In This Mark Grant Series:
In the previous articles (here and here), I talked about a Christian couple struggling in their marriage, with a tendency for ugly “heat of the moment” blowups, and how attempts to improve marriages must address the implications of sin and the motives of the heart. You also see how the condition of our hearts determines behaviors and hopefully gain a better understanding of pride, anger, and self-reliance.
To accurately understand heart motives, you must recognize how regeneration also changes the context of life. Christians experience restoration as transformed hearts become more and more like heavenly creatures, yet the context for this journey is one of conflict. Our spirit is now alive, but we still live in bodies of death (Romans 8:10), resulting in an ongoing spiritual battle within our hearts (Galatians 5:17).
There is still an interplay of good and evil within the human soul, as descriptively captured by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Paul laments how evil lies close at hand even when he wants to do right (Romans 7:21). This captures the Christian’s “already, not yet” tension. We now possess every spiritual blessing in Christ but do not experience the fullness of those blessings.
The desire for acceptance and praise within Christian circles can come from wrong motives, leading to spiritual abuse or moral failure. Unfortunately, without focusing on heart motives, many incorporate Christian behaviors into self-reliant attempts to gain significance and fulfillment. Our “works-in-progress” hearts can lead to disastrous results if not correctly stewarded.
He [the devil] is perfectly content to see you become chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride [or self-conceit]. – C.S. Lewis
Secondly, we must remember the negative potential of our spiritual dichotomy. In Christ, ontologically, we are no longer hellish creatures, but our fallen flesh still makes us capable of doing monstrous things. The best biblical example is David’s actions with Bathsheba. Since spiritual health determines one’s potential as a spouse and what type of creature they are becoming, couples like Ken and Sue must actively steward their hearts.
Stewardship of the heart is critical, as Christ warns us there will be many self-professing “Christians” who will hear the words, “Away from me I never knew you” on the day of judgment (Matthew 7:21). As Paul wrote, we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Salvation brings a new nature and restoration with God (John 17:21), but you must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to transform your heart. Generally speaking, this is accomplished by putting-off fleshly thinking patterns and practices and putting on new ones (Ephesians 4:22-24). However, given our spiritual dichotomy, progress only comes with proper stewardship.
To steward your heart for transformation, you need to understand the dichotomous nature of the heart, shown in the figure below. On the one side is the influence of the Holy Spirit, teaching, convicting, guiding, and counseling the heart, striving to transform your heart to that of a heaven-bound creature. When captivated by the Spirit, the heart is humble and thankful, loving God and others, and motivated by love.
On the other side, the enemy and the world appeal to the fallen nature of your flesh. When the heart is captivated by the flesh, the search for significance and fulfillment drives actions. Focus turns inward, and any obedience is driven by fear. Results bear fruits of the flesh. As you mature in your walk, you should see growth in your affection for God and a decrease in your old, fleshly thought patterns.
Discern Your Heart: A healthy suspicion is necessary to safeguard your “work in progress” heart. Our hearts are idol factories and can quickly find, develop and implement new self-reliant strategies apart from God. You must search and know the tendencies of your heart (Psalm 139:23), which requires gospel friends to do “Life Over Coffee.” We need each other to understand our hearts and address gospel gaps (Proverbs 27:6).
Spiritual Disciplines: Since becoming a Christian, you have heard about putting on the essential practices of the spiritual disciplines; Bible reading, prayer, scripture memorization, and obedience. Reading the Bible is how we listen to God, prayer is our opportunity to speak to Him, and Scripture memorization embeds God’s truths into our hearts for the Holy Spirit to teach, rebuke, and counsel. Obedience positions us to do good works (Ephesians 2:10), and our failures remind us of God’s grace and dependency.
Like a child learning the basic scales on the piano, these spiritual disciplines equip Christians to play God’s music in our daily lives. And, like the student, the full enjoyment and benefits are gained as the fundamental lessons are mastered. Remember, practices aim not to improve your performance of Christian disciplines but heart transformation, which allows you “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
Meditate on the Theology of Justification: “Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which He (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in His sight,” as defined by Wayne Grudem.
Intellectually, we agree. However, we tend to monitor our performance to determine if we “feel” justified. While judging our performance, we keep our own “righteousness index.” If our index is up, our spirits lift, and we feel accepted by God. If our index is down, spiritual depression sets in, and we sense His displeasure. This ploy of the enemy tempts us to focus on our behaviors rather than the finished work of Christ.
