'Many are the Motives': Hope for the Despairing Heart?
The human heart is deep water. But perhaps sometimes Christians feel their hearts are more far more polluted than they really are – or at least than they once were.
Let me explain. Of course to lay claim to know the full extent of one’s own motives in any particular situation or decision seems the first step on the way to a pretty spectacular fall. To act like my motives are anything like clear-cut is to kid myself. There’s a powerful prayer in the Church of England’s liturgy, known as the Collect for Purity, which teaches us to recognise that complacency about our motives is deception. Only God is the One “unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid“. After all the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9). Unbelief is only ever a hair’s breadth away (Heb 3:12). To trust in your heart is to be a fool (Prov 28:26). Our hearts are, as Calvin riffed, idol factories (Mark 7:21). (For a useful catechism of the Bible’s view of the heart, see this.)
In other words, we may think we know our hearts, but we’re probably just scratching the surface. God, on the other hand, is the one who sees through and into everything.
However, sometimes we only push this truth in a particular direction. Often the murky depths of our hearts are used as reason for us to think twice about whether we’re really as selfless and loving in a particular act as we might have liked to think. But what if, as Christians, our assumptions about ourselves are sometimes too bleak?
Richard Baxter, a minister from the seventeenth century, made this important pastoral observation: “An abundance are cast down by ignorance of themselves, not knowing the sincerity [of faith] which God hath given them.”
Baxter is drawing our attention to the fact that for some people and in some situations (and I stress that, because it’d be easy to use this as license for naive pride), our assumptions about our hearts will be more pessimistic than they should be.
Not because we’re not really that bad – we most definitely are. But because actually God’s really at work.
In particular, the despairing Christian needs to resist assuming that they have perfectly perceived their own motives, when they consider themselves to be devoid of any goodness. After all, the Spirit of God is now at work in them, having regenerated their heart. We can be confident God is at work changing us, and will bring this work to completion on the day Jesus returns (Phil 1:6). And that means that we shouldn’t dismiss ourselves or our actions as being totally absent of any God-granted goodness or love.
I came across these helpful words from John Piper, encouraging discouraged Christians who feel hypocritical in praising God because they don’t feel like praising God.
“Moreover we should probably ask the despairing saint, “Do you know your heart so well that you are sure the words of thanks have no trace of gratitude in them?”
I, for one, distrust my own assessment of my motives. I doubt that I know my good ones well enough to see all the traces of contamination. And I doubt that I know my bad ones well enough to see the traces of grace.
Therefore it is not folly for a Christian to assume that there is a residue of gratitude in his heart when he speaks and sings of God’s goodness even though he feels little or nothing.”
John Piper, When the Darkness Will Not Lift, p. 51-52.
What do you think?