A Matter of the Heart


Matthew 15:8 “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

A famous churchman once said, “You may consider immoral thoughts in the heart sins if you like. I don’t.”

That is a surprising statement when you consider the space Jesus himself devoted to just this topic in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder’…..But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).  Jesus certainly considered immoral thoughts sins against God.

Indeed, the Lord is often more concerned with what is going on inside our hearts than he is with our outward actions.  He quoted the words the Lord spoke through Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).  The people were doing the right thing on the outside. They were showing up to worship God as he commanded. They said the right things. But their hearts were not right, and that makes all the difference as far as God is concerned. His own conclusion? “They worship me in vain.”

The Lord did not overlook sins of thought and attitude when he gave the ten commandments, either. The last commandments forbid us to covet any person or anything that we cannot have.  Our neighbor’s husband or wife, for example, is off limits to us. To take them as our own is committing adultery. Our neighbor’s possessions can be had only if we get them honestly by working for them, paying for them or receiving them as a gift. Anything else is stealing. When we continue to want what God has said we can’t have, or what God has not given us the ability to afford, then we are guilty of coveting.

Even if we never act on our desires to do or have what God has made off limits, sinful desires reveal a heart opposed to God. They deny that God is lovingly and graciously providing the very best for us at all times. They suggest that we, God’s creatures, know what is good for us better than the Creator. Worst of all, they make an idol of what we want, one that competes in our hearts with our love for the Lord.

This, of course, is one of the hardest sins to avoid. No one but God himself can see it. Everything around us invites us to do it. Every commercial you or I see on television, every advertisement we see on billboards or in magazines, tries to convince us we need something more. Every new gadget our neighbor purchases suggests to us that we need one, too, even though there must be a limit to how much junk we stockpile for ourselves somewhere.

Jesus took just the opposite view about having things. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Jesus had it all, but he gave it all up just to help us and just to please our heavenly Father. Jesus’ great desire was to express his love and make others rich.

And the riches which Jesus freely gives–forgiveness of sins, friendship with God, a home in heaven–are riches our hearts may desire as much as they want.

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