Can Our Hearts Be Trusted?

“Follow your heart”. What a simple yet oddly popular phrase. When I was younger, that slogan was repeated everywhere—in school, in books, and on children’s television shows. Honestly, I never really understood what it meant. My heart didn’t really guide me all that well.

When I grew older, the phrase made even less sense to me. In my understanding, the heart was just this place from which crazy, irrational emotions flowed. Why would I want to allow my emotions to lead me?

Then people within the church began waging war on this slogan. I read books and listened to sermons that were all about having the self-control to overcome the feelings of your heart. Your heart is not to be trusted, I was taught. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Wow! Isn’t that the truth?

Well, I don’t think it’s the whole truth. There seems to be an aspect missing in these two extreme points of view.

The first thing we need to establish is that, no matter what, we are directed by our hearts. Luke 6:45 explains that “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (see also Matthew 12:34 and 15:18).

Some allow their hearts to lead them in whichever direction. Then there are some who repress their hearts to the point of unfeeling. Those who “follow their hearts” run the risk of not using truth, wisdom, and self-discipline to make good decisions in life as they are usually making decisions based on what they feel like doing. Those who repress their hearts, shut off natural emotions and replace them with reason. These individuals may have lives that look very self-disciplined, but the lack of feeling causes them to be dense and perhaps even uncaring and apathetic to others.

I was one of those emotionally repressed people. The thought that was communicated to me in my upbringing was that strong emotions—especially the negative ones—are unacceptable. If I was angry, it was unjustified and I needed to just have a good attitude instead. If I was sad, I had no one to validate my emotions, so I learned to hide. If I was hurt, no sympathy was shown towards me. Basically, emotions were not safe.

I took this lie that emotions are bad and unintentionally created an entire life philosophy around it. I appreciated the fact that I was very self-disciplined because I didn’t have those pesky feelings getting in my way, tempting me to make irrational decisions. If I set out to do something, I just did it. So not only was I completely out of touch with my heart, but I acted as though shutting out my heart was a great way to live.

It wasn’t until later that I realized the consequences of living this way. Ephesians 4:18-19b explains that those who don’t know the Lord “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” and that they had “lost all sensitivity”.

That is exactly the state I was in. I had lost sensitivity. The Bible calls this a calloused heart (Psalm 17:10, 73:7, 119:70; Acts 7:51). What I imagined was my heart covered in black tar that had slowly built up over the years. With every hurt, wound, and sin, I covered my heart up more and did not allow God to touch it. Ephesians 3:17 explains that Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, yet I had not prepared much of a dwelling for him.

I realized also that my relationship with God was very limited. I heard God’s voice through his Word, good books, music, and other people, but I was definitely struggling to hear him speaking quietly in my heart. If we were created to be in relationship with God and our hearts are our direct access to his heart, we would do well to allow him to heal the deep wounds that are causing our hearts to callous over.

Looking back, I can see the warning signs of a calloused heart. My repressed emotions could only be contained for so long until I exploded in anger. A friend recently told me that anger is a secondary emotion and, for me, that makes sense. I was repressing feelings of sadness, insecurity, fear, loneliness, and whatever else and covering it up with anger. For the most part, I appeared very calm and put-together, but I was experiencing inner turmoil that would erupt onto my family in the form of yelling.

Repressed emotions can manifest in a multitude of ways, including anger, depression, and anxiety, along with other mental and personality disorders. I know from experience that repressed emotions can also induce physical pain and illness.

It was my anger that finally clued me in that I had a problem that I could not fix. The anger that came out of me was not a willful choice I was making; it was the sin in me that I was unable to change. This was such a difficult realization for me, but it was absolutely freeing. I repented to God, I repented to my family, and I confessed to trustworthy friends, who all showed unconditional love and acceptance for me. This was the beginning of my healing journey.

I believe this healing process is what is referred to in Deuteronomy 30:6: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (see also Romans 2:29). When we give our hearts to God, he will begin a process of carefully revealing the sin and woundedness that has been hindering a life lived in freedom.

Healing usually doesn’t come all at once. God takes us on these journeys where He gently shows us these scars and then gives us a choice of what we’re going to do. Are we going to cover it up again and refuse God’s healing power or will we humble ourselves by repenting, forgiving, or releasing these things?

This process is by the power of God, but it definitely takes our willing involvement. It may at times be the most difficult thing you will have to do because it takes a continual humbling and reliance on God. You will be tempted to give up at times, but God is so faithful in each step you take. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). With each step of faith you take towards Him, He will show you more of Himself and more of His love.

