The Spirit Transforms our Willing Heart
Texts: Mt. 5:20; Psalm 51:10-13; Ezekiel 36:26-27; John 3:1-8
Introduction: What Your Heart Loves Most Matters to God
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- My heart, the spiritual person at the center of my being, was created and designed by God to desire him, to love him, and find its deepest fulfillment in a life with him.
- Too often, I have tried to satisfy my heart with people and things less than the true and living God.
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Our Problem (Mt. 5:20; Luke 6:43-45 [also 46-49]; Mark 7:14-23)
- Something deep is wrong with the human heart as it has been formed by a world that disregards the knowledge of God. (Rom. 1:18-32)
- Jesus addresses this deep spiritual problem (Mt. 5:20; Luke 6; Mark 7)
- The alienation of the human heart from God’s will expresses itself in the way religious people organize their religious lives around the religious institutions and the religious things we do as a substitute for living from our hearts in a growing relationship with God.
- We reduce our life with God to a religious tradition that we control and perform.
- We often recognize other people’s religious traditions, but we are blind to our own. How can that be?
- Their traditions seem strange to us because they are not “our tradition”.
- Our tradition tends to be invisible to us because it is familiar and we are comfortable until someone messes with it and our expectations.
- For some, secular trends become accepted cultural traditions so important to them, that they insist on reforming everything in the name of “essential changes,” even if it means disregarding Scripture or the lives of people who are injured along the way.
- Dallas Willard defines sin and righteousness:
- “Sin is the disruption of life as it should be, the ruination of personality, the wreck of the soul, and the destruction of society. Righteousness is what brings us back into line with what is good and right. (From a lecture entitled “Life in the Spirit, Session 2, June 30, 2012, found on Conversatio.org).
- The question is: how can the human heart, our spirit of personal power that directs our life in the world, be restored and made new so that it functions in the way God created and intended it to work in our relationship with Him and others?
David’s Prayer (Ps. 51:10-13; 2 Sam 11-12)
- David had been anointed by the Spirit.
- David is described as a man after God’s own heart. (see 1 Sam. 13:13-14; Acts 13:21-22)
- His great failure in life came when his heart desired another man’s wife.
- His acted on his heart’s desire and committed adultery.
- The consequences of his sin led to her pregnancy, his attempt to deceive and cover up what he had done, and eventually, the murder of her husband Uriah. (1 Sam 11)
- Nathan confronts David’s rebellious heart with a story & God’s judgement.
- David instantly saw the evil described in Nathan’s story and was angry and ready to act.
- Then Nathan turned the tables and said, “You are the man.”
- He revealed that the story was about David and addressed David’s despising God’s word & contempt for the Lord.
- David’s heart was convicted of his denial and rationalization. He confessed his sin and repented from despising God’s word and showing contempt for the Lord.
- Read Ps. 51:10-13.
- David turned his heart away from himself and from his will and turned it back towards God and God’s will. (1 Sam 12)
- 2 Samuel, describes the consequences of David’s willful decisions against God & how he chose to bear those consequences with hope.
- In Mt.1:6b, you see an example of what Paul describes in Rom. 8:28.
- David’s heart turned back towards God. His family became the path to the birth of Jesus, the one like David who lived an abundant life in God’s kingdom and announced it as available to all who would receive it in their hearts as his disciples.
- David instantly saw the evil described in Nathan’s story and was angry and ready to act.
Ezekiel’s Prophecy (Ez. 36:26-27; Jer. 24:7)
- The Prophets of Israel saw the depth of our problem.
- They were longing for a day when God’s kingdom would come in power, gather his people, and through them, transform the world.
- This prophetic vision created a hopeful expectation for a new era when God’s kingdom would be restored, and His will would be done on earth as in heaven through His people who turned their hearts towards Him.
- See God’s promise to Solomon in 2 Chron. 7:14, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”)
Jesus’ Promise (Jn. 3:1-8; 4:13-14; 7:37-39; Acts 2:17, 33; 2 Cor 3:3)
- David’s Prayer and Ezekiel’s Prophecy about a new heart and spirit are what Jesus describes to Nicodemus and others.
- More is needed than our impressive systems of religious performance. We need a new path for life with God.
- God sends his Spirit into our hearts & transform us from the inside out.
- The Spirit will work in our heart, with our spirit & our will, to transform our thinking, our emotions, & our bodies so that we might express our new life in every relationship as we do God’s will with love by depending on God.
- We begin to learn how to work with the Spirit as we take the teachings of Jesus….
- We apply his teachings in our daily lives at home, at work, in our churches, and places in between….
