Have mercy on me, oh God, according to your steadfast love. According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.
I’m going to start including the scripture passages in the body of the devotional, in case you’re reading this in your email feed and you don’t have your Bible with you. My goal is to help people engage with scripture and let the words of the Bible color our days. For some of you, that means you’re reading this in a taxi en route to work or the airport! So here ya go: today we’re reading Mark 7:14-23.
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23 ESV)
Everything with God seems to boil down to our hearts. Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also. From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Worship God with all your heart. I will take your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh, so you can obey me. These are just a few verses that come to mind as I reflect on this passage. God cares about our whole beings, but I believe he is most concerned with the condition of our hearts.
The single most important question we must as ourselves daily is, “How’s my heart?” Why? Because everything else starts there. Our worship of God begins in our hearts and flows into our lives. Our faith, which begins in the heart, is evident in our actions. God’s feelings about our offerings seem to be directly related to our hearts (“God loves a cheerful giver.”) And, as Jesus points out here, all sin begins in the heart. “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Sexual immorality begins in our hearts. Theft begins in the heart. Murder begins in the heart. Adultery (I find it interesting that Jesus differentiates this from the generic sexual immorality) begins in the heart. Coveting begins in the heart. Wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness all begin in the heart—the core of our being.
Let me ask you to ask yourself a question that I asked myself upon reading this passage: which of these things am I struggling with? Are any of these things present in my life right now? Yes, some of them are. If you could see what goes on in my mind, if you could hear all of the words I speak in a day, if you could see what only God could see, you would see at least seven of the things on this list—maybe more. What does that tell me? What does it tell you?
Well, it’s not about changing our behavior. Sure, we can cope for some time. We can develop ways of altering our behavior that might work for a while. If you’re someone who is prone to angry outbursts, a therapist might give you tools to cope when you’re provoked. And there is a place for such coping mechanisms. I respect the work of a good therapist. But without a heart change, that only lasts for a little while: the root of the issue is still there, still flourishing, and the weeds of that root will pop out at some point. I have seen it over and over.
Our ongoing “work” (for lack of a better work) as followers of Christ is to be constantly having our hearts renewed. Yesterday’s confession doesn’t cover today’s sins. As we walk with Christ day-by-day, as we let the word of God wash our minds, as we present ourselves before God, yielded to the work of the Holy Spirit, and as we pray and worship and spend time in fellowship with God, our hearts are renewed. We walk with him and we engage with his words—but the renewing of our hearts is a work of mercy, a gift of grace, an act of divine intervention.
Take a moment to simply sit silently before God and invite the Holy Spirit to wash your heart. This is what it really means to “get right with God.” It’s not about making amends, though that can be an important part of our personal repentance. It’s about recognizing that, apart from a divine work of God’s grace, our hearts cannot become clean. This is the problem of sin: it’s endemic to the human race. Every single person, created in God’s image yet a child of Adam and Eve, is born with the seed of sin in his or her heart. Yet we are not without hope. If we confess our sins in humility before God, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. What a gift—but one that must be received in order to be effective.