Take another look at Deuteronomy 30:6: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” Who is the one doing the circumcising? That’s right—God! And why does He do this? “So that you may love him with all you heart and with all your soul, and live.” This process is where LOVE and LIFE are found!

Psalm 16:7 says, “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me”. Isn’t that amazing? Our hearts instruct us! What I envision my heart to be is a satellite of direct communication with God. If my heart is covered up in sin, it’s difficult for me to feel connected to Him. When I open up my heart to Him, I begin to hear His voice and see His heart.

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). We are created in the image of God. We have parts of ourselves buried deep down inside us that God placed in there from the beginning. He has such a unique purpose for our lives, but we need to reestablish that heart connection with Him.

So, can our hearts be trusted? “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”, but rather the answer is to purify your hearts to create a place where God can dwell.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2b). Give your heart to God. Trust Him with the process and He will uncover the gem within.

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Thoughts on God: Roller Skating with my Daughter

by Dani Maddox

I recently had the opportunity to go roller skating with my two older kids. My seven-year-old son was pretty confident on his own, but my five-year-old daughter needed my help.

I spent much of my own childhood at this particular roller rink, so I’m a relatively competent skater; although, it had been quite a while since I had been on the rink. Nevertheless, I know how to skate.

My daughter, on the other hand, does not know how to skate. This was her first time.

To teach my daughter how to skate, I could have tried any number of methods. I could have sat her down on the sidelines and proceeded to show her everything I know. “Look at how good I am! Maybe you can come out here when you’re this good!”

Or maybe I could tell her to just go for it. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ll get the hang of it….eventually!”

Perhaps I should remind her of how good I am and make sure she knows how inexperienced she is. When she falls, I could exclaim, “See! You need to remember this moment to keep you humble!”

No. Of course I did no such thing. The fact that my daughter is completely dependent on me shows true humility with no words required. She doesn’t need to focus on her mistakes; she just needs to continually rely on me to guide her through the process.

And this definitely required more than mere guidance from me. The rink was full and busy that night, so I had to let go of my need to look competent. In fact, I had to humble myself to the point of appearing to have as much skill as my daughter. But that is just fine with me as I look down at her face and see her bright eyes and wide grin. So worth it.

I couldn’t help but to think of this experience in light of how God sees us. This reminds me of a quote I read recently: “God is so secure in His sovereignty that He is not afraid to appear un-sovereign.” I believe this is because God values relationship above everything. And God, more than anyone else, understands what true relationship requires.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

Our “attitudes should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 12:5). So, how did Jesus humble himself? Jesus showed humility by being dependent on the Father and serving others. And we are called to do the same.

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-5)

 

The Purpose of Pain

by Dani Maddox

Several days ago, I had an interesting experience. Perhaps it will seem minor to you, but God was in the midst of teaching me something significant through it. My family and I were out running errands when my jaw started bothering me. At first it was just a slight irritant, but as time went on, it was downright painful.

I don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary or eating anything that would bother my jaw, so I was totally confused. Still, I wracked my brain trying to figure out what was going on.

It seems as though God has been trying to teach me to embrace pain and discomfort as a symptom or warning sign of a deeper issue, so I decided this was His way of reinforcing this lesson for me. So I prayed: God, what could this be? What is causing this pain?

No answer.

I couldn’t handle it anymore. The pain was so unbearable by the time we got home, that I finally reached for some Ibuprofen. As I popped the pill in my mouth and swigged some water, it immediately occurred to me—my headband! Yes, the headband I had put in my hair this morning was apparently pinching a nerve, causing my jaw to throb in pain.

How quick we are to eliminate pain and discomfort in our lives! God has been trying to show me what a good thing pain is. It is always a signal that something is wrong whether it be a physical ailment, my sin, the sin of another person, distance from God, or merely the result of living in a fallen world. Either way, the message is clear—God wants to speak to us in the midst of our pain.

Let me tell you another story that happened last fall. I had had several days of dull back pain, which I thought was brought on by holding my baby. I didn’t think much of it until one night after I had finished putting the baby to sleep. Pain suddenly shot out from my back throughout my entire body. I ended up on my bed, my body seized up and I couldn’t speak.

That night I wound up in the hospital with a severe kidney infection that took me by surprise. I had not felt any other symptoms other than a slight back ache. By the time I felt enough pain to think something was wrong, my body had already begun to shut down from the amount of trauma.

Without going into too much backstory, I grew up learning to push my pain aside and just toughen up. Somehow, my body was able to toughen up to the point where I didn’t feel much pain at all. While this has been very helpful in recovering from three c-sections and not being inhibited by pain in general, I realized how dangerous it is to be unaware of your pain.

