The Heart of the Matter
It had been a rough afternoon of parenting, as some days are. One of my kids was not doing anything outrageous but was constantly disobeying in little ways. When I corrected and disciplined him, he argued mightily. I was tired of saying, “Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t argue. Change your behavior.” I was weary!
And then it hit me – I was parenting the behavior, but the root problem was my child’s heart. He didn’t want to stop, and the more I griped at him, the more determined he became.
You know what? I get it. I know all too well how frustrating it is to be stuck in wrong patterns of behavior. I know how it feels to try to change and fail over and over. I know how defeating it is to hear the refrain, “Do better. Try harder. Change your behavior.” This resounding clang is usually my own self-talk.
As I became aware of the root issue that day, I regrouped in my parenting efforts. I finally stopped to ask the Lord what kind of truth I could speak into my son’s life to get at the heart issue. Pulling him aside, I said something to the effect of “I can see that your heart is hard and you are feeling stuck right now. I keep telling you to act differently, but you don’t really want to. That’s what it means for a heart to be hard. But you know what? Jesus is in the business of changing hearts and softening them to be like His. When we ask him, he will change our will so that we can actually want to do what is right.”
As I spoke those words to him, a wave of realization washed over me. He was not the only one with a hard heart that day. I was stressed out with responsibilities and overwhelmed with parenting. I was short-tempered and snappy. I had realized my volatile mood early in the day and willed my way into being a good and godly mom.
Yes, you read that right. I was planning to will myself into being godly, in the kind of "pull myself up with my bootstraps" way. I had been working hard – stopping myself mid-sentence, apologizing for my many wrongs, and trying so very hard out of my own feeble strength and my own shaky resolve.
This was the true source of my weariness, it turned out. I was expending energy I did not have - trying to be righteous on my own with no thought to dependence on God. Yes, it is always right to work hard at living a godly life. But, without depending on the Lord for help, it's an exercise in futility.
How often do we do this? How many days do we make ourselves crazy, spinning around in circles, trying to change our behavior without looking to the Holy Spirit to realign our hearts to our Savior?
Jesus Has Given Soft Hearts
New life in Christ means more than gaining entrance into heaven when that future day comes. Rather, this new life offers a new heart. We are renewed from the inside, which results in outward change. If we are trying to achieve outward results without inward heart change, we are acting like the Pharisees whom Jesus rebuked for their outward displays of righteousness but inward hard-heartedness in Mark 7:6-7, 20-23.
God was well aware that his people could not obey him on their own. He promised that after Christ's work on the cross, believers would have a better future, with better hearts (Ezekiel 11:19). We, as believers today, are the recipients of this promise! He has given new hearts that are capable of loving him and obeying him. He took away the sinful hardness that he calls stone, and replaced it with the softness of flesh.
This is part of the new life he gave us when we put our faith in Christ. He changed us on the inside. This change allows us to love him with all of our hearts and all of our souls, and to live (Deut. 30:6). It is this truth we must remember when we struggle to want to do what is right. We have everything we need for life and godliness (1 Peter 1:3) , and we will encounter great joy when we obey him out of love.
Everything that we do and say comes from our hearts (Proverbs 4:23), and our hearts are perpetually prone to betray our love for Jesus. Thus, we are tempted to fix outward behavior but ignore the root issue. Even if we can manage to look good for a while, the ignoring of our heart will eventually come out. Our image management and behavior modification will never work in the long run. Instead, we can ask Jesus to work in our new soft hearts.
So, We Come to Jesus
When we are trying to will ourselves into living good lives without looking to Jesus, it backfires. When we find ourselves stuck in any and every pattern of wrongdoing, we need first and foremost to come to Jesus. We ask the Holy Spirit to reveal our sin and renew our love for Jesus and for what is right. Our weariness will transform into freedom and joy
Then when we are facing days like my parenting battle, we find that we are not alone. And the trying is not an exercise in futility. Rather, it is an exercise in growing in trust, dependence and love for our Savior who can work in our new hearts.