It is not our performance but our fundamental nature that rejects God (Romans 3:10-12). Even our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Thus, there is no sense in considering our performance as a way to righteousness. Remarkably, in Christ, we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1) and can now experience joy knowing this finished legal transaction paid for all sins, past, present, and future (Romans 5:19).
We are righteous in God’s sight, and His love does not depend on our performance. Simply, there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Romans 8:1). Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “If you have got ahold of this idea, you will have discovered the most glorious truth you will ever know in your life.” Christian joy directly results from one’s mastery of understanding this truth. If you are disappointed in your Christian walk, great joy awaits if you change your relationship with God from one based on your performance to one based on Christ’s performance.
Grow your affection for Christ: The most significant achievement a Christian can gain is to know God, which requires humility and thankfulness (James 4:6). As fallen creatures, our appetite for God does not come naturally, for it is outside of our experience. Like wine connoisseurs, we must mature our palate for Christ through an ongoing, never-ending mediation of the gospel.
The gospel says you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe, but more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope. – Timothy Keller
On the pre-salvation side, you were not only an enemy of God (Romans 5:10) but also a monster in the making. Unregenerate hearts become monsters as they harden, and God turns them over to their desires. They end up with lives void of God, otherwise known as hell. We must never forget our roots and continue to see ourselves as the biggest sinner in the room (1 Timothy 1:15). Post-salvation, we are justified and adopted children of God and heirs with Christ. Can we even begin to grasp the realization of this implausible truth? It is fitting that Paul prays for new believers to grasp the depths of His love and hope in Christ (Ephesians 3:18). Daily reflection and consideration of these two truths will cultivate humility and thankfulness, increasing the Holy Spirit’s impact on your heart.
Discern Your Heart: As mentioned before, you must continually examine the motives of your heart and be on the lookout for the presence of god replacements. Where are you placing your identity, hope, and trust? Where is anger gaining a foothold? As discussed in the second article, a heart captured by the flesh is prideful, with either a superiority or inferiority posture. You must recognize your prideful tendencies, cultivate humility, and shift your focus to God.
Stop listening to your heart: We passively listen to our sinful hearts ramble on while we absorb the world’s counsel. This has a way of stirring up passionate desires for the world’s pleasures, and when unmet, it leads to quarrels and fights (James 4:1-2). With regeneration, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit provides a new “internal voice,” but we tend not to seek His counsel. We must change the conditions of our inner conversations from a monologue to a dialogue. We must begin speaking truths into our hearts.
Turn from performance-based thinking: As you go about your daily life, you will intake and process much information. With a performance-based mindset, you personalize this information and assign each item a positive or negative value. This worldly thinking pattern shifts your focus back on your performance, thus turning your attention to self-reliance. If your identity is in Christ, you can trust God’s sovereignty and resist the urge to view events as negative or positive. In faith, you can follow the Spirit’s leading and recognize where God may work. No longer concerned about the impact on your “performance index,” you can focus on others and look for ways to care.
The answer to relationship problems is always found in the gospel. Sustained restoration of relationships is only possible as the Holy Spirit transforms hearts through gospel understanding and application. Heart transformation allows couples like Ken and Sue to avoid the auto-pilot heat-of-the-moment responses and to interact lovingly now and communicate in an edifying way.
God is in the process of turning us into heavenly creatures as He restores our relationship with Him and with each other. Success only comes if we maintain a humble posture and confidence in the works of Christ. A humble posture comes from clearly understanding the depravity of our hearts, grasping the destruction it can bring, and remembering the cost it took to redeem.
Confidence in Christ comes when we no longer look to our efforts (past, present, or future) but to Christ’s righteousness and understand the radical love of the cross. As you grasp the depths of the gospel, you will experience an increasing affection for God and an ability to love others genuinely. This is the great hope the gospel brings to hurting couples.
Do you want to be more intentional about heart transformation? If so, I recommend you seek a like-minded gospel brother or sister to examine your heart’s tendencies and beliefs. Do “Life over Coffee” and discuss the questions below.
Mark Grant was raised in Columbus, Ohio, and attended Ohio State. He married Lesa as he finished his MA in Mechanical Engineering. He moved to Los Angeles to work in the Aerospace Industry. After 5 years of a difficult marriage, he and Lesa were saved. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Portland, Oregon and were blessed with a daughter. He currently works for the Navy as a civilian engineer. He lives outside Philadelphia.