Have you ever justified something in a way that you know made no sense – but it was the best you had in the moment? We have this very human tendency to use our mind to justify after the fact what our heart desired in the moment. We do things we feel like doing, then in hindsight we scramble to come up with reasons that at least seem good to us. We listen to our hearts, then tell our heads to justify our actions. “Follow your heart, listen to your heart” are mantras we hear in some form all the time.
The problem is that it's a bad philosophy of life. And since God is for us, and He cares about us enough to give us some insight into how we work and how life works, it’s no surprise that the Bible has given us some insight into why simply “following your heart” is a bad idea.The prophet Jeremiah records God’s message to the Israelites at a time when they had walked far from God. After telling them that those who trust in the strength of people are like bushes in a wasteland where there’s no water and the ground is sowed with salt, he makes a sharp contrast:
Blessed is the one who trusts in Me alone; the Eternal will be his confidence. He is like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots beside the stream. It does not fear the heat or even drought. Its leaves stay green and its fruit is dependable, no matter what it faces. (Jeremiah 17:7-9)
The person who trusts in God is grounded, fearless, and bears fruit, which is another way of saying that this kind of person is being everything he or she was made to be. Awesome! Jeremiah continues:
The heart is most devious and incurably sick. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:10)
Well. This seems like an abrupt change of thought. The context is that God is explaining how life in His path will bring life, but a life in rebellion to him will bring some serious trouble. The Septuagint says, "The heart is deep," a bottomless pit full of sin. Perhaps that is why Proverbs 28:26 warns us, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” I am going to give us two principles to help us avoid the trouble lurking in our heart, and two principles to help us embrace the wisdom that comes from God.*
First Principle to Help Us Avoid Trouble: Own our problems.
They rarely come from lack of information or insight. They usually come from a lack of commitment to truth. We choose to do things often without thinking and specifically without thinking of the consequences. We follow our heart and just decide we don’t really want to wrestle with why we are doing a particular thing, or what the consequences will be. Then when we get caught (or our head kicks in), something wells up from within this bottomless container of deceit and we justify the desires of our hearts rather than taking the opportunity to challenge the goodness of what we wanted.
In 1 Samuel 15:13-20, God told Saul to come back from a battle with nothing. He was not supposed to collect spoils of war – the Israelites weren’t supposed to be a marauding tribe. But Saul brings back a bunch of livestock. God speaks to the prophet Samuel, Samuel goes to confront him, and the following happens:
When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.” But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”
“Sure, I disobeyed God…but I did it so I could worship him better!” That’s a gutsy excuse. Saul wants to justify what his heart desires: keeping the spoils of war. He did the wrong thing, but thinks he can make it right if can find a really good justification. Samuel gives the well-known response:
“But Samuel replied, "What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.”
Saul’s problem was not a lack of information or insight. He knew God’s instruction. Saul’s problem was a lack of obedience, of commitment to truth and submission to God.
Second Principle To Help Us Avoid Trouble: Question our reasons.
How many times have you asked your kids, “Why did you do that?” Or, “What were you thinking?” And they get this deer-in-the-headlights look because they weren’t thinking. They were just doing, and usually their justifications or excuses are pretty transparent. We adults are a little quicker on our feet, and we can come up with some clever excuses. We try to smooth over our bad decisions by coming up with reasons, and we treat all our reasons as if they are legitimate even if they are not. Simply having a reason doesn’t make the reason good or the action right.
- The married man who wants to flirt with the cute lady at work justifies what his heart desires: “I just want to make sure she is doing her job well.”
- The workaholic who is avoiding conflict at home or the emptiness inside justifies: “We really need the money right now.”
- The employee who cheats on time cards or take small things justifies: “Everybody knows we don't get paid enough.”
- The person who gossips justifies: “I just want other people to know how to pray.”
- The person who holds a grudge justifies: “If I let it go I will just enable their bad behavior. I don’t think they will ever change. They earned it!”
- I knew a lady in Ohio who moved from counselor to counselor. She always claimed that they never understand her, or they don’t listen, or… The reality is they held up a mirror she didn’t want to see. It seemed easier to avoid, and she never got to the heart of the issue that kept her in counseling for years.
- I knew a man who moved from church to church because “the people are judgmental. “ Or maybe, when people are honest, he didn't want to hear it.
They all had reasons. But simply having a reason doesn’t make the reason good or the action right. When our reasons follow our decisions, that’s often a bad sign. If we follow our heart and then use our head, we will often either regret what we did or scramble to find a way to justify what we shouldn’t have done. We need to bring our head and our heart together. So what is the solution?
First Principle To Help Us Embrace Wisdom: Give our hearts and minds to Christ.
God offers to do a work in us that is independent of our ability to live well. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God’s message to Israel was:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your sin-hardened heart of stone and give you a tender, Spirit-lead heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.” (Ezekiel 36:24-29)
Paul wrote to the early church in Rome:
“In light of all I have shared with you about God’s mercies, I urge you to offer your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice to God, a sacred offering that brings Him pleasure; this is your reasonable, essential worship. Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete.” (Romans 12:1-2)
In addition, God gives us His Word to guide us:
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
So we have God’s Spirit within you to transform our hearts and God’s Word in front of us to help us discern the battlefield inside us.
Second Principle To Help Us Embrace Wisdom: Make sure you have good reasons for your decisions.
First of all, be honest. This may be tough, but think of something you really want to do (or something you are doing) and answer this question:
- The real reason I check in on that girl at work is…
- The real reason I don't’ talk with my spouse is…
- The real reason I don’t call my kids (or parents) is…
- The real reason I drink too much…
- The real reason I don’t go to church regularly…
- The real reason I don’t pray…
- The real reason I don’t want to forgive them…
- The real reason I pad my time card…
- The real reason I stopped and bought 3 cups of coffee today…
- The real reason I want to buy a new house…
- The real reason I want to change jobs…
- The real reason I want to date someone new…
- The real reason I avoid warning signs about my health
- The real reason I am pulling back from people
- The real reason I don’t want to commit fully to Christ…
Second, be proactive.
There are at least three questions to ask when facing decisions.
- If someone in my circumstance came to me for advice, what would I recommend? Would I tell them to do what I am about to do? Would I tell them to buy a car they can’t afford? Would I tell them to withdraw from conflict instead of confront it? Would I tell them to hold a grudge?
- What do my godly friends think? Not just any friends, because people with a different set of values will reach conclusions that are not necessarily biblical. It’s not like Christians have the corner on good advice. But specifically when it comes to ethical decisions, be sure you give weight to a godly voice that you have good reason to trust.
- In light of my past experience and future hopes, what is the wise thing to do? Has this worked before? If not, why do I think it will work now? Last time I yelled at my kids, was that productive? I want to be a person whose thought life is pure – is what I’m watching or listening to going to lead me to that place?
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don’t rely on your own understanding. In everything you do, acknowledge him, and he will make your path straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
*I am deeply indebted to Andy Stanley's The Principles of the Path for the main ideas in this series (and some of specific language, such as "Direction, not intention, determines as our destination"). I highly encourage you to buy and consume this excellent book!