Marc Vandenbroucke sits on the couch in his apartment. The television is flickering; two quarter pounders with cheese, a pile of fries, and a giant coke are on the coffee table, ready for gulping. The food passes by his mouth indistinguishably as a flow of salt, potatoes, meat, and sugar. Oh, the comfort of it after a hard day.
The first hundred pounds over his normal weight had been shocking, but Marc got used to it. Food made him feel good, and more food meant more comfort. It was his one pleasure in life. Another thirty pounds swelled his gut and people joked about the name of his child growing inside. Understandably, he stopped going out with friends and missed more days from work. Instead, he withdrew into his food and whatever other diversions (movies or football on television) could deliver him from the growing dissatisfaction with his life. Marc was lost in his body, but he took little notice until Big Saturday.
On Big Saturday, Marc’s heart collapsed. The strain of a blockage in a major arterial junction overcame the weakened thumps of his heart. “The blockage is right here,” said the doctor, pointing to the chest x-ray, “right at the corner of McDonald’s Drive and Wendy's Road.” Marc was not amused by the joke. It wasn’t right that the doctor should blame him for a catastrophic attack on his life. Nonetheless, Marc was grateful to the surgeon for reopening the jammed artery with a stent, but the damage had been done. Marc’s heart suffered from the abuse and internal disintegration of what was once a strong heart and body. But it wasn’t Marc’s fault was it? He was a victim here—wasn’t this mostly a hereditary condition?
“Doc, help me,” pleaded Marc, “I don’t want to die.”
“You’ve already died,” replied the doctor sternly, “I just brought you back to life. The question is, how are you going to deal with your heart now that you’ve been brought back to life?” All the basic health instructions that he’d always been told (but never listened to closely or believed were important) were repeated to him over the following weeks during his recovery.
“These are statins,” said nurse Abigail, holding up a bottle of pills. “They will help your body reduce the cholesterol that flows into your bloodstream, clogs your blood vessels, and makes it harder for your heart to pump the blood. Take these pills every day without fail.”
“Every day,” repeated Marc, “because my heart is full of stuff that makes it hard.” He patted his chest in the middle, as if to console himself and his worn-out heart.
“This is a nutrition guide,” continued the nurse. “If you want to live, you have to completely change what you eat and drink. Your heart and body have basically become equivalent to a Big Mac, fries, and chocolate shake. That’s not a happy meal, Marc. People say you are what you eat--well, yeah, it's true. You need to watch closely everything that you eat, including the kind of foods, the amounts, and the times that you eat. Follow this and respond to the nutritionist’s monitoring of your physiology. If you want physical health and well-being, you have got to respond to the medical support we are offering you.” Nurse Abigail looked hard at Marc to read his eyes. A victim would not respond, but look blankly and wallow. Was he even listening? “Do you hear me, son? Are you listening to this?”
“Yes ma’am,” stammered Marc, nodding his head as vigorously as he could while lying in the bed. “I repent of my wicked ways!” he joked weakly. He was glad to see the nurse smile at it.
“Well you can’t do this alone, and we don’t expect you to. We’re advising your diet, cleaning up your blood, and you’re joining a health club.” Marc’s eyes widened at that. “Yes you are,” she continued, “or you’re going to die again right back here next year.” She pointed emphatically at the hospital bed. “You can’t expect your heart to get healthy overnight without you having to be involved with the doing of your own health. If your heart’s going to change, you have to be aware of what’s going in to you, what activities will improve your health, and you’ve got to spend time with other people who are getting healthy.”
“But I got bad knees,” complained Marc, “so I can’t run. I can’t lift weights, I don’t know how to swim. I just always felt like I’m going to die any time I tried to ride that bicycle machine.” Surely, he thought, she couldn’t make him exercise. He could see on her face that none of his excuses were going to work with her. Not this time. Not like in the past.
“Oh yeah, I bet you haven’t tried nothing,” retorted Abigail. “Well then, have it your way, Burger King. Just forget everything I said and eat yourself another Big Mac. Just harden your heart and keep fattening full your stubborn self.”
Then she leaned in closer and dropped her voice to a harsh whisper. “Off the record here, I’m just speaking to you as a concerned human being. You do exactly what I tell you or none of this will get you past next Christmas. No surgery in the world that might get the extra fat off of you or squeeze down your stomach will make you healthy. Change has got to start on the inside. There’s no time for you to be a victim here. You got to get up and live. You were made for a whole different way of life than what you’ve been doing. Are you hearing me?” The challenge floated between them.
She held his eye with her gaze, and then she let him go, satisfied with the look of terror that had replaced the victimized resistance at her mention of exercise. Then she straightened up and smiled at him. Like a coach who had in mind the training for a young, undisciplined team. “Are you hearing me?”
“Yeah,” said Marc slowly, “how am I supposed to exercise and learn how to eat right when I’m a mess like this? I don’t feel like I can do anything you’re saying.” Marc held his hands up, as if to show how feeble he was.
