What is the Heart of the Spiritual Life with God?: Jesus’ guidance about what truly defiles

Jesus takes us beyond outward observation into the very heart of our lives. In Matthew 15, a special envoy of Pharisees from Jerusalem arrives to interrogate Jesus. But it is Jesus who confronts them about their confusion over what defiles and what the heart of true spirituality with God is all about.

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10b-11)

Jesus wants to take His hearers, and us, deeper than mere outward observance. While there is so much more to Jesus’ ministry, there are at least three things we gather that Jesus intends to do through His teaching and ministry here:

  1. to bring us to the end of ourselves and our power where we know we need an intervention from God
  2. to transform us from the inside out through His saving intervention on the Cross 
  3. to grow us in the abundant life with God through obedience as we walk by faith under the influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit

The Pharisees missed the point about what defiles human life. For something to be defiled meant that it was not holy and could not be in God’s presence or that it was displeasing to God. The Pharisees had become so enamored with ritual purity that they thought ritual purity was primarily about what came into a person as the source of defilement. They knew it was not merely food that could defile someone. Skin diseases, bodily fluids, or contact with someone who was unclean also could be sources of defilement. But the principle behind the Pharisees’ approach to living with God was that the external was what defiled. As Jesus says, they are blind guides who will lead others astray into further blindness.

Jesus, however, brings the discussion about defilement to a deeper level. He says it is not what comes into us but what comes out of us that defiles. Our words are one aspect of that, but more deeply it is what comes from our hearts, or our inner life. Look at Jesus’ words again:

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)

We must turn to our hearts. Again and again, Jesus drives toward the human heart. In Matthew 12, He says:

The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. (Matthew 12:34b-35)

Jesus is a spiritual cardiologist of sorts, a spiritual heart doctor, and He is trying to get us back to that place with the living God. So how would Jesus diagnose our hearts? What soul-surgery would He recommend? How might we invite Him to do what’s necessary in the deep places of our lives?

A Prayer for Purification

“Is not my word like fire, says the Lord,
and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)

burn our hearts, O Lord,
with Your pure word.
You, who are consuming fire,
in whose radiant holiness none can stand,
come with refining heat
to purify our wayward hearts
and with Your pure word,
O Lord, burn our hearts.

break our hearts, O Lord,
with Your hammer-strong word.
You, who made all things,
who raise up and throw down,
come with pure fire
to shatter our hardened longings
and with Your hammer-strong word,
O Lord, break our hearts.

The Inside-Out of the Spiritual Life

“He [Jesus] went on: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them.  For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.'” (Mark 7:20-23)

Responding to the Pharisees’ obsession over human tradition, Jesus calls His disciples and other hearers to an engagement with the true issue of cleanness and defilement in human life. Jesus tells us it is not what goes into a person that defiles them but what comes out of a person that defiles them. Why? Because what comes out reveals what is brewing inside of us.

Our evil actions and words are a result of what is within. What is seen or heard on the outside offers a view into what is inside. The deep places of our souls—the interior life or the inner being—is where we cultivate either true holiness or desecration.

This should give us great pause for reflection. What do our words reveal about who we are? What do our actions reveal about who we are? What do others around us see through our words and actions that may offer insight about who we are that is clearer than how we see ourselves?

Jeremiah the prophet once said, “The heart is deceitful about all things. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). May God clean and refine us from the inside out.

Lord, please search through my heart and purify me of all I have allowed to linger inside of me that contributes to my sin and defilement. Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy. Heal me, O Lord, please heal me. In all things give me an undivided heart that I might revere You and Your name.

Living Now in the Freedom and Victory of Christ

The Apostle John tells us that at His first appearing, Christ won a tremendous victory for God. This present victory has so many different aspects, but the two most important are these:

  • “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins” (1 John 3:5)
  • “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3:8b)

Jesus is both the atoning sacrifice for our sins and the victorious conqueror over the powers of evil. Because of this great work in Christ, and our identity as God’s children, as disciples of Christ we can live now in freedom from sin and victory over the devil and his works.

John specifically calls the believers to not be led astray in this. If God is our Father, if we are born of God and children of God, then our lives—our everyday actions and words—should reflect this new identity. If we have been set free from sin, then we should not return to enslave ourselves to it.

