Making the Journey from Head to Heart

I’ve heard it said more than once that “the closer you draw to Jesus, the filthier you start to feel.” In other words, when your eyes are finally opened by God, and you begin to get the smallest glimpse of the Person of Christ in all His holiness, righteousness and majesty, a very understandable first response is to look at the mess you have made of your own life and despair at the “hopelessness” of your plight.

Assuming that this saying is true, then, I must – at least in some ways – be getting closer and closer to Jesus; nowadays, for example, I can hardly stand to read Romans 7 anymore for the sheer desperation certain passages speak to. And it completely overloads all of my circuits to recall that this letter was written by Paul, the guy handpicked by Jesus to bring the light of the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:1-19)!

There are, of course, many great stories that serve as analogies to help us to get a more accurate idea of our standing before God. Jesus Himself provided the single best illustration of our sorry state with His parable about The Prodigal Son, as recounted in Luke 15:11-32.

One of my more modern favorites, though, is the one told by disgraced Christian televangelist Jim Bakker (“I Was Wrong“) about an incident that occurred while he was serving his sentence for fraud. Dressed in well-worn prison garb, covered with filthy water and dirt from cleaning out the lavatories, Bakker was informed that someone had come to visit him. Not really wanting to talk to anyone, Bakker ignored the request and continued cleaning out the toilets, relenting only after the guard insisted that he really ought to see this visitor. Irritated, and stubbornly refusing to clean himself up in the least, Bakker was escorted to the prison visitation area only to be warmly embraced by Billy Graham. And it was precisely at that point that Bakker’s angry, self-pitying exterior finally broke down into a prolonged session of uncontrolled sobbing.

Purity, goodness and grace, presented without expectation of “payment” of any kind, has a way of breaking through to even the hardest of hearts. So it is with Christ. As we pause to contemplate the untarnished love and selflessness of Jesus, we are almost immediately confronted with the wideness of the disparity between His mercy and grace and our own inner wickedness. We may be able to make a good show of subverting the true desires of our heart for the benefit of spouses, family, employers and friends, but there really is nowhere to hide what we really think from our own selves.

In recent weeks, disturbed by some persistent issues, I have been gently encouraged to stop suppressing the uglier aspects of my inner thought life and instead draw them out into words and in private conversation with other deeply-trusted loved ones. Somewhat akin to how a small child will tell incredibly-descriptive stories as he or she draws indecipherable characters and objects onto sheet after sheet of blank paper, the idea has been to ask God for grace and then “give myself permission” to bleed out some of the unresolved issues that rise to the level of conscious thought…and then “give them over” to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing (2 Corinthians 10:5, 1 John 1:9).

Properly fenced in, this sounded like good advice, and it has in fact been helpful. But I have to say that it has also been personally difficult for me to see so clearly – again – the tremendous disparity between what I know in my head and what my heart shows that I really believe. I know much (in my head) about the truth of Christ, my desperate standing before God, and the unconditional forgiveness offered to me through Jesus Christ. And yet my heart – the seat of emotions and who I truly am, stripped of all pretense – through this exercise has revealed a surprising (and demoralizing) volume of poisonous garbage being regularly spewed through the words I say, the actions I take (or refuse to take) and all other manner of unrighteousness.

If drawing close to Jesus is going to reveal these sorts of things to me, then the immediate/suicidal impulse is to draw back and retreat into “the comfortable darkness” and the alluring temptation to go back to thinking “I’m basically an OK guy.” But the truth is that I am not an OK guy. You are not an OK guy. None of us are. Thankfully, though, this is not the end of the story.

Our “filthiness,” rightly understood, is only the first half of the redemption story. Yes, it’s thoroughly biblical to get a closer look at the nastiness of the human condition, but we can’t stop there. This exercise I’ve been doing of late, “bleeding out” the stubbornly sinful heart attitudes I’ve been holding onto, leaves me only half-finished. It is also thoroughly biblical, once we’ve come face to face with our own helpless condition, to grasp and believe the Truth that in Christ we now have all the grace and power we need to overcome even the worst of our sins and the most corrosive of heart attitudes. It no longer matters what we find when we “plumb the depths;” the back of sin has been forever broken, and we cease to be enslaved to it (Luke 4:16-21).

Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, is not content to simply diagnose us as riddled with cancer and beyond all known cures. This head knowledge leads only to despair unless and until our hearts embrace with everything we are the One who is our Great Cure.

At The Crossing, we are consistently blessed by some of the most intelligent pastors and staff that a churchgoer could ask for. This is (obviously) a tremendous gift; we should all be deeply grateful that our minds are challenged week after week with the Truth of the gospel message and the historical accuracy and reliability of Scripture. For far too long, though, I have drifted in and around the great error of thinking that the good Christian life consisted primarily of acquiring as much head knowledge as possible about the events taking place in Palestine in the first century, failing to really grasp that all the knowledge in the world will do me absolutely no good when standing in the presence of a perfectly-holy, righteous God.

It is the ongoing human condition that we tend to take God’s good blessings and turn them into personal idols. While pursuing head knowledge is certainly not a bad thing, and we are all called upon to give reasons for our faith (1 Peter 3:15), if we are not careful we can become so fascinated by the lessons that we can lose sight of the Teacher. There is everything good and right about reading and acquiring knowledge about Jesus, the Bible, church history and so on, but we can never allow that to become primary over maintaining our friendship with Jesus.

It’s not ultimately about what we know. It’s about Who we know. (And whether we truly know Him or not.)

Mark 9:23-24 (ESV)
And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can!’ All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Romans 7:14-25 (ESV)
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

The longest, most arduous trip in the world is often the journey from the head to the heart. Until that round trip is completed, we remain at war with ourselves. And, of course, those at war with themselves are apt to make casualties of others, including friends and loved ones.
Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

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