“You can’t play the victim,” said Abigail, “and you can’t do it alone. Like I said before, there’s a group of people just like you who meet every day at a health club right near your home. You can actually walk to it from home. That’d be a warm up.” Abigail smirked again. She was enjoying the shock Marc was displaying. “You start real slow, trust the coaches, and do what they tell you all day and every day. You’ll make friends and together you’ll find the courage and motivation to get a changed heart out of the deal.”
She smiled again because Marc’s demeanor had completely changed to glimmer with hope. The talk of exercise was making him sweat uncomfortably. The man had been trying to do everything alone, and gave up about a hundred times, but with friends and coaches that he could trust, he might make it.
Three years saw Marc’s heart reverse from dark peril to symptoms of health and overall vitality. He continued to respond to the guidance of his nutritionist, the cardiologist, nurse Abigail, and his trainers at the health club. Changes were incremental. Discouragement always threatened him. The temptation to play the victim and give up visited and revisited. But he had help. Friends supplied motivation when Marc’s was low. Throughout the journey he came to learn how his heart had become sick and dark—he’d paid no attention to it and ignored its centrality to his well-being. Things began to change in his beliefs, appetites, and feelings about food, exercise, and his relationships with people.
Later he would say that the whole experience was actually a gift. He’d become aware of his changeable heart when crisis struck his whole being through its failure. This was a catastrophic sign of his spiritual condition. More deeply crucial than the blood pump in his chest was his spiritual heart. Both could be abused. Both are vital to his well-being. Both required his attention. Having lived through the crisis of his near-death through inattention to his physical heart, Marc wanted to know how he could avoid a crisis of the eternal kind through attention to his spiritual heart.
Providentially, Marc’s discovery of his hardened heart and recovery to a healthy heart and body is a divine metaphor sounding all through the Bible (over 800 times). The spiritual heart of a person is the core and control center for one’s whole being and life. The contents of the heart—emotions, desires, beliefs—and the operations of the heart—choices, responses, directing action—constitute the person’s daily existence. For this reason we are told, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov 4:23, ESV). That is, we must watch over the inflow and motions in the heart, the center where everything comes to rest, and the center that generates all our responses.
Jesus warns that it is in the heart where the man begins the path to adultery by leering at a woman with lustful objectification, desiring sexual gratification, not relationship (Matt 5:28). Moreover, the action of the heart is the person’s response to God, whether living receptive and surrendered to God by belief (Deut 6:4-6; Rom 10:9-10), and treasuring Him in the first place (Matt 6:21) instead of all other treasures on earth. The heart is where evil is conceived and commenced (Mark 7:20-23).
Above all else in the Christian life, there must be a change of the heart that begins with renewal of the core self through the purification and indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Ezek 36:25-26; 2 Cor 5:17). From that new creation, the ongoing transformation effected by God’s indwelling presence and action continues to rehabilitate, retrain, and disciple the heart, though never without the person’s willing participation. God is providentially active in progressive sanctification to work “all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose…to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:28-29, ESV), calling for us to respond to His work, to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13, ESV).
Having been claimed and renewed by God’s grace (Rom 12:1), we are remade to live as the receivers of His love and we engage from the heart with His purposes. We engage by resisting conformity with the perishing order of things, and receiving God’s transforming works—centered on the change of heart (Rom 12:2). At the end we will see the completion of having a heart like God’s, as was partially exemplified by Abraham, Ruth, David, Esther et al, and maximally demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
Similar to the way that Marc and all of us enter life with a particular set of genetic dispositions and environmental factors that create our physical vulnerability to heart attack, spiritually we enter life and develop ravaged by sin—our own and others’. Such are the perpetual consequences of alienation from God. Just as Marc did not have it within himself even to hope of change once he had been rescued from the edge of his peril in physical death, so it is that none of us—regardless of where we begin in discipleship to Jesus or however well-equipped or hindered we might be—no sinner is sufficient in himself to change the heart and conform it to Christ. In this inadequacy we are partly to blame (we continue to sin to our own hurt), but mostly we have overwhelming powers arrayed against our well-being, as we are stained with corruption, sundered from God, and misled by all sinners we encounter in the Church and out of it.
Our only hope is God’s works to renew us, propel us, encourage us, and challenge our wholehearted responses to defect every day from the old affections to sin. In this we are aided by God’s providential works through His people (as with a support group for physical health), wise fathers and mothers in the faith who will shepherd us (as with coaches, doctors, and dieticians), and mission impossible circumstances whereby God evokes our increasing reliance on the substance of His presence and sufficiency instead of our own (as with weight training and physical challenges to build muscle through fighting against gravity in various ways).
Jesus Christ has set us free from the victimization of sin (ours and others’), and liberated us to respond to Him in that radical life He promised as abundant life that would be full of joy (John 10:10). What is going on in my heart? What is God doing providentially to strengthen, liberate, and provoke the expression of my heart? How is God conforming my heart to be like His heart? With every beat.
For a more complete explanation of the biblical theme of the spiritual heart, how it functions, and how God works with our hearts, see the excellent and clearly written book, Minding the Heart: The Way of Spiritual Transformation, Robert L. Saucy (Kregel, 2013).