- As we do this, we will discover how the Spirit empowers us to do whatever God gives us to do and to act in love.
Conclusion: A snapshot of mature spiritual maturity (Mt. 5:21-7:27)
Matthew 5:20 (NIV) For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
Mark 7:14-23 (NIV)
14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Ps. 51:10-13 (NIV)
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NIV) I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
John 3:1-8 (NIV) 1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
John 4:13-14 (NIV)
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 7:37-39 (NIV)
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
The four stages of identifying our will with God’s will from Renovation of the Heart:
From Surrender to Drama
In the progression toward complete identification of our will with God’s there are distinctions to be noted. First there is surrender. When we surrender our will to God we consent to his supremacy in all things. Perhaps we do so grudgingly. We recognize his supremacy intellectually, and we concede to it in practice—though we still may not like it, and parts of us may still resist it.
We may not be able to do his will, but we are willing to will it. In this condition there is still much grumbling and complaining about our life and about God. Andrew Murray comments that “we find the Christian life so difficult because we seek for God’s blessing while we live in our own will. We should be glad to live the Christian life according to our own liking.”
Still, this is an important move forward. The center of the self, the heart or spirit, is now willing for God to be God—even if with little hope or enthusiasm. Perhaps it is only willing to be made willing. But it is for lack of this minimal identification with God’s will that multitudes of people are unable to understand the truth of Jesus (John 7:17). Such persons are not willing to do his will, and hence God does not open their understanding, and they cannot do so. They are left to struggle in the darkness, which in fact they desire. And they will certainly reproach God for not giving them more light, though they are unwilling to act on the light they have.
But if grace and wisdom prevail in the life of the one who only surrenders to God’s will, he or she will move on to abandonment. Then the individual is fully surrendered. There is no longer any part of himself or herself that holds back from God’s will. Typically, at this point, surrender now covers all the circumstances of life, not just the truth about God and his explicit will (commandments) for human beings, given through the Bible.
While some things that happen to us may clearly not be what God would wish or has brought about, yet he does allow all—the tragic loss of a loved one, for example, or of health or opportunity, or a grievous wrong done to us by the sins of others. Otherwise such things would not happen. We therefore no longer fret over “the bad things that happen to good people,” though we may undergo much hardship and suffering. While he does not cause these things to happen, we now accept them as within his plan for good to those who love him and are living in his purposes (Romans 8:28). Irredeemable harm does not befall those who willingly live in the hand of God. What an astonishing reality!
Accordingly, older Christian writers often speak of how we are privileged to “kiss the rod” of affliction which strikes us, even while trembling with weakness and pain. What a crucial lesson this is for spiritual transformation! We cease to live on edge, wondering, “Will God do what I want?” Pain will not turn to bitterness or disappointment to paralysis. Such a one has learned, in the words of Tennyson, to
… so forecast the years,
And find in loss a gain to match,
And reach a hand through time to catch
The far-off interest of tears.
But there is still more. Beyond abandonment is contentment with the will of God: not only with his being who he is and ordaining what he has ordained in general, but with the lot that has fallen to us. At this point in the progression toward complete identification with the will of God, gratitude and joy are the steady tone of our life. We are now assured that God has done, and will always do, well by us—no matter what! Dreary, foot-dragging surrender to God looks like a far distant country. Also, at this point, duplicity looks like utter foolishness in which no sane person would be involved. Grumbling and complaining are gone (Philippians 2:14–15)—not painstakingly resisted or eliminated, but simply unthought of. “Rejoice evermore” is natural and appropriate.
From Abandonment to Contentment—and Participation
But we are not done yet! Beyond contentment lies intelligent, energetic participation in accomplishing God’s will in our world. We are no longer spectators, but are caught up in a vivid and eternal drama in which we play an essential part. We embrace our imposed circumstances, no matter how tragic they seem, and act for the good in a power beyond ourselves. “We are reigning—exercising dominion—in life by One, Christ Jesus” (Romans 5:17, par), looking toward an eternity of reigning with God through ages of ages (Revelation 22:5). We take action to accomplish the will of God in his power. Our tiny “willpower” is not the source of our strength. We hardly notice any exercise of it, though it is fully dedicated to carrying out God’s purposes in every respect. But we are carried along by the power of the divine drama within which we live actively engaged. So far from struggling to resist sin, we are devoted to realization of righteousness all around us. This is the real meaning of “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” The strongest human will is always the one that is surrendered to God’s will and acts with it.
