[The following is the text of a sermon preached in our church on Sunday 7th April 2019]
Over the past month-or-so we’ve been speaking about DNA. Mark and Nigel haven’t been giving us science lessons. They have been talking about some of the things we do as followers of Jesus, as the church of God. They’ve been using the analogy of “spiritual DNA” to illustrate how we have a desire to see God's best for ourselves, our families and our community. As Ecclesiastes says God “has placed eternity in our hearts.” And we want to share that hope and passion with the world.
Does anyone know what DNA stands for? I didn't until a couple of weeks ago. It is 'deoxyribonucleic acid'. And DNA is a hereditary material that contains the set of instructions used in the growth, functioning and reproduction of proteins (thank you Wikipedia).
In my layman’s understanding DNA is like a sewing or knitting pattern, or a recipe for cooking or a template used in wood or metalworking.
At a human level it describes our physical function and form, but doesn't speak to our feelings, thoughts, choices or actions.
DNA has something to say about our physical attributes: Eye colour, metabolism, body shape, hair colour; but it doesn't inform or direct our ethics, our morals or our conscience.
If DNA provides the code for our physical characteristics, what are the main determinants of our moral and social choices? What factors or attributes within us shape our spiritual character? I think there are two – our hearts and our minds.
Have you heard the expression to capture people’s hearts and minds?
To be highly successful a new advertising campaign or social reform agenda needs to capture hearts and minds. It means that whatever you’re proposing needs to appeal to your audience’s emotions and intellect. It needs to both inspire and engage. Sermons need to do the same.
And so I want to talk about our hearts and minds. Most of our time today will be spent considering the protection of our hearts, but we will talk a little about renewing the mind. We need to begin with the heart because, without capturing the heart, our minds won’t follow.
The word “heart” appears around 800 times in the Bible – depending on what version you’re reading. It’s an important concept. To gain an overview of its use, I’ve picked a range of verses that mention the heart. I won’t read the references so come and see me after if you want to know where they’re from. I’m reading from the Christian standard Bible.
Some of these verses contain commands or exhortations concerning our hearts: allow God to search your hearts, guard your heart, don’t harden your heart.
The Hebrew understanding or use of this word is that it is the central thing, literally the heart of the matter. Not a blood-pumping organ but the inner person, our soul, our attitude or our conscience. It can include the mind and intellect, but it is more than that. It is the core of the person or the issue.
Let’s turn to the New Testament. Again I won’t read the references as I go:
There is a consistent picture between the testaments that our hearts are the core of our being. And these verses from both testaments display a significant range of thought and emotion – from warning and judgement to redemption and grace.
I want to speak about a couple of aspects of our hearts – drawing from the texts I’ve just read. The first idea I want to pick up on is from the Proverbs chapter 4, verse 23. The CSB reads “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.”
Another version says, “Guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life”.
We’ve already spoken about the idea that the heart was viewed as the core of a person. Physically the heart pumps blood. Metaphorically and metaphysically it is the centre of our life and identity. Leviticus 17:11 says “the life of the creature is in the blood”. So the heart pumping that blood is clearly seen as central to the continuation of life.
If our hearts are the source of life physically, emotionally and spiritually then the advice from Proverbs to guard your heart above all else makes sense.
But what is it to guard ones heart? The Hebrew word translated as guard means to be diligent in watching over something. It is to protect, to keep, to preserve, to build a protective wall around something.
Matthew Henry in his commentary on this verse writes, “We must maintain a holy jealousy of ourselves, and set a strict guard, accordingly, upon all the avenues of the soul; keep our hearts from doing hurt and getting hurt, from being defiled by sin and disturbed by trouble; keep them as our jewel, as our vineyard; keep a conscience void of offence; keep out bad thoughts; keep up good thoughts; keep the affections upon right objects and in due bounds.”
It doesn’t mean to not be vulnerable, to not be open with others, but it means to be discerning, to be careful with who and what we let into our hearts. We need to understand what is true and we need to have discernment as we seek to guard our hearts!
But this idea of guarding also works the other way. If I was in some protective detail and asked to guard someone, it can mean to make sure no one gets to the person I’m protecting; but it can also mean not allowing that person to escape.
I think to guard ones heart works both ways – to protect it from outside, unhelpful influences, and also to protect it from itself so we don’t give away or sell our hearts for the wrong reason.
One of the other passages I read earlier was from Matthew 6. Verses 19 to 21 read: “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What I think Jesus is saying is that we can help guard our hearts by making sure they don’t wander off following after temporal pleasures and treasures.
