Day 16: The Mystery of the Human Heart


Illustration: Juliana Crownover

Let man now judge his own worth, let him love himself, for there is within him a nature capable of good; but that is no reason for him to love the vileness within himself. Let him despise himself because this capacity remains unfilled; but that is no reason for him to despise this natural capacity. Let him both hate and love himself; he has within him the capacity for knowing truth and being happy, but he possesses no truth which is either abiding or satisfactory. I should therefore like to arouse in man the desire to find truth, to be ready, free from passion, to follow it wherever he may find it, realizing how far his knowledge is clouded by passions.

Blaise Pascal (d. 1662), Pensées[i]


Opening Prayer

O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: give us grace somberly to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord. As there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, help us that we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[ii]

Old Testament Lesson

This is Jeremiah’s affirmation of faith in response to God’s call for repentance.[iii] Although seemingly straight forward, this passage presents numerous interpretive difficulties. For example, the heart was not the seat of the emotions to the Hebrews, but was the immaterial place where intellect, emotion and will all came together. This “heart” is the “real you” and the real you is a deep mystery, sometimes giving and loving, sometimes desperately wicked. This has led some translators and interpreters to conclude that the heart is completely wicked, leading to the idea of “total depravity.” But this passage is probably talking more about the mystery of sin than the extent of it. Although most commercial translations default to the “desperately wicked” view of our natures, this is too narrow, as it misses the other, more positive side, which is also in view for those who trust in God. Directly echoing Psalm One, Jeremiah lays out two ways to live: a way that leads to a shriveled life and a way that leads to a flourishing one. The good life, to Jeremiah, is found in a life that trusts in God.

Jeremiah 17.5-10

5Thus says the Lord, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength and lets his heart depart from the LORD. 6He will be like a shrub in the wilderness and won’t discern good things even when they come. He’ll dwell in a parched desert land, like the uninhabited salt planes.

7Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose confidence is in the LORD. 8He will be like a tree transplanted along water, whose roots shoot out to a stream. He won’t fear when the heat comes. His leaves will always be flourishing. He won’t get anxious in years of drought and won’t cease bearing fruit.

9The heart is a deep mystery and inscrutable; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart and examine the mind to repay man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

New Testament Lesson

Last Friday, we examined the story of Jesus’ healing the sick man at the Pool of Bethsaida. Today’s text comes in the aftermath of that healing. The religious leaders became very upset that Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath (on which no work was to be done). When Jesus claimed a special relationship with the Father (John 5.18), these were astounding claims. How could Jesus back them up? Following Jewish Law, which required multiple witnesses for a capital conviction, Jesus offered the testimony of John the Baptizer, His own miracles, the Father’s appearance on Mt. Sinai in the OT and even Moses himself through the Scriptures. God is in their midst, but the leaders will not accept Him. Jesus claims that Moses, whom the Rabbis believed would be their advocate on Judgment Day, would actually become their accuser because of their rejection of Jesus.[iv] This points to the mystery of human nature which rejects what it does not want to believe, no matter what the evidence says.

John 5.30-47

30I am not able to do anything on my own accord, but whatever I hear, I discern and my discernment is right, since I don’t seek my own will but the will of the Father who sent me. 31If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. 32Another (the Father) testifies about me and I know that the testimony is true which he testifies about me. 33You sent for John the Baptizer and he testified to the truth; 34Now I don’t accept the testimony of man, but I’m saying these things so you might be saved. 35John was a burning and shining light and you wanted to rejoice for a time in his light.

36Now I have a greater testimony than John. For the works which the Father has given to me to complete – the very works I am doing — testify about me that the Father has sent me. 37And the Father who sent me has borne witness about me. You have never heard his voice nor have you seen his form. 38And you don’t have his word abiding in you since you don’t believe the one he sent. 39Search the Scriptures since you think that by them you have eternal life. They testify about me! 40But you aren’t willing to come to me that you might have life.

41I don’t accept praise from men, but I know you – you don’t have the love of God in you. 43I have come in the name of my Father and you don’t accept me. 44If another comes in the name of someone else, you will accept that one. How can you believe, having accepted praise from another, and don’t seek the praise that only comes from God?

