One of the great unifying themes of Jesus’ public ministry was his insistence that rightness with God comes from inward aspiration, not the sum of outward accomplishments. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Up until then, religious leaders taught the people to obey the arduous set of rules they had constructed to appease the God they no longer knew or understood. But to Jesus way of thinking, those who confine their teaching to contrived religious routines “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry.”
In fact, true faith is never the product of obligation. It can only spring only the desire of a good heart. Describing people with authentic faith, Jesus said, “these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.”
Obligation is compulsory; desire is volitional. Obligation is mechanical and rote. Desire is dynamic and emboldening. Obligation is kept alive by the fear of failure and the dread of consequences. Desire is born of the heart.
The triumph of heart over obligation was not only the cornerstone of Jesus’ public ministry, it remains the genius and logic behind everything Jesus taught.
I call it the “doctrine of the heart.” In a thousand occurrences throughout Scripture, heart is used figuratively to portray the reflections and yearnings of the inner person – the complex thought processes deep within. All of our hopes and fears and desires and aspirations come from this inner self of mental reconciliation and contemplation, which also guide our impressions, behaviors and even the words we speak.
Because of this, Jesus warned, we have to watch goes in if we’re to control what comes out. “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart,” Jesus explained (Luke 6:45). “What you say flows from what is in your heart.”
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “heart” (kardia) is used more than 150 times. Each of those 158 occurrences describes the figurative heart, meaning your thoughts, your feelings, your aspirations.
“Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life,” Proverbs 4:23 tells us. Here and elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “heart” (lebab or leb) occurs nearly 850 times. In all but a handful of those 845 occurrences, heart is used figuratively, meaning not the physical heart but the mind, the will, the inward being.
So how do you keep a heart good? How do you guard that which determines the course of your life?
The answer begins with the Holy Spirit. To keep a heart good, we have to change our thought processes and ask God to fill our innermost thoughts and yearnings. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be,” Jesus said.
There are no better ways to secure the treasury of a good heart than to follow the recommendation of Philippians 4.8: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is venerable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if any excellence and if any praise – think on these things.”
Beginning with the words “whatever is true,” this remarkable collection of eight nouns describes the caliber of thought-life Jesus had in mind when he taught the value of a good heart. The Greek word for true, alēthē, applies to factual reality that cannot be hidden. As a practical matter, we can pray that God would work to put right any impressions or opinions we may have that are not true. Imagine changing your entire opinion on a matter you thought was true but realize was baseless. Better to hold to fiction than fiction.
The second word on this list, semna, translated noble or honorable, includes contemplation of all things that are deeply respected or morally attractive. So many of the distractions in today’s popular culture can be characterized by ignoble and morally bankrupt that honorable has nearly become a forgotten concept.
The next word, dikaia, is closely associated with our word righteous. It is used here to depict thoughts that are equitable and upright in the eyes of God.
The word hagna, translated pure, describes thoughts that are uncontaminated and innocent. The concept would be a remedy against James’ warning (1.14) that absent pure thinking, people are made vulnerable to the kind of impulse by which they are enticed by their own desire. “Then desire having conceived gives birth to sin; and sin having become fully grown, brings forth death.”
The fifth word in this collection is prosphilē, translated lovely. It includes meditation on things that are worthy of being loved or cherished.
Next, admirable, from the Greek word euphēma, describes things well spoken of.
The word arête, translated excellence, is found only five times in the New Testament. In each instance, this noun is used to depict things that are morally virtuous toward life.
The eighth and final word on Paul’s list is epainos, translated commendable, describing things that are worthy of praise, particularly in conscience.
“On these things,” Paul concludes, logizesthe, meaning contemplate or think on. Contemplating is Scripture’s formula for storing good in things in the treasury of a good heart. It means we’re to meditate on or reconcile our thoughts with whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, morally virtuous and commendable in conscience.
But treasure must be protected. The treasure Jesus had in mind is eternal, not temporal. If we’re to guard our hearts, we must control our feelings and desires, ever mindful of this temporal world the Enemy has constructed – a world full of distractions that employ the tricks of materialism, sensuality, impulse and desire to lure our minds away from God. We’re to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4.18).
Self-control is a daily process, comprising daily choices to pursue mindfulness, prayer, Scripture and an active reliance on the Holy Spirit over the base desires of the culture. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If that journey of self denial and following him is to be authentic, it must come from the desires and aspirations of a changed heart.