If our treasure is in the share market or in fast cars, or sport, or fine clothing or gourmet food or whatever then our hearts will follow those things. Whatever deeply interests us, whatever holds our attention and fascination will call to our hearts and they will follow. And if these things are outside of the Lord Jesus Christ then we are in trouble. 1 Timothy 6:10 provide an additional warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
Wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many griefs. It’s not something many would choose. Yet this idea of wandering away is gradual. It’s rarely intentional. It just happens if we aren’t guarding our hearts. Whatever our treasure is, that is what our hearts will pay attention to, and it will gradually wander unless diligently guarded.
The second aspect of our hearts I want us to consider is in making sure our hearts don’t harden.
There are three primary instances in the Bible which speak about hardening hearts:
The first is with Pharaoh’s attitude towards the Israelites in Egypt before the Exodus.
The second is recorded in Psalm 95 which is talking about the Israelites hardening their hearts towards God when they were in the wilderness.
The third is found in Hebrews which reiterates and directly quotes Psalm 95 as a warning to New Testament believers.
The account of the exodus is found, not surprisingly in the book of Exodus. In chapters 7 through 14 there are a dozen-or-so references to Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. In some cases Scripture tells us the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart so God’s glory would be revealed. On other occasions we read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Rest assured that God didn’t make Pharaoh do anything that he didn’t want to do or wasn’t already on Pharaoh’s heart!
But I don’t want to focus on Pharaoh. I instead want to look at the Israelites and what we learn from them in Psalm 95.
Let me read the second half of Psalm 95 from half way through verse 7:
Today, if you hear his voice: Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the wilderness where your fathers tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was disgusted with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray; they do not know my ways.” So I swore in my anger, “They will not enter my rest.”
God was disgusted with the generation of Israelites wandering in the desert. Other versions say the Lord was grieved or angry, or he loathed that generation. Every word paints an unattractive picture!
What was the source or cause of that disgust?
In Exodus 17 we read that the Israelites complained because they were thirsty. As a result Moses named the place Massah and Meribah mean “proving” and “strife”.
In Numbers 20 we read that at the Waters of Meribah the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord because they were thirsty.
And Psalm 95 that we just read says they hardened their hearts by testing and trying the Lord despite having seen the Lord’s activity on their behalf and of being ignorant of the Lord’s ways.
The point is that there was a lack of trust in the Lord. He was testing their hearts and their faith and they failed. He had provided for them in bringing them out of Egypt. Was it likely that he would let them die in the desert when he had promised them land and a future? No, except their complaining and unfaithfulness meant they did die in the wilderness. That whole generation apart from Joshua and Caleb fell in the desert from what they feared because of a lack of faith!
Faith in the Lord would have seen them reach the Promised Land in a matter of weeks but they died from judgement in the wilderness over a period of 40 years. Faith or desert? Trust God or die in the wilderness? It’ not rocket science, or DNA science.
And the protection or guard against this hardening of hearts is described in the first half of Psalm 95:
Come, let us shout joyfully to the LORD, shout triumphantly to the rock of our salvation! Let us enter his presence with thanksgiving; let us shout triumphantly to him in song. For the LORD is a great God, a great King above all gods. The depths of the earth are in his hand, and the mountain peaks are his. The sea is his; he made it. His hands formed the dry land. Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the sheep under his care.
They are shouting and singing joyfully to our Lord. Acknowledging God’s creation. Worshipping and praising him. Maybe we need to do more joyful shouting to the Lord in this place? It stops our hearts from hardening
The Israelites in the wilderness did the opposite – complaining and demonstrating a lack of gratitude and faith. Their hearts became calloused. They grumbled and moaned and that caused more hardening of hearts. Can you imagine their campfires of an evening? Bellyaching and moaning. What a horrid place to be. God was disgusted with them and only two entered the Promised Land.
It is such a powerful lesson that several New Testament letters provide a commentary on these events from the wilderness:
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul directly addresses some of the issues of the Israelites in the wilderness. Verses 5 and 6 read, “Nevertheless God was not pleased with most of them, since they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, so that we will not desire evil things as they did.”
I’m not sure that I’ve learnt that lesson because I can whinge quite well.
And in a similar way the writer of the letter to the Hebrews in chapter 3 directly quotes Psalm 95 and then adds a brief warning and exhortation in verses 12 and 13: “Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.”
