Religion of the Heart, By Femi Aribisala
Imagine a scenario where God appears to you and declares that your thoughts would be broadcast on Radio Nigeria for everyone to listen to for just two days. How would you react? Would you accept the challenge or would you beg for mercy? What if he were to tell you the two days would be randomly selected over the next two months, without prior notice of exactly when. Would you still be considered a Christian by any after the exercise?
Whether we would accept this hypothetical challenge or not, it is important to note that God listens continually to every heart. He is “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12-13). He says: “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:10). Jesus promises in addition: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8).
Accordingly, Solomon counsels: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” (Proverbs 4:23). The scriptures tell us a man is not what he says or who he says he is. He is not even what he does. A man is what he thinks: “As he thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7). Peter says the “hidden person” is the “person of the heart.” (1 Peter 3:4). Jesus clarifies this further: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.” (Matthew 12:35).
In effect, the heart is where true religion lies. It is where God’s righteousness lies: “It is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God.” (Romans 10:10). The heart is also where sin lies. Jesus says: “Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.” (Matthew 15:18-20).
For this reason, Jesus was far more concerned about the religion of the chief priests and other Jewish religious leaders than he was even about the faith of sinners. He knew the former, in spite of all their pomp and circumstance, did not have the love of God in their heart of hearts. (John 5:42). He says of them: “These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:8-9).
They were more concerned with pleasing men than pleasing God: “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’” (Matthew 23:5-7).
These tendencies remain with us today, especially with regard to the descendants of those who killed Jesus and now call themselves pastors and bishops and popes. They do exactly what Jesus counsels against: wearing ostentatious robes and cassocks; doing eye-service; pretending to be holy when they are nothing of the sort. They walk in the evil ways of their ancestors who: “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. (John 12:43). Therefore, Jesus says to them: “Tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31).
Furthermore, he warns us about them: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1). Pharisaic religion is based on externalities. A Pharisee might not actually commit physical adultery, but he would commit the heart adultery of looking at a woman lustfully. He might not commit actual murder, but he would murder many in his mind. He might even fight no one, but be would hate many in his heart.
Therefore Jesus warns: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20).
True religion is God-ward and not man-ward. But in the churches of today, faith and ostentation go hand in glove. The rich are extolled and seated in places of honour. “Now we call the arrogant blessed.” (Malachi 3:15). Those who give fat offerings and tithes are now deemed to be the true Christians. However, the scriptures insist that God is not worshiped with men’s hands, as though he needs anything. (Acts 17:25).
Righteousness of God
As a matter of fact, Jesus warns: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1). You can give when men see you, but you should not give in order that men may see you. He says furthermore: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4).
Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing means don’t notice or pay too much attention to your good works. God will remember your good works: but you should forget them.
In short, true religion is not for public approbation but for God’s approval. True religion is heart religion. Our heart condition determines our speech and actions. Indeed, according to the scriptures, our heart speak more eloquently than our mouth, all to the hearing of God. Isaiah says we are often “conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood. (Isaiah 59:13). Jesus concurs, identifying the heart as the progenitor of our actions. He says: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34).
However, the problem with the heart of man is that it is often anathema to the things of God while being agreeable to the things of men. Jeremiah says: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Only God knows.
Unfortunately, we can change our minds but we cannot change our hearts. For this reason, the one thing that God requires of us is not our money, as is currently being misrepresented in the churches: it is our heart. He says: “My son, give me your heart.” (Proverbs 23:26). What does God want to do with our evil heart? He wants to discard it in its entirety. He wants to throw it away.
This is the promise of God: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).