A Spiritual MRI of the Heart
In Proverbs 4.23 Solomon warns his son, ‘Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.’ He goes on to give admonitions about the mouth, the eyes and the feet (vv24-27), but it is the heart that must be guarded above all else. Why?
In Scripture, the word ‘heart’ is used more than 1000 times, but it almost never refers to the physical organ inside our chests. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament sums up all the usages of the term in this way: it is ‘the richest, most all-encompassing biblical term for the totality of a man’s inner nature.’ The heart is said to do a wide range of things in the Bible, but all its many activities fall into one of the three main faculties of the soul: the mind, the affections and the will. It includes the mind—our thoughts, imagination, fantasies, judgments and attitudes. It encompasses the affections—our emotions, our desires and longings, our revulsions. And it describes the will—our choices, decisions and motivations.
Once we understand that the heart involves all these things, it becomes even clearer why we must guard it with all vigilance, before all else—because it is so fundamental. It is the control centre of the whole person. Indeed Scripture sometimes uses ‘heart’ as a kind of synonym for the self (e.g. Gen 18.5; Ex 9.14; 1Pt 3.4: ‘…the hidden person of the heart’.)
We also need to guard our hearts with all vigilance because they are under constant attack. From the world and the devil outside ourselves of course, but also—most dangerously of all—from an enemy within: the flesh—a traitor inside our own hearts, a Judas looking for an opportune moment to hand us over to sin. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jer 17.9). It is like an unsearchable labyrinth, with endless twists and turns, blind alleys and dark corners where the Minotaur of our indwelling sin lurks in wait for us.
We need to guard our hearts too because the Lord wants our hearts. Prov 23.6: My son, give me your heart. What a beautiful and powerful incentive this is! We are keeping our hearts for our Father! We wouldn’t be satisfied with a marriage where our spouse was dutiful and faithful outwardly, but longed inwardly to be with someone else to whom their heart belonged. Why would God be content with that from us? He wants our hearts—our minds, our affections and our wills. The totality of our inner nature and not just our outward behaviour. Isa 29.13: And the Lord said: "…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me… Ps 51.16f: For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
How then do we do this vital work of guarding our hearts? The first step is to do a ‘spiritual MRI scan’ of our hearts. We need to know the current state of our hearts so that we can address the problems and weaknesses we find. Rom 12.3 tells us to ‘think [of ourselves] with sober judgment.’ The Puritan John Flavel, in an exposition of Prov 4.23, wrote these challenging words: ‘Some people have lived forty or fifty years and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their own hearts! … Of all works in religion, this is the most difficult, constant and important work. Heart work is indeed hard work. To shuffle over religious duties with a loose and heedless spirit will cost no great pains. But to set yourself before the Lord and tie up your loose and vain thoughts to a constant and serious attention upon him, this will cost you something.’ John Owen in his book The Mortification of Sin advises his readers: “Be acquainted, then, with thine own heart: though it be deep, search it; though it be dark, inquire into it; though it give all its distempers other names than what are their due, believe it not.”
As we carry out this spiritual MRI scan of our hearts we need to bear in mind what the heart is—the totality of our inner nature: the mind, will and affections. We need to assess all three areas of the heart with probing diagnostic questions. Here are some examples of what that might look like:
A. The mind (thoughts, attitudes, imagination, plans, judgments, discernment).
a) What do you think about? Do you think about spiritual things? The glory of God? The Person and work of Jesus Christ? The Gospel of grace? Sinclair Ferguson once asked the unsettling question, ‘How many Christians today could sit in a room without any resources and think about Jesus Christ for more than five minutes before they run dry?’
b) What do you think about when you’re not focused on specific tasks? John Owen calls these ‘Natural, voluntary thoughts’. They’re like the screensaver that comes up on our computer screens. When the computer is idling for more than a few minutes, it’s the image that appears. What images appear in your mind when it’s not actively engaged in a particular task? Owen says, ‘These thoughts give the best measure of the frame of our minds and hearts… such as the mind of its own accord is apt for, inclines & ordinarily betakes itself unto.’ In other words, do you think about spiritual things when you’re not forced to because you’re listening to a sermon in church or taking part in a Bible study?
c) Owen also asks, do you abound in spiritual thoughts? What proportion of your thoughts are spiritual compared to your thoughts about other things? Here’s a very challenging way of asking the question: do spiritual thoughts ever distract you when you’re engaged in other pursuits? We all know what it’s like to be distracted by earthly thoughts intruding when we’re trying to pray or read the Bible in our daily devotions or listen to a sermon, but is it ever the other way around? Do you ever find yourself thinking about the Lord Jesus when you’re in the middle of watching a film or a football match?
d) Do you predominantly tend to think negative, uncharitable, critical thoughts? Do you have a tendency to be judgmental? Do you tend to assume the worst motives of others rather than the best? Do you give people the benefit of the doubt whenever possible?
e) Do you think about whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable and praiseworthy (Phil 4.8)? Does that describe the things you fill your mind with through what you read and watch on TV and the internet, or the music you fill your head with?
f) Do you spend a lot of time fantasizing? I don’t mean things that are obviously sinful; do you day-dream a lot about your circumstances being different? Do you constantly imagine being married? Or being single? Or being in a different marriage? Having different children? Belonging to a different church? Having different gifts? A different salary or job? Do you find yourself regularly, frequently retreating into this world of make-believe? Is that where your mind usually goes, or goes first, when things are hard?
g) Do you nurture covetous thoughts? Do you envy the success/popularity/usefulness of others?
h) Do your thoughts about God ever move you to worship and praise and thanksgiving? Do you ever stop in the middle of your Bible reading to sing/pray/praise God?