It’s not just our physical pain that we’re trying to escape either. It’s painful emotions as well. Anything that causes us hurt or discomfort is seen as something to avoid. But God is speaking to us during these times. When we try to numb our pain, we’re essentially deadening our hearts.

What does this numbing process look like? The process usually begins very early in life. We get hurt and we’re told to “toughen up.” A good friend moves away and we’re told to “get over it.” Our parents get divorced and we hear, “Well, that’s life!” These experiences cause real hurt and real pain, but our feelings are not validated or taken seriously. We learn early on in life that certain emotions are just not acceptable, so we bury them.

Slowly, we shrink back from life. We feel shame whenever an unwanted emotion begins surfacing, so we force it back down. We get better and better at stuffing and repressing these emotions the older we get. Some people may say these types of people have “hearts of stone”, but I think of it more like emotional leprosy. The center of their emotional being is slowly dying and they have no idea.

It may seem helpful to be able to go through life with such a well-fortified heart, but it actually closes us off from other people and, more importantly, God. We are so disconnected from our hurt and emotions inside that we cannot even understand our own motives and desires, much less understand the hearts of others. “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water” (Proverbs 20:5). On top of this, we will continually struggle to connect with God, not realizing that it is our own heart that has been seared.

My challenge to you is this: The next time you experience something painful—whether it be physical pain, the effects of sin, or a difficult circumstance—instead of trying to escape the pain or repress the emotions, begin to ask God for clarity. What is God trying to show you? Is there a past hurt this is bringing up? Is there unforgiveness in your heart? Are you running from God or willfully sinning, receiving the natural consequences for poor choices? Has someone sinned against you?

While we definitely shouldn’t intentionally seek out painful situations, we do need to begin engaging with the struggles as they come. This is definitely a difficult process in the beginning. If you allow God to open up your heart and show you the truth, it can be pretty painful, but the results are beautiful.

What I’ve been learning in this time is that God wants to bring us on a journey of growth and fruitfulness. He wants an intimate relationship with us in which we learn to trust Him more and more with each step that we take in obedience. Along the way, He’s going to show us where we took a wrong step. He’ll show us dangerous cycles that we’ve been in. He’ll point out sin and unforgiveness. He uncovers shame, hurt, and brokenness. And He brings us along the path of restoration and freedom.

God is so good. Trust Him with your heart.

Discipling with Purpose

by Dani Maddox

Previously, I discussed the three things children need to pursue purpose in their lives—true identity from the Father, a perfect example from Jesus Christ, and help from the Holy Spirit. All believers need these in order to pursue all God has for us. For more detail, please go back and read Part 1.

All of these aspects are vital in our parenting, but they also come into play when we first come to Jesus. Jesus told his disciples to, “let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14b-15).

Being “like a child” does not mean that we act childish, but that we are humbled before God as we receive a new identity as a child of God, we acknowledge the perfect life of Jesus Christ to be our example, and we receive the Holy Spirit and allow Him to convict our hearts and guide us into truth.

As believers, we are also called to be the body of Christ for the world. Are we calling out people’s true identity as sons and daughters of the King? Are we encouraging others and affirming their God-given gifts? Are we modeling a life that is humble and submitted to Christ, our perfect example? Are we imitating Christ in love and servanthood (not putting up masks and pretending to be perfect)? Lastly, are we willing to disciple others in the ways of truth? Do we merely point the way or are we also submitting to others by investing our time and energy and walking alongside them as they reach maturity?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, great! It’s probably been a long journey to get to a place of being able to pour out to others. Continue to pursue God relentlessly and surround yourself with people who will encourage you in your purpose and identity. If you couldn’t genuinely answer yes to these questions, don’t worry. You’re in good company.

I understand that many of us are not at the place of being able to effectively pour out into the lives of others. If this is the case, please do not try to force yourself to give out of a place of emptiness. You cannot give that which you have not first received.

Perhaps it’s time that you receive from others. Find safe people who will accept you right where you are. Build relationships in which you have the freedom to be completely open and vulnerable. Confess your sins, grieve past losses, share your hurts, receive encouragement, and pray with one another.

Seek out a mentor, someone who has walked before you and has experienced following Christ. “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:9). Allow godly discipleship in your life. Learn personal disciplines and see what biblical truths look like when applied practically.

Lastly, and most importantly, pursue God with all you have. He is your life source. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Before you try to please Him with good works (bearing fruit), first develop an intimate relationship with Him (check your vine connection!). Read the Word, pray earnestly, set aside quiet time for listening to His voice.

