As promised in my last thought, this thought will deal with some of the keys to true heart change (and thus life change).
It comes to you from the same book as last week, Paul David Tripp's -- "Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands -- People In Need of Change Helping People In Need of Change."
If you have ever found yourself struggling with a sin that never seems to go away, or one where you seem to gain victory over it for a while, only to have it resurface as strong as ever when you go through stressful situations or encounter similar temptations, it is likely because you are simply seeking to control your environment, or outward behaviors, without casting down the internal heart-idols that feed those behaviors. Tripp explains how this works. Enjoy.
The Heart of the Matter
"Though the Bible has much to say about the heart, few Christian books on marriage and family, communication, conflict resolution, or even discipleship focus on it. These practical books seldom display an understanding of the centrality of the heart and how it operates... An interesting Old Testament passage can help us do this. "Some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat down in front of me. Then the word of the LORD came to me: 'Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, 'This is what the sovereign LORD says: When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.' " (Ezek. 14:1-5).
These elders of Israel have come to the prophet Ezekiel with questions they want to ask God. It would seem they are doing the right thing. But God recognizes that there is something wrong with them... They have idols in their hearts, a more personal and fundamental form of idolatry than ritual religious or cultural idolatry. An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God. As worshiping beings, human beings always worship someone or something. This is not a situation where some people worship and some people don't. If God isn't ruling my heart, someone or something else will. It is the way we were made...
Sin is fundamentally idolatrous. I do wrong things because my heart desires something more than the Lord. Sin produces a propensity toward idolatry in all of us. We all migrate away from worship and service of the Creator toward worship and service of created things (Rom. 1:21-25). This is the great spiritual war beneath every battle of behavior -- the war for control of the heart... The deepest issues of life are issues of worship. Worship is more fundamental to our essential nature than the pain, pressures, or pleasures of our experiences. What we worship determines our responses to all our experiences. Sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshiping and serving the wrong thing. Sin in some way always involves idolatry.
The Ezekiel passage gives God's response to the elders. Because these men have idols in their hearts, God says he is going to answer them "in keeping with their great idolatry." What does this mean? God is saying, "Because you have idols in your hearts, the only thing I want to talk about is your idolatry." Why?... Why would God refuse to talk to them about anything but their idols? A crucial phrase explains God's response and reveals much about how the heart functions: "These men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces" (Ezek. 14:3). Imagine that someone places his hand up to his face so that he is looking through his fingers. What will happen to his vision? It will be seriously obstructed, and the only way to clear it is to remove his hand. In a similar way, an idol in the heart creates a stumbling block before the face. Until the idol is removed, it will distort and obscure everything else in that person's life. This is the principle of inescapable influence: Whatever rules the heart will exercise inescapable influence over the person's life and behavior.
I once counseled a successful executive from New York City. He was the most controlling man I ever met. He had been married for thirty years and handled all the financial, parenting, and decorating decisions of the family. He was so obsessed with control that he would rearrange his wife's clothes closet according to his prescribed plan (blouses, skirts, pants, and dresses, in graduated shades of color)! Now imagine that I did not know all this as I spoke to his wife. His controlling tendencies would not be in my mind as I listened to her complain that she and her husband never talk and that many conflicts are left unresolved. What would happen if I rolled up my counselor's sleeves and gave her husband good biblical instruction on communication and conflict resolution? Would this lead to changes in his marriage? The answer is no, because he would use his new understanding and skills to get what his heart worshiped. Because my counsel would not have addressed this man's idols of the heart, it would only produce a more successful controller. As long as the desire for dominance ruled his heart, he would use whatever principle and skills he learned to establish even greater control over his family.
If we fail to examine the heart and the areas where it needs to change, our ministry efforts will only result in people who are more committed and successful idolaters. This is why God will only answer the elders of Israel in keeping with their heart idolatry. If they do not change there, whatever God tells them will only be used to serve the idols that rule their hearts...
Idols are god-replacements... They command my daily devotion, shape my daily routine, and guide the way I interact with life, though they have no power whatsoever to deliver... God's Word alone insists that we are always serving God or some aspect of the creation, and whatever rules our hearts, will exercise inescapable influence over our lives and behavior... This is why the principle of the Ezekiel passage is so important, and why the focus of God's transforming grace is heart change. Our spiritual battle is a war for the heart. When that is won people will behave in ways that please their Creator. God will never be satisfied with the crumbs of externalism."
Trying to change our external behaviors without repenting of, or dethroning the idols that feed our desire to do sinful things, is a venture in futility. It's like trying to cool down a boiling pot of water by fanning it, while refusing to douse the fire that heats it from below! Quench the fire -- get rid of the fire -- and the pot will cool by itself. Unfortunately, though, many Christians (ignorant of their idols) don't even see the fire that making all their efforts at external control useless. They don't know what their idols are.
So, if you do have a sin that you never seem to be able to conquer, it's likely because you have never dislodged the idol (or idols) that feed it. In fact, its the sins we struggle with the most that indicate the presence of a firmly entrenched heart-idolatry (ie: a respect idolatry, performance idolatry, perfection idolatry, control idolatry, wealth idolatry, beauty idolatry, popularity idolatry, tranquility idolatry, prestige idolatry, family idolatry, competition or sports idolatry, sensuality idolatry and so forth)!
And what's the cure? Pray, ask God to help you identify your idol(s), repent for overvaluing them or placing them on a plain of value higher than God, and then turn away from them. Sweep them off the altar of your heart and repent for ever having let them gain such an elevated place there. Only then will you see true heart change. And remember, if you inquire of the Lord, while harboring idols in your heart, the only thing He will speak to you about is those idols -- for until they are removed (like that hand from in front of your face) you won't be able to see clearly, or respond rightly, even if He does speak to you and grant you knowledge of other things.
That we might experience true deliverance and heart change, Pastor Jeff