2. The affections (emotions, longings, desires, revulsion)
John Owen describes the affections as ‘the seat of all sincerity.’ He writes, ‘Whatever men pretend, as their affectionsare, so are they.’ In other words, we may claim we like nothing better than an evening reading Tolstoy, but if in our hearts we really love binge-watching the latest season of a hit TV show, that reveals where our affections really lie. Owen says that the affections are like the helm of a ship. ‘When world has its hand on our affections, it turns the mind, with the whole industry of the soul, unto its interests and concerns. And it is in vain to contend with anything that hath the power of our affections in its disposal.’ (Spiritual Mindedness, Works VII.396f). The affections are incredibly powerful, so we need to guard them zealously! Here are some questions to help us do that:
a) What are your predominant emotions? Anger? Sadness? Self-pity? Irritability? Joy? Gladness? Thankfulness? How would those who know you best answer this question about you? Would you spouse and children say you are usually a joyful, happy person?
b) If one particular sinful emotion is predominant in your heart, do you understand why? Are you succeeding in mastering your sinful emotions? I once knew a man who confessed to having a terrible temper, but he was one of the mildest men I had ever met. The reason was he had mastered his temper. He mortified it every day of his life so that it was suffocated by grace. It was an illustration of what Paul meant when he said that he beat his body and made it his slave.’ (1Cor 9.27).
c) Do you normally fight against negative emotions when they arise in your heart, or is your default attitude to give in to them and allow your behaviour and mood to be ruled by them?
d) Are you normally emotionally balanced, or up and down and all over the place?
e) Do you enjoy public worship? If the flesh can’t stop you from attending worship, it will try to make it a purely outward and formal ritual in which you draw near to God with your lips only. If you do enjoy worship, do you delight in it for the right reasons?
f) Do you know how to mortify ungodly emotions and how to cultivate godly ones?
g) Do you know your personality type? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? An introvert or an extrovert? Melancholic? Competitive? Passive-aggressive? This affects how we assess our hearts. Owen calls his readers to understand their own temperaments because it will help them better appreciate how sin and temptation arise in their own lives. ‘He who watches not this thoroughly, who is not exactly skilled in the knowledge of himself, will never be disentangled from one temptation or another all his days.’ You may not know your own personality, but you can be sure that Satan knows it. And he attacks us according to our individual personalities, so we need to know our dispositions.
h) What makes you angry/sad/joyful? So often we get angry or happy about things we shouldn’t and we don’t get angry or happy about things we should. Jonah is the classic case study of this: he was over the moon about a plant that grew up and provided him with shade from the sun, then he was in a towering rage when a worm came and chewed it up. But he was furious at the prospect of 120,000 men, women and children of Nineveh being spared God’s judgment! Isn’t that so like us? We’re beside ourselves with rage at someone who cuts us up on the road and then a few miles later we hear news of an atrocity in Ukraine with hardly a flicker of anger! We’re elated at the prospect of a new episode of our favourite TV show, but hardly feel a trace of joy when a friend is praised for something we think we do much better.
i) How do you feel when you are criticized, rebuked or corrected? Do you respond well? Do you say, ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend—thank you so much for helping me.’ Or do you say the words while inwardly you are seething and indignant?
j) What makes you afraid? What is your greatest desire? What brings you most delight?
k) What things, if you lost them, would make you feel like life is no longer worth living? That’s a good way to discern what gives your life meaning.
l) What do you talk most about? How much time do you spend watching TV, reading novels, on social media, on your hobbies? These are good indicators of where your affections lie.
m) Where do you go for comfort when things are hard? The food cupboard? The TV? The Word of God?
n) How do you feel when others are praised instead of you. Do you find yourself subtly undermining the praise? Planting a little seed of negativity? Do you rejoice along with the person doing the praising and the one being praised?
3. The will (choices, actions, decisions, motives)
a) Do you know something of Paul’s struggle in Romans 7? So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (vv21-23)
b) Do you consistently make wise choices or foolish ones?
c) Do you consciously reflect on why you make the decisions you do?
d) Do you regularly go against your conscience? Would you say it’s more or less tender since five years ago? Are you committing sins now that would have deeply troubled you five years ago?
e) Is your conscience being shaped and informed by the word of God?
f) How much do you pray in secret? That’s a good test of your heart—not how much you pray in public in a church prayer meeting, but when it’s just you and God. Someone once said, ‘What a man is alone on his knees before God—that he is and no more.’ Secret prayer has no ‘cash value’—no one knows if you are doing it except you and God.
g) When you sin or discover something in your heart or life that is sinful, is it your normal practice to repent immediately?
h) Do you consciously test your motives? Do you ask yourself if you are acting out of a desire for God’s glory or for the praise of men? Our motives will always be mixed to some extent, but we want to ensure they are as pure as possible.
Heart work really is hard work! Martyn Lloyd-Jones had a salutary warning when it comes to this kind of deep scan of our hearts. He warned that you need to know if you tend to introspectiveness as you carry out this kind of assessment. An introspective man could probably spend all day every day doing nothing else but looking inside himself, while someone at the opposite end of the spectrum (an extrospective?) could give this list of questions a quick glance and carry on with his day. I suspect the practical danger of most of us is that we don’t give enough time and thought and effort to work honestly through these kinds of questions.
Our hearts are deceitful, but God knows our hearts inside out. He has made our hearts new. The labyrinth belongs to him now and he is gradually remodelling it into a beautiful place where sin cannot hide. And if you want to know the true state of your heart, the Lord will help you. Ps 139.23f: Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
But an MRI scan can only reveal, it can’t repair. More is involved then in guarding our hearts. Once we have the results of our scan, how do we deal with the problems they expose? We’ll return to that next time.