The Heart of the Problem
by Tom Ascol
The first and most important step in seeking a cure is an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Symptoms must be carefully interpreted so that underlying causes are not overlooked. Several years ago our nine-year-old daugter developed a severe pain in her elbow after a nasty fall. After probing that area of her arm and reviewing x-rays, the physician who examined her concluded that she had simply suffered a bad sprain. A week later, with the pain still lingering, a second doctor examined her. He reviewed her case for several minutes and then began probing Sarah’s wrist where he quickly discovered a previously undetected sore spot. Another x-ray revealed that he had, literally, put his finger on the real source of her problem. The painful elbow was a symptom. A fractured growth plate in the wrist was the cause. Once the proper diagnosis was made, the proper treatment could be administered and further complications were avoided.
If you do not understand the problem, you will not seek the right cure. That is true not only medically but also spiritually.
In Matthew 15 Jesus teaches a vital lesson in spiritual diagnosis. What He says is fundamental to living the Christian life. He exposes the superficiality of Pharisaical religion by putting His finger on the source of all our sinful behaviors.
It is not what goes into a person that defiles him. It is what comes out of him — the corrupted streams that flow from a corrupted heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (vv. 19–20).
As has been well said, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Not the blood pumping vessel that is the concern of your cardiologist, but the seat of your personality that is the concern of the Gospel.
Jesus teaches us that there is something far more fundamental to our sinfulness than the actual sins we commit. Our sins do not make us sinful. Rather, we commit sins because, at the very center of our lives, we are sinful. Sin has invaded the inner recesses of our personalities.
This is essential information for spiritual health because it keeps us from misdiagnosing our real problem. So often we are quick to blame others for our failures and shortcomings. We even mask how we do this by employing the “if-only” rationale to excuse our sin. “If only I had been raised differently…I had a better job…you hadn’t provoked me…my husband would listen to me…my church were better….” The list is endless and usually contains genuinely flawed people and circumstances that are blameworthy.
But no circumstance, other person, or activity can ever justify my sin. I sin, Jesus said, because my heart is sinful. That is a shattering reality. But we must humbly face it if we want to be spiritually healed.
Failure to accept our Lord’s teaching at this point inevitably leads us to locate sin outside of ourselves. This makes it very easy to create an extra-biblical list of activities and objects that we designate “sinful” and rail against in the name of holiness. Such lists are limited only by the imaginations of their creators and have, in some conservative Christian circles, included everything from sports and movies to wine and masculine facial hair.
But Jesus teaches us that sin does not originate “out there.” Its haven is the human heart. Martin Luther came to see this and it caused him to say, “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals.”
If this is our condition, then the remedy must be radical. Making a new list — or adding to an old one — will not help. Neither will a simple change in external circumstances. Sometimes relocation seems like the answer to dealing with sin in our lives, but while that may eliminate some of the symptoms, it cannot address the issues of the heart. My problem is this: wherever I go,
there I am!
The only way to make the stream pure is to purify the fountain. And the only way to deal with our sin is by having our hearts engaged.
This is precisely what the Gospel does. God does not call us merely to stop sinning. He calls us to be transformed from within. And He provides such transformation through the power of the Gospel.
This is the new birth of which Jesus spoke in John 3. The Lord does not treat only our symptoms. He addresses the root cause of all our problems. By the power of His Spirit and His Word, He changes us so that we become “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Sin is not yet purged from the Christian’s heart, though one day it will be. But its power is broken so that, by faith in Christ, we can pursue real holiness from the inside out.