The warning here is to watch out that our hearts don’t become evil and unbelieving, and the exhortation is to encourage each other daily so that we are not hardened by being deceived by sin.
Just as an unguarded heart slowly wanders off and puts its faith in other things, an ungracious, unfaithful heart hardens slowly over time.
I now want to spend a little time looking at the process of spiritual transformation. Let me read Ephesians 4:17-24.
Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more. But that is not how you came to know Christ, assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.
What do we learn from this passage about hearts and minds?
Paul speaks of the ungodly living in the futility of their thoughts. He says their understanding is darkened because of ignorance and the hardness of their hearts. That’s important – for ignorance and hardness of heart lead to a darkening of understanding and futility of thinking.
Now I don’t believe Paul is saying that every thought of an unbeliever is futile, but he is pointing to their knowledge and understanding of God becoming dimmed over time because people fail to acknowledge the Lord. Romans 1:21 casts some light on this: “For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened.
The gentiles or pagans once knew God but did not glorify him by living a life that pointed to his goodness. They did not show gratitude – thereby showing rebellion where we don’t acknowledge what God has done. We just saw this from Psalm 95. And the result was a devaluing and degradation of thinking and a darkening of their hearts. It demonstrates a progressive reduction of revelation and truth. “Use it or lose it” may be apt.
But back to Ephesians 4, ignorance and hardness of heart lead to futility of thinking. We need to make sure our hearts are not hard as a first step, and then we need to deal with our thinking, with our minds.
And in verses 21 through 24 Paul talks about the processes of salvation and sanctification – being saved and made holy. For the Ephesians:
Firstly – they heard the truth about Jesus through some form of teaching or preaching (21).
Secondly they took off their former lives. They repented and turned around (22). I would call this having a change of heart!
Thirdly, to be renewed in the spirit of their minds (23). I want to come back to this idea shortly.
And fourthly, to put on the new self of righteousness and purity in truth (24). This is sanctification.
So there is hearing truth, repenting – changing heart!, having our minds renewed and then walking in righteousness and holiness. This is the gospel process of transformation in a nutshell.
I promised earlier that I would spend some time considering the renewal of our minds
Is it something we do, or is it something the Holy Spirit does? Both.
It includes but is not limited to guarding our hearts. And is intimately tied to making sure our hearts don’t harden by expressing faith and thankfulness and gratitude to our Lord.
Renewing our minds is a continuous and everyday event where we regulate what goes in to our minds and we monitor what goes through them. It is taking every thought captive in obedience to Christ.
It is the act and process of consciously seeking the Lord. Spending time with God’s Spirit and God’s word as we seek revelation and the Lord’s mind for our lives.
It can be revelation for a specific situation we are aware of. It may be the Lord’s view on what’s happening in our world. It may be the Lord’s call for us to get involved in something we ordinarily wouldn’t consider.
It’s not dictated by reading a certain number of chapters from the Bible each day, or reading certain types of devotional or other Christian book. It’s not by listening to sermons or talks by well-regarded teachers who hold certain theological positions.
It’s any of those things and all of those things. One size doesn’t fit all. It is intentionally spending time with the Lord and his word to receive his mind. To be transformed in our thinking so the Lord’s views becomes our views.
Let's finish with those well-known words from Paul in Philippians 4:4-8 that sums up these three ideas of guarding our hearts, not allowing them to become hardened and having our minds transformed.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally brothers and sisters, 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 anything praiseworthy — dwell on these things.
Can I encourage you to keep the words of Philippians 4:4-8 on the fridge door of your heart and mind?
Let me pray.
Heavenly Father thank you that you created our minds and hearts.
We praise and thank you for your creativity, for your blessing, for your grace and for your mercy.
May we learn better to guard our hearts. To stop ungodly and unhelpful influences from taking up residence. May we also guard our hearts so they don’t wander off to be distracted or captured by the things of this world.
May you, and your word and your Spirit and your Son be what captivate us. Not through being forced, but by choice, by our will, by our bodies, minds, souls and spirits wanting to seek and serve you.
Father, may our hearts not grow hard. May we see and recognise and bless and welcome your grace. May we respond with thanksgiving and gratitude and shouts and songs of joy to what you are doing in our lives, our church, our community and our world – for they are yours, too.
And may our lives and those around us be transformed by the renewing of our minds. May we see and participate in activities that give us your view of the world. May we spend time seeking your face and when we find your face may we find truth that is revealed to us.
Lord, we want things your way, not ours. Bend our souls and spirits for your glory and praise.