A few years ago I attended a conference on Biblical Counseling, and what I heard that day has served to shape my approach to helping people toward genuine heart transformation. Over and over throughout the presentations, in the middle of speaking on a variety of issues and how to understand the presenting problems counselees bring, the speaker would pause dramatically and repeat, “But … the problem is NOT the problem; the problem is the heart!” It was like a mantra I couldn’t get out of my head. The speaker went on to unpack this simple yet powerful truth that all of our beliefs, attitudes, speech and behavior stem from what is going on in our hearts. Of course he wasn’t talking about that fleshy blood-pumping organ that keeps us alive. He was referring to what the Bible recognizes as our seat of emotions, intellect and will … that inner part of us all where we think, reason, feel and make choices.
For days afterwards, I would hear this refrain echo through my mind, “But the problem is NOT the problem; the problem is the heart!” What kind of difficulties are we talking about? These “problems” come in all shapes and sizes: communication issues, conflicts, forgiveness, issues of control, unfulfilled marriages, dashed expectations, loneliness, loss, abuse, sexual brokenness, rebellious children, divorce, depression, shattered dreams, anxiety, financial pressures, etc. In the midst of these problems, we as counselors need to be helping our counselees look at and understand how their hearts are responding if we hope to lead them to love God and others well. It’s easy to get caught up in simply putting out fires as isolated issues flame up without getting to the source of what is igniting them. Even when physical issues have genuine biological causes and a counselee is under a physician’s care, what’s going on in their hearts will determine how they respond to their condition. Can God still enable them to deal with their ailment in ways that will bring Him glory and reflect His character as the image-bearers He created them to be or is their situation an exception? With compassion and sensitivity I need to partner with God in pointing people to walk through their circumstances, challenges and suffering as Christ did and help to bring the truths of the gospel to bear on what their heart is wrestling with and perhaps even resisting. I don’t pretend to fully grasp the complexity behind this truth but Scripture certainly bears this out, that what resides in the deep recesses of our hearts is what is most telling. Listen to these various translations on Proverbs 4:23:
“Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” (HCSB)
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (ESV)
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (NIV)
Our hearts are truly the control center from which our actions and attitudes overflow. My heart controls what I say and do. I do what I do because of what I believe, value, desire, choose and say to myself. And what I say to myself, what I pursue and hold dear, is either rooted in God’s truth and will lead to my good and His glory or I am deceived by my own sinful desires that will lead to destruction.
Jesus confirms this human dynamic of all our hearts in the New Testament:
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Lk. 6:45 ESV).” It’s just like show and tell! My words and actions are an accurate indicator of what’s in my unseen heart. And that’s where God wants to do His greatest work. When the desire of our hearts is changed from pursuing what we want to instead reflect the heart of Christ, our words and behavior will follow.
So this begs the question, “What am I treasuring in my heart? What is it that my heart is worshipping at this moment?” I need to honestly examine my own heart in order to understand what is seeking to rule in place of Christ. Better yet, I need to ask God to search my deceitful heart (Ps. 139:23-24) and reveal what I am treasuring above Him that is robbing me of the peace and joy promised to His followers, even in the midst of a broken and fallen world (Jn. 15:9-11,16:33). Whatever my heart is cherishing and clinging to will be key to what I worship. That’s where I need to partner with God, through His Spirit and His Word, to lead counselees into genuine transformation.
So, how can we discover what a heart of worship is directed toward in others and in ourselves? This is not meant to be exhaustive but prayer must come first …persistent, humble communion with an all-knowing God. He who created both our counselees and us, is able to give incredible insight into our own hearts and into the life before us.
Then listen … and listen some more. Do I take time to hear myself? Have I taken inventory of what I said to myself in a recent argument with a spouse, child or co-worker when I was insisting on my own way? What is it I was pushing for that I didn’t get? If you really pay attention, what matters most will soon become more evident and what your heart really worships will be exposed.
Lastly, ask good heart-probing questions. “What is it that I want more than God’s glory? What do I believe will give me the satisfaction I’m seeking? How do I believe that my way is better than what God has said in His Word? What am I demanding I have a right to? What “need” of mine must be met? What is my heart worshipping right now instead of God?”
Our hearts hold the key to our worship. That’s how our Creator made us. Our hearts are what He most desires and treasures. “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out (Prov. 20:5).” Lord, help us to know our own hearts well, to choose to worship you with our whole hearts and, by your grace, to be people who are skillful at drawing out the hearts of others and pointing them back to you.
Written by Helen VanSumeren, MA