, handling our emotions, and the importance of the state of our hearts.

“Be doers of the word, not merely hearers who delude themselves.”

And a great word picture: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away immediately forget what they were like.”

The Christian life is one of response and action to all that God has done for us. As we relate to God and one another, simply put – Love is something you do.

But this is not an expectation to live up to from God…we are not saved by any works we do and cannot make God think any more of us than God already does. Salvation, like all things from God, is a gift.

James asserts: God gave us birth by the word of truth and we are to welcome this word implanted in us with meekness.

We live in the midst of profound miracle through God’s power and provision for us, but we still – still - are plagued by limitation. We sin, we fall short…and we do this, at times with great creativity.

James also asserts: if we are mere hearers of the word we “deceive ourselves” and become like one who walks away from a mirror and forgets what they looked like. James strongly says, religion lived from a deceived heart is worthless…worthless.

The word for heart in the Greek James uses will sound familiar: Kardia. Cardia. Cardio. We think of our hearts physically. However, in the Greek this is a big word conceptually and, in our context, refers to the center of our physical and spiritual life. From the New Testament Greek, Lexicon sees that this involves the mind, the will and character, and emotions or appetites and desires. Great inclusivity in its meaning.

The heart of our lives is our thinking, our affections, and actions. It may, in philosophical terms be considered the soul. John Meacham, in his book we will soon discuss, asserts the soul as “the vital center, the core, the heart, the essence of life.”

If we live our lives from a deceived heart, James calls that worthless religion. As we understand the breadth of the word used, it increases gravity on a word we already give important meaning to when we live our lives from a deceived soul, it is worthless religion.

Deception is a word we are familiar with…but what does it mean?

The prophet Jeremiah helps us out. He claims: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) This use of the word deceitful helps us – by saying the heart is deceitful he’s saying it is sly, slippery, insidious…its effects are subtle: deceit’s momentum can develop so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent to us.

Let me say this again, building on what we’ve touched on:

The heart – the center of our lives mentally, emotionally, and physically – our souls - is according to Jeremiah more deceitful than all else. Our souls are more deceitful than all else.

James adds that we deceive ourselves, our own hearts, our own center. We are slippery and sly. We do this. This deceit is insidious. Subtle – sneaky - developing gradually before becoming apparent to us. It gets traction and becomes reality before we even notice it.

We can grasp this when we think about behavior, but there is an inclusivity here of thought and emotion. As we talk about heart as wide as soul we’re talking about a propensity toward deception that is pervasive in our persons.

Let’s consider recent news stories to illustrate – and this is rough stuff

Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer, and fixer has pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations including paying women for their silence (Bloomberg News August 21, 2018).

Urban Meyer, Ohio State football coach, who lied to cover up for his assistant coach – perhaps because of ambition, or allegiance to a long-time mentor, or disregard concerning domestic abuse.

Or the recent developments that keep unfolding concerning the cover-up of abuse by more than 300 Catholic priests over a period of 70 years (New York Times, August 14, 2018).

Together these involve lying, power, greed, arrogance, and hiding.

“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can understand it?”

These actions did not just suddenly appear…they were subtly grown in self-deceived hearts…thoughts, feelings, actions veering off track incrementally…though we all don’t make headlines, we all struggle with this.

In our profound limitation, we can talk ourselves into anything, feel anything, do anything. It’s a bit horrifying.

So, what do we do? How do we not become people who live lives from deceitful hearts?

James offers two specific exhortations:

“…rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

Ridding yourselves and the word implanted. This suggests a gardening picture…weeding, growing, grafting in. Hard work. Active. Tiring. Important.

It seems in both directions – the ridding and the welcoming – each hinges on choice. Decision. We are given great autonomy as persons in our development.

This miraculous Christian life offered to us extravagantly by God hangs on our participation. Not out of legalism, or performance, but out of a commitment to respond to what has been given us and to actively participate in our ongoing development as persons…which only increases our quality of life and the quality of the lives of those around us.

James use of the word picture of looking in a mirror…looking at who we are…it makes me think of the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter…but inversed. In Harry Potter, the Mirror of Erised – Erised which is desire spelled backward, according to Dumbledore, shows the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts…but our mirror, the word of truth, word – logos – also a wide word of scripture, reason, tradition – its brief definition being spoken word, is reality with a capital R. It does not show us our deep desires like Harry Potter’s mirror, but it shows us who we truly are. We must gaze at this mirror and take what we receive to God, others, and the world.

And don’t miss this – it’s in looking outside of ourselves we find reality. It seems that when we form reality from within we fuel a propensity of deception…we deceive ourselves.

James says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

John McCain provides a more contemporary exhortation, echoing the sentiment of James’ epistle:

“Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier. Because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.” 

Amen.

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