If Jesus has the victory over the devil, then we should not put ourselves into his service again. Our way of life—our lifestyle – should reflect who we are. And so, we should not look like the devil:

  • “No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (3:6)
  • Such a person “does what is sinful” (3:8), “does not do what is right” (3:10), and “does not love their brother or sister” (3:10)

John says that’s not the way that children of God speak, act, or carry themselves. Instead, children of God look like God is their Father. Such a person:

  • “Does what is righteous, just as [God] is righteous” (3:7)
  • “Cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (3:9)

As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Our spiritual lives are anchored in the love of God and our identity as children of God. This identity is at the core of our being. It is not intended to be an informational reality but a transformational reality. And our lives, based in that new reality, should reflect the character of God.

How do we do that? Well, there are several examples found in the Scripture, but one of the easiest to grasp is found in Ephesians 4, where Paul is instructing the believers on how to live their lives for and with God. Paul writes:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

We must choose to take off the old self—the self controlled by sin and deceitful desires—the self that looks more like the devil. We must daily, even moment by moment, choose to take that way of living off.

We must have the attitude of our minds renewed. Actually the Greek conveys the sense of a renewing of the mind by the Spirit. We must let the truth of God become an inwardly transforming truth by the Holy Spirit’s power. We must know who we are in a deep way and be controlled by the Holy Spirit,  not by whatever changing winds tries to influence our spirit.

We must then put on the new self—the self that arises from knowing who we are and is sustained by the indwelling presence of God—and live by God’s power in God’s righteousness and holiness.

All in all, this journey of spiritual formation is a daily way of living that is centered in God’s truth and empowered by God’s presence as we moment-by-moment decide against sin and decide for God. The transformational knowledge that we are children of God practically changes how we live each day—we grow to look more like God our Father.

Make every effort and see to it!

marathon

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Hebrews 12:14-16)

In this passage the writer of Hebrews admonishes God’s people to live together centered on life in God instead of turning aside.  Two decisive verbs capture our attention in this section.

The first of those is “make every effort.” The believers are to make every effort to live in peace together and also to be holy or to be sanctified. As we discussed last week, there is a call to Christian unity in the peace of the Lord that requires effort and hard work. We have to help one another and stand together in the long endurance race of faith. It is not easy because we will grow weary and sometimes are wounded, but that is why we are called to make every effort. This is not contrary to the grace of God but our strength for the effort comes as an overflow of God’s grace.

This unity is fueled and sustained by holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. Holiness is essential to unity and we cannot sacrifice holiness on the path to unity. Otherwise, we are not talking about Christian unity but something else. Holiness means that we are increasingly reflecting the presence and character of God in our lives. To become holy means that we are turning away from sin and being increasingly re-formed to look more and more like Jesus. This is a work of God in us by the power of the Holy Spirit that will continue until the day that we are with the Lord face to face.

Holiness requires us to “make every effort”; not that we make ourselves holy, but we make the effort of putting ourselves steadily into the place where God can have His way in us. It is firstly a decision of the will, and secondly action within our lives. This is not opposed to God’s grace, but it is both our response to God’s grace and preparatory to God’s grace having its way in us.

The second of the decisive verbs in this section is “see to it.” “See to what?”, we might ask.

First, see to it that no one in the community falls short of God’s grace. Help one another. Walk together. Encourage one another. Correct one another. This is what it means to be the body of Christ. We are not in this for our own growth alone, but for serving one another as the body of Christ. This is why Paul the Apostle writes to the Philippians:

“if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:1-4)

Just as the Apostle Paul finds joy as he sees the believers live in such tangible unity and care for one another, so, too, the writer of Hebrews calls them to see to it that God’s grace makes its way into each and every one of their lives together.

Secondly, they are to see to it that no one gets off course through sexual immorality or godlessness. Esau is given as an example of someone who just loses their way through godless living, eventually losing the birthright and blessing of God – something that he could not get back.

Brothers and sisters, if we see someone losing their way in sin, we need to gently, but decisively, address it. The writer calls out sexual sin because it was pervasive in the culture of the day but also because it is one of the clearest and most basic manifestations of a life that is at odds with God’s way. This does not mean that sexual sin is weighted as worse in the grand sense, but it is a sign that the same sort of godlessness decried in Esau is happening in us. We should not approach one another with condescending judgmentalism but with humility and grace. The goal of addressing such sin is not condemnation but encouragement and the strengthening of God’s grace in our lives matched by growth in holiness throughout the community.

At its heart these verses call us not to walk away from the essential faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 15 say see “that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many,” which is a reference not to bitterness but to idolatry – a turning away from God – that gripped God’s people during the Exodus. The warning in these verses calls us to stay on course with God and not to lose our way through sin. Make every effort…see to it!

[This is excerpted from my message, “Make Every Effort,” on Hebrews 12:14-29.]