Imagine yourself as a cup: You need to be poured into before you can pour out to others. If you don’t allow God to fill you up, you will be left dry, tired, and resentful.

God desires to be your source. He loves you like no one else can. Turn to Him before anyone or anything else. Then remember that He also points us to other people to fulfill specific roles. We are the body of Christ. Allow Him to use you in the lives of others and allow others to speak into your life.

Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Parenting with Purpose

For the past seven years that I have been a parent, I have asked God to give me wisdom in my parenting. If you’re a parent, you understand the dilemma of leading and discipling your children in a godly way. God gives us these children and we have about 18 years to train them into adulthood, hoping they will be able to survive—and even thrive—on their own. It’s obviously more than just providing for their physical needs, though. I want to encourage and enable my children to walk with purpose. But how do I do that?

Along with providing purpose in our children, God is also asking us to live with purpose and to train other believers to walk in their purpose. The second part of this article will address ways we can do this in our own lives and also encourage others to do the same.

Recently, God revealed to me three specific requirements for pursuing purpose in life: true identity, a perfect example, and help. As I thought about these, it occurred to me that we find all three within the Trinity.

We receive our identity from the Father as being sons and daughters of the King. We have our perfect example in Jesus Christ as we learn to live as he did. And we have the deposit of the Holy Spirit as our help and our Counselor.

Are we providing these three aspects for our children? When children are in their younger years, we are, in a way, “God” to our kids. Are we mirroring Him effectively? Of course, we cannot model this perfectly, so we continually repent and allow our children to see our need of a Savior.

As parents, though, we can affirm our children in their identity. Let them know who they are in God’s Kingdom. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).

Let your children know who they are within your family. This means we accept them unconditionally for who they are, just as God has accepted us before we deserved it. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Be aware of how conditional love and acceptance may unintentionally be communicated. Our words and actions ought to communicate: Even if you disobey, I still love you. Even if you irritate me, I still love you. Even if you make a decision I disagree with, I still love you. Even if you choose a career path I don’t like, I still love you. No matter what you do, you are always my child and I love you very much. This is the heart of the Father.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Calling out our children’s identities also means affirming them in their giftings and talents. See the good in them and encourage them to live out their identity. Giving our children an extraordinary identity that remains unchangeable (because it is God’s work, not our own) sets a standard for them to walk in. When we set the bar low (“You’re stupid. You’ll never amount to anything.”), our children will have difficulty attaining beyond this.

Although we are not a perfect example of Jesus, we can model to our children what it means to live humbly surrendered to the Father as Jesus did. This doesn’t mean we try to appear perfect (as only Jesus is perfect), but that we “we walk in the light, as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7).

If you see a sin issue in your child, ask God to show you if you led by example or hindered your child in any way. God has shown me multiple sins that I unintentionally passed down to my oldest child. But as God began to refine me, I also started seeing changes in my son. I realize more and more that good parenting starts with my own heart.

Author and researcher Brene Brown puts it this way: “The question isn’t so much, “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is, “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?” Are we setting the example that we want our children to follow? Brown also notes that our actions are a much stronger indicator than our words when it comes to predicting our children’s behavior.

We are also called to come alongside our children and offer our help. Oftentimes, we are tempted to merely boss our children around, pointing our finger and shouting, “Go do that!” Just as the Holy Spirit was sent to be our help, we have been called to humbly assist our children. They need our constant support and encouragement. Self-discipline is not something we are born with; we need the continual guidance of a parental figure until the discipline becomes internalized. Thank God we have 18 years of training with our children!

Problems arise when at least one of these three aspects is missing. If a child is raised with help and affirmation but not a godly example, he can grow up feeling as though he’s on top of a lonely pedestal. His parents say his potential is limitless, but he’s confused because he has not seen what this kind of life looks like.

If a child does not have a solid identity or if he has a wrong identity, he will have a difficult time setting goals and accomplishing God’s ultimate purpose in his life. He will most likely spend many years being unsure of himself and floundering from one false identity to another. “For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).

If a child has identity and an example without help and discipline, he may end up having a difficult time understanding the steps to take in order to live according to his purpose. He may end up feeling discouraged as he sets lofty goals but is unable to take the steps to reach them.

When we as parents begin to offer these three aspects to our children—true identity, an example, and help—we will see our children stepping into freedom in Christ, which draws them into purpose. Instead of parenting being a means to control behavior, it becomes a method of encouraging our children to become all that God has called them to be.

These tools can also be implemented in discipling new believers. After all, when we are “born again”, we essentially become like infants who need continual love, nurturing, and guidance. Part 2 will discuss practical ways in which we can disciple others or receive discipling using these ideas.