45Don’t think that I will accuse you to the Father. He who accuses you is Moses on whom you have set your hope. 46For if you believed Moses, you would believe me. For Moses wrote about me. 47And if you don’t believe those writings, how will you believe my words?

Questions for Reflection

  1. What would it look like for you to trust in God completely? What would you have to stop doing? How would you have to respond differently in various situations?
  2. Do you believe that being good (namely, always choosing virtue over vice) will make you happy? Why do you freely choose to sin if it doesn’t make you happy over the long term?
  3. What aspects of Jesus’ testimony do you reject? We’ve seen thus far that Jesus preaches judgment right alongside love. Does this offend you?
  4. If you were standing before the judgment seat today and God asked you, “Why should I let you into my kingdom?” What would you say?

Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)

Something that’s hard to figure out is that if sin has infected us and our relationships, which it surely has, what is the extent of the damage? The Reformers tended to believe that the damage was catastrophic, total and complete. The effects of sin were so pervasive that, for all intents and purposes, there was no free will anymore.

To the Reformers, we cannot trust ourselves or anyone else for that matter because we are all wicked. Yet, if we are constitutionally unable to choose the good, it is difficult to see how God is just in punishing us.

The usual response is as follows: “Of course we can’t help it. We’re all sinners. We all need God to give us grace to do what we can’t do for ourselves.” This is a very good, very Christian, very Augustinian, response. But, then, how do we explain unbelievers who do good, beautiful and selfless acts? How do we explain how such people give their lives for others?

Although Thomas Cranmer mostly agreed with Calvin in his diagnosis, this pervasively pessimistic view of human nature did not wear well within our tradition. In fact, some (but by no means all) argue that it only lasted eight years out of the last five hundred.[v] Anglicanism, which tends to be uncomfortable with extreme views, has had some discomfort with this extreme pessimism when it comes to human nature.

Although there is great diversity of opinion on this subject, our tradition has tended to say that we are a mixture of good and evil. We know that we ought to choose the good all the time because it will make us happy (as thinkers going back to Plato have taught), yet we don’t. We think a little more money, a little more power, a little more prestige, another degree, one more promotion or a few more material things will make us happy. Then we’re shocked and disillusioned when we discover over and over again that they don’t (and can’t).

The reason we cannot be completely bad is because we are created in the image of a good God.[vi] But the reason we’re bad is because we ignore, reject or disassociate ourselves from God. This is our fault, not God’s. Thus God is just in his judgment of us.

It doesn’t take too long to figure out that this strange mixture of good and evil that we have within our natures affects the Church and our world in a dramatic way. Why is it that in an age of plenty we are at war much of the time? Why is it that the Church at large doesn’t find our divisions a scandal? How is it that we accept poverty, homelessness, loneliness and deprivation in our communities? It’s simple: we’re a mixture of good and evil, of sin and loveliness, of beauty and ugliness.

G.K. Chesterton said it well:

Let us by all means be proud of the virtues that we have not got; but let us not be too arrogant about the virtues that we cannot help having. It may be that a man living on a desert island has a right to congratulate himself upon the fact that he meditates at his ease. But he must not congratulate himself on the fact that he is on a desert island and at the same time congratulate himself on the self-restraint he shows in not going to a ball every night.[vii]

Realizing the problem that besets us and the Church is one of the keys to making progress in the spiritual life. We are not totally bad, but we are not totally good either. Becoming a saint means learning how to cooperate every day with God’s gracious initiative that constantly surrounds us.

Potential Applications

  • Meditate

Find a peaceful place, focus on your breathing, and quiet your spirit. Meditate on what it would look like to choose the good in various difficult circumstances in which you find yourself.

  • Reconciliation

In what relationships are you estranged today? Go, seek forgiveness. What could you do to repair the torn relationships in your life?

  • Music

Many times music can be a very powerful and moving pathway to God. Find some music appropriate for Lent that offers great beauty. Listen to it and give thanks to God that he provides beauty for us in the midst of a fallen world.


[i] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Classics, 1995), 119, p. 30.

[ii] The Book of Common Prayer, 818.

[iii] William Holladay, Jeremiah, vol. 1, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 491.

[iv] Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 229.

[v] Martin Thornton, English Spirituality (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 54.

[vi] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 62.

[vii] G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered: Chesterton Top Collection (J. Lane, 1905), 53.

Categories: Between SundaysTags: