See if you can fill in the blank in the following statements–statements made by people whom I’ve talked to over the past 10-15 years:
“I never thought I could be such a jerk until I got ______.”
“I feel like getting ______ has made me into a terrible person.”
“It’s like he’s changed–he never acted like this way before we got ______.”
It’s the same word for all three blanks: “married.”
Not only have I heard those statements from others on numerous occasions (as a friend and pastor), I’ve said them (or something close to them) myself.
These statements give the impression that marriage (or any long-term relationship) makes people worse. Indeed, it’s this kind of thinking that gives marriage and even relationships in general such a bad name.
About four years ago I was enjoying a beverage with a 30-something who was dating a neighbor of ours. They had been dating for about 4-5 years. He said, “You can’t really expect relationships to last. It’s like we’ve all been cursed or something: we try our best, and things are great for a while, but inevitably people start treating each other worse and worse, and things spiral down from there. I’d give my own relationship another 1-2 years, 3 max. I don’t want it to end; I’m just being realistic.”
It does make one wonder: why do people seem to get worse the longer they’re in a relationship?
Or do they? Just where does all the ugly stuff at the end of a relationship come from anyway?
Jesus has something simple yet profound to say about this.
“The good person brings good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and the evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart.” (Luke 6.45)
In short, our words, attitudes, and actions (both good and bad) come from something Jesus calls the heart. That is, my visible (external) behavior is (primarily) dictated by my invisible (internal) self, not by my circumstances–like relationships. Like marriage.
Circumstances, significant others, spouses, siblings–these are not, says Jesus, the source of either our saintly or sinful actions. Rather, our hearts are the source; and our circumstances are actually the stage on which our (invisible) hearts come to be seen by everyone.
That is, significant others merely reveal what is already there in our hearts. And so often we ourselves are not aware of what’s in our own hearts.
In other words, according to Jesus, circumstances don’t make us worse; rather, they bring out our worst. (And so often our worst is far worse than we had ever imagined. That’s why only long-term–i.e., promise-based–relationships lead to genuine self-discovery. Only by committing ourselves can we comprehend ourselves. Paradoxically, it’s only by letting go of myself that I can truly know myself. But let’s face it: the prospect of truly knowing ourselves is pretty scary.)
But Jesus doesn’t say that circumstances bring out only what is evil in our hearts. They can also bring out what is “good” in our hearts.
In fact, all of this is actually really encouraging, even liberating: we are not powerless in the midst of difficult circumstances. My environment need not overwhelm and own me.
But what determines what will come out of our hearts? Consider Jesus’ words again:
“The good person brings good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and the evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart.”
Quite simply, all the things we bring out of our hearts–i.e., our words, attitudes, and actions–these are the result of what we have already put into our hearts.
And that raises the question: what am I storing up in my heart? What am I putting there?
Such a question recalls King Solomon’s exhortation in Proverbs, which we’ve been discussing in our last two posts:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4.23)
The heart, as we’ve discussed, is often the Bible’s way of speaking of our deepest affections and allegiances–what (or whom) we desire, fear, trust in the most.
Not only that (but closely related to it), the heart is the Bible’s way speaking of how we humans interact with the world by relentlessly evaluating, prioritizing, and focusing in on what we regard as most important and, therefore, most real to us.
So Solomon is saying: “Think carefully about what/whom you will fear, desire, trust, etc., the most. Be careful what you prioritize and focus in on and make the most real for you.”
We then asked the crucial “how” question: How are we to guard our hearts? Wise King Solomon gave us step 1 (discussed last time):
1. Seek God’s help with all your heart.
Proverbs 2.3-5 (along with James 1.5-6) urges us to do the following: with passionate faith regardless of our past faults, cry out to God for a wisdom that will enable your heart to desire, fear, and trust Him the most.
Now if Solomon gives us a first step, Jesus, the One greater than Solomon, gives us a second, as we’ve already suggested. And here it is:
2. Store up God’s actions and attributes in your heart.
Jesus calls his followers to store up “good” in their hearts, so that later they can bring from them “good things”–even in very difficult circumstances.
Now for us the word “good” is altogether boring. It often communicates what is average (good, better, best). But here Jesus uses the word “good” to speak of what has genuine and lasting worth and value.
But what has genuine and lasting value? Here Jesus’ words elsewhere in Luke are crucial. Speaking to the religious elite of his day, Jesus says, “What is highly valued among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16.15).
This is a shocking, not to mention tragic statement.
Jesus is saying that left to myself I pursue and prize what is worthless, even detestable, to God.
In a previous post, I mentioned how as a kid, I pursued and prized Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes–or, more accurately, the (very conditional and fragile) approval of other boys that these shoes promised to win. These boys’ very selfish lifestyles should have made their opinion of little or no value to me, especially in light of how they treated girls at our school. What was highly valued among them–popularity and the poor treatment of young women–was detestable in the sight of God. And yet, sadly, I wanted their approval.
Not surprisingly, for Jesus, what is of genuine and lasting worth is God himself, so much so that Jesus can tell a young man with an extraordinary net worth, “No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18.19).
So when we think of storing up what is good in our hearts, Jesus gives us twofold counsel: (i) our hearts naturally prize and pursue what is of little/no worth; (ii) God himself is of supreme worth.
But if God is supremely good, the world that he created is also “very good.” We are to store up both in our hearts. We’ll spend the rest of this post talking about how to store up God’s supreme goodness in our hearts. Next time we’ll talk about the goodness of his creation.
Let me give two examples, both concerning Jesus himself, of how I “store up”–i.e., regularly meditate upon–God’s goodness. The first is the supreme goodness of Jesus’ welcome. The second is the supreme goodness of Jesus’ wisdom.
(i) Jesus’ welcome: I regularly meditate on these words of Jesus: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Quite simply (if incredibly) Jesus delighted to befriend the sinner, the screw-up, the angry person and the addict. Such persons weren’t an obstacle, a chore, or a project. However unworthy they were, Jesus believed they were worth being with. And so he welcomed them. Jesus did not hesitate to publicly identify with such persons, so much so that he himself became known as a “glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7.34).
Jesus’ welcome is epitomized in his interaction with a man who was himself the epitome of treachery and greed: Zacchaeus. When this chief tax-collector, curious to see Jesus, climbs up a tree, Jesus greets him as if they had been longtime friends (or frat brothers) and then assumes such an intimate friendship with him that he invites himself to crash for the night at Zacchaeus’ place (most of us only mooch off only our closest friends, right?).
Jesus’ welcome practically cornered Zacchaeus. His only options were to either expose Jesus (“You have no idea who I am”) or to embrace him. The choice was obvious.
Jesus’ welcome incarnates the welcome of Israel’s God: “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15.7).
I “store up” Jesus’ welcome by regularly saying to myself three words: “not the righteous.” I say it to my wife and kids. In my car I regularly play hymns and songs that drive this home–e.g., the classic hymn “Come, Ye Sinners” that itself has the phrase “not the righteous.”
But I also compare and contrast Jesus’ welcome with the “welcome” of the world. No one is remotely as welcoming as Jesus. Therefore, he alone is worthy of all my heart: to him alone should I offer my supreme affection and allegiance.
By storing Jesus’ welcome up in my heart, what will I bring out of my heart, even in difficult circumstances–e.g., when someone wounds or withdraws from me? Jesus’ welcome. If he has welcomed me, how can I not welcome others?
Now for a second example.
(ii) Jesus’ wisdom: Unlike any other teacher of his day–indeed, unlike any other teacher (or wise man or prophet) in Israel’s history, Jesus said not “Thus says the LORD” or even “Rabbi so-and-so says” but, incredibly, “Truly I say to you…”
The crowds responded to Jesus’ teaching in the same way they responded to both his miracles of healing and his exorcisms: they were astonished. Why? Because he spoke as one who had authority (Luke 4.32; see Matthew 7.29).
That is, Jesus had unparalleled expertise: he spoke as one who simply knew how the world worked–almost as if he had helped to create it. Such authority, or expertise–a deep familiarity with how the world works–is called wisdom.
We love experts, because we can trust them. We don’t need to figure it out on our own; we don’t need to connect all the dots for ourselves. We can simply take them at their word: we can trust their interpretation; we can simply follow their advice. No questions asked. No explanation needed.
Jesus’ wisdom woos and warns me, ever enticing and admonishing me. It liberates by simplifying: in a world of a million crushing options, Jesus says, “Follow me.”
I “store up” Jesus’ wisdom by regularly saying to myself (and to my family), “He’s knows best (not me!).” I meditate on Jesus’ words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
That’s insane. Who talks like that?
In the car at the top of my lungs I sing Chris McClarney’s awesome version of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” or Chris Tomlin’s “Lay Me Down”, which is the appropriate response to Him who is Wisdom Incarnate.
But I store up the unparalleled goodness of Jesus’ wisdom by comparing and contrasting it with the world’s “wisdom,” which can be summarized in a single word: ever-changing.
Millions refuse to follow Jesus, but how many are willing to stand up and say, “Jesus got it wrong. What did he know?” To the authorities of this world, I ask, “What do you know that Jesus didn’t? What did he miss?”
People will disagree with Moses, David, or Paul. They almost always want Jesus on their side. Why is that? Because He is wisdom, and deep down they–indeed, we all–know it.
These are just two examples. But when we “store up” these things in our hearts, these things become more real to us than anything else.
And when they become what is most real to us on the inside (i.e., in our hearts), they are what will “spill out” on the outside (i.e., in our circumstances). When my circumstances are confusing (as relationships inevitably are!), I will simply…follow him.
So how can we guard our hearts? First, by seeking God’s help with all our hearts. Second by storing up God’s actions and attributes in our hearts.
Next time we’ll consider: What about the bountiful goodness of God’s world? What are we to do with that?