The human heart is a great mystery, don’t you think so? Without it we could not be inspired to make great works of arts and heavenly music, and to love with every fibre of our being, to care for others, temporarily forgetting our own needs. But the same heart can also distrust, and hate, and destroy. Still there is a widespread belief that if you just follow your heart, you will be doing the right thing. You may still make mistakes, but you will have lived the best possible life.
I take it you have all heard of Confucius, the still celebrated Chinese philosopher (Kung-fu-tzu)? Well, it was Confucius who said, “Wherever you go, go with all of your heart”.
Earlier this year Addy and I saw the film “The Power of the heart” by the Flemish (Belgian) film maker Baptist de Pape. He quit a successful career as a lawyer to make this film about following your heart. Apart from interviews with celebrities like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, it contained the amazing story of Isabel Allende. Isabel lost her daughter by medical errors, but was able to forgive the medical staff. Even more amazing was the story of a Christian Tutsi woman who survived the genocide in Rwanda by hiding in a dark closet in the home of a pastor. Together with other women she had to stay there for weeks and twice they were almost caught. Again, after the atrocities, she faced one of the killers, who was then in prison, and refused to hate him. The prison guard however was furious, for how could she be “on the side of” the aggressors? In the film she explained how her faith in God enabled her to forgive. Another part of the film deals with the benefits of following your heart career-wise.
We would all benefit if we chose what we really enjoy doing, rather than the job that pays the most or offers most security. This is of course provided we have a choice in the matter. Anyway, I highly recommend this film. It will probably be shown again, although not in our main cinemas.
In an interview (which you can find here) Baptist explains that he often received objections from Christians in the US. They would point out that according to the Bible, our heart can also deceive us, so it should not always be followed. Baptist doesn’t really answer that point. All he says is that by following our hearts the mess cannot become greater than it already is. I can see what he means, but still it is not quite convincing. So do we have two totally different views here, that cannot be reconciled, so that we have to choose between them? Is one the proper Christian view and the other a distortion of the truth or a popular superstition? I don’t think that is the case at all.
This is one of the many instances when people use different words for the same thing.
When asked about being carried away by anger and other emotions, Baptist answers, and I quote, “If you want to follow your heart, you must first check if it is not an emotion… You can be distracted and think that something is your heart, while it is not”. So while he continues to speak about the heart in a broad sense, what matters is really the centre of ones heart, the place where you are in contact with your true self. As Christians we would say: that is where your God-given talents are, where you may discern true goodness and commitment and hear God’s Spirit whispering to you.
That is not to say that either God or your heart has a complete blueprint for the rest of your life. But it could be a place to restore balance and to find direction. It could be a temple for love.
Unfortunately, the Bible says, the heart can be deceived. It will be, if it is led by emotions only. According to Deutoronomy the heart must be educated and become obedient. There is this paradox about freedom. Freedom is not just the result of insisting on freedom. It comes when you also respect the freedom of others, and hence the rules that protect their freedom and dignity. Those who know a little bit about Confucius, know that he was very concerned about society as well. Looking back on his own life, he said, “I followed my heart without breaking any rules”. Even less well known is his observation that he only achieved this combination at the age of 70!
The epistle of James says it in this way: You should not just look at yourself in a mirror, but into the perfect law, the law of liberty and act upon what you know is right.
I will not tire you at this point by going into the relation between salvation, justification and good works. For that is clearly not the main issue in any of our texts. What stands out in our gospel text? It is Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy. For it is possible that we feel good, telling others what to do, while in the meantime neglecting our main duties, namely to care for the suffering.
We are not told how the scribes and elders responded to Jesus allegations, but you can bet they had a list of reasons for insisting on their traditions. For instance that any deviation from them would threaten the unity of the Jewish religion. Jesus is not in the least interested. Rules are meant to educate the heart, but when they make us less compassionate, they are nothing but distractions and deceptions. A saying goes that corruption has a thousand disguises. It will never be presented for what it really is.
But a clear sign that Jesus gives us here, is that hypocrisy is always about the outer world, about what others should or should not do, while in fact, what others do cannot threaten my heart if I know what I am doing. But if all my attention goes to fault finding, I am deceiving and defiling my own heart.
Do some of you read the Church Times? Well, I receive some of its content via the social media. A few weeks ago the Church Times reported the story of a gay Reader in the UK. When this man was licensed, the church knowingly accepted both his sexual orientation and his steady relationship (civil partnership). But when he stated his intention to go one step further and marry his partner, he was told this would mean losing his permission to officiate. As could be expected, there was a storm of indignation. I think we still underestimate the effect of such inconsistencies on the reputation of the church. But perhaps our reputation should not be our main concern, for that would keep us entirely focussed on appearances and politics. It is always tricky to ask “What would Jesus do”, but one thing is sure, namely that we need to look carefully at the implications of Jesus’ clear teaching in Mark 7. That will have to include putting people first and supporting those who are doing just that.
So I leave you with the question, not just with regard to matters of equality, but with regard to all difficult situations we are faced with as Christians, individually or as a church: Are we still listening to our heart?
And can we still see the suffering that goes on in the world and in our very midst, or are we more concerned with the fine details of our traditions and the way things will look? But perhaps even more importantly, what are we doing to our heart? For it is only if we follow our heart of heart (as Shakespeare calls it) that we can reach our full potential, as individuals, as a church and as a society. We are called to take a leading part in this, so we better make sure we understand what is involved here. It will not be the end of the world if we sometimes fail, as long as we continually remind our hearts that it is OK (and best) to remain authentic, open and connected.
For this is not just about sin, but about the wonderful opportunities we have when we take Jesus’ teachings about the human heart seriously. They will enable us to thrive as individuals as well as to build peaceful communities in spite of differences of opinion. Unity is probably as paradoxical as freedom: it will not arrive by merely insisting on it or by prolonged negotiations. What do you think will happen if we try to force unity? It will be a waste of our time and talents. But if we respect each other enough, and listen to the divine wisdom, both freedom and unity will come naturally.
And in case you come across some dreadful examples of hypocrisy in the weeks ahead: Don’t let them disturb your peace. Let us try to overcome evil by that which is good. The heart is a wonderful instrument, sensitive but strong, unless it is constantly silenced and twisted or flooded by anger. To end with a word from Paul to the Thessalonians: “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass”.