The Heart as the Focus: Part 5 of a (probably) 10 part series on Discipleship

Remember Siegfried and Roy? For my younger readers, probably not. They were big cat trainers who played to sold-out shows in Las Vegas for many, many years. Their show involved various large animals, mostly big cats like lions and tigers. They performed various obedience tricks with these animals, but one particular stunt was the show-stopper; unfortunately, on one fateful night in 2003, it stopped the show for good. The big trick involved Roy putting his head discipleshipin the open mouth of their beloved and beautiful white tiger, Mantecore. It was supposed to be another show in a long line of shows, but this time, when Roy stuck his head in the gaping maw of the tiger, the crowd gasped, not in amazement but in horror. The 380 lb tiger bit down on Roy’s head and neck and dragged him away. Once freed from the animal, Roy was left critically injured, fighting for his life. Though he would survive the ordeal would end their decades-long run at the Mirage hotel.

For Siegfried and Roy and many onlookers, a question immediately came to mind – why? Why did this 7-year-old cat, a veteran of so many shows, a beloved animal to Roy attack his trainer? The cat was so calm and had been trained so well and seemed to be very obedient and was seemingly not dangerous; he had never even come close to doing what he did on this terrible night. Why would the tiger do this to his trainer of so many years? Now, I am no big cat trainer, nor a zoologist, nor a veterinarian or anything close to, but I do know this: a tiger is a carnivore, a predator, and one of the world’s largest ones at that. It has instincts to survive that allow it to be an apex predator in a difficult ecosystem. A tiger, no matter how well trained, is never not these things; you cannot train the ‘tiger’ out of a tiger. So why should anyone be shocked that Mantecore turned on Roy and left him disfigured and fighting for his life? No matter how well you train the tiger, no matter how much time you spend with it, no matter what kind of ‘bond’ you have with it, a tiger is still a vicious, meat-eating, predator at heart and no amount of training will change the nature of one of God’s most majestic beasts. In sum, you can attempt to train a tiger’s behavior, but you cannot change its heart, you cannot change what it is. That’s why they call people like Siegfried and Roy lion trainers or tamers, not lion changers.

Why do I begin with this story? Because it is an example of how our attempts at sanctification often go. So often we attempt to change ourselves and others by trying to manipulate circumstances or situations to effect the change that we want to have in our lives. We often try to change ourselves by trying to change our behavior without ever dealing with what we are, with the heart.

Though the Bible has much to say about the heart, not a lot of discussion relating to discipleship focus on it. This is a grave error, akin to putting our spiritual lives into the mouth of sin. We need to understand what our heart is, as the Bible understands it, and how it operates in order to understand how we can become increasingly sanctified and truer disciples of Christ.

The simple reality of our spiritual life is this – by focusing on behaviour change in our discipleship we may experience temporary success. By addressing the externals we may find ourselves getting into patterns of behavior that are indeed positively different, and ‘better’ for us. But remember, Roy had trained Mantecore for many, many years, but eventually the beast inside awoke and the result was devastating. It’s the same way with behaviour-based, step-by-step programs – they may work for a time, but eventually, the cat will get out of the bag (pun intended) and kill you.

What is the heart? The Bible uses “heart” to describe the inner person, and it encompasses all other terms and functions used to describe the inner person (Tripp). The heart encompasses:

  • mind – your thoughts, plans, judgments, discernment
  • will – your choices and actions
  • affections – your longings, desire, revulsion, imagination, feelings
  • conscience – your sense of right and wrong, which approves or condemns your mind, will, and affections

The status of our hearts, understanding spiritual state of our hearts, is thus massively important to understanding discipleship and sanctification. (Lundgaard)

  • Jeremiah 17:9-10 reminds us that the heart is deceitful and wicked above all things;
  • Ecclesiastes 9:3 tells us that “the hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live”;
  • Jesus called the heart the fountain of sin (Matthew 15:19) and a treasure chest where we store away evil (Luke 6:45);
  • BUT the believer has a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26); the mind of X (Romans 7:25; 8:26; 1 Corinthians 2:16) and new desires for the things of God (Romans 7:18; 2 Corinthians 5:2; Hebrews 13:18);
  • YET God’s work in this renewed heart is unfinished business (1 John 3:2); the mind cannot see as clearly as it will (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12) the desires of our hearts can be entangled (Galatians 2:11-13); and the will can’t fully do God’s will (Galatians 5:17); the flesh in the believer remains unsearchable and deceitful

This situation means that what is needed in sanctification and discipleship is an approach that deals primarily with the heart, with who I am. The reason is obvious – because this is where the problems begin, this is where the problems must be dealt with for true change to occur. It is what Tripp calls the principle of inescapable influence — whatever rules the heart will exercise inescapable influence over a person’s life and behavior. (Cf. Matthew 5:8, 28; 12:33-37; 15:1-14; Mark 7:14-23; Luke 6:39-45) It never works the other way around. You can’t train the tiger out of the tiger, nor can you train the sin out of the sinner. An internal change is necessary, the heart needs to change, we must become different on the inside for change to happen on the outside.

So what’s needed is this – to be true disciples of Christ we must target our hearts, internal change of who we are, in order to achieve effectual, life-altering, eternally valuable change. But in order to do this, WE don’t do anything. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or a leopard change its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23) No, he can’t! But God can do it!. He does it by his sovereign grace.

If the problem is sin in the deepest parts of who we are, the solution cannot come from within us. It MUST come from outside of us. The solution to the problem of sin has always been and will always be the gospel. In our next blog, we will explore the gospel and how it is the lifeblood of our discipleship.

Soli Deo Gloria

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