Maybe you’ve been told—or maybe you’ve even said—to listen to your heart. There’s something that feels especially comforting about the phrase. In the church, well-meaning people might offer counsel by using similar expressions: trust yourself, follow your heart, and look inside yourself.
It’s not hard to see why we’re tempted to use these catchy slogans either. Listen to your heart seems to be an unquestioned motto in American culture. Every four years we hear stories of politicians who went from rags to riches by looking within and following their dreams. Disney movies tell us that every person can find comfort and happiness if they only follow their hearts and believe in their inner potential. The words of the famous Arthur TV show theme song offer a summary: “It’s a simple message, and it comes from the heart. Believe in yourself! For that’s the place to start!”
What Our Hearts Say
What would our hearts say if they could talk? And would the message be reliable?
The prophet Jeremiah had a lot to say about our hearts. Confronting the people of Judah, the prophet delivered an unsettling message about the condition of the human heart.
First, he said our hearts are deeply defiled by sin: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond, it is engraved on the tablet of their heart” (Jer. 17:1). Jesus repeated Jeremiah’s message when he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come … evil things … and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20, 21, 23).
Even more unsettling, Jeremiah reminded Judah that our hearts don’t always acknowledge the sin that defiles us. In fact, our hearts often lie to us, telling us we’re not so bad: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17.9).
In a house full of four kids, I recognize the deceit of my own heart on a regular basis—I can be irritable, angry, impatient, and at times, outright wrathful. And rather than acknowledging my actions for what they are (sin), I’m quick to justify my behavior. Blaming my outbursts of anger on a lack of sleep, hunger, or a headache. But at the end of the day, those excuses are just confirmation of Jeremiah’s words.
Listen to your heart might feel like an appropriate maxim to share with friends and loved ones, but Scripture reminds us that our inward search for comfort and truth is a fool’s errand. It will either lead to utter despair at the realization of our inborn defilement to sin, or it will deceive us into thinking we’re better than we actually are.
Who Should We Listen To?
So where should we look? Rather than looking within, the Bible repeatedly encourages to look outside ourselves and beyond our hearts if we long for truth and consolation.
To begin, we look outward to God’s word. While our hearts are a source of fake news and deceit,
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart; (Ps. 19:7, 8a)
Scripture is the only perfect and infallible source of truth. Rather than leading us to utter despair over our indwelling sin and defilement, the words of the Bible make our hearts rejoice and sing. Our souls are revived and we’re made wise when we look to the truth of God’s word.
While we might be tempted to despair at the state of our hearts, Scripture points us to the ultimate source of comfort—Jesus! Following Jeremiah, the prophet Zechariah brought a message to God’s people. Not a message about their defiled hearts, but one about what they could find if they looked outside of themselves to Jesus, the coming Savior of the world:
I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced…on that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. (Zech. 12:10a; 13:1)
Jesus alone can make our hearts rejoice! When we look on him, the one pierced for our defiled, sin-filled hearts, we can experience a comfort that revives the soul. As the Scottish Presbyterian minister, Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely.”