This progression toward full identification of our will with God’s will is one that, perhaps for most people, may not be fully realized in this life. But that does not really matter. It is a progression that is there for us to enter into now, through the power at work within us as disciples of Jesus Christ. It may be that at present we cannot even imagine what it would be like for us to have a will significantly identified with God’s will as just described. But we must never forget that he “is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, in terms of the power that is working within us” (Ephesians 3:20, par; compare Isaiah 64:4). Our part is to begin as best we can.
“To Will One Thing”
Now, when we set out on the path of the surrendered will we find we must come to grips with our fallen character. This character will have taken over our habitual or “automatic” ways of thinking and feeling, shaped our social world past and present, permeated our body and its responses, and even sunk down into the unconscious depths of our soul. As the diagram on page 40 indicates, what we actually do arises out of all these factors. In their fallen character these factors will usually not be in accordance with the genuine intentions of our reborn spirit or will. The fallen character in fact poises every element of our being against God.
The condition we find ourselves in can best be described as one of entanglement. By contrast, the condition we must move to is that of single-minded focus upon doing the will of God in everything, distracted by nothing.
- T. Studd once upset some of his missionary comrades in the Congo by what he called his “DCD Campaign.” “DCD” stood for “Don’t Care a Damn” for anything but Christ. He made up a skull and crossbones insignia and imposed “DCD” upon it, to wear on jackets and caps and to stick on buildings and equipment. “His intention was that he and his missionary team should care for nothing before Christ (not even their family and friends). Nothing should be allowed to detract from that or conflict with it. All lesser desires had to be done to death (hence the macabre badge!).” Some people, of course, were more concerned about language they thought was wrong than about hearts not set wholly on Christ.
In our fallen world very few people live with a focused will, even a will focused on an evil. We have heard from W. B. Yeats that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” But, in fact—and we can be thankful for this—even “the worst” rarely have much intensity about them. There are always the “Hitlers” of this world, however. Evil people who are genuinely focused can gain the great power they do over others because of the fact that good people and evil people alike are, for the most part, simply drifting through life.
The “CEO” of the self has abandoned its post to other dimensions of the self and is dragged hither and thither by them. In our culture today the direction of the self is usually left to feelings; and the will, if it is recognized at all, is either identified with feelings or else regarded as helpless in the face of feelings. The cognitive side of the mind is hijacked to rationalize it all by producing or borrowing suitable “insights,” usually lying ready to hand in surrounding culture.
David Hume’s eighteenth-century claim that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” was prophetic of a world to come—our present world—to the existence of which he significantly contributed: a world of perpetual drift in which manipulation and entanglement of the will is simply unavoidable.
“Purity of heart,” Kierkegaard once said, “is to will one thing.” Before we can come to rest in such single-mindedness as the habitual orientation of all dimensions of our being, to allow it and to sustain it, a serious battle is required. But the call of grace and wisdom is nonetheless to “lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and … run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1–2) and on his own example of single-minded pursuit of God’s will, even to the point of death.
“No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life,” Paul reminded Timothy, “so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2:4). Dear Martha was “worried and bothered about so many things,” as Jesus pointed out, while only a few things are necessary, really only one, “Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42). And Paul’s own testimony was that he really did only one thing, which was to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).
The Power of Untamed Desire
Now, the primary source of our entanglement is our desires—really, not just our desires themselves, but our enslavement to them and confusion about them. Temptation to sin always originates in desire (James 1:14–15). We have set our hearts on too many different things, some of which are wrong or evil, and all of which are in conflict with some others. We have already discussed this matter with reference to James 4:1–3. Here, perhaps, we need to add that habitual following of a desire leads to strengthening the power of that desire over us. In the realm of the will there is something like the power of inertia in the physical realm. It is easier to do what you have done than what you have not, and especially than what goes contrary to what you have done. You tend to keep on doing what you have done; and the more so, the more you have done it. That is spiritual inertia.
We may come to identify our will with our desire, and a powerful desire may throw us into something like a hypnotic state in order to achieve its satisfaction—often in horrible deeds. In addition, when the will is enslaved to a desire, it will in turn enslave the mind. To justify itself in satisfying the desire, the will enlists the intellect to provide rationalizations, frequently so bizarre that they amount to selective insanity. Then of course the individual in question does and says things that make no sense to anyone. They are hypnotized by their evil desires.
That is where the entanglements of the will with desire can lead and do lead. The “news” and the media keep cases of this constantly before us, and we need to understand what we are looking at. Otherwise we too will stand at a loss with those who say, “How could people do such things?” We need to realize that the less sensational entanglements of ordinary lives—perhaps Christian lives—are precisely what keep well-intentioned people from following Christ into the depths and heights of spiritual transformation.
Getting Free from Entanglement
Our primary, practical aim in stepping free from the “entanglements” must be to overcome duplicity. And to overcome it we must become conscious of it, confront it, and take appropriate steps to forsake it. The point of reference in all of this is the explicit teachings of the Bible concerning the will of God. He that “has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me,” Jesus said (John 14:21). The person who intends to will what God wills—to identify his or her will with God’s—begins with what God has said he wills. And we do not need to know all he has said, though under New Testament teaching that is not as difficult as it sounds (Romans 13:8–10). We can begin with what we know he has said. Let us firmly decide to do that. This will quickly lead us into the depths of spiritual transformation, including adequate knowledge of all of his will for us.
Who does not know, for example, that it is God’s will we should be without guile and malice? Then let us decide never to mislead people and never to do or say things merely to cause pain or harm. Let us decide that today, right now, we will not do such things. You might think that this is a very small part of identifying with God’s will. But in fact lying and malice are foundational sins. They make possible and actual many other sins. If you removed them, the structure of evil in the individual and in society would be very largely eliminated. From family fights and breakups to warfare, the human landscape would be transformed beyond recognition.
Of course when we begin to implement our decision, we discover that it is no simple task. We discover what a grip duplicity and malice have on us in every dimension of our being. Our thoughts and feelings and our usual routines of action, and perhaps even forces beyond our conscious grasp or understanding, have an influence over our choices that is much more powerful and complicated than we ever imagined while we simply went along with them.
We can never sufficiently emphasize the fact that spiritual formation cannot be a matter of just changing the will itself. That is central, of course, but it cannot be accomplished except by transformation of the other dimensions of the self. We discover that mere intention or effort of will is not enough to bring about the change in us that we have hoped for and to free us from duplicity and malice. Still, we must hold to that intention and sincerely make the effort, and then we will find that help is available.
The Role of Spiritual Disciplines Here
A major service of spiritual disciplines—such as solitude (being alone with God for long periods of time), fasting (learning freedom from food and how God directly nourishes us), worship (adoration of God, as discussed in chapter 6), and service (doing good for others with no thought of ourselves)—is to cause the duplicity and malice that is buried in our will and character to surface and be dealt with. Those disciplines make room for the Word and the Spirit to work in us, and they permit destructive feelings—feelings that are usually veiled by standard practices and circumstances and by long accepted rationalizations—to be perceived and dealt with for what they are: our will and not God’s will. Those feelings are normally clothed in layer upon layer of habitual self-deception and rationalization. Typically, they will have enslaved the will, and it in turn will have coerced the mind to conceal or rationalize what is really going on. Your mind will really “talk to you” when you begin to deny fulfillment to your desires, and you will find how subtle and shameless it is. I know this from experience.
For example, our “righteous judgments” on others may, as we practice solitude or service, be recognized as ways of putting them down and us up. Our extreme busyness may be revealed as inability to trust God or unwillingness to give others a chance to contribute. Our readiness to give our opinions may turn out to be contempt for the thoughts and words of others or simply a willingness to shut them up.
Truly becoming one who wills above all to act with the kingdom of God and to have his kind of goodness (Matthew 6:33) will not happen overnight. But upon a path of clear intention and decision, with appropriate spiritual disciplines and accompanying grace to illumine and correct us when we fail, it is not as far away as many would suppose. The duplicities, entanglements, and evil intents that infect our will can be clarified and eliminated as we keep our eyes on Jesus, who initiated and perfects our faith, and “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Sweet Will of God
Do we then lose ourselves? To succeed in identifying our will with God’s will is not, as is often mistakenly said, to have no will of our own. Far from it. To have no will is impossible. It would be to not even be a person. Rather, it is for the first time to have a will that is fully functional, not at war with itself, and capable of directing all of the parts of the self in harmony with one another under the direction of God. Now we do not hesitate to do what is right; and to do wrong we would have to work against ourselves.
In chapter 2 we said that a person with a well-kept heart is “a person who is prepared and capable of responding to the situations of life in ways that are ‘good and right’.” When through spiritual transformation we have in some measure come to know the well-kept heart in real life, we experience it as a gift of grace, no matter how hard we may have had to struggle in the process of growing into it. And it is a gift in which we find, precisely, ourselves, as Jesus taught: “He who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39).
For the first time we not only have a fully functioning will, but we also have a clear identity in the eternal kingdom of God and can day by day translate our time into an eternity embedded in our own life and in the lives of those near us. The will of God is not foreign to our will. It is sweetness, life, and strength to us. Our heart sings,
Sweet will of God,
Oh, hold me closer,
‘Til I am wholly lost in Thee.
 Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (pp